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2013/10/27

Elton John

by John Bloner, Jr.

Elton John at Dodger Stadium, October 1975
Who was your first crush?

This past summer of 2013, New York Times' critics and readers weighed in on their "firsts" in television, dance, video games, and visual arts, as well as classical and pop music.

My first crush was Elton John.

In my early teen years, I couldn't care less about pop radio or pop records, while my best friend tried to entice me with music from his favorites: the funk band, War, and the Allman Brothers. He thought there was something wrong with me for not sharing his enthusiasm. 

One afternoon in 1974, we played hooky from high school to visit a classmate's home, where "Elton John's Greatest Hits" was playing on the stereo. Man, I gotta tell you: the tiny bones in my middle ears were vibrating like the reborn at a tent revival when I first heard that record. Song after song sunk into my DNA, from the plaintive sounds of "Your Song" to the carefree 50s vibe of "Crocodile Rock". My ears--no, my entire being--would never be the same again.

The film, "Almost Famous", perfectly captures the giddiness I felt upon hearing Elton's tune "Tiny Dancer" for the first time.



Bernie Taupin with Elton John
I soon bought all of Elton John's music, reveling in both its rock and trippy tapestries, and read about his early life in England where he had met a young lyricist, Bernie Taupin, in 1967 through a newspaper and collaborated with him. 

Two years later, Elton (with words by Taupin) released the album, "Empty Sky", which included the hymn-like ballad, "Skyline Pigeon". 

Elton would record this song several times during his career; its starkness is a contrast to his bubblegum hits. Its lyrics evoke a rural setting.  "There was a period when I was going through that whole 'got to get back to my roots' thing," Taupin said. "I don't believe I was ever turning my back on success . . . I was just hoping that maybe there was a happy medium way to exist successfully in a more tranquil setting."

In the video below, Elton performs the song at the Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1976.



In the Spring of 1975, Elton's album, "Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy", arrived on Billboard's chart at Number One. No record had ever accomplished that feat. 

Despite this success, the record still feels like a closely-guarded secret. It contained only one single, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", which did not match the chart success of other songs, released originally only as singles during that year. They included "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Island Girl".

Despite my excitement of a new album by my musical hero, I searched its grooves for another "Rocket Man" or "Bennie and the Jets" and found it lacking in that regard.  Still, I was intrigued by the story it told of Elton and Bernie's early career in music. Amazon.com reviewer, Lonnie E. Holder expresses the feeling I shared. "What kind of music was this," he writes. "It was not simple pop with catchy tunes. It was, well, complicated and sophisticated."

Cover art by Alan Aldridge for Elton John's ninth studio album
My appreciation of "Captain Fantastic" and Elton John did not fade over the years that followed, but it stayed dormant for decades as my ears discovered other sounds outside of the pop music world.

Elton temporarily retired from music in 1977, then began producing records that often abandoned the piano-oriented sound I had loved in his early music, particularly on "Tumbleweed Connection" and "Honky Cat". I was deaf to most of his output in the 1980s and 1990s, as it sounded like a wind-up toy, built for the billfold rather than from the heart.

There were exceptions, however, such as the songs, "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" and "Empty Garden", a tribute to his late friend, John Lennon.


In 2005, a deluxe edition of the "Captain Fantastic" album was released, including a live concert of all of its songs. I renewed my love of Elton John's music at that time, finding, in particular, an even greater appreciation of that album.  While a larger and larger section of the music-buying public was downloading songs from iTunes, the "Captain Fantastic" album demands to be heard as one piece.  Its power is in scope of emotions from the countrified title track, the winsome tune, "Writing", and the bluster of "Better Off Dead", sounding as if it arrived straight from a turn-of-the-century British music hall.


Captain Fantastic's one hit single, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", played incessantly over the radio during the summer of 1975.  It was a different time when a ballad about an attempted suicide could climb the charts. I'd grown sick of hearing it, but that emotion was pushed aside years later when I saw the song in a different light.

Listening to it today, I think of Ryan White, a young boy with hemophilia who was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 13. At a time when many lived in fear of those with this disease, Ryan White caused them to reassess their prejudices. He was just a boy who wanted a normal life, but he helped to transform the public's perception of AIDS and led to a major program to treat it.  He became the "someone" who saved Elton John's life.


Ryan White, 1971-1990
In 2012, Elton John wrote, "I am here today because of Ryan." He added, "I was a huge cocaine addict at the time. My life was up and down like a yo-yo. I was still a good person underneath, otherwise I would never have reached out to the Whites in the first place. All I hoped was that I could bring this boy some comfort. In the end, the Whites would do far more for me than I ever did for them."

"Being around the White family made me want to be a better person. It took Ryan's death to do so. When his eyes closed, mine opened--and they've been open ever since."

Ryan White's mother, Jeanne, with Elton at the hospital
Starting with the record, "Songs from the West Coast", in 2001, Elton's best work no longer resides exclusively in the 1970s. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor for AllMusic.com, commented that "Songs from the West Coast" is "an album where it feel like a hit single is secondary to the sheer pleasure of craft."

In 2006, Elton and Bernie Taupin advanced the autobiographical tale that had begun with "Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy" when they released "The Captain & the Kid".  The title track gloriously quotes a melodic line from the "Captain Fantastic" album, as the lyrics tell of "an urban soul in a fine silk shirt" (Elton) and "a heart out west in a Wrangler shirt" (Bernie).  It's an excellent summation of nearly 40 years of friendship and collaboration between these two men.


Four years later, Elton joined with Leon Russell to create "The Union", which may contain the best song of Elton's (and Bernie Taupin's) long career, "Gone To Shiloh".  "I like miserable songs," Elton quipped. "What can I tell you?"



Now in his mid-60s, Elton's star is shining its brightest. Paired with producer T-Bone Burnett for "The Union" and his latest album, 2013's "The Diving Board", Elton's piano is once again at the forefront of his music. I find myself thinking of Elton's "Skyline Pigeon", as I listen over and over again to this record, particularly during the tune, "Home Again".

If "Skyline Pigeon" spoke from the perspective of a young man who needs to escape from the familiar, the man in "Home Again" recognizes the folly of his youth. "We all dream of leaving," he sings. "But wind up in the end/Spending all our time trying to get back home again."

I also think of Thomas Wolfe during this song and his words, "You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth." (from "You Can't Go Home Again".)

"The Diving Board" may be the finest album of 2013 and may also be the greatest record in Elton's long career. My first crush has turned to enduring love.


OUTTAKES: In each article that I write for 2nd First Look, I leave out far more material than I put into it.

I meant to write about the phenomenon of the reminiscence bump, in which people carry their strongest memories from their times as teens and young adults, an age in which we are all forging our identities, when we are all still skyline pigeons, waiting to be free.

I also left out my notes on Caribou Ranch, Colorado, where Elton recorded the "Captain Fantastic" album, and how this recording studio forged a perfect atmosphere for a perfect record.

If I had more space, I would have written about Nigel Olsson's powerful drumming on "Captain Fantastic", which reminds me of a seasoned boxer who doesn't throw a lot of punches, but knows how to land the right ones.

I had wanted to tell you about the July 1976 concert in which a friend and I attended Elton's show at Chicago Stadium, which began with a rocker, "Grow Some Funk of Your Own" and later included Kiki Dee for not only the hit duet,"Don't Go Breaking My Heart", but also a performance of her signature tune, "I Got The Music In Me," which brought down the house.

Thanks for reading, and happy listening to you.

Visit Elton John's website HERE.

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