I’ve never been much of a history buff. Admittedly, I’ve had to look up a few of Bernie’s references over the years (can you say Robert Ford?) and there are probably way more sprinkled throughout his lyrics than I’ve ever caught on to. But this song has always intrigued me. After all, I am a sucker for big themes and big arrangements.
All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, presumably as the war is ending. Whether or not it was influenced by the book of the same name, you’d have to ask Bernie. But I’m thinking yes. Although it doesn’t really matter which war, to be honest, just that it’s about the tragedy that is war. I mean, through history, we’ve (and that’s a collective, global “we’ve”) sent our young men off to war, at the prime of their lives, many of them never to return. And those that do return will never be the same.
And we’re still doing it.
Once again, Bernie’s lyrics paint a poignant picture:
All quiet on the Western Front, nobody saw
A youth asleep in the foreign soil, planted by the war
So tired of this garden’s grief, nobody cares
Old kin kiss the small white cross, their only souvenir
Don’t those words just break your heart? They do mine. Every time I hear this song I get goosebumps.
And Elton’s voice has a sadness to it, don’t you think? I alluded to the big arrangement earlier, and it is big and dramatic, particularly the ending, but it’s also quite simple. I close my eyes and picture troops marching.
Fever reaps the flowers of France, fair-haired boys
String the harps to Victory’s voice, joyous noise
That part always reminds me of the poem that Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) reads at Denys Finch Hatton’s funeral in the movie Out of Africa (To an Athlete Dying Young):
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Athletes, warriors, too many with HIV, innocents in a classroom, the list is endless. But the message, albeit simple, is quite clear. Too many die too young.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1982 – Jump Up!)