XIX. The Captain and The Kid

Elton John

2006 was a good year for the old guard. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen and The Who all put out records that stand with their best work. The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their finest album yet with the brilliant Stadium Arcadium. Bruce Springsteen and Prince also showed up with good enough stuff to prove both monuments are still in the game. And Elvis Costello, bless him, put out not one but two excellent records, one with an orchestra and one with Allen Toussaint. And although I gleefully picked Dylan’s Modern Times as my Album of The Year, there was one other record released in ‘06 that has been regularly eclipsing even the mighty Bob on my daily play list. Elton, would you please stand up?

Yes, I am referring to Reginald Dwight, aka Elton John, aka Captain Fantastic of Capt. Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, Esq. Because amazingly, 36 years into a seemingly endless career and a catalog that numbers well past thirty studio discs, Elton John has made his second best album with The Captain and The Kid. His best, you ask? Well that’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, of course, a double scoop blast of rainbow sherbet released way back in 1973. And while nothing will ever top that masterpiece, Elton’s come damn close with this one, a tidy little ten song cycle with nary a clinker in the bunch. Just infectious tune after tune after tune after tune, set to the best set of lyrics erstwhile partner Bernie Taupin has ever offered him in one shot. And that’s the key to Elton John if you’re wondering: The lyrics he gets from Bernie. When they’re inspired and about something, it’s a good bet Elton comes up with a timeless winner, or at least something fun that sinks in and never quite fades away. When they’re crap, which has been often, there’s not much even a musical genius can do with them. (See “Solar Prestige A Gammon,” “Grimsby,” “I’ve Seen The Saucers,” and “Stinker,” all from Caribou, mind you; “All The Nasties,” “Teacher I Need You,” “(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket,” “Street Kids,” “Hard Luck Story,” “Shoulder Holster,” “Boogie Pilgrim,” on and on it goes, and these were all from his peak period…You get the picture.) So big thanks to Mr. Taupin for sitting down and getting the job done in fine fashion, ten for ten. He actually wrote 12 for this one, but Elton pared it down by two. And that’s fine, because economy is one of this album’s many strengths. There’s not a word or note that shouldn’t be here. Not a moment out of place.

A short back story is useful here for it sheds light on why the boys might have hit so hard this time out. In 1975, at their absolute zenith, the biggest star on earth and his writing partner released an auto-biographical song cycle called Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy. The first album ever to enter the Billboard charts at Number One, it told the story of Elton and Bernie’s first few lean and hungry years together as friends and collaborators, before Elton hit it big and went on to become one of the most beloved entertainers of all time and the John/Taupin writing team one of the most treasured trademarks in songwriting history. A great album, by the way, featuring some of their best work, it includes the monumental “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” the charming mid-summer’s day title track and some lesser known but equally fine tunes like “Tower Of Babel,” “Bitter Fingers,” and the marvelous finale “We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains.” The concept behind it lent a gravity and cohesiveness to Bernie’s lyrics, which as always prompted Elton to come up with some of his most endearing music. It was the last great album the pair made together for 25 years.

Elton went on to have many more smash hits and continued to fill stadiums and arenas, scoring even greater commercial triumphs through Disney (The Lion King) and the Broadway stage (Aida), but that truly great “Elton John Album” eluded him. In 2001, this changed with the release of Songs From The West Coast and its brilliant Beatlesque single, “I Want Love.” Whatever the circumstances that caused this resurgence, Bernie and Elton seemed re-charged, and these west coast songs showed two great writers maturing and getting closer and better as they entered their mid-fifties. Two of them in particular, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” found real dramatic weight in picking up the auto-biographical thread of Captain Fantastic, now seeming like subtle hints of good things to come. The artistic up-trend continued with the modest and endearing Peachtree Road from 2004. Then Elton’s manager had an idea: Why don’t you guys write the rest of your story? It seems Captain Fantastic only tells the tale through 1970 and that’s where the coaster really started rolling. Elton loved the idea and Bernie set about putting it down in verse and chorus. And it’s a good thing, too, because the concept of picking up and continuing the fabled fable has taken both artists to new heights. Finally they decided to make “The Great Elton John Album” and put the time and effort into doing the job right. Two listens through The Captain and The Kid and somehow the miraculous has happened: Thirty years have disappeared and Elton John, the Adorable Melodic Rock and Roll Liberace responsible for classics like Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has returned in full form, armed with everything that made him so adored in the first place, everything that made his the very voice of youth in the Mid-Seventies. Stranger still is the feeling that he’s never been away, given how wonderfully familiar and organic this music sounds. Howi Vinni says it’s like Rip Van Winkle and he’s right. That is if Rip Van Winkle was one of the greatest musicians and songwriters the world has ever known before he went to sleep.

