An astute critic I know recently reminisced about the particular genius of Elton John’s 1975 album “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” and it sent me reeling back through what is easily the peak artistic achievement of John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin. Sure the album was a hit (the first LP to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart) but the scale of John’s eventual career — writing the very consumer-driven treacle he disparages on this album — has somewhat overshadowed its majestic legacy. A snobbish question: Does it take a writer to truly appreciate this album about writing?
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was the first 45 I owned. Sinking into the brown shag pile of my bedroom, I spun the thing on my plastic Playskool turntable and experienced my own candlelit “Almost Famous”-intro awakening. How this came to be in my possession at age 5, I don’t know (“It’s four o’clock in the morning, damnit” — giggle!); the song’s tale of escaping a destructive relationship isn’t exactly toddler fare. Certain lyrics, though, still resonate all the way back to that original dawn — “perched in her electric chair” was likely my first confounding metaphor, the cutting irony of the “Sugar Bear” pet name no doubt escaped me, and I believe my initial experiences listening to the record actually occurred on muggy nights with the curtains drawn in my little downstairs room. I mostly remember being captivated by the sound of the recording itself — that big room at Caribou Ranch, those drums thundering, the piano echoing. I would reconnect to that years later when hearing Joe Jackson’s “Body and Soul” album, recorded in a similarly cavernous Masonic lodge.
The rest of the album came to me later, as an aspiring writer. “Someone Saved,” the album’s only single, is about dumping someone — for artistic reasons (thoroughly rationalized as they are). “Captain Fantastic” triumphs because it’s a concept album about writing. The tale of John’s and Taupin’s late-’60s struggles as songwriters reverberates through any scribe’s bones, from the petulant demands of editors in “Bitter Fingers” (“Are you working?!”) to the plainly titled zenith of “Writing,” an almost Taoist paean to the wonders of daily life as both happy distractions and as “inspiration for navigation of our newfound craft.” Throughout the tune, the electric piano wavers from right to left as if the stereo pan itself is a metaphor for the pair’s productive, “always half and half” relationship. The joyous celebration as they “instigate the structure of another line or two” leads to the song’s final statement, a marriage vow between craft and life — “’Cause writing’s lighting up, and I like life enough to see it through” — which John affirms by repeating it twice more.
It’s an autobiographical text that never gets too self-indulgent (granted, “Someone Saved” is pretty melodramatic). It could have been a stunning stage musical, tailor-made for a smart book threading the songs together. Of all the garbage Broadway has adapted — and to which John himself has more recently contributed, all that ’90s “sentimental, tear-inducing” baloney — “Captain Fantastic” coulda been a great show.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.