Saturday, September 24, 2011

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

At one time, along about 1975, I was pretty sure Elton John was that decade's natural heir to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Later I thought that was pretty ridiculous. But I guess the last laugh is on me when I look up the numbers in my Billboard book: There, on the list of 100 Top Artists 1955-2009, is Elton John at #4, behind Elvis, the Beatles, and Madonna (yes), and just ahead of Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Wikipedia pipes up, somewhat tentatively, that this iconic double-LP package "has come to be regarded as Elton John's best and most popular album," noting that it's his best-selling anyway, with some 31 million copies moved. Checking around, I see that's good enough to put it in the vicinity of the top 20 all-time bestsellers, no small feat. So when I call it my favorite I understand that puts me with the rest of the unwashed, but at least I've pretty much thought as much since the day it came out. There has always been something a little bit different about Elton John, and I don't mean just that he was the only rock star of the time pretending to be gay who actually was gay. From his various folkie-cum-country-rock-raver postures early to the glittering glamour and pure pop insouciance on display here to the range seen across his strings of hits, he's a tough one to figure out. Me, I gave in entirely with this, a big pop confection that opens with an 11-minute suite in which you don't even hear his voice until nearly the 6:00 marker—that's "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding." It's followed by a valentine to Marilyn Monroe, "Candle in the Wind," so universally beloved and genuinely touching he was able to rework it in memory of Princess Diana after her death 24 years later, and a lot of people were grateful. Then the weird faux live glam of "Bennie and the Jets," a song I am still waiting to understand, but one that nevertheless continues to thrill me. Then the title song, which verily cracks it open: that's it, this is all a big fat hosanna to beauty in the face of debilitating nostalgia, knowing the moment would never be so right because, and perhaps he even knew this too on some level, the moment would always be so right, from that point forward. And on it goes: the luscious piano textures of "Grey Seal," the sassy rock 'n' roller "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," something about a made-up cowboy, "Roy Rogers," something about a made-up Depression-era gangster, "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)," and something about "I've Seen That Movie Too." My favorite song has always been "Sweet Painted Lady," even recognizing all the execrable prostitute clichés it bears. It's so goddam fucking beautiful it makes me want to cry in spite of everything, and that's how the whole album affects me, when the moment is right, and often when it isn't. We don't know how many right moments this guy has left, except we've already seen that movie too. And now it's 40 years later.


  1. In so many ways he seems like such a bloated parody of himself these days, but my goodness even now when he sings the voice is strong and dynamic, and yes, this and other early stuff is just genuinely up there with the other Greats. What a songsmith. Excellent reflection.

  2. He really did turn out to have staying power and often this older material just seems better all the time. Thanks as always for your comments!