Elton John, “Madman Across The Water”

Written by February 25th, 2013 at 7:00 am

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Until recent years, Bernie Taupin was never in the room with Elton John when he wrote music to Taupin’s lyrics beginning in the late 1960s — something Elton John confirmed himself in the Cameron Crowe documentary about the making of John and Leon Russell’s album The Union. So, trying to think strictly as a music composer, imagine being handed a sheet of paper with Taupin’s lyrics to “Madman Across the Water,” which became the title track of Elton John’s 1971 album.

“Madman Across the Water” is the story of a man presumably in a mental institution on the shores of a body of water, a man who may, or may not, really belong there. When the patient says, “Take my word, I’m a madman¬† don’t you know,” he’s either confirming his insanity or is making a tongue-in-cheek statement. He almost feels on display when he asks, “But is it in your conscience that you’re after/Another glimpse of the madman across the water. “And the line “Is the nightmare black or are the windows painted” is one of the great Taupin lines in a career that has seen hundreds of his lyrics put to music by John, and his work recorded by Alice Cooper, Willie Nelson, Bruce Hornsby (who cut a jazzier version of this song) and others.

A far rockier version of the song, featuring the late David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson,¬† can be heard on the album Elton John Early Masters, as well as on the bonus CD edition of John’s album Tumbleweed Connection. The Elton John/Bernie Taupin duo took a break for a couple years in the late 1970s, and John has collaborated with other lyricists, including Tim Rice for The Lion King. But John and Taupin are still working together today.

Countless pundits, professional and otherwise, have tried to analyze the lyrics of this song, opining that the madman is everyone from Nixon to Hitler. But in the end he may be nobody in particular. Only Taupin knows for sure what this lyric, written when he was barely out of his teens, really means. Lyrics like this helped make Taupin a legend among lyricists, and made his partnership with Elton John one for the ages.

“Madman Across the Water”

I can see very well
There’s a boat on the reef with a broken back
And I can see it very well
There’s a joke and I know it very well
It’s one of those that I told you long ago
Take my word I’m a madman don’t you know

Once a fool had a good part in the play
If it’s so would I still be here today
It’s quite peculiar in a funny sort of way
They think it’s very funny everything I say
Get a load of him, he’s so insane
You better get your coat dear
It looks like rain

We’ll come again next Thursday afternoon
The in-laws hope they’ll see you very soon
But is it in your conscience that you’re after
Another glimpse of the madman across the water

I can see very well
There’s a boat on the reef with a broken back
And I can see it very well
There’s a joke and I know it very well
It’s one of those that I told you long ago
Take my word I’m a madman don’t you know

The ground’s a long way down but I need more
Is the nightmare black
Or are the windows painted
Will they come again next week
Can my mind really take it

We’ll come again next Thursday afternoon
The in-laws hope they’ll see you very soon
But is it in your conscience that you’re after
Another glimpse of the madman across the water

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