Saturday, December 2, 2006


At home over break I happened upon a television performance by Elton John from the early '70s. There he sat in his sweater vest, with his bangs and long feathery hair and tinted glasses, performing two songs, complete with strings, that I hadn't heard since those days -- "Sixty Years On" and "Take Me to the Pilot," both from his eponymous second album (1970). I remembered the lyrics to the songs as he sang them, and believe I saw the show when it aired back then.

As it so happened, Amazon had a T-day sale on '70s music and I was able to pick up Elton's 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th studio albums (the latter two I do own ragged vinyl copies of) for dirt cheap. They've been remastered to get the most out of his uncluttered but layered arrangements. Listening to them again was in equal parts a nostalgic return to music that I haven't heard much in years and a discovery of the fuller sound and magnitude of the songs. I shudder to recall the stereos I listened to that stuff on at home.

I stopped listening to Elton after the 5th album (summer of 1972). And that was the album that began his launch into mega-stardom. I remember him making the transition from AM songs I liked (like "Friends"), which did respectably on the charts, to songs that hit the top 10, most of which were songs that annoyed me. It seems the change was due to my own developing tastes as well as to something that altered in Elton's music and general persona. I think it was the combination of "Benny and the Jets" and the glasses with the windshield wipers.

On Elton John (1970), Bernie Taupin's lyrics were sometimes compared to Dylan's and, while that's a stretch, they do sometimes, especially with the sweet melancholy of Elton's tunes, venture into Jacques Brel territory, almost. Tumbleweed Connection (1970) is very much an homage to The Band and the kinds of songs Robbie Robertson used to write, rife with Americana and motifs of the old West. Elton's an unlikely cowboy, but he does create an aura of a Hollywood melodrama of the West that seems to live up to its mythos the way a spaghetti Western does. I think it's my favorite, overall.

The next album (after a live one and a soundtrack) is Madman Across the Water (1971), the first album of his I bought (I was 12), mainly because of my love of "Tiny Dancer" as one of the most fascinating vocals of its time. In fact, the fun of listening to Elton is in following his voice as it croons and bellows and soars into upper registers, not sustained, but effectively punctuating his tunes, following the signature cadences of his expressive piano-playing. I was always fascinated by his delivery and often wondered if it had anything to do with the fact he wasn't singing his own words -- he seemed at times to treat the words as musical phrases. The title song of that album is still for me the moody tour de force of his career -- and I was happy to get on Tumbleweed an earlier version of "Madman" with Mick Ronson on guitar -- pre-Ziggy!

Honky Château (1972) ended the run for me and on that album I already hear some of the qualities I consider more "commercial" -- something to do with how hooks are deployed. But the overall quality of the album is better than I remembered, with some songs having a looseness and a bit of casual cajun flair not out of place in a summer when THE album was the Stones' Exile on Main Street. Ah, those days of funky rock recordings made in France!

What interests most in this return to songs from a bygone time is that the distance seems to clarify something about those days themselves. It was a time when Dylan's productivity had dropped to nothing (I was touring his retrospective Greatest Hits, Vol. II in 1971, but it wasn't music on the airwaves), and Van was a taste I had yet to acquire. Elton John stepped into that breach -- John Lennon was quoted as saying that EJ was the biggest new thing to arrive since The Beatles -- and produced, with Paul Buckmaster as his George Martin or Jack Nitzsche, rich, fully articulated songs with presence and passion. Only occasionally does mawkishness in the music or sentimentality in the lyrics spoil the effect on these four albums. He was briefly a hero before my allegiances focused on Ian Anderson by spring of '73. The friend who played Elton John for me took up piano around then, partly influenced by Elton I believe.

It's curious how for a brief time an artist can become, like a friend of a certain era of our lives, someone we keep up with, someone whose changes matter to us as part of our own changes. And then, it's over. Much later we might hear of the artist making more money than we can easily imagine and penning music for a Disney film, but it's just peripheral clutter, nothing we need to concern ourselves with. Fortunately music, unlike a person, remains right where we left it and can sound even better after the intervening years. In that sense, you can almost go home again.

and the future you're giving me holds nothing for a gun
I've no wish to be living sixty years on

--Elton John/Bernie Taupin, 1970


Andrew Shields said...

Coincidence (bedeutungslos aber berührend, to paraphrase Sebald): the song going through my head this afternoon was "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." Probably I heard it in the background at the supermarket (though the song I noticed there was, of all things, "Wish You Were Here").

I have a very cool recording of The Dead from Summer 04, with Warren Haynes singing a great version of "Madman Across the Water." A stunning song.

Donald Brown said...

It's hard for me to imagine "Madman" done by The Dead. Interesting.