Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Celebrating guitarist Davey Johnstone on his 70th birthday.Ed.

It took Elton John’s fabulousness a while to catch up to him. Until 1973, in fact, when Sir Elton abandoned the tortured singer-songwriter look (see the cover of 1972’s tres funky Honky Chateau) to reinvent himself as a glorious glam cartoon on the cover of double-LP masterpiece Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

At which point there was no looking back; on the cover of 1974’s Caribou he’s still a cartoon, but he’s A CARTOON IN REAL LIFE, right down to the tiger fur jacket (unzipped to reveal one very sexy chest pelt) and a pair of pink glasses of the sort I would later wear to disguise the fact that I was perpetually stoned.

And when it comes to fabulous how can you beat “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which Elton almost didn’t include on the album because, well, let’s let Elton tell it: “That’s a load of crap. You can send it to Engelbert Humperdinck, and if he doesn’t like it, you can give it to Lulu as a demo.”

But if you thought Elton was simply couldn’t get any more Glam along came 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, on the cover of which Sir Pudgealot looks like A CARTOON OF A CARTOON, and is even riding a bucking piano like John Travolta in Urban Cowboy across a lurid background thronged with inexplicable beasties straight out of Hieronymus Bosch. When asked about the cover of the LP the human toon would say only, “Took me six years to crochet that.” Which just goes to show that Elton, who once leaped on stage during an Iggy Pop show in a gorilla suit and almost got beat up for his troubles, is a real wild card.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that Elton’s was Glam’s ultimate nebbish remake/ remodel unless you count Gary Glitter, who basically trundled himself up like a plump Christmas turkey in aluminum foil. But whereas Herr Glitter was a strictly English pop sensation, Elton was a worldwide entertainment phenomenon, and filling arenas in the Land of Opportunity across the pond, which he was celebrating in songs like “Philadelphia Freedom.”

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was the high-water mark of Elton’s meteoric rise to fame, and this despite the fact that it spawned only one hit single. Come 1975 EJ was unstoppable, and it didn’t really matter much that Captain Fantastic was not as good an album as its predecessors Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Caribou, or for that matter its successor, 1975’s Rock of the Westies.

Part of the problem is the hard rock quotient is low. “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket” is the only tune on which Elton snarls like he sniffs pots of glue and looks forward to putting the boot in come Saturday night and that’s a shame, because despite the widespread perception of Elton as the epitome of pop wussitude, in reality he’s a real Killer Queen, the guy who once wrote off Jerry Lee Lewis with the words, “I could kill more fucking people with one finger than he did when I saw him.” Although I sincerely doubt he’d have said that to the Killer’s face.

But Captain Fantastic suffers from a far more serious flaw. To wit, it’s a concept album about John and Taupin during their starvation years before the release of Empty Sky, and as such put stringent thematic constraints on Bernie’s flights of sheer fancy.

Let’s face it–the man was writing the flat-out strangest lyrics of the era, and Elton John, lunatic that he was, was actually singing them! Gone was the guy who says Mars ain’t no place to raise a kid and the kid who intends to kill himself while Larry “Legs” Smith tap dances and the song about syphilis and the loony tune made up of nonsense words and the song in which Elton calls himself a “stinker” and “the perfect curse to pest control.”

And what do we get in their place? A bunch of lyrically dense and thematically grim tunes about hard times, which lowered the zany fun quotient of the LP considerably. I mean, half the joy of listening to Elton John was wondering what insane storyline Bernie would come up with next. A song with no title? I give you “This Song Has No Title”! A reggae send-up about masturbation? I give you “Jamaica Jerk-Off”! A hot for teacher rocker every bit as good as Van Halen’s? I give you “Teacher I Need You”!

