For many years I have been familiar with the song Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny), which was a moderate hit for Elton John in 1982, peaking at #13 on the Hot 100 and making the Year End chart for that year. It was by no means a big hit and is certainly not a song of his that is very familiar when one compares it with his larger body of work. While it is a song that Elton John appears to be very proud of, it is all the same a song that he tends not to like to perform because of the intensity of feeling that the song brings about in him as he reflects on the death of someone who was a close friend of his, one John Lennon.
It has been a long time since I listened to the song, since I initially did not feel anything from the song when listening to it, and I tend not to dwell on songs that do not resonate with me personally. I was reminded of the song yesterday, though, when a music channel I pay attention to did a video on what was in the commentator’s opinion the six worst songs of 1982 because there were only six songs that the person did not like and could discuss why he did not like them in general, and this song came in as the reluctant fourth dishonorable mention, or the tenth least favorite song of his from what was a very good year in music. As I have noted before, some of the years of the 1980’s were extremely strong in terms of their music and have so few terrible songs and so many amazing songs that one cannot really make a worst list on the level that one can of most years. I was piqued by curiosity to give the song another listen and to see if the song really was the sort of boring ballad that had been remembered.
I did not find it to be so upon further reflection. Admittedly, the song is very sparse and very austere in its approach. Elton John’s lyrics are not straightforward, and require a bit of unpackaging, but when the song is listened to attentively there is a deep well of emotion present in the performance, and a very poignant way that the song deals with the murder of a friend. Being a musician and a creative person is compared to being a gardener, and the wreck of a life is viewed as the blight of an insect that can do so much harm. The image of Elton John as a kid knocking on his friend’s door for most of the day in vain, asking Johnny if he can come out to play is something that strikes me as deeply sad in a very moving way. Perhaps it doesn’t hit home with everyone, but it certainly hits home with me, and one can sense that the austerity of the music and the oblique nature of the lyrics is the way that lyricist Taupin and composer John sought to deal with their explosive feelings about the murder of John Lennon.
Why is it that some songs resonate with us and some songs do not? Like most people, I suppose, I tend to relate strongly with material that speaks to the past or present condition of my life or to where I would like my life to go. One of the times when I was listening to Empty Garden another song came on afterwards that has always resonated with me and that continues to do so with increasing poignancy at the present day. That song happens to be “She’s Like The Wind,” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, where actor/singer Patrick Swayze sings about being a young old man with only a dream, struggling to handle the sort of relationship he is pursuing with a wealthy and beautiful young woman who is clearly out of his league given his far more modest background. Growing up in the sort of situation I did, that song always had a hook for me to resonate with, and only has more as I have become a young old man. Given the frequently melancholy nature of my emotional palette, it is striking that a song like Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny) would only resonate with me once I had more experience in dealing with the death of loved ones. And it is noteworthy in that even though my thoughts about John Lennon are rather complicated (he is probably my least favorite of the Beatles by a fair margin), the song resonates all the same in the persistent knocking at the door of an empty house and in calling out for someone who isn’t there. Perhaps such a thing should not resonate so strongly with me, but what is is seldom what it should be.