Tripping the Dirt Fantastic

Feb 7th, 2015 | By | Category: Reviews, The Same River

captainfantasticElton John became my first rock hero after I saw him play the Pinball Wizard in the movie Tommy. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was one of the first albums I bought for myself to try and get a little closer to the Pinball Wizard himself. Elton was more than his boots, it turned out. It was my first experience with music as art, as possession to use as I pleased, and as an expression of identity.  Everyone has their first album like that. Captain was mine.

I had wanted it for the hit (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) and the surreal cover art. As I listened to the album, reading through the liner notes and free comic book, I tried to find clues from the lyrics in the art. This was listening as experience rather than listening as passing time. Those were the days when I’d wait by the AM radio with my 3 inch reel-to-reel recorder trying to catch a favorite song on the radio to preserve for listening on demand. After repeated listening, I memorized the words, before really understanding them, and came to appreciate other songs including the title song and “We All Fall in Love Sometimes/Curtains.” With a personal watershed album like this, maybe a re-listening to reflect on then and now would bring back a forgotten memory, or reveal a new insight. I’ll take them song by song.

“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”: starts as a nice folksy romp, but builds to a skillful rocking ballad with a wistful look back at, for then, what was just a few years earlier (“and the ‘68 summer festival wallflowers, are thinning”). It has a young man’s braggadocio: “the Captain and the Kid, steppin’ in the ring” … “from the end of the world to your town.” I had known, somehow, that this album  — and this song in particular —chronicled the partnership of Bernie Taupin and Elton John. I think it’s fair to call it a bromance of a song.

On “Tower of Babel,” the chorus is much better than the verse. “Bitter Fingers” is catchy but too self-referential and inside-baseball for me to relate to as an adolescent. As an adult, I get the paying-your-dues ethic. But musically, Davey Johnstone’s fuzzed-up electric guitar is a thread to hang onto, and the guitar duet on the outro is sweet like honey at the bottom of your teacup: can’t get it all.

“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” is sort of groovy, and with it I could rock my way tunefully through to the hit that comes afterward. On this listen, it seems like a shout-out to the Doobie Brothers. The keyboard is bluesy and the high, thin, fuzzed-up guitar connects back to “Bitter Fingers.”

“Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” The hit. Back then I spent so much emotional time with this song, the young/old difference is remarkable. At that time, I thought “SSMLT” was a teenager’s torch song. It brings back memories of slow dancing in school auditoriums, with breakups pending. I wondered who ‘Sugar Bear’ was, since it obviously wasn’t the socialite he was trying to escape from. I didn’t have the emotional equipment to understand what questions Elton, or anyone else, might have about sexual identity, but the song communicated ambivalence anyway. And what relationship could be so awful it could kill music?  From my point of view as a 50-something, “SSMLT” comes across as a little histrionic. Third hand from Bernie Taupin, he thought the half-hearted suicide attempt was too. Still, what must it be like to sing about your own suicide attempt every night of a tour?

“Gotta Get a Meal Ticket” rocks just fine, but a feels like filler. Davey Johnstone’s guitar though — and Nigel Olsson’s late, late drums, these two keep it from being forgettable. On “Better Off Dead” I liked (and still like) the prosody and the rhythm of the song, but the music and lyrics were/are too much writerly inside-baseball. The harmonies and syncopation then, and now, are nice window-dressing but by this time in the album, I am too busy anticipating the next three songs to care very much.

“Writing”: how could you not adore this cozy little hammock of a song? It’s about underpaid, poor writers’ pedestrian delights as told through their homey observations. Adults can hear it as a slightly disguised love song, but would have been way over my young head. Lyrically, John and Taupin wonder about their future: “will we still be a-writing in approaching years?” but they could just as well be asking “how long will you and I last?” There are some irresistible alliterations like “don’t disturb us if you hear us to trying instigate the structure of another line or two.” Knowing then what I know now about “SSMLT,” I would have been relieved to learn in “Writing” that Elton has reconsidered his earlier gesture because he “like[s] life enough to see it through.”

“We All Fall in Love Sometimes/Curtains”: Growing up in the desert, where it rains about ten days a year, a young man does not receive the atmospheric ingredients to brood very often. That meant I had to close my curtains to darken the room and turn the music up to pretend it was raining, green, and sorrowful. Living in the mid-Atlantic now, rainy days aren’t so precious and I spend more time missing a warmer sun. But then? Oh, to yank on a frayed heartstring while the rain “trickles down the sleepy subway trains” and work up a tear or two for Gina. Or Roxy. Or whomever. Listening to it now, I think how much a remake of this could easily overdo the vocals and spoil it all. It’s got to be sung sparely, because the pathos is so thick. The melody drips so much, the vocals have to glide over the surface to not get stuck.

Then comes the transition to “Curtains.” As a kid, I would have been thinking “When does ‘Curtains’ start and ‘We All Fall in Love Sometimes’ stop?” As an adult, the techie question is whether or not this was a continuous take. But this is just fanboy debate right before the feature starts. “Curtains” builds like a young boy’s Bolero. But instead of saying hello to Bo Derek, he says goodbye to childhood, and mulligans on mistakes. It’s so sad, and so hopeful. Everything ends, sure enough, but the chorus says we’re not alone. I still can’t listen to this and not weep. There, I said it.

Elton John seems, for all I know, settled now. He is married, has a kid, a successful career, and a football team or two. We all grow up sometime. When I was 13, I needed a soundtrack to chant, an entree into an identity. Knowing a lot about something, like music, or bikes, or cars, was a pathway to an identity. When I reflect on it now, Captain also introduced me to excess in art, something I didn’t come across until later with Lingis’ Excesses in college. The idea is that art is not an economy — it doesn’t exist in exchange, it offers without expectation of return; it is an “economy of the sun.” The copious illustrations that didn’t quite match the lyrics, the over-the-top emotion, and the smart wordsmithing prepared me to understand that music existed beyond the intention of the musician. It is supposed to take on a life of its own. Back then, I was becoming aware that it was okay to experience music in my own way.  Now, I know it is. It doesn’t mean that my experience is as good as anybody else’s.  But in the economy of the sun, who’s counting?

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2 Comments to “Tripping the Dirt Fantastic”

  1. Tom says:

    I absolutely loved your deep introspective look back at this incredibly underrated album from the 70s. Like you this was one of my first albums and spent numerous hours wearing down the vinyl on the cheap turntable memorizing every word of the lyrics. I stumbled across your article while searching for a YouTube recording of Captain fantastic. Thanks so much for bringing this album back to life, if even for a short time. My own thoughts are that I felt and still feel that this album, like some for all other Elton John albums, was masterfully recorded and mixed, with Rich varied instrumentation and perfectly blended stereophonic separation and sound levels.

  2. Scot says:

    Tom,
    Thanks for your note. I’m glad you liked my recollections, and that it brought back good memories. Although my colleagues at SU/LU are better authorities on the recording qualities and historical significance of the various works reviewed, all of us have those turning-point albums that got spun again and again. I hope you find some of the other reviews enjoyable too.
    Thanks,
    Scot

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