I had a conversation with a friend over the weekend about Elton John. She was surprised that I was a bit ambivalent about his music. The fact is I don’t love Elton John/Bernie Taupin’s catalog the way I love, say Jackson Browne or Billy Joel’s catalogs. Sure, he’s iconic and has some great, great songs, but the underlying combination of sadness and pouting just don’t capture my imagination. Too harsh? I say it with respect for his brilliance, but give me Freddy Mercury’s optimistic campiness over John’s pouty campiness anytime. And still, I do love many of Elton John’s songs. Here are four that easily make the case for why I may be wrong in my assessment:
“But oh, how it feels so real
Lying here with no one near
Only you, and you can hear me
When I say softly, slowly
Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today”
The opening song on Madman across the Water, Tiny Dancer both sets the table and becomes an impossible standard to follow. Then Levon begins and you realize that this album runs deeper. I’d put the first half of this album up against many of the great albums in rock & roll music. There are thousands of vinyl copies of this album worn out on one side but pristine on the other.
When I say I don’t love the Elton John Catalog, Tiny Dancer raises its hand and offers an animated challenge. Bernie Taupin’s lyrical pirouette forever married to Elton John’s gentle tap dance across the keyboard. This song remains as vibrant for me as the first day I heard it. And perhaps more so.
“Levon’s sells cartoon balloons in town
His family business thrives
Jesus blows up balloons all day
Sits on the porch swing watching them fly
And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus
Leave Levon far behind
Take a balloon and go sailing,
While Levon, Levon slowly dies”
How do you follow Tiny Dancer? With an epic Levon, of course. This is a big song, almost as big as the one that preceded it. Jesus can’t wait to fly away from the domineering father figure Levon and leave his oppressor to wither away. And we’re right there with him, grabbing a balloon and going for the ride. With so many albums why choose two from the same? Because it’s my list, that’s why.
I love the stripped down version of this song on the BBC performance in the link above. Just three musicians and a gem of a song, with a respectful audience that doesn’t get in the way. A reminder that you don’t have to wear a duck costume to win over the audience.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
“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
Damn it listen to me good
I’m sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank God my music’s still alive”
Well, here we are in Poutyville, with our glam rocker resenting the powerbroker who controls him and his career. But damn it (listen to me good) this is such a great song. And it signals resistance to the people who he believes control him. This song pairs well with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, another song with the same theme. But I like Someone Saved My Life Tonight just a little bit more.
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
“While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can’t and that is why
They know not if it’s dark outside or light”
This is a love song to New York City, and I can imagine the city in the early 1970’s, with its cast of characters making the city their own. This is a song rooted in simplicity and beauty. And just might be my favorite Elton John song. Bernie Taupin paints a portrait of New York in all its gritty wonder, and Elton John strips down the campiness to a stunning piano arrangement. This is a quiet walk through Central Park with a close friend, talking about what you saw in the city this week. November is when I think about New York City, for I always end up there for a few days this month every year. Except this year, of course. But there’s always next year… right?
And there you go: four songs that prove me wrong about Elton John. There are others standing behind these to help make a strong case; Border Song and Rocket Man come to mind as two more that I love, but I’ll stick with four. If we drift too far into the catalog we might bump into Crocodile Rock, and I’m trying to stay positive.