Anyway, I checked out Captain Fantastic not because it was Elton John, but because the cover was so awesome. Although I hadn't yet been exposed to Hieronymus Bosch, the cover must have been influenced by the paintings of the 15th century artist. When I studied art in college I remember looking at The Garden of Earthy Delights and immediately thinking of Captain Fantastic.
Like Bosch, the cover to Captain Fantastic is filled with other-worldly creatures: birdmen, naked bodies, giant fish, men carrying large timepieces, creatures pooping gold. The only thing missing from the Elton cover is a man playing a flute out of his ass.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy came out in an era when album art mattered and bands spent a great deal of time and energy making the album art part of the entire experience. The packaging was almost as important as the contents. First, the introduction of compact discs diminished album art importance and the evolution to digital completely killed this time-honored tradition. The art of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy could never be shrunk to a small lcd screen. Indeed, an album like Captain Fantastic would not even be produced today.
I listened to the album when I brought it home and stared at those images while the music played on the turntable. I was entranced. The album is amazing. This is not an album of hits; Captain Fantastic only produced one single: "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." That song is, by far, my favorite Elton John song---perhaps because of that moment back in the 70s when I truly began listening to music.
It was Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy that opened my eyes--and ears--to music beyond the trope that was being played on the radio. Captain Fantastic taught me that albums matter. Songs played in order mean something. There is a reason why "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" finishes side one. You have to stop and turn the album over, the last lines and bars of the music still echoing in your head:
I never realized the passing hours of evening showersI haven't heard Captain Fantastic in its entirety in years. A couple of weeks ago, I was in a used record store and came across a nice copy of the album and I was instantly transported to that time back in the 70s when I fished the album out of the bin at the library for the first time. I bought it and soon the black disc was spinning on my turntable. It was like I was a kid again, feeling the same emotions I felt when I first heard the album in another time, another age.
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
Dammit listen to me good
I'm sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank God my music's still alive
Although the album is a concept album chronicling the early musical lives of Elton John (Captain Fantastic) and Bernie Taupin (Brown Dirt Cowboy), it spoke to me like nothing had spoken to me before. It's lyrics are still powerful, thirty-five years later.
The first song, "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" has a great melody and sets up the album nicely, but it was the second song that stopped me cold. Infused with religious imagery that I did not understand as a 10 year old kid, "Tower of Babel" is a powerful rumination on life and meaning---perhaps more so now that I am closing in on my 45th birthday:
Snow, cement and ivory young towersWow. I can't remember the last time I heard that song. I am sure the lyrics didn't mean then what they mean to me now. That's the wonder of life and art---interpreting meaning through different lenses and experiences and eras. As one who didn't necessarily feel like I fit in at the time, there was plenty in Captain Fantastic to give my adolescent feelings legitimacy. Now, as a grown man those feelings are somewhat nostalgic, yet the lyrics now seem more mature...more wise.
Someone called us Babylon
Those hungry hunters
Tracking down the hours
But where were all your shoulders when we cried
Were the darlings on the sideline
Dreaming up such cherished lies
To whisper in your ear before you die
There are songs on this album about suicide ("Someone Saved My Life Tonight"), love ("We All Fall in Love Sometimes"), the record business ("Tower of Babel," "Bitter Fingers"), and success and failure ("Writing," "(Gotta Get) A Meal Ticket," "Better Off Dead").
The album ends with the hauntingly beautiful "Curtains," which is about death and the mark one has made on the world:
Cultivate the freshest flowerWhen I started buying compact discs, I never revisited Captain Fantastic. The copy I taped from the library long gone, Captain Fantastic was a mere fragment of a memory until I found it once again. The copy that I bought from the used record store even had an original poster from the album. I want to frame it and place it on the wall behind my bed.
This garden ever grew
Beneath these branches
I once wrote such childish words for you
But that's okay
There's treasure children always seek to find
And just like us
You must have had
A once upon a time
I hope my wife doesn't mind.