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Divine Symmetry | 6 | “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Tonight”

OK, this one is going to be a little out there for a couple of reasons, but keep in mind part of the idea of this series is related to the concept of “found art.” The “symmetries”— the connections between the songs are not necessarily intentional.

To start, I’ve misunderstood “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” for a long time. I thought the song was about being saved from a drug overdose. Why did I think this? There are some lyrical hints that I misinterpreted, but also I think this has something to do with the meaning of the Bowie song here, “Tonight.”

“Tonight” started its life as a song on Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life (1977), which Bowie was very much involved in creating, including by co-writing this song. Iggy begins his version with this preamble:

I saw my baby
She was turning blue
I knew that soon, her
Young life was through
And so I got down on my knees
Down by her bed
And these are the words
To her I said
Everything will be alright tonight

A few years later, Bowie, joined by Tina Turner, released his own version of the song, on his 1984 album of the same name. But he dropped the preamble and kicks off the song with, “Everything will be alright tonight.”

Iggy’s version of the song is about a drug overdose, in which the person to whom he is singing does not survive. The song’s narrator is singing that everything will be alright to his “baby,” as she fades out. Nobody’s saving anyone’s life on this night. Though Bowie took the teeth out of the song (and the meaning along with it), I still think of Bowie’s version to be the same song.

So, with that in the back of my mind, I have heard Elton John’s song sort of as the happy version of the same story, largely because both songs draw attention to the word, “tonight.”

The word, “tonight” is not the only reason I connected the one song to the other in my mind. I very much like Elton John and like him more and more as time goes by, but I have long thought that he took Bowie’s motif and made it mainstream even before Bowie himself went mainstream. “Rocket Man,” which is a great song, seems to me to have been influenced by “Space Oddity” (this observation is not unique to me). “Bennie and the Jets” was inspired, in part by Bowie. Bowie used the word, “bitch,” in a song title, “Queen Bitch,” before Elton did in “The Bitch is Back” (and in both cases, the word apparently refers to a gay man).

Now, when it comes to the “tonight” songs, Elton was first. Did Bowie and Iggy turn the tables on Elton by taking the handoff? Well, probably not. Elton’s song is not about a drug overdose. Its about his disastrous engagement to a women, which he broke off after receiving advice from a couple of friends including a guy named “Sugar Bear” (which explains the otherwise inexplicable reference to “Sugar Bear” in the song). Elton was so distressed about the prospect of getting married that he actually contemplated suicide, so being talked out of the marriage was tantamount to being saved.

Bowie would eventually write a song intended to evoke thoughts of Elton John— the 2013 song, “Like A Rocket Man,” which is about cocaine addiction, which was an affliction suffered by both Bowie and Elton. I have never read what Elton thought of that song, but I’m guessing he wasn’t happy.

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