Monday, August 7, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Volume 35 - Elton John: A Study in Closets

That's Bernie (fucking) Taupin, people. And that's Carlsberg, apparently.
My first, clear memory of Elton John is his “I’m Still Standing” video (and listen to the chorus on the cover from Sing; gives one an appreciation). I was 12 years old at the time, living in southwest Ohio, at least a decade before that part of the country talked about homosexuality – or anything outside “when a man loves a woman very, very much” – as anything but a punchline. The country as a whole hadn’t gotten hip, really, but a kid in city that lost its shit over Robert Mapplethorpe? Never had a chance. As such, what really stood out from the video was all the dudes sporting marble bags. I never cared for the song that much, but I do believe those dancers fascinated me on some level. I watched the video a lot and, I don’t know, maybe they opened up my world a little.

And if that paragraph feels like a clunky start, I’ll bring it around.

Another song from that same album, Too Low for Zero, actually struck a chord. How “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” made a kid who had only kissed a couple girls (during games of Truth and Dare and to their (apparent? mock?) horror), never mind had a girlfriend (12 people; I was fucking 12) feel anything whatsoever, I’ll never understand. Maybe the light 50s-era doo-wop vibe hooked me. I still know the song well enough to anticipate even the hitches in the tune, and that should give you some idea of how many times I just surrendered to MTV’s heavy rotation and sat through it. I also somehow failed to mention said appreciation to anyone. (Just listened to it; didn't hold up).

All that sounds somehow dumb and wrong as I type it out. There’s almost no way I could have missed Elton John’s more famous songs – e.g., “Crocodile Rock” or “Bennie and The Jets.” Hell, I probably saw him play one song or the other on The Muppet Show (yup, turns out I should have caught another one as well). (And, again, how high was he performing in a room stuffed full of singing puppets? #Heaven) I guess the emotional responses to those songs just came later – e.g., a girl I worked with in a Seattle bagel shop hated “Crocodile Rock” as much as I hate Four Non-Blondes insufferable “What’s Up?” (A quarter billion hits, world? SRSLY?!) Any time it played, she would leave the shop. That became the point of playing the song, naturally.

Even if I liked any given Elton John single – quietly, always quietly – something in me resisted counting any of them as “good.”  And then the universe slipped me a musical mickey. “Take Me to the Pilot” snuck onto one of the audio tapes I made back when I recorded songs off a local classical rock radio station, and then into heavy rotation. It didn’t register as Elton John; I might have even assumed it was a woman signing (good ear, kid). Still, it hits a bunch of my enduring musical calling cards – e.g., piano, syncopation (which I didn’t even know was a thing), and, yes, Elton John’s vocals – so, after someone finally revealed Elton John as the artist, I didn’t stop liking it, so much as I stopped liking it publicly…probably goes back to the marble bags or something similarly hung up…wow…closeted feels like both the right word and the wrong one.

It took a couple decades for any personal appreciation for Elton John to breathe open air. The song “Tiny Dancer” (neat video) gets the credit, but it still took a scene from Almost Famousthe tour-bus sing-along starring the entire cast that captured music's capacity for becoming collective (and emotional) memory (still magic, for shameless people of certain dispositions) – to tip the “shame scale” to where it properly belongs: not giving a shit and just liking the stupid song. And it really is a lovely song, a romance of the weird, accidental families that come in and out of most people’s lives. More specifically, it’s about that extraordinary someone in that accidental family who changes your life, even after she goes away. Or at least you can write it that way for yourself. Yay, music!

Now, after that excessive framing, the rest of it.

Until this past week, I had honestly had no sense of how many albums Elton John put out. The answer: 30. 30 fucking studio albums alone. He churned out full length LPs at Henry Ford levels of production for two whole goddamn decades; prior to what, for him, was a sizeable layoff between 2006 and 2013, the biggest gap in the man’s production was four years. Cover all of that in one week is, obviously, nuts, so I focused on Elton John’s most famous period, the defining eight(!!!!!!!! – each exclamation point links to a Wikipedia page about each ablum, btw; the world is your playground) albums he put out between 1970 and 1975 (again, insane). I did listen to Empty Sky, his actual debut and, bluntly, hated it. Cheesy, cheesy music – which sounds weird given the rest of this post. Still, that’s what happened to 1969…

To begin, spending this past long week with Elton John did make me feel better about how little I invested over the years. Broadly, he puts out a half dozen aggressively bland songs for every great one that dribbled from his pen (or Bernie Taupin’s); friend of mine called them “vapid,” and that’s a sound adjective. Even some of the songs I like best –say, “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long Long Time)” or “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” – play a little empty. After wrestling with why for a while, I put it down to his, for lack of a better word, separation from his songs. He comes at both songs, and a hell of a lot of others, as a first-person narrator, but who is not Elton John, or even Reginald Kenneth Dwight (real name; also, “Sir Elton Hercules John”; I salute those choices, sir); add in all the songs about things that Elton John clearly is not – e.g., an astronaut, a drunken street brawler, or, in the most egregious case, a Native American – and it sucks the authenticity out of the songs to a point where they feel glib, or even silly. That’s how William Shatner performing a spoken-word version of “Rocket Man” (really, really badly, too) makes just as much sense as Elton John singing it (on second thought).

That said, I did get around that here and there. Take my (now once-) favorite, “Take Me To The Pilot.” Per Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s partner in crime, that song is gibberish, loose lines inspired by some sci-fi novels he read around the time he wrote it. The music masks that with an impressive urgency and his vocals ooze wounded passion. It sounds like a hurt lover screaming attention to his broken heart and demanding satisfaction…but, again, it’s not that. It’s mostly gibberish.