Standout track “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is passingly strange–poor Elton is beside himself because he’s about to marry one very mean woman straight out of a blues song (“It was outrageous,” John would later say about his real life situation, “because she was six-foot and she used to beat me up and she used to be beaten up by a midget so how about that?” How about that indeed? ). And so distraught was our hero that he actually attempted to off himself (Elton again: “It was a very Woody Allen-type suicide. I turned on the gas and left all the windows open”) and things looked very bleak indeed until the night he got completely hammered and rolled around the basement floor and someone (his old bandleader John Baldry, supposedly) saved his life by convincing him to flee the altar the way Rod Stewart does in “Sailor.”

But (and here’s the rub) autobiography is only as interesting as the life you’ve led, and on songs like “Writing” my interest flags, because for the life of my I can’t think of a less interesting subject than the songwriting process itself. And on a couple of the other cuts Bernie’s lyrics are hard to parse; the Tower of Babel in the song of the same title may be the music biz, but is Jesus really going to damn Mo Ostin and David Geffen to eternal hellfire? Well, David Geffen probably, but it don’t matter much because not even Davey Johnstone’s monster guitar riffs can save the song’s lack of hooks.

As for “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” it comes up short in the kinds of quirky details that make Bernie T. such a hoot as a lyricist; it’s a ready-fit love song and black dog move that anticipates 1976’s bummerific Blue Moves, on which John did his level best to surgically excise all of the manic zaniness he’d theretofore managed to pack into his very campy music. (“Hi. I’m Elton John. And I’m here to spread gloom.”)

The very true to life “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket” is a great razor-blade rocker about being hungry on skid row, especially when Elton spits out the words, “I’d have a cardiac if I had such luck, ooo.” Hunger is also the theme of “Bitter Fingers,” on which our hard-up young man produces cascading piano key waterfalls (could be he’s playing a chandelier) with said fingers despite the fact that they’re cold-water bedsit frostbitten. He and Bernie are “tin pan alley twins” with something to prove and prove themselves they do on this one, on which (once you’re past the whole piano man thing) Elton rocks even harder than Billy Joel!

As for “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” poor froze-to-the-bone Elton is STILL trying to blow some heat onto his frigid fingers, and no wonder what with all those chilly disco strings whipping around what sounds to me like a melody that is equal parts “Angie Baby” and Steely Dan. Seems Elton wants to hop a train like that guy from the Marshall Tucker Band, and when he sings “Has this country kid still got his soul” we’re right back to “Honky Cat” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and when, when I ask you, will the dumb rube ever learn that the big bad city is there to chew him up and spit him back out?

“Better Off Dead” could’ve come straight off Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and kinda reminds me of “Gray Seal,” and I would say it’s not as good except it’s got lots of likably clunky piano chords and these cool Beach Boys vocals and the wonderful pro-pollution line, “And that cigarette smoke has ecology beat,” which being a smoker myself is just the way I like it. As for album closer “Curtains” it’s all clang-a-lang with church bells and epic in scope and hushed like Elton’s singing it in a church the Beatles built, and I love the way it builds and builds to a climax (“lovely, lovely,” sings Elton, over and over and over again) every bit as swooningly glorious as the one in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

“The great thing about rock and roll,” said our unlikely hero once, “is that someone like me can be a star.” What he should have added is, “If you dare to be fabulous,” which in Elton’s case meant risking ridicule by taking daredevil-like fashion risks because he wasn’t the concentration-camp-thin epitome of androgynous chic like David Bowie or a fey and beautiful little sprite like Marc Bolan.

No, poor pudgy and balding and bespectacled Reginald Dwight had to dive headfirst into the swimming pool of glitter rock like Esther Williams in one of those aquamusical extravaganzas (only you wouldn’t want to see him in a one-piece bathing suit), had to turn himself into a divine spectacle by draping himself in tinsel and bright flashing lights like the Peanuts kids do with that sad little Christmas tree poor bedraggled Charlie Brown brings home, and if Elton proved anything it was even Charlie Brown could be a glitter rock god. Which I like to think he did, by changing his name to Bret Michaels and forming Poison. Take that, Lucy!


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