But all this is hyperbole without the melody. Words don’t mean anything without the song and the singer to put them across. And even if Bernie Taupin came up with some of the very best words of his career, which he has, it would still fall to Elton to put them to music that would let them soar into my imagination and stay there for days and days on end, circling around in my mind, humming to myself, happy. There’s nothing like a good tune going round and round in your head. Or ten different ones, for that matter. Seems Elton’s on a mission. To make me happy. Mission accomplished, Elton. And thank you very much. Something so great happens when a meaningful lyric meets a beautiful tune. It just makes your day. And when it happens every time out in a collection of songs like this, it can make your year.

Our story begins, or takes up where they left it, with Elton and Bernie’s first visit to the USA and the excitement that greeted and accompanied them once they got there. “Postcards From Richard Nixon” serves as overture to the play and has more than a touch of musical theatre thrown in to get us in the mood for the great tale about to be told. Elton has learned much from his writing for the stage: The song sets the tone musically with his fabulous piano to the fore and thematically, with a clever lyrical device on Bernie’s part to use the failing president as the voice who greets the two fresh-faced innocents about to enter the world where all their dreams are poised to come true, giving an immediate historical reference point as to when and where, namely Los Angeles, 1970. Nixon’s in trouble, the song says humorously, citing him “on his knees,” having sent so many overseas, an unpopular war raging on the TV every night, and he could sure use some help, some kind of harmless public distraction from his political woes. Maybe Elton and Bernie are just right for the job. The Beatles have broken up after all, the country’s in a funk, and AM radio could use some tasty syrup right about now. “Your Song” fit the bill perfectly, as did the image of a bespectacled young Elton, seated at the piano, pounding out his Little Richard-isms at The Troubadour, being led by the hand through “Brian Wilson’s promised land”, serenading the youth with a brand new sounding golden-honey ballad voice. By the end of the song, the stage has been set for our heroes, and they’re more than ready to take their roles and run with them straight to super-stardom. It’s a great twist at the end when Bernie writes, “Pale kids come to play and we heard Richard Nixon say, ‘I got to go, but you can stay.” The disgraced leader steps down amidst national turmoil and scandal; Enter The Captain and The Kid. But again, no matter how clever and inviting this all is, it wouldn’t mean a thing if the song wasn’t so damn catchy. My four year old can sing the whole thing.

It’s a daunting task to capsulize 30 years of a partnership into ten songs, but Bernie has done it. Some of the fun of this album is figuring out how. With the exposition in place, the explosive rise of the duo’s stardom is chronicled in the romp of “Just Like Noah’s Ark.” Bernie juxtaposes the pair’s innocence against the seedy, hyper-sexual surroundings of their newfound celebrity in the LA based music industry and the result is funky and comical, with Elton turning in one of his more inspired rockers. Elton’s dog takes a cameo at the end by barking in time with the band and everyone involved breaks down laughing. One of the central themes of this track and the whole album is it’s good to go through the ringer and come out the other side still alive and in one piece. Seems there’s lots of animals to deal with along the way.

Elton and Bernie’s commercial peak is captured beautifully, almost cinematically in the gorgeous ballad “Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way (NYC).” The man who has played Madison Square Garden almost more than anyone else in history certainly has much love and admiration for the greatest city in the world and he shows it unabashedly in this, possibly the album’s finest song. The solo piano of the introduction is immediately classic Elton, sounding much like the piano on Madman Across The Water or Honky Chateau’s “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” and consequently, the impression of genuine time travel is achieved. It’s New York City, winter, perhaps Thanksgiving 1974, when Elton was indeed the most popular entertainer on the planet, and the “long black cars stand side by side, loading up the boys at night.” A powerful image; a triumphant show having just been performed, and Elton and the band are piling into their limos, off to whatever pleasures the night still holds for them. The double entendre of “loading up the boys” speaks to the talent of Bernie Taupin to be able to capture his partner in all his, by then, swinging bisexual glory, without really saying it at all. The “boys” could be the boys in the band, or are they the boys Elton would be entertaining till the morning light came up over the Manhattan skyline? Snow is falling, there’s an innocent smile caught from someone in a taxi at the light, and Elton is touched by how rare such an occurrence seems. This is New York City after all, that kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen here. But it does. And that’s the magic of the place, and why Elton and Bernie love it so. New York has been very good to these two, and I can imagine the magic of a full Madison Square Garden hearing this beautiful salute and singing along. One of the most moving lines of all happens in the bridge and serves as the time travel coming full circle back to the present day: “And I can feel the magic and read a million lips, no matter what might happen, they’ll never sink this ship.”

