Bernie is probably second, possibly on a par with Shakespeare in terms of creating characters. Real, imaginary or a mixture. The ability to see through the eyes of a stranger, think their thoughts and walk a mile in their shoes is a unique talent. Bernie has that in abundance. On this blog I'll be looking at the many characters that he's foisted upon us willingly over the years. Today's example is a classic one.
When Bernie wrote this he was still a teenager (early 1970). But with his incredible knack, not quite psychic but with the same penetrative technique, of being able to enter the mind of somebody, three or maybe four times his age is a gift. Did Bernie bump into a character like this in a pub in England around that time? That we'll never know for certain. All we can do is speculate. And art being what it is, multiple interpretations are always possible. The main character, the Old Soldier, if it were indeed based a close encounter, would surely be a veteran of the First World War (1914-18). At that time he would be in his early 70's and looking around him at the changing times, peace love and all that other stuff man he was no doubt seen as a fossil. The conversational structure of the song, young man speaks, old man speaks in alternate verses makes the song flow along like a play. Almost script like. A mini screen play that says so much in a few verses than a whole feature could do.
Elton for this one takes the basic approach. Piano, voice and his in his own clever style and the ability to make Bernie's words sound like his words. Some may say the solo interpretation is no more than demo. I disagree. A demo is merely a run through, a track merely to demonstrate the basic premise of the song and as an example to build upon later. However, in this case we move beyond the demo stage. Because Elton has put the final touches that are needed. The phrasing and pauses are all crucial to the telling of the tale. By instilling those emotions into his voice, we hear the story from both sides as if we're listening in. The verse starting with 'I know what they're saying son...' is where the anger, despair and downright hopelessness of the Old Soldiers situation is there for all to hear. Because we are listening in.
His piano is playing again is extraordinary when he reaches the lyrics just mentioned he ups the pace slightly to hammer home the point then stops and leaves the space for the thought to sink in. Deeply in this case. The final fade out of music and words are both poignant and ultimately without resolution. The Old Soldier cannot find nor will be able to find peace, the younger man consoling him trying to understand but not being fully able to appreciate the Old Soldiers predicament. The only thing he can he take from it is to be forewarned for his own future, whatever that may be.
Talking Old Soldiers is one of those songs that because the lyric and the melody are as strong as rocks, nothing else is needed on top. You couldn't imagine hearing that song now with even the smallest amount of embellishments. The strength is it's message, construction and delivery. If the writings good, then you've won the battle...an experience well known by the Talking Old Soldier....