Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
I have to admit, deciding my favorite of anything can be a chore. When it comes to music, I’ve been lucky to have been touched by so much. Like favorite books, they tend to change meaning as you go through life, sometimes expanding, but occasionally diminishing too. So in the spirit of this post, I’ll note a record that occurred at a time in where many musical doors were opened as a result.
My folks were not particularly musical, though they sang and encouraged us, but neither played an instrument. As a youngster in the early 70’s, we didn’t have much in the way of a record collection. I remember a copy of Dylan’s “Freewheeling”, a bunch of Clancy Brothers records (which we wore out and sang along with). My father was a high school theater teacher, so we had a number of Broadway musical albums. I can probably still cover most of “Fiddler on the Roof”; there was “Man of La Mancha” and something with Anthony Newley, probably “Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd”. The classical was Tchaikovsky, probably the 4th Symphony, and certainly Bolero was there. But most of what I heard was broadcast on the ubiquitous transistor radios of the time.
Mine was a tiny, palm sized, one. It was a promotional giveaway at Mets game, when they were hot off a World Series win. It was royal blue and orange plastic and ran on a 9 volt. I had it with me always and it was normally tuned to either baseball or Music Radio WABC-AM in New York City. The less said about the pop music of that era, the better, but to a kid of that age, the transistor radio was a magical device that transported the imagination. It was glued to my ear every night when I went to bed. The batteries seemed to last forever.
We have so many choices and so much control over what we want to listen to and when, it’s sometimes hard to imagine a time when if you wanted to hear for favorite song, you stayed on alert waiting for it to come up in rotation. Hopefully you would tire of the song at the same rate as the rest of the nation, as new hits came on to replace the old. Otherwise, you’d be left with only the memory of your favorite song. If you were devout like me, you would have them all memorized and be able to sing them to yourself (humming the hooks and drumming the hits) when you pined for them.
Of all the artists on the radio then, Elton John seemed to have the most hits. It was the era of “Bennie and the Jets”, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, and especially “Rocket Man” with synth and slide guitar effects that were entirely new to my ear. If I could have something to play over and over again, it would have been that. When my birthday came, I asked for an Elton John record. It seemed my parents approved . Soon, I knew the hits would be crackling from my “Close and Play” record player … on demand!!
When my birthday came, the wrapping paper could not disguise that a new record album would soon be mine. And indeed it was, and an Elton John album too. One I had never heard of with a weird semi pornographic Hieronymus Bosch inspired cover art. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”. Never heard of it. I quickly scanned the back cover for songs I recognized…. Bennie and the Jets? Nope. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? Not included. Rocket Man? not hide nor hair of him. I thanked my Mom profusely but I was crestfallen. What the heck is this new music? None of the songs I knew and loved were on it except for the newly released “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” which was really too long for AM radio and I wasn’t too familiar. I think the first few times I listened to it, I only grew more disappointed. My ears cried out for the familiar, and none came. Yet, I persisted. It was easy, because it was the only record I owned. Over time, those songs grew on me. They were finely crafted and well written. Soon it became my favorite record. Some of the songs I liked the most never were played on the radio. And with this, as I grew older, I began to move away from the programmed music of the radio and sought out music in dusty record bins. I was more fearless in trying things unknown to me. I think that record opened the door for me.
I’ve long since moved on to other types of music. Though I rarely listen to it now, I always keep a copy of that record in some form in my collection. It’s where it all begins for me.
The Brannock is a Jazz Saxophonist and Rock Guitarist in the Baltimore/DC Area
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