Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Sitting atop the charts in 1975, Elton John and Bernie Taupin recalled their rise to fame in Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, their first concept piece since Tumbleweed Connection. No other EJ LP equals its level of musicianship, lyricism, or thematics. The songs tackle Bernie's and Elton's struggling early years, picking up on a theme established by Madman's "Holiday Inn." The title track invokes Elton as The Captain, with his working-class country friend, Bernie, as The Brown Dirt Cowboy; what fun still, forty years on, to listen to the eponymous opening number build from its casual, mellifluous opening to its electric rocking chorus. It's the penultimate EJ song in my book, exceeded only by "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." Taupin's incredible wit and fluency of language, not to mention a deep understanding of the workings of our world exemplifies and artistic touch of considerable finesse. The characters, our hosts in this autobiography, are distinguished by the food they eat (and can seemingly afford). The Captain has cornflakes and tea with sugar: the Cowboy eats “sweet chocolate biscuits, and red rosy apples in summer”. Later in the song, when they’re struggling to establish themselves in their chosen careers, they share the same food, “cheap easy meals”, which as Taupin wryly notes, “are hardly a home on the range”.   

 "Tower of Babel"  is as ominous and resonant as the toll of an undertaker's bell: "Snow, cement;" two and one is submerged in cynicism: "Were the darlings on the sideline/ Dreaming up such cherished lies/ To whisper in your ears before you die?" Taupin isn't saying that their early years were tough, he's saying they were facing starvation, and yes, the prospect of death. Rough. The second verse opens with the knell of "Junk, Angel," and takes us down beneath the floorboards where the dealers in the basement are "filling your prescription for a brand new heart attack." Fuckin' A, Bernie, just beautiful vulgarity. Similarly, "Bitter Fingers" is playful and catchy, which belies the essentially cynical view of the music industry that pervades the lyrics. Bernie succeeds at deriding money-hungry executives - pushing the young team incessantly to produce more music - without seeming whiny or arrogant. Not an easy task. "Better Off Dead" is another fine, playful track featuring multiple movements, like many a Beach Boys song, as well as dramatic, powerful percussion and a blustering, frantically-paced vocal.  The jauntiness of the track lends a degree of insanity to Elton's vocal narration. "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" boasts a soulful vocal, a funk inspired rhythm track and plenty of orchestration. It's one of those songs that one can't stop singing.

"Someone Saved My Life Tonight," one of the most contemplative No. 1 singles ever, is cynical and sardonic, emotive and poetic, yet invites a sense of hope in the uplifting coda. The subject is well known; the lyrics are Bernie's dubious homage to Elton's young fiance, who during their early years tried to convince Elton to leave his musical aspirations behind for a more respectable career. The woman is hardly painted in flattering terms: "Prima donna, Lord, you really should have been there; sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair." He gets drunk so that he can't hear her, and his friends are as legless as he is. And to escape a marriage he felt he could not disavow, he tried to gas himself, saved instead by Long John Baldry. Captain Fantastic taught me that albums matter. Songs  played in order mean something. There's a reason why "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" closes out the first side: one has to stop and turn the LP over, the last lines and bars of the tune still echoing inside:
I never realized the passing hours of evening showers
A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams
I'm strangled by your haunted social scene
Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen
It's four o'clock in the morning
Dammit listen to me good
I'm sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank God my music's still alive...
Perfect. That last line is the key to the entire ideology of the LP.

Rocker "Meal Ticket" and honky tonk 3/4 Time "Better Off Dead" are the LP's weakest tracks, but hardly, leading to an emotionally charged triple play that begins with "Writing." "Writing" (another favorite for this writer) is something of an about-face to "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows." It's unapologetically mid-tempo, thoughtful soft-rock, as Bernie looks to the future.  Yet, despite its lite inclinations, it's certainly not the soft-rock schlock that Elton's 80s catalog imbibed. "We All Fall In Love Sometimes" seems painfully constructed rather than inspired, but with that comes the angst and true emotion associated with the struggles of youth. The stylized, anthemic "woah-woah"chorus of "Curtains" shines as the LP's closing flourish, to this day sending shivers down my spine with lyrics bone-chillingly frigid, honest and screaming in desperation

An interesting aside is that "Dogs in the Kitchen" was printed with the lyrics, though it's not on the album. The libretto's sentiments are so raw that if Elton did them justice, the product would have been a daring release for your average record company. "All our innocence gave way to lust," is the lyrical opener, and that's tame: "Uncage us, we're restless, snarled the dogs in the kitchen,/ Howling in the heatwave, riding all the bitchin’ ladies./ Who got the first bite in on the greasy bone?/ Tear off the white meat, leave the fat back at home." Captain Fantastic is Elton and Bernie's tour de force and, despite the desolation, the best autobiography one could find for Elton's and Bernie's "classic" years.