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CapFantasticCover

Today I set the Wayback Machine for 1975: The Summer of Elton.

I turned 15 that summer and for my birthday I received a copy of Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which had been released in May. It became a large part of my soundtrack that year. It was, of course a vinyl album. This morning I loaded the digital equivalent—a huge batch of 1s and 0s that, through some magic of technology, became music—onto my iPod. And through another magic, this one of the imagination, I was transported back 42 years.

Elton John was huge that summer. Time magazine put him on its cover when Captain Fantastic came out. The album was a collection of autobiographical songs about the time when Elton (“just someone his mother might know”) and lyricist Bernie Taupin worked as struggling songwriters. It debuted at number 1 and stayed on the top of the charts for weeks. Its only single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” was ubiquitous on the radio. Elton played the Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell’s film version of the Who’s Tommy that summer, and his version of the song got a lot of airplay, too. He was, in the words of another 1970s icon, kind of a big deal.

I can’t recall when I became a fan. My best friend, Bill, was one before I was. He owned Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and one day he came over to the house with his brand-new copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It was a double album and a big investment at the time. I remember being somewhat shocked by it—“Jamaica Jerk-off” seemed kind of dirty and the illustration for “All the Young Girls Like Alice” a little daring. Bill was always a little more risky in his musical tastes than I was. He liked Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad, and he told me how horrified his parents were when they saw the cover of Edgar Winter’s They Only Come out at Night. I was pretty conservative—Chicago and Steely Dan were more in my line.

My family had Elton John’s Greatest Hits, but Captain Fantastic was probably the first Elton album I owned. It came with a lyrics booklet; another booklet called “Scraps” that included photos, clippings and a comic outlining the careers of Elton and Taupin; and a fold-out of the album cover art.

Ah, yes, that album cover. There was a lot going on with that cover, all kinds of strange creatures and semi-human figures. Amid all the grotesques there was some kind of naked bird-faced women, with bare breasts and pubic hair. And below that was what appears to be a broken pot taking a shit. Here’s the official explanation from Eltonjohn.com:

CaptFan1“The album cover art by Alan Aldridge features images of Elton, Bernie and the band (animated elements of the artwork were used in a 30-second television commercial celebrating the release of the album). The front panel shows Elton breaking out of a dangerously dreary cityscape astride his piano while the back of the cover shows Bernie writing in a somewhat protected pastoral bubble. Keen-eyed fans can also identify Elton’s first music publisher Dick James and Bernie’s then-wife Maxine in the intricate illustration. Even more subtle is a visual reference to the This Record Company, one of Elton’s early record labels, which constructed their unofficial slogan, ‘Turning shit into hits…’ out of anagrams of the word ‘this.’”

Needless to say, there was plenty going on in that cover to amuse, titillate and baffle a 15-year-old.

I no longer have the copy I got for my birthday. I think I sold it when I had to jettison possessions before relocating from California to Maine after college. That’s a shame, because the album cover still bore the indentation of something I wrote when I had the sheet of paper on top of it. I sometimes thought of playing detective by placing a white sheet of paper over the cover and carefully rubbing the side of a pencil back and forth until I could read what I had written back in 1975. But I never did and now it will forever remain a mystery. I don’t think it’s much of a loss.

I had lost interest in Elton by college, anyway. After Captain Fantastic he began the long, slow decline that led to The Lion King. He ditched the band he had used for his biggest albums and things just weren’t the same. He’s still a big tour attraction but he’s not the big deal he used to be. In 2006 he released a sequel to Captain Fantastic, called The Captain and the Kid.  I’ve listened to it on Youtube and it seems fine. A friend burned me a copy of the album Elton did a few years ago with Leon Russell. I thought it was okay, but nothing to write a blog post about. Times have changed. In today’s fragmented pop-culture marketplace, can any artist capture the public attention the way Elton did in the 1970s, or the Beatles a decade before? I doubt it.

Because Elton was huge back then. He had a lot of hit singles, but was also known for his outrageous glasses and flamboyant costumes on stage. I thought the glasses could be pretty funny, but I wasn’t so wild about the pictures I saw of his campy live performances. Maybe it was amusing when he dressed up like Donald Duck, but to my 15-year-old self the antics just undercut the music. It was only rock and roll, but I didn’t want to laugh at it. Any gay subtext just passed right over my head (Elton wouldn’t come out for a few more years). To me, the onstage antics just seemed a little silly. They embarrassed me a bit. When you’re 15, it’s easy to get embarrassed.

A few years ago I heard an interview with Elton on the radio. I was impressed with how self-aware he seemed. He admitted that it had taken him a long time to grow up, that he had been self-absorbed and immature into his 40s. He said he was essentially jolted into maturity after he got to know Ryan White, the teenager from Indiana who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and eventually died from the disease. White had been thrust into the spotlight when his high school refused to let him attend classes because of his illness. After I listened to the interview, I had a renewed respect for Elton John.

He also talked about the ways the recording industry had changed. At one point he had been the biggest star on the planet; now he couldn’t even be sure if any of the surviving record stores would stock his latest releases. In this context, writing songs for Disney made sense, although I still found it hard to accept that they guy who did “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” also wrote the songs for The Lion King. But I’m willing to let it go.

When I played Captain Fantastic this morning, though, it was 1975 all over again. The acoustic guitar that opens the title track immediately shot me 42 years into the past. It was the summer of my first, sort-of, girlfriend, a relationship that took place largely over the telephone. It was a summer of bikes. My friends and I rode our bikes everywhere—all over town, and sometimes to the next towns over. It was a summer of comic books, swimming and boating on Lake Cobbossee, and “One of These Nights” by the Eagles.

It was also the summer of Jaws. The movie was also kind of a big deal back then. I saw it several times that summer and devoured two books about it, The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb (one of the script writers) and The Making of the Movie Jaws by Edith Blake. I still have both of them, and my copy of The Jaws Log contains newspaper clippings I cut out about the movie and sharks. I bought the single of the movie theme and later splurged to get the entire soundtrack album.

That summer my family went on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where Jaws was filmed. We could see the decaying hulk of Quint’s boat, the Orca, on the edge of Menemsha Harbor, so my brother and I rented a small sailboat and paid it a visit. This was the “sinking” Orca, the one used when Sheriff Brody has his final face-off with the big fish. We sailed out, climbed aboard, and took some pictures. I understand that the boat was later taken onto dry land and allowed to rot away. Outrageous! Now only the memories remain.

Sirius Radio recently reminded me of another relic from 1975, the hit single “Mr. Jaws.” This was one of those “break-in” records, where a narrator asks questions and the answers come in the form of snippets inserted from current hit songs. (Example: Q. “Mr. Jaws, before you swim out to see, is there anything else you would like to say?” A. [War] “Why can’t we be friends?”) It is, in a word, terrible, but the single managed to swim its way up the Billboard charts all the way to number three. People at the time found it funny. I find it encouraging that, in a mere 42 years, we have evolved as a species to a point beyond this.

There’s another bright side. When he recorded his classic comedy album A Star Is Bought in 1975, Albert Brooks used records like “Mr. Jaws” as inspiration for his own “Party from Outer Space.” Brooks recorded the album, he said, in an attempt to get airplay on every possible radio format. He aimed “Party from Outer Space” at the AM dial. In an attempt to save money on royalties, though, he decided not to use snippets from real records. He just made them up. Now that’s funny.