Of course, once you reach the top, it’s tough to stay there, and the duo’s fall from grace and (temporary) separation is chronicled in the next two songs, “Tinderbox” and “And The House Fell Down.” A fabulous pop song with more clever chord changes and infectious melody than most, “Tinderbox” looks at the partnership itself, a blessed and fragile one having scaled and reached the very top of the mountain, and where it sat some time in the mid to late ‘70’s, with Elton’s albums no longer debuting at or even reaching Number One, and his drug use starting to get out of control and take over his life. They had lived in each other’s pockets for so long, had grown up together, written more than their share of standards, achieved everything they’d set out to, and there was nowhere to go but down and apart. “We’ve been living in a tinderbox, two sparks can set the whole thing off, rubbing up together around the clock…” It was bound to happen. Again, Bernie, at the height of his powers, doesn’t go at the subject matter straight away, leaving the lyric open to more than one interpretation, with allusions to Nostradamus and Godzilla conjuring up images of chaos and grand devastation on a world scale. “Godzilla came in disguise, tore the building down right before our eyes…” could be as much a reference to 9/11 as anything else, and this lends the song a greater sense of urgency than just Elton and Bernie’s relationship coming apart at the seams. “We were coasting on a winning streak, we were kings until the power failed…” is a poignant summation of the most beloved and hated country in the history of the world. Or is just Elton running out of commercial steam with Blue Moves peaking at Number Three in November of ‘76? One of the marks of a great pop song. The other being that once you hear it, it’s tough to not keep singing it over and over to yourself.

Elton hits rock bottom in “And The House Fell Down.” Accordingly, it’s a re-write of “I’m Still Standing,” with the same jumpy beat and soaring background vocals, which helps conjure up the time of his drug woes perfectly, some time in the early ’80’s. And helping along this startling return to form are the presences of two key players in the Elton John saga, original guitarist Davey Johnstone and original drummer Nigel Olsson, who along with bassist Dee Murray, now deceased, helped Elton forge the signature sound that catapulted him to the top of the charts in the first place. Always integral to that sound are the tones of Davey’s electric and acoustic guitars, Nigel’s epic drum fills and the wonderful mesh of their voices to create that one of a kind background vocal harmony that fills up the stage and provides Elton’s voice with one beautiful curtain to shine upon. Those voices are all over The Captain and The Kid, and again, true time travel, to a gloried past and back again to a vital present, has been achieved. The big “Ahs” soar behind a key melody arching through “And The House Fell Down,” a jarring juxtaposition between the depths to which Elton had sunk in his drug abuse and egomania and a relentlessly upbeat and catchy pop song with a chorus that will not be denied and never goes away. “I built it up and the wolf he came around…He huffed and puffed, he huffed and puffed, and the house…fell…down.” The contradiction between lyrical content and musical mood sets up a palpable tension and sense of absurdity that must have occurred to Elton as he went through his years of drug hell on “three day diets of cocaine and wine.” A mischievous piano motif introduces and runs through the track and Elton takes a terrific solo in the middle that reminds the listener of how truly musical the man can be when inspired and/or just telling the plain truth. And it takes quite an artist to deliver such plain truths about himself as “If I could think straight, I’d wish that I was dead,” “I’m more paranoid with every little sound,” “When you’re high as this, you think you know it all,” and “I’ve put the clock in the drawer ‘cause I’ve cancelled out the time.” Amazing these words came from someone other than the person singing them, but such is the synergy and bond between two friends going on forty years together.

So ends Side One. And it only gets better on Side Two.

The piano motif of “And The House Fell Down” is slowed and developed into the introductory figure of “Blues Never Fade Away,” and it is here, reflecting on the great personal losses of his life that Elton finally grows up in one of the finest songs of his and Bernie’s career. Another classic melody carries the message of sorrow and loss. First the plight of a gay man in the post-Aids world, a countless number of friends and lovers taken by the disease he has spent his entire adult life trying to eradicate from the planet. Indeed, no one has been more vocal or active in the fight against Aids. Second, the loss of his dear friend Gianni Versace on the front steps of his Miami home at the hands of a deranged murderer, a loss that nearly crippled Elton beyond repair. And third, and this one the most musically poignant of all, a remembrance of John Lennon: “I scatter their ashes on the wind and I miss John Lennon’s laugh.” If you’re a Beatlefan, it’s hard not to be moved when you hear Elton John sing this line. He almost cries it out, the despair for his friend so deep, it nearly chokes him. It is a startling moment in a heartbreaking song. “Colours run when the rain falls but blues never fade away.” And with the opening line, “He wasn’t famous but I sure did love him, I’ve got his picture in a little frame,” yet more praise must be given to Bernie for making the point that Elton has not only suffered the loss of several celebrity friends (a fact he has arguably capitalized on many times in song and been criticized brutally by Keith Richards for) but an umpteen amount of anonymous friends as well, each loss equally significant. Elton sings as if waking from a bad dream to find he’s still standing, but so many who he loved along the way have now gone, the price paid by a true survivor.

