|For a Song
Elton Johns chart-topping singles with lyrics by Bernie Taupin are many, and some are very good, but they are not necessarily the teams best or most artistic efforts. Some of their other songs are more complex and less immediately catchy but ultimately more interesting and engaging. One that might stand the test of time is "First Episode at Hienton."
The fifth song, and the last on side one for you vinyl diehards, of the 1970 Elton John, Johns first US-released LP, "First Episode at Hienton" intertwines beautiful melody and chord progression with concrete, moving, and original lyrics so seamlessly that it is hard to believe the same person did not create both the words and the music. Its position as an LP sides concluding track gave it prominence nearly four decades ago. Its coming in the middle of the CD could give the misimpression that producers counted it as filler.
One thing that makes me want to draw todays listeners to this less-known Elton John song is that, having performed music myself and listened to the album intermittently since its release, I recently was compelled to learn "Hienton" and could not get the song out of my mind. One persons experience does not a songs classic status prove, but my reacquaintance with the song led me to raise the question of its significance.
Love will keep them -- together or apart
"I was one as you were one and we were two so much in love" tells the listener at the outset that "First Episode at Hienton" looks back at a romance. This line doesnt explicitly identify the lovers, their ages, their sexes, or their sexualities, but other details quickly make clear the story is of a boy and a girl.
Enough information is provided so that lingering mysteries give the song some of its power. If the singer loved the white socks the girl wore and she doesnt "wear white socks no more now [shes] a woman," was this a relationship that could only occur between two very young people? Would their different backgrounds or other circumstances -- perhaps even the death of one of them -- rule out their spending their lives together?
Apart from the two young lovers, only "the guardians of the older generation" are mentioned. Who are they? In 1970, "the older generation," "the generation gap," and "dont trust anyone over thirty" stereotyped parents as less "with it" than "the younger generation," "the now generation." The songs lovers could have been undecided as to whether they could remain together because of requirements or prohibitions imposed by their parents -- guardians of certain values that would end the couples relationship.
Or "No more to roam on the snow hills of Hienton / Undecided ." -- lovely image! -- could just mean that, since the time when the two roamed those hills, the matter has been decided. But what was once undecided and later resolved? I hear the song as most likely saying the "First Episode" was the singers first experience with love, not necessarily Valeries, and not one of many with the same girl or woman. The singers first was probably his last with this particular girl, and he remained in love with her and wonders if she remained in love with him long after their parting.
But they were in love "forever." Is it possible they remained together and therefore are no longer undecided? The songs abiding nostalgia and, near the end, the words "Please dont be sad where you are" lead me to doubt it. Though the nostalgia could be for youth -- a simpler, more anticipatory time in their relationship -- rather than for a time when they were together in contrast to a present time when they are not -- the words suggest he either does not know where she currently lives or at least that she does not live with him.
Perhaps their being "in love forever" means they remained in love rather than stay together for the long term, "in love" referring to the early infatuation stage of a relationship. Being in love forever could mean ending the relationship left them suspended in eternal enchantment with each other. If the relationship continued, the couple would love each other as distinct from remaining "in love."
January of their years?
This song is far from the first to compare changing seasons with stages of life. But the specific comparisons in "Hienton" lend this song some of its uniqueness. Before the above-mentioned reference to winter, "For seasons come and seasons go / Bring forth the rain the sun and snow / Make Valerie a woman" says the girl will become a woman and stop being a girl in white socks as inevitably as summer will give way to winter. No wishful thinking on the singers part can stop it. But then "And Valerie is lonely" seems to attribute her loneliness to her becoming a woman. Is that because the singer no longer loves her once she matures? Or is this the voice of the boy back in the day, perceiving a loneliness that told him there might be a place for him with her? Or now that theyve parted, she longs for a new lover?
Following the "snow hills" and "guardians," "A doormat was a sign of welcome / In the winter months to come" hints that the singer perhaps led himself by wishful thinking to mistake a generic "WELCOME" sign for a welcoming of him personally to the girls home. Typically "the winter months" suggest cold distance between people, not a warm welcome. Was it wintry despite the apparent welcome? If the romance was short lived, did he perhaps become the doormat, figuratively speaking? "And in the summer laughing / Through the castle ruins wed run," -- melodic even without music -- alludes to people of the past in connection with summer, whereas winter is typically associated with the dead, summer with flourishing life.
We are not told explicitly whether the snows they experience together are at the end of one year or the beginning of the next. Like the white socks, "First Episode" preceding "Hienton" in the title and "snow hills of Hienton" within seem to link the season that is typically a backdrop to death, instead, to the singers initiation into love. Perhaps these details reflect that the singers first experience marked the ending of the relationship. Beginning and ending meet in the event itself and in the ironic reversal of the seasons usual significance.
