Reading Me:Elton John Official Autobiography has drawn me back to a time and a place, and the demise of this great rock ‘n roll album.
The time was the early 1970s. The place was the dining room of our turn-of-the-century Dutch colonial house on Carlisle Ave. That’s where the seven of us lived in a balance between goodnatured chaos and palpable friction. In the dining room was a large table, the hutch, the never-played piano, the sewing machine, and the record player. Our ironing board and a laundry basket of needed-to-be-folded clothes often held court there too.
I would lay on the floor and listen to my older siblings’ albums. In 1973 when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came out, I turned 9 and had three older siblings who were 16, 15, and 13. They bought the albums that weren’t jazz or Rosemary Clooney.
I would lie close to the record player so I could move the needle over the songs I didn’t like as much rendering it impossible to fold any laundry. In my hand were the album liner notes so I could follow the lyrics, most of which were over my head because they were written by British men and not my demographic.
We – actually my oldest sister Colleen – owned both of Elton’s 1973 albums: Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Don’t Shoot Me featured
Daniel and Crocodile Rock, Elderberry Wine, Blues for Baby and Me, and the best album liner notes ever created. It was a booklet with the lyrics and cool pictures of Elton and the band. The Don’t Shoot Me album cover was laid out like a movie poster. Something about the song Daniel moved my 9-year-old self in a deep way. It gave me a sense of love and loss that I hadn’t yet experienced. And in Crododile Rock when Susie went and left him for some foreign guy, I was pretty bummed.
Elton was a big deal for a while in our house. When Someone Saved My Life Tonight was released, I was one of a few 10-year-olds singing “you almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear, you nearly had me roped and tied..” Not all the adults were thrilled about it but I understood the meaning on only a superficial level. It was comparable to the innuendo in some of the TