Thursday, October 7, 2021

Madman at 50

Not making a judgment call (okay, I am), by October 1971, Elton John was poised to release his 5th LP in 18 months (as opposed to, say, Adele, who names her albums based on her age – 19, 21, 25 – with the next release tentatively titled 63. The Beatles, by comparison, had released all eleven LPs of their career in less time). During the summer, Elton's timeless melodies coupled with Bernie Taupin’s romantic pen would produce his most vital entry thus far (building on the seminal Tumbleweed Connection), Madman Across The Water.

From the LP would emerge two iconic tracks, "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer." Sessions for Madman began in February, just as the Friends soundtrack was released. Tumbleweed Connection is, for this writer, sweeping Americana, the musical equivalent to Terrence Mallik’s Days of Heaven or Edward Hopper’s "House By the Railroad."  And Madman was a bit more of the same on a far broader landscape. The February sessions produced two tracks, "Levon" and "Goodbye," before a summer return to complete the album.

For all the assumptions about "Levon," as we came to learn, it wasn't named after The Band's Levon Helm, despite Elton and (especially) Bernie's adoration of their music. Taupin just liked the name – the same reason that the character calls his son in the narrative Jesus. "It was free-form writing," Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2013. "It was just lines that came out that were interesting." "Levon," of course, would pick up on the New York Times' controversial headline, "God Is Dead," a rather telling statement of the times. "He was born a pauper/ To a pawn on Christmas Day/ When The New York Times/ Said 'God Is Dead' and the war's begun/ Alvin Tostig has a son today." 

Since the band wouldn't head back to the studio for several months, we have time to digress: Like other rock 'n' roll conundrums (like the "pompatus of love" from Steve Miller's "The Joker," or the "warm smell of colitas" from the Eagles' "Hotel California," the question arises, Who the hell is Alvin Tostig? Don’t bother to look it up, the answer is within the song. Alvin Tostig is simply Levon’s father. Nothing more to it.

Back to our focus. In a 1973 interview, Taupin said that "Tiny Dancer" is about his first wife, Maxine Feibelman, who was, indeed, a dancer. Thus, by singing those words, Elton appeared to be describing his own world when he was actually depicting Bernie's. The track featured the U.K.'s most accomplished pedal steel guitar player, BJ Cole. While the song, at over six minutes, wasn't radio-friendly, like "MacArthur Park," it defied the standard and was certified Gold in the U.K. and triple-Platinum in the U.S.

Rick Wakeman played on three Madman Across The Water tracks, including the brooding title tune (an earlier version of the song, featuring guitarist Mick Ronson, dated from the Tumbleweed Connection sessions.) Wakeman's other contributions include "Razor Face," with its memorable Wurlitzer organ and and "Rotten Peaches." 

During the summer, Davey Johnstone joined in with "Rotten Peaches" on acoustic guitar, as well as on the album's title track and "Tiny Dancer." He added mandolin and sitar on "Holiday Inn." Also making his first appearance on an Elton album, on three tracks was the inimitable session and touring percussionist Ray Cooper.

Elton's colleagues in that line-up, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, didn't play on Madman Across The Water, though they were part of a team of backing vocalists that also included friends of the band: Lesley Duncan, Tony Burrows, Roger Cook, Sue & Sunny, Barry St John, Liza Strike, and Terry Steele. 

The key to Madman Across the Water is melodrama and iconic characters drench in paranoia but rising above it, a romanticism that John and Taupin could create like no one else. 


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