The unspoken through-line in all the above is that Elton John gets away with dumb/silly/even meaningless lyrics by playing smart/ear-catching music under it. “Candle in the Wind” provides a good example. Whatever one thinks of Marilyn Monroe (or, later, Princess Di), that’s a damned strange/half-camp piece of iconography. Yet the song still presents as heart-felt, even heart-broken, and it probably is, but, for me, the elegance of the music needs to drown out the cheese or I couldn’t sit through it. (Also, the song still feels like it was written for Diana Spencer.) There is some magic to what the man does.

By the time I got to Friday, I landed on the argument that Elton John’s nothing more or less than a pop musician doing what pop musicians have been doing for as long as it’s been possible – i.e., making music with broad appeal for people who don’t pour a ton of (probably meaningless) effort into getting meaning from what they listen to. Or, perhaps better, who aren’t looking for answers and/or sympathy in the music they listen to. And, to give the man (and Bernie Taupin) his (their) fucking due, he slips some smoothly slick musical passages across his body of work – e.g., the piano that rolls under chorus for “Captain Fantastic And The Dirt Brown Cowboy,’ or the chorus for “Mellow,” or the “I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind” that holds “Your Song” together (for me, anyway; it absolutely rescues the couplet, “if I was a sculptor, then again, no/ or a man who makes potions in a traveling show”). Sing along to those tracks and the fluidity of those hooks give a taste of how music can sound so easy sometimes. I’m listening to “Grey Seal” right now (no, this one), and the whole song feels like that…my point is, he’s popular because his songs go down so, so easily.

I want to say too easily because, by this week’s end, I’d simply discarded three of the eight albums with which I’d started the week, leaving only five: Elton John, Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The reduced selection didn’t fix my problem with zoning out as I listened across even those albums; too many songs played at the same speed and with the same basic (apparent) arrangement…I don’t know, like I said I zoned out, and that’s never a ringing endorsement. Of those five, I’d name Honky Chateau the only one I could listen to beginning to end. The songs salvaged from the rest and put on the playlist got rescued precisely because they contained the kinds of magical passages flagged immediately above.

To hang Elton John’s most successful album out to dry, I flat out hated most of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. A good short-hand for why comes with comparing the version of “Blue Seal” from that album to the one from Elton John. He commits worse crimes against good taste with tracks like “Roy Rogers” and (lord preserve us) “Jamaica Jerk-Off” – unless he means the latter ironically (as in, he knows that song’s terrible, e.g., a “jerk-off,” but…well, why hell subject us to it?). While “Roy Rogers” treads the same cloying path as “Candle in the Wind,” “Jamaica Jerk-Off” shows what happens when Elton John decides to be the wrong narrator. The worst stretch I noted above: “Indian Sunset,” a truly WTF piece of cultural butchery that only sucks more because it almost certainly comes from a good place. Just…there are limits.

Nothing underscores that breakdown like “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” That’s not just the rare, good example of him narrating a song as Elton John, it relates a beautiful personal tragedy. Whether a genuine auditory effect, or some unconscious mental sleight-of-hand, the emotional stakes in that song enriches the music, makes the notes feel somehow different. Whatever it is matters, because as much as the song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” grew on me over last week, it’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” that plays on repeat.

In the context of the cultural landscape, what I think about Elton John amounts to the tiniest of dicks. Millions of people disagree with me (millions of people agree with me too, but…). What I can’t put my finger on is the size of his influence. He’s a bit of an off-shoot, really; put another way, how many ragtime revivalists littered the modern rock era? Even acknowledging the exaggeration – some of my favorite, early Lou Reed tracks made great use of piano (again, love that guy) – he probably owes some portion of the credit or blame (your call) for softening the rock sound. I wouldn’t argue he did so consciously, but instead as a process of finding his own voice. On that, the fourth track on Elton John, a song called “No Shoe Strings on Louise,” has Elton John singing a couple verses in a voice strikingly similar to Mick Jagger. What I’m getting at there is the cultural over-hang of The Rolling Stones; that's what put that song on the album. He got all the way out from under that, but it’s worth noting where Elton John started, if loosely, and charting where he went.

I want to close this by calling all the way back to the first paragraph. In terms of my life, Elton John has always been there – as in, seriously, he released a studio album every year of my life till I left for college. And he was there in a positive way – e.g., as a successful, beloved openly gay man. Nothing in my limited reading of his bio shows him as a massive advocate for gay rights, the way he, along with too many others to count, lived openly really did change the world. Just by living and being hugely famous, Elton helped open the world, making it bigger so that more people can live in it honestly. Even if he did it for some uncomfortable kid in Ohio by peopling his video with a lot of sexy dancers. Of both genders.

All this feels a little unfair to an artist of Elton John’s stature. He only had a sliver of a toe-hold in my collection – just one “Disc 1” of his “Greatest Hits” – so, unlike most the people I’m writing up in this series, he’s not someone I admired, never mind revered. A playlist will go up shortly after, as usual, one feature my top 20 from the five albums named above, plus five songs that, yeah, sort of get to what I don’t like about him (yes, of course, “Indian Sunset” made that cut). And, sure, on some level that does feel like a bit of disservice – again, to an artist of Elton John’s stature.

Still, as noted all over above, he also put a couple great songs into the world, and more good ones besides. And he helped change perceptions for the better. All of that deserves a lot of respect.

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