Empty Garden: “It’s funny how one insect can damage so much grain” interpretations (Elton John song)

The song, “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin is one of my favorite “sad” songs, and a great tribute to John Lennon, who was one of my “peaceful” inspirations when I was growing up. In the song, I think there are at least two interpretations of the lyrics, “It's funny how one insect can damage so much grain,” and I’d like to share those here.

First interpretation

I believe that the common interpretation is that the “insect” in this lyric refers to the person who shot and killed John Lennon. In the song, John Lennon is referred to many times as a gardener “who cared a lot and weeded out the tears and grew a good crop”, so it’s easy to think of Lennon’s murderer as being the insect who “damaged so much grain,” meaning that he damaged Lennon’s crops.

Second interpretation

However, a second interpretation of “how one insect can damage so much grain” that I always thought was possible is that it was intended to be about Lennon, and his profound impact on the world through his music and activism, and how people in power might have looked at his activism as being troublesome to them. In this interpretation:

  • The “insect” could symbolize someone seen as a disruptor or a catalyst for change.
  • The “grain” could represent established systems, societal norms, or the political landscape
  • The idea is that a single individual (Lennon) had a significant impact on a larger system, causing ripples that were felt widely.

So basically from the perspective of those in power, Lennon’s activism could be seen as troublesome and damaging. His influence on public opinion and his ability to mobilize people for causes like peace and social justice might have been perceived as a threat to their authority.

More details (song lyrics and metaphors)

In regard to this second interpretation, I know that Bernie Taupin — the song’s lyricist and longtime collaborator of Elton John — often uses rich and layered metaphors in his song lyrics. So with the political tension and social activism throughout Lennon’s career, I wondered if Taupin’s choice of words was intended to evoke the idea of a small, seemingly insignificant force — such as Lennon’s activism and “sit ins” — could cause significant disruption to “the establishment.”

(It has been reported that Richard Nixon, for instance, viewed anti-war protesters and civil rights activists with great disdain, and according to websites, his use of “dehumanizing and derogatory language is well-documented.”)

I’ll write more about this over time, but for today, I just wanted to start discussing this second interpretation of the Empty Garden lyrics, “It's funny how one insect can damage so much grain.”

More on Elton John and Bernie Taupin song lyrics

If you’re interested in more information on Elton John and Bernie Taupin song lyrics, I’ve written these other articles about their songs and their meanings: