#158: Elton John, "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" (1975)

158 Captain Fantastic.jpg

I like to imagine that I am a “good music listener” in the fact that I enjoy listening to entire albums. As I have gotten older, I have fallen into the mp3 trap—obviously with the rise of iTunes, we’ve gotten to the point where the importance lies in the singles. I have always been a lover of pop music, even when I tried to keep it a secret during my punk and hardcore phase. I would always find myself enjoying the tracks that had “pop” elements to them more than the straight up noise crunch of typical late-90s post-punk. As I grew older, I recognized that instead of listening to D.C. bands do bad impersonations of pop music, I should just go directly to the source, where the true joy was to be found. Favorite bands of my youth still drop critically acclaimed albums, and yet I find myself preferring to listen to Selena Gomez tracks out of sequence.

I mention this, because the first thing you need to know about Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy is that it is a concept album—when we use the term, we tend to think of something fictional: a massive opus, a rock opera where all of the songs fit some semblance of a theme. When we talk about Captain Fantastic we use this term as well, although it is agreed that the entire album is highly autobiographical; a series of songs that document the early careers of both Elton John and his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. It is fictional in the sense that Elton John brings a certain mythos to this album: even the “fantastical” album art is meant to evoke images of bombast—a caricature of Elton in a top hat, sitting on a piano while various odd Bosch-like creatures look on in adoration. It is also fictional in the way that any extended conceit is fictional; Taupin’s lyrics have always been poetic and metaphorical in nature—he himself refers to him as a poet as well as a lyricist; there is some semblance of legitimacy when referring to one’s self as a “writer” or “poet” rather than simply a “songwriter”—perhaps it provides some graveness to the work; it is a statement that the words themselves can exist on their own, rather than utilizing the lushness of pop orchestrals as a crutch to hold everything upright.

However, if this is our only definition of what a concept album is and should be, it would seem as if any and all albums are, in fact, “concept albums”—if there is no need for fiction, and an extended conceit and/or poetic language is allowed, then literally every album ever crafted is a type of “concept” album. Even an album that seems completely disjointed, with sonic changes, and widely varying lyrical content is still held together by the fact that it has been sequenced and crafted by a set of musicians which lend it some cohesion. One could argue that the only thing that does not resemble a concept album is a compilation of sorts, but quite often most compilations do surround themselves to a common theme: songs all about Christmas, for example, or songs crafted specifically for use in a film soundtrack. Nothing recorded is autonomous from anything else—we exist entirely in sequence: all music exists in tandem with something else.

There is something beautiful in this idea: our lives are made up of so many different moments—birthday parties and sporting events, heartbreaks and triumphs. It is silly to think of any of these massive upswings or downswings as their own islands. I was recounting to my wife as well as my boss (two different conversations, though linked in their subject matter) that my life feels “quieter” now—that something happened between the chaos of last year and the rebirth of this year. In some ways, I feel like I have gotten off a losing streak—here in Alabama, we turned an election; our football team won a championship thanks to an unforeseen gamble. The soundtrack, in many ways, has evened out—although these events were not as seemingly out of the blue as they appeared. I know firsthand how many doors were knocked on in Tuscaloosa County in an attempt to get out the vote. I know that there is a fail safe plan in place for the Crimson Tide offense in case things get stagnant. These bright spots did not burst forward without precedent: an orchestra swells instead of bleats.

A story: during the year of loudness, I got married. The most important things to my wife and I were to make sure that our friends who spent their hard-earned money to come to Tuscaloosa had an incredible time. Therefore, our priorities came in the form of Old Fashioneds and set lists. I had a dilemma in that I am a DJ, but it would be impossible for me to throw a dance party at my own wedding. Instead, I created a playlist—I anticipated the time it would take to walk down the aisle, the songs that would play as the wedding planner flipped the room for dinner and dancing, and finally made sure that all of the important hits would be played before the sparklers were lit and we left the evening behind. Before I knew that I would be writing this essay, I had a conversation with my mother about what song she wanted to dance to—it was an example of first thought, best thought; she suggested Elton John’s “Your Song,” not knowing it was a sentimental favorite of mine, dating back to my college years where everything was downloaded on Napster—all songs singles. The song was sequenced in on that day; in between the Motown and Whitney Houston—and yet still, it belonged to that moment—a variation on a theme; a song that always meant to be there. Later, still, while listening to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a song I originally thought to be about a suicide attempt is actually about escaping a wedding—Elton John breaking off an engagement as he sorted out his own sexuality. This, ironic. This, too, in sequence.

“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” was the only thing that resembled a radio single off of Captain Fantastic. A seemingly other definition of a concept album typically means that all of the songs are not meant to be digested individually—instead we are meant to listen to everything as a whole in order to understand the scope of the story. However, when the story being told is autobiographical, we are taught to hold onto those moments of brightness; even an album full of repeat spin singles is still a cohesive unit—they are tied together by the sheer existence of the artist and the desire to will this music into being.

This is all to say that there are no coincidences in this world. As an essayist, it is in my nature to find patterns in the world—not just within the physical world, but also in my own ephemeral space; to tie my own personal memories and my own autobiography to quirks and quips in order to make whatever story it is that I want to tell more tangible. I am constantly looking for ways to synthesize my emotions—to attach them to something real to make myself even more real. Kanye West samples “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” in “Good Morning,” a song that is forever stuck in my head, and brings a vision of walking in the Alabama heat to campus, as I pass an apartment complex that my future wife will one day live in; the album art of Graduation involves a bear.

A quote from Elton John, reminiscing about Captain Fantastic:

“The album was written in running order—from start to finish, it was a story—and at that point, the bravest album I'd made.”

We too are living our bravest life. We too believe in stories—of how they start, and how they finish. The true marvel is in how it all manages to come together in curious ways; how, somehow, we find ourselves in tune with all that comes before us and all that comes after.

—Brian Oliu