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PRINCESS DIANA: 1961-1997

Elton John's Tribute Soothing and Intimate

Pop star's reworked 'Candle in the Wind' brings startling applause from funeral crowd.

September 07, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

On the long list of lessons in the tragedy and spectacle of Princess Diana's death and funeral, there is a reminder of the way pop music can touch and cleanse us.

Given the solemnness of the procession and the service Saturday, the swell of applause when Elton John finished singing "Candle in the Wind" in the cathedral was both startling and comforting for those watching on television.

Even though pop-rock star John's role in the program was one of many signs that the ceremony was a dramatic break with formal, royal tradition, it was hard to imagine that those in the church would break into applause under such intimidating circumstances.

The reaction, it turned out, was from the thousands of mourners who were listening to the funeral on speakers outside Westminster Abbey. After standing passively for hours, the crowd found in the song a chance to use their applause to express actively their love for the woman who was described in "Candle" as England's "golden child." It was their applause that was picked up by television microphones.

The melody to "Candle in the Wind" is so graceful and melancholy that the song would probably have provoked the same reaction even if John had sung the original 1973 words, which referred to the death of Marilyn Monroe.

Some listeners might even have welcomed the bitter sting of the original lines--especially the one that goes "the press still hounded you"--because it was in keeping with the anger so widely felt over the way the princess was pursued by the tabloid press.

But Bernie Taupin, John's songwriting partner, wisely refocused the song last week when he wrote some new lyrics for "Candle in the Wind." More than anger, the message John and Taupin wanted to convey in their eulogy to the princess was love.

His rewording includes the line, "You called out to our country, and you whispered to those in pain. Now you belong to heaven and the stars spell out your name."

This version will be recorded and rush-released to stores as a charity single.

There wasn't time for John to rehearse the new version with a choir, so he sang it to his own piano accompaniment--which gave an intimacy that was just what the grand occasion needed. As much as the television cameras, John and his familiar song brought us all into Westminster Abbey. For millions, they served as our stirring and personal ambassadors.

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