But the pain expressed in “Blues Never Fade Away” turns into hard-won pride on the next track, the epic “The Bridge.” Yet another brand new John/Taupin classic, “The Bridge” is a solemnly beautiful celebration of the true survivor and a lament for those who don’t make it over the bridge to the other side, whose songs die “on a bitter wind, on a cruel tide.” Thankfully, Elton and Bernie have made it over and Elton sings with the power and empathy of someone who has seen and taken it all and lived to tell the tale. “Everyone of us that ever came to play has to cross the bridge or fade away.” Fittingly, “The Bridge” magically references the recurring chord motif of “Your Song,” probably the most beloved and remembered of all Elton and Bernie’s compositions, and the one that got it all going in the first place some 37 years ago. Yet another sign of both men not just going through the motions on this album, but really taking the time to think about what they were doing. Like a great film, much thought went into the details of telling this story, and it pays off huge, rewarding repeated listening again and again. “The bridge, it shines in cold hard iron, saying come and risk it all or die trying,” Elton sings in one of the finest, most personal performances of his career, as if his very life depends on it. The mark of a great artist, giving his whole soul in song.

From here, it’s all yellow brick road. The last three songs serve as the best finale to any Elton John album ever, and three of his very finest. With the play about to end, Elton and Bernie survey the glorious landscape of their past and celebrate their present with a bright hope for the future. “I Guess I Must Have Lost It On The Wind” might be the best country song the duo has ever come up with, and it’s a timeless keeper. Featuring a simple harmonica homage to Bob Dylan (Bernie’s favorite lyricist, and why not?) the song takes stock of all the lovers come and gone in a life, concluding that you only learn what you learn about love and life when you’re ready to learn it, and the rest just blows away in the air. “You couldn’t tell me I was wrong, you couldn’t tell me anything, and if you did then I guess I must have lost it on the wind.” This is self-aware music, immediate and candid, modest and endearing, gently melodic as childhood memories. Once this chorus gets a hold of you, it’s tough to shake. Musically and spiritually, it sounds to me like James Taylor doing a countrified version of  “In My Life” with Elton on piano. If and when Garth Brooks ever comes out of retirement, he should record a version of this one. A major piece of work.

And it’s only bettered by the next two, the rollicking “Old ‘67” and the brilliant title track and finale, “The Captain and The Kid.” Recalling the good time ease of The Band, Elton and his band give perhaps the best and most effortless performance of the album with “Old ‘67,” a nocturnal reverie of old times and innocent days. The scene is The South of France, and the two friends have gotten together with two glasses and a bottle to reminisce on halcyon days long since past. “Talking to the evening, sitting here side by side, just you and me on a balcony, it’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside…” Note another quote from “Your Song.” It’s a deep friendship, and it’s beautifully expressed in this track, especially the vocal, where you can hear Elton really talking to Bernie, showing his love and gratitude for the man who gave him something to say all these years. “Old ‘67, what a time it was, what a time of innocence, what a time we’ve lost. Raise a glass and have a laugh or two, here’s to Old ‘67 and an older me and you.” In the casual swing of Elton and the band at their best, you can feel the sweetness and satisfaction of survival and triumph.

Our story ends musically where it began, with Elton brilliantly quoting the introductory figure of “Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy” over a brushes-led beat straight out of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” The Captain and The Kid together always in spirit, one an urban soul in a brand new silk suit, ready to keep taking it to the world stage and the other a heart out west in a Wrangler’s shirt and old cowboy boots, ready to ride off into the sunset. It’s a great romance actually, the journey of two lifelong friends who by chance meeting went on to live their dreams, nearly lose it all and come out the other end still together, still on top. The feeling of coming full circle is a thematically and musically satisfying one, and the quote of the original tune from 1975 hits home like any good reprise should except that it's even more powerful given it took 30 years to get to it. But this is not the end of the story, not some dead end nostalgic trip, and like Billy Joel in “Keeping The Faith” from An Innocent Man, Elton and Bernie make sure to make the point with an amazing chorus firmly in the now: “You can’t go back and if you try, it fails. Looking up ahead, I see a rusty nail and a sign hanging from it saying Truth For Sale. And that’s what we did, no lies at all, just one more tale about The Captain and The Kid.” The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems, ay?

If this brilliant album of love, friendship, perseverance and exceptional musicality is any indication, I’m willing to believe it.

From one, you learn something
Another, you learn nothing
And there's one who might teach you everything.