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Relighting 'Candle' for Di

September 14, 1997|Robert Hilburn

The decision by Elton John and Bernie Taupin to rewrite "Candle in the Wind" as a eulogy for Princess Diana may seem inspired now, but it was actually the result of a mix-up between the celebrated songwriting team--an indication of how fast the project was accomplished.

When composer John phoned lyricist Taupin in California from England to say he'd been asked by Buckingham Palace to sing a song at the Sept. 6 funeral, he mentioned that radio stations in England were playing "Candle in the Wind" as a memorial to Diana.

"I thought he said, 'Let's rewrite the lyrics or at least some of the lyrics to "Candle in the Wind," ' " Taupin said last week from his cutting horse ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he keeps a low media profile.

"What he actually meant, I later learned, was, 'Could we write something new that was similar to "Candle in the Wind"?' I just totally misunderstood him on that initial phone call."

So Taupin sat in his office at his ranch four days before the funeral and began going over the lyrics to the ballad, which he wrote with John in 1973 about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Taupin quickly realized that he wouldn't be able to change just a few words but would have to rework virtually the entire song.

"My reaction was like somebody putting a hand around my heart and squeezing it, because I felt an immediate sense of intense pressure," said Taupin, who was born in England in 1950 but has lived in the U.S. since 1970 and been a citizen for about a decade.

Fortunately, the words came quickly. During the two hours it took to rework the song, John phoned again, and that's when Taupin realized that his partner had wanted something new.

But both agreed that it would be better to stick with the melody and some of the chorus of "Candle in the Wind" because their familiarity would make it easier for people to identify with it.

Taupin's new lyric includes such lines as:

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.

"I tried to write it from a nation's standpoint and not as a singular person paying tribute," Taupin explained. "I felt it was very important that it sounded like it was coming from the people. There were certain little nuances in the original lyrics that make it sound overtly personal, and I wanted to make this one sound like an Everyman's tribute."

Taupin watched the funeral on television from New York, where he had gone on business, and was "moved beyond words" by John's performance. But he said that the studio version that John recorded after the service is even more touching.

"The quality of the [live recording and feed] was not as good as people think," Taupin said. "When you hear the single, I think you'll agree it surpasses the original version. It's again just Elton and the piano basically, though he does put a bit of [vocal] harmony on it and [producer] George Martin put a string quartet on it, which is very subtle."

Was he tempted to leave in the line "the press still hounded you," which could apply as much to Diana as Monroe?

"No, I think it had been done enough," he said. "There is clearly a certain amount of anger in the air, but I think it would have taken away the emphasis on the sympathy that people have for her and the love that people have for her. I didn't want the song to be cynical. For once I just wanted to write something that was straightforward and loving."

The single will be released Tuesday, and proceeds will be donated to the newly established Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund.

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