by Dia Hampton:
In May of 1975, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy album was released in the US. Within four days it sold more than one million copies and in less than a week hit #1 on the Billboard 200 before quickly turning gold.
Elton John performs at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California (1975)
I was only ten years old at the time, but already a raving Elton John fan and primed for his latest and greatest. The year before, my twenty-something hippie aunt turned me onto British Blues by passing down some of her favorite 45’s. Overnight, my bubble-gum taste for The Monkees and David Cassidy was imbued and replaced by Cream, Clapton, and Ten Years After. (Yeah, I know…I was a tad precocious.) For months, I relentlessly hounded my mom to buy me the Captain Fantastic album and she finally caved by Christmas. Surely the album’s provocative cover art elaborately depicting The Garden of Earthly Delights had nothing to do with her reluctance.
Original Captain Fantastic Album Cover (Front & Back)
Original inside cover photos
To this day, I remember spying that gift under the tree and spending the rest of the morning on the floor in our den, my head sandwiched between two-foot tall stereo speakers. This record obviously deserved more than the tinny-sounding portable player in my bedroom upstairs. The entire LP was a fantastical ride that not only included the album, but a poster and two booklets aptly dubbed “Lyrics” and “Scraps,” (see below) a seductive collage of song lyrics, snapshots, journal entries, editorials and cartoons of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin.
After one spin, I was officially obsessed and soon memorized every song by heart. Despite my young and innocent age, I was restless and intuitively connected with the album’s themes of sex, drugs, and suicide, perhaps foreseeing the troubled rollercoaster of my teenage and adult years to come.
Captain Fantastic was Elton’s ninth recorded album that chronicled his tumultuous musical career and legendary relationship with Bernie Taupin, fanning from the late 60’s as green and struggling songwriters through the glorified glam-dram of their 1970’s heyday. The album unfolds chronologically like chapters of an unputdownable best-seller, each song offering an intimate panorama of significant phases throughout their musical journey.
Side One begins with “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” a bluesy, jazzy tune that bounces with a soft rock/country sound, revealing the tenacity Elton (Captain Fantastic) and Bernie (Brown Dirt Cowboy) shared during their early climb to stardom:
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.
No doubt about it. This dynamic duo had arrived in electrifying Technicolor, and their destiny would go down in history.
Elton John & Bernie Taupin in London, UK (1970)
Next up, “Tower of Babel,” is one of my all-time favorites that never fails to kick me to the core. Proverbial condemnation is far from obscure in this track: “Sodom meet Gomorrah/Cane meet Abel” bestows powerful smacks of sin adding innuendo to Elton’s hidden homosexuality. The lyrics are heavily infused with motifs and nuanced color using slang words for heroin and speed (“snow” “cement” “junk” “angel”) that juxtapose a divine light against the dark underworld of Elton’s drug addiction. The chorus: “Watch them dig their graves/’Cause Jesus don’t save the guys/In the tower of Babel,” presents a grim, funereal feel. These mournful lyrics lend an ominous voice that reveals a medieval atmosphere; one can easily envision an abandoned English castle teeming with an orgy of junkies.
Take a listen to this YouTube rendition complete with nostalgic headshots of Elton’s earlier years:
Third track, “Bitter Fingers,” offers a slow intro that lingers on Elton and Bernie’s continued struggles breaking into the music business. The title encompasses their frustrations (albeit “Bitter Fingers”) in the late 60’s writing lyrics for a London record company who sold their songs to second-rate bands. Simple, melodic chords combined with vehement lyrics offer a palpable lens into the grind of churning out song after song without marketable success.
It’s hard to write a song with bitter fingers,
So much to prove so few to tell you why,
Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing
At the keyboard player’s hollow haunted eyes.
It seems to me a change is really needed
I’m sick of tra-la-las and la-de-das.
No more long days hacking hunks of garbage
Bitter fingers never swung on swinging stars.
Their resentment is punctuated by Alan Aldridge’s “Bitter Fingers” illustration:
Fourth track “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” maneuvers Side One along with Elton’s deep, raspy inflection portraying Bernie’s disillusionment as a “long lost and lonely boy” adrift in the rock star lifestyle who, deep down, is “just a black sheep” longing for his idyllic country roots back home.
