#157: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Favorite Tracks: "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" and "Tower of Babel" and "Bitter Fingers" and "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" and "(Gotta Get) A Meal Ticket" and "Better Off Dead" and "Curtains"
Thoughts: If you've been following along with my journey through this list, you know Elton John has been one of the artist's whose discography I thought I was fairly familiar with before I began, and since have discovered again and again new gems waiting for me on album after album. I tried counting and is this really only our 4th Elton album? The three we've heard so far (#460, #455, and #353) were so rich, it felt more like 5 albums.
But I've got a terrible admission: I'd never even heard of this album before I saw it on the list, which made me feel ashamed. On the other hand, it's like undiscovered treasure that I get to savor and experience with full appreciation.
I looooove when Elton does anything resembling folk-country, and the title track does not disappoint in this respect. (Plus, it's a pop-rock album from 1975--what were the chances it would disappoint me in any respect?) Apparently this is a concept album, meant to detail the history of Elton and Bernie Taupin's early career and relationship together. And the lyrics of the song give a poignant beginning to the whole album's journey:
For cheap easy meals and hardly a home on the range
Too hot for the band with a desperate desire for change
We've thrown in the towel too many times
Out for the count and when we're down
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
From the end of the world to your town
And all this talk of Jesus coming back to see us
Couldn't fool us
For we were spinning out our lines walking on the wire
Hand in hand went music and the rhyme
The Captain and the Kid stepping in the ring
From here on sonny sonny sonny, it's a long and lonely climb
Uhhh, yeah. Usually I listen to each song once and give a gut reaction, but there was so much to this one I had to listen to it 3 times before moving on to "Tower of Babel." "Bitter Fingers" is a fun piano-driven rocker, and I was grooving along to "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows."
The first side ends with the classic--and only title I recognized on the original track lising--"Someone Saved My Life Tonight." I've heard this song tons on the radio and in my own music collection, and while the overall meaning of the lyrics eluded me, everyone can relate to:
Someone saved my life tonight Sugar Bear
You almost had your hooks in me, didn't you dear
You nearly had me roped and tied
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly*
Fly away, high away, bye bye
The idea of being in a toxic relationship and the relief when a good friend or wise person recommends you not to move forward with that person in life is fairly universal.
In Elton's case he was still a closeted gay man, and about to marry a woman named Linda Woodrow, and his 'sugar bear' was an English-Canadian singer named John Baldry, who advised against the marriage for his career's and personal life's sake. Linda Woodrow has later stated that she thought the desire for the marriage was mutual, and suspects that the attitude towards her came more from lyricist Bernie Taupin than Elton himself--who was living with the couple before they spilt-- but it's said that Elton was considering suicide at the time due to doubts about the marriage, so I imagine he felt similarly to Bernie's lyrics. (Not that Elton feeling suicidal is Linda's fault, but any relationship that makes you feel trapped is no good.)
But I've got to say my absolute favorite part is:
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
The conviction with which he sings "DAMMIT, listen to me goood!" gives me serious chills. If you'd asked me to guess which decade this song was released in, I would have thought at least as recently as the 80s. Something about it felt much more modern than 1975. Listening to it again for this post made me fall in love with it all over again. I definitely replayed it about 10 times. God, even just the opening piano notes...glorious.
Side 2 opens with the raucous "(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket" and then the super fun "Better Off Dead" that I listened to again and again. The percussion by Ray Cooper is a blast and it's obvious Elton enjoys playing the song. Watch him perform it in Moscow in 1979 (in HD!):
"Writing" is a sweet, breezy ode to Elton and Bernie writing songs together, and the albums ends with the building, almost psychedelic "Curtains." Bonus tracks--two by Elton's friend John Lennon ("One Day at a Time" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"--and the fun "Philadelphia Freedom" were added in the 90s, so I don't count them as tracks in this post, but they're of course excellent.
In an interview with Cameron Crowe in 2006 Elton said this about the album: "I've always thought that Captain Fantastic was probably my finest album because it wasn't commercial in any way. We did have songs such as 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight,' which is one of the best songs that Bernie and I have ever written together, but whether a song like that could be a single these days, since it's [more than] six minutes long, is questionable. Captain Fantastic was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure—or trying desperately not to be one. We lived that story." This is isn't my favorite Elton John album, but I'm certainly thrilled to have come across it and added it to my music library.
Is This Better Than Every Picture Tells A Story?: Yes. This is the new standard of excellence!
* Was this a reference to the 1969 Leonard Gershe play/1972 movie? I've always wondered.