In 1975, Elton John released “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a single off of that year’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, his most personal and, arguably, his best record. “Someone Saved…” was one of those songs that, even if you didn’t know specifically what he was referring to, you could tell that it was about a turning point in his life:

When I think of those East End lights, muggy nights,
The curtains drawn in the little room downstairs.
Prima Donna, lord, you really should have been there,
Sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair.
And it’s one more beer and I don’t hear you anymore.
We’ve all gone crazy lately,
My friends out there rolling round the basement floor.

And someone saved my life tonight sugar bear.
You almost had your hooks in me didn’t you, dear…
You nearly had me roped and tied,
Altar-bound, hypnotized,
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear.
You’re a butterfly…
And butterflies are free to fly,
Fly away, high away, bye bye.

I’ve long been a fan of this song, but never really knew the story behind it. The “Prima Donna” referred to is Linda Woodrow (now, Linda Hannon), who John was engaged to in 1969. According to Hannon, in 1970, John came home drunk one night and broke off the marriage, saying he had to put his career first. Though Hannon disputes that she was “dominating” or “had [her] hooks in [him],” John credits fellow singer Long John Baldry with talking him out of the marriage, making Baldry the “someone” in the song’s title.

Baldry and John were in a band together in the mid-60s called Bluesology, along with future Soft Machine member Elton Dean. John developed his stage name by combining Elton Dean and John Baldry’s first names. Baldry himself was gay and came out as such in the early 1960s. John didn’t come out until the late 1980s after a failed marriage.

Whether or not both John and Hannon felt the relationship was as one-sided as John paints it in his lyrics, it’s clear that he was conflicted at the time not only about how a marriage would affect his burgeoning career, but also his own sexuality, making “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” such a deeply personal song that is still extremely evocative, even 36 years later.

I never realised the passing hours of evening showers,
A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams,
I’m strangled by your haunted social scene,
Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen.
It’s four o’clock in the morning,
Damn it, listen to me good,
I’m sleeping with myself tonight,
Saved in time, thank God my music’s still alive.

And I would have walked head on into the deep end of the river
Clinging to your stocks and bonds,
Paying your H.P. demands forever.
They’re coming in the morning with a truck to take me home
Someone saved my life tonight, someone saved my life tonight.
Someone saved my life tonight, someone saved my life tonight.
Someone saved my life tonight.
So save your strength and run the field you play alone.