SOMEONE SAVED MY LIFE TONIGHT
Side One concludes with the epic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a graphic autobiographical ballad of Elton’s suicide attempt before marrying his girlfriend. He did not love her, he loved men, and was desperate enough to end his life in order to escape his seemingly hopeless situation. It was Bernie who found Elton with his head resting on a pillow beside a gas oven, kitchen windows wide open. A far-fetched stab at suicide indeed, Bernie initially laughed. But he also realized how deeply tormented Elton was and later wrote the dark, candid lyrics for his dearest friend—a song that captured Elton’s deep sense of desolation without overstepping on morbidity.
Released as a single in June 1975, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was an instant and enduring hit that clocked at nearly seven minutes long; an inconceivable length for a single in that era. Despite requests for a shorter radio version, Elton refused to cut it. “Saved in time, thank God [his] music’s still alive.” His piano playing hammers a beautiful but haunting aura of sorrow that connects to the song’s theme while the background drums add emotional impact to the underlying mood. Sure, the lyrics are heavy but you can’t help but empathize with Elton’s cry for help. His depression and drug addiction. His pain from feeling trapped, “roped and tied, altar-bound, hypnotized” in a loveless marriage compounded by his shame (“a slip noose hanging in [his] darkest dreams”) of secretly being gay. The freedom he seeks through ending his life is poignantly evoked by butterflies that are “free to fly, fly away, high away bye bye.” It’s clearly heart wrenching.
Take a listen. I chose this video as it highlights intimate phases of Elton’s musical career:
Side Two, “Gotta Get A Meal Ticket,” presents an upbeat, tap-your-feet tune that embodies Elton and Bernie’s experience after signing their first record deal. Their excitement is soon replaced with reality after realizing how heartless the music business can be. “Better Off Dead” is a solid piece with drums in the forefront combined with pounding keys, lending an edgy sound. The song’s lyrics “you’re better off dead if you haven’t yet died,” epitomizes the sleazy aspects of the music industry while still fueling the album’s broody, somber ambiance of death.
Next track, “Writing,” subtly pivots to a slow, soft melody contemplating Elton and Bernie’s prolific songwriting. Their process? Mind-blowing and “always half and half.” Bernie wrote lyrics in one room before handing them off to Elton who composed the music in another. Each song was typically complete in under an hour. This arrangement continued for over four decades resulting in a collaboration of over thirty albums together; a true testament to their extraordinary partnership.
By this point in the album, the harmony is lighter and one senses a sigh of relief from Elton who’s no longer suicidal but likes “life enough to see it through.”
The album’s grand finale is literally two songs in one. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” flows flawlessly into “Curtains,” drawing out a ten-minute-long climax. Elton’s expert keys echo like raindrops that “crackled on the speakers and trickled down the sleepy subway trains.” These last tracks bring us full circle by further exploring the span of their relationship from the early days when their “simple tunes” were “naïve and childish” to nearly a decade later when they are world-renowned musicians. An undeniable love story that was destined to be. The music here is ethereal, and the three-minute-long refrain of Elton’s “ooooohhhhh’s” is dominated by drum rolls creating a melancholy yet sublime presence reminiscent of a nostalgic fairytale. The fairytale of their remarkable friendship.
Check out this live version from Madison Square Garden in 2005. If you listen to the end, you’ll hear Elton call out, “I love you, Bernie!” If only everyone could experience a love as powerful as theirs:
ROCKETMAN STILL SAVING LIVES TODAY
Flash forward to today and Elton John is still Fucking-Fantastic, creating influential wave after wave throughout the rock pop culture. His Captain Fantastic album is a masterpiece and has been my go-to for over forty years, no matter what my mood. Lucky for me I still have the original album and accompanying memorabilia as displayed in this post, and as someone who suffers from mental health issues, his music has undoubtedly saved my life more than once.
Elton with actor Taron Egerton (2019)
For anyone who doesn’t know Elton’s detailed history, check out Rocketman. a 2019 biographical musical starring Taron Egerton who won a Golden Globe Award for his spectacular and authentic performance. The movie is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Hulu.
No question, Elton John has saved someone else’s life just by inviting us in to experience his.
For more on Elton John, visit his website
Elton John's U.S. debut at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, California (1970)