The first musician I became a “fan” of as a kid was Elton John. I distinctly remember buying his 1975 album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which is an amazing set of autobiographical vignettes from the lives of Elton himself and his lyricist/co-writer/friend Bernie Taupin. It was the first “non-K-Tel” record I ever bought.
From there, I bought all of Elton’s earlier albums, and was thus introduced to what is probably one of the most amazing creative periods of one of the most amazing musicians in recent history. Starting with his eponymous 1970 album,1 through to the end of 1975, Elton released nine studio albums, containing among them 95 original songs written by Elton and Bernie, along with a movie soundtrack (Friends) with another 10 original songs, plus a Greatest Hits album in 1974, and more than a score of singles. Elton and Bernie are one of the fastest and most prolific songwriting teams ever; it’s said that Bernie would spend an hour writing a few sets of lyrics, which Elton would put to music in about half an hour.
But the speed of their songwriting didn’t mean quality was sacrificed. In that period, Elton John had seven consecutive Billboard number one albums, a feat matched only by Eminem and beaten only by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Six of those albums made Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.2 He also released 22 singles in that period, of which five hit #1 and three hit #2 on the US Billboard charts.
The pinnacle of this era — perhaps the pinnacle of Elton’s and Bernie’s entire careers — was the 1973 double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Bernie wrote the lyrics for the 17 songs on the album (plus four others that weren’t used) in two-and-a-half weeks, while Elton wrote the music for those songs in three days. After an abortive attempt to record the album in Jamaica, they went back to the Château d’Hérouville in France (where they’d recorded the two previous albums) and recorded the whole album in only two weeks. Four singles from the album charted, of which “Bennie and the Jets” hit #1 in the US and Canada, and also reached US platinum status along with the title track.
Many albums have a unifying theme, and aren’t just a collection of songs. Some have said that the theme of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is “nostalgia for a more humble childhood and an older American culture as seen through eyes of the movies.” But I see it differently. I see the album as being all about misfits.
“Misfit” is one of those words which came from other words, but people nowadays have almost forgotten those original words. It’s now used to mean a lot of things, but the original meaning was to denote something — or someone — who is a “mis” fit, who doesn’t “fit” into the hole or socket or pigeonhole it’s “supposed” to fit. And the “characters” in this album are all people who somehow “don’t fit”.
Have you ever felt like no matter who you’re with, no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how you’re acting, you Just. Don’t. Fit. In?
That’s me. That’s the story of my life. I always feel like I Never Fit In with other people. Doesn’t matter when or where or who or what or how or why; just never felt like I “fit”. I can think of a dozen or more possible contributing factors, but the result is the same. Even when I’m with someone who gives me an amazing and unconditional love that I don’t deserve (namely my wife Linn-Marie), I still feel like a misfit. It’s certainly not her “fault” … it’s just something inside me that doesn’t “click” the right way.
So I identify with many of the characters in GYBR. They’re all misfits, all somehow looking for a place to belong. I won’t discuss Every Single Song here, but I need to mention about half of them, along with what I see as their specific themes.
- Fame, and how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be:
Goodbye Norma Jean; though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled.
Goodbye Norma Jean; from the young man in the 22nd row
Who sees you as something more than sexual,
More than just our Marilyn Monroe.
— “Candle in the Wind”
So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl.
You can’t plant me in your penthouse; I’m going back to my plough.
Back to the howling old owl in the woods, hunting the horny back toad;
Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.
— “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
- Failing relationships:
I can see by your eyes you must be lying when you think I don’t have a clue.
Baby you’re crazy if you think that you can fool me,
Because I’ve seen that movie too.
The one where the players are acting surprised, saying love’s just a four letter word
Between forcing smiles, with the knives in their eyes,
Well, their actions become so absurd.
— “I’ve Seen That Movie Too”
- The death of a young Depression-era gangster:
Some punk with a shotgun killed young Danny Bailey
In cold blood, in the lobby of a downtown motel.
Killed him in anger, a force he couldn’t handle
Helped pull the trigger that cut short his life.
And there’s not many knew him the way that we did;
Sure enough he was a wild one, but then aren’t most hungry kids?
— “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34)”
- A disillusioned teenager looking for love in all the wrong places:
Raised to be a lady by the golden rule, Alice was the spawn of a public school,
With a double-barrel name in the back of her brain, and a simple case of Mommy-doesn’t-love-me blues.
Reality it seems was just a dream; she couldn’t get it on with the boys on the scene.
But what do you expect from a chick who’s just sixteen?
And hey, hey, hey, you know what I mean.
Poor little darling with a chip out of her heart; it’s like acting in a movie when you got the wrong part.
Getting your kicks in another girl’s bed; and it was only last Tuesday they found you in the subway dead.
— “All the Girls Love Alice”
- Young working-class toughs boozing it up on the weekend:
Well they’re packed pretty tight in here tonight; I’m looking for a dolly who’ll see me right.
I may use a little muscle to get what I need; I may sink a little drink and shout out “She’s with me!”
A couple of the sounds that I really like are the sounds of a switchblade and a motorbike.
I’m a juvenile product of the working class, whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass.
— “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”
- Someone who doesn’t fit into “polite society”, and is proud of it:
My bulldog is barking in the backyard enough to raise a dead man from his grave.
And I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing; disturbance going to crucify my days.
And the days they get longer and longer, and the nighttime is a time of little use,
For I just get ugly and older; I get juiced on Mateus and just hang loose.
And I get bombed for breakfast in the morning, I get bombed for dinner time and tea;
I dress in rags, smell a lot, and have a real good time; I’m a genuine example of a social disease.
— “Social Disease”
- Trying to find comfort in nostalgia:
Nine o’clock mornings, five o’clock evenings, I’d liven the pace if I could.
Oh I’d rather have ham in my sandwich than cheese, but complaining wouldn’t do any good.
Lay back in my armchair, close eyes and think clear; I can hear hoofbeats ahead.
Roy and Trigger have just hit the hilltop while the wife and the kids are in bed.
And Roy Rogers is riding tonight, returning to our silver screens.
Comic book characters never grow old; evergreen heroes whose stories were told.
Oh the great sequin cowboy who sings of the plains, of roundups and rustlers and home on the range.
Turn on the T.V., shut out the lights, Roy Rogers is riding tonight.
— “Roy Rogers”
- And maybe, just at the end, hope for fitting in with one special person:
Hello, baby hello; Open up your heart and let your feelings flow.
You’re not unlucky knowing me, keeping the speed real slow,
In any case I set my own pace by stealing the show; say hello, hello.
Harmony and me, we’re pretty good company,
Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea.
Harmony, gee I really love you and I want to love you forever,
And dream of the never, never, never leaving harmony.
If you haven’t ever listened to this album, do so. If you have, do so again. It may be more than forty years old, but it’s still amazing. And anything that can invoke the kinds of emotions in my heart that these songs do must be worth a listen.
1 We’ll skip over his first album, 1969’s Empty Sky, which was neat and new and experimental and weird, but which didn’t chart at all, and contained only one memorable song, “Skyline Pigeon”.
2 Elton John was #468, Tumbleweed Connection was #458, Honky Château was #359, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was #158, Greatest Hits came in at #136, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was #91.