Thursday, June 13, 2013

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

When I was a kid, I used to check out record albums from the public library.  I was perusing the LP bins one day and came across Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  At the time I was perhaps 10 years old and knew nothing about Elton John, other than the crazy outfits and sunglasses he wore.  I think my first introduction to Elton was via the sitcom, One Day at a Time (I had a slight crush on Valerie Bertinelli).  In one particular episode, the two Romano sisters, played by Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips, do a routine in a variety show dressed as Elton John and Kiki Dee singing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."  That song I knew, as it was played ad nauseum on the radio at the time.

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 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
Dammit listen to me good
I'm sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank God my music's still alive
I 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.

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 towers
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
Wow.  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.

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 flower
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
When 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.

I hope my wife doesn't mind.


  1. Awesome - my experience with this album is the same as yours. That cover mesmerized me!

  2. This album defined my early teen years. It absolutely blew my mind, and continues to this day. It is the only one I have played in its entirety in two decades. It is my favorite EJ album and album in general. Thanks for this wonderful post! Jim Bowers, editor,

  3. I am a little older than you, Bruce, but like Austin, our experiences are very much the same. The one difference is related to flipping the album over. I probably wore out the grooves on side one. :)

    This album is excellent and gets better with each listen. As you said, I related to the lyrics so differently now than then. Bitter Fingers has been an anthem at different points in my life.

  4. In my opinion that was the last truly great album Elton John ever produced. From 1970 to 1975 he almost did no wrong.

    1. to me, madman and honky are near classics. don't shoot me, yellow brick road and capt. fantastic are classics. i agree this was his last truly great album.

  5. Thanks for your work -- cheers and best regards.

  6. Just watched the Movie Captain Fantastic along with Elton John's image in the back of my mind. Can't wait to hear the album echo in our home this afternoon. Thanks Bruce

  7. you might need to cover up the bird headed naked lady and the pooping gold; other than that your wife shouldn't mind.

  8. Captian Fantastic and Bosch the little birdmen created by both Bosch little Birdman carring what looks like a a spear or pike and marching along of the treemans hat

  9. "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
    Dammit listen to me good
    I'm sleeping with myself tonight
    Saved in time, thank God my music's still alive"

    Music saved my life. Thanks for that.

  10. I believe the same artist designed the White Album cover. Talk about range.I agree it was the last classic Elton album. My favorite being Tumbleweed connection. The first side of Madman was their finest hour.

  11. wow. great commentaries by everyone. funny, i heard it in a library too for the first time. anyway, can you believe the genius of bernie taupin? Reg's (elton's) music arrangement and playing is one thing, but how can somebody actually pen 'where were all you shoulder's when we cried', 'sat on the roof and kicked off some moss'. I mean, this guy is incredible. I read a comment by Taupin that said he just quickly wrote down visions in his mind and they became the lyrics, that song like Grey Seal were just imagery transposed to paper.
    In any case, Bernie should someday explain himself...
    A big fan

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