The mystery of the tears and the clouds
Some other details also subvert the listeners expectations. In practicing the song while learning it, I kept getting wrong "There were tears in the sky / And the clouds in your eyes " -- the more familiar "tears in your eyes" and "clouds in the sky" intruding. Possibly the songs actual phrasing is an arbitrary heavy-but-meaningless jotting of a writer deserving little consideration? But the song is otherwise too coherent and compelling for that to seem likely, so we should see if the song explains itself.
Those two lines describe the singers experience during the couples coupling. Otherwise, how were the girls thighs "the cushions" of the love they felt for each other? The phrase "cloud cover" comes to mind, but here the clouds are reflected in the eyes of a girl lying on her back. Perhaps this reflection kept the boy from peering into her eyes so as to gauge her thoughts. If so, the clouds in her eyes gave her cover -- enabled her to hide her feelings. Perhaps if she was lonely, she was using the boy for companionship and for sex -- making him the "doormat" when he thought the actual doormat singled him out for special welcoming. Maybe she was hiding that she wasnt "in love forever" as the singer was.
Tears in the sky, though? Since clouds were in the girls eyes, maybe it was raining when they were making love outside. Or maybe it was about to rain -- the tears being in the sky, not on the couple or on the ground. Did he lack the intelligence to "come in out of the rain"? Was he so infatuated, so aroused, so sure that when he fell in love with the girl she would truly love him and not just use him, that he would go wherever she led him, do whatever she wanted him to whenever and wherever she wanted him to? After all, lying on top of her, he would be the one to get the wettest in the event of a downpour. That could be imposing too much that is not provided in the song, but it is consistent with the other details and with the couples not having stayed together.
Were all in this together
Additional details attest to the power of the singers infatuation to cloud his judgment. "And the quadrangle sang to the sun and the grace of our feeling "? A quadrangle is typically four buildings or sections of a building surrounding an outdoor space. Perhaps here, the walls echo sounds of the couples lovemaking. Maybe birds were singing. Both might have occurred. In any event, the singer experienced this "First Episode" as holy, as reinforced by the grace of their feeling as another recipient of the quadrangles chorus. "Our" could reflect his self-deception if she did not share his feeling in its full dimensions. But at the moment, she seems to have at least shared his desire and been willing to let him believe whatever else suited him. Maybe she didnt want to hurt him. Or maybe she at least didnt want to before the episode ended.
In addition to roaming the snow hills, running through the castle ruins, and apparently making love in the quadrangle beneath the clouds, they "talked of the future / Underneath the ceiling." This suggests their future was to be more constrained than the first episode was. That is consistent with "the candle burned low" describing the same moment: Limited in duration like the candle is the flame in their hearts -- especially hers, it seems, for she either doesnt feel deep, lasting love for the singer or is willing to give him up for "the guardians of the older generation" with whom she is "undecided" at the outset.
Poignant in the music is the steep climb of the melody and the synthesizers high, thin, piercing, lonely tone at "And the quadrangle sang to the sun / And the grace of our feeling" and their descent at "And the candle burned low ." In context, the movement suggests intensifying sexual arousal, climax, and return to normalcy. Under the circumstances, it appears the song is, for the singer, a coming to terms with the fact that he built a fantasy of love, acted on the fantasy, and got what was coming to him -- both the joy and the loss. Reassembling the details in looking back, he understands he is still in love -- they were "so much in love forever" -- because memory, which lasts forever, can be as powerful as experience remembered and is in itself experience as its visits vary throughout life, even with regard to the same events, supplanting the actual past as well as other present experience, sometimes with little notice.
More artistic, less popular
We neednt "prove" these things the song does not state in so many words, but they make sense of the songs details and its overall spirit. The songs so concretely, eloquently, and succinctly telling such a moving story and evoking such sympathetic and touchingly human characters says a lot about the talents of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin songwriting team. They might be under-appreciated as artists because of the simpler nature of their best-known songs, the triviality of some of them -- "Benny and the Jets" and "Crocodile Rock" come to mind -- the sensationalism surrounding John, and the fact that "Hienton" and so many other good ones get so little play compared to the Top 40 hits.
How could someone who wrote them come up with an elegant number like "First Episode at Hienton"? Well, thats the nature of the song as an art form. Enormously versatile, it can display in a small window of time any aspect of life. It is worth considering differences between very popular singles and the same artists best songs, though. Sometimes they are one and the same, but "Hienton" and a few other John-Taupin collaborations might very well outlast even the likes of "Your Song" and "Daniel."
"Hienton" is not single material. Advertisers pay to maintain a "buying mood." Its OK if listeners are moved by a song, drive the streets singing along, and even insist on hearing it at their 50th high-school reunion -- as long as thoughts dont stray far below the surface of things. It is not OK if listeners involve themselves with complex lyrics, mysterious images, and thoughts songs can evoke that cause them to contemplate the meaning of their experience and the passage of time, explore the world by staring off into space or reading books, engage in long conversations, make careful linguistic distinctions, listen closely to everything they hear, and become engaged in aesthetic, social, political, and spiritual rather than the commercial aspects of things. Who would spend much of their time shopping then?
...David J. Cantor
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