When I first started listening to the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album (No. 57), I was still at the point where every song was a true song about something.
Sure, maybe I didn’t know what was true about “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but at least I knew that there was a real place called Strawberry Fields, and I could justify the thought that maybe the rest of the song was a puzzle that I had yet to unlock.
I knew that “Puff the Magic Dragon” was about drugs, for crying out loud.
(For the record, I don’t know whether I agree with the assertion. But I am amused by the existence of the assertion.)
And not every song HAD TO be a true song. I understood the role of fantasy in music, whether in a musical or a fantasy song. An example of how this logic fit in my world at the time: “Eleanor Rigby” was real, or it could be, or it was real enough. “Rocket Man” is clearly science fiction.
I know I thought the song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was Elton John’s kiss-off to the music industry, and I made the mistake of saying that to a few people (who didn’t call me on it, nor did they make any kind of noise when it was shown how wholly wrong I was).
The “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album helped form a lot of my sensibilities about epic efforts. By that time, I was already aware of things like “Fragile” (No. 25), “Led Zeppelin IV” (No. 11), “Machine Head” (No. 16) and even “Dark Side of the Moon” (No. 13). But those struck me as works someone else had determined were epic. Yes, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were my elders, not my peers. (Which is curious, because they were only a few years older than Elton John, whom I considered “mine.”)
Alice Cooper was another group I considered “mine.” (Again, for whatever inexplicable reason. If I figure it out, I promise I’ll write an explanation later.) “Billion Dollar Babies” (No. 33) also shaped my frame for epic albums.
A friend whose taste in music I always respected but often didn’t understand raved about the song “Roy Rogers” from the final side of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” To me, the song always stopped the album. I came to use it as breathing space setting the stage for the finale. But I never cared for the song.
(In fact, I just now went to play the song, and it’s not on my 5,400-song “long faves” list. There were 54 other Elton John songs.)
I attributed part of it to my friend’s fascination with and fandom and appreciation of Rogers. He was part of that kid-cowboy culture that had faded in the few years of difference between our childhoods. Sure, I had a brief cowboy period, but by the time I was making up my own mind about my career fantasies, I was either a ballplayer or a musician. My cowboy period was barely shorter than my astronaut period, which was brought to an abrupt halt as soon as I realized how smart and well-conditioned those guys had to be, and I was never going to be either.
“Roy Rogers” infuriated me. Ponderously paced, in 6/8 time, with a weepingly annoying steel guitar, and its outright sincerity with such a bullshit sentiment – furious. “No way,” I’d mutter angrily at the Elton John poster on my wall, “do you actually believe you want to go back to that time that never existed in the first place, and live there instead of here. No way. You’re not that stupid.”
And maybe it’s the waves of nostalgia I’m finally feeling (or the waves being shoved down my senses in a multi-media and multi-platform attack), or maybe it’s acquiring enough experience to see another possibility for the song.
Maybe it was Elton John’s vision of what someone else’s reverie would be like. Perhaps lyricist Bernie Taupin was painting a story about his parents, or himself if he’d decided to let his thoughts go fully in that yearningly nostalgic direction.
But it didn’t HAVE TO be true. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, or that there isn’t truth in it. It just doesn’t have to be true of writer and singer. Not every piece someone writes is achingly self-confessional.
My friend was also right about the quality of Elvis Costello’s “Town Cryer.” But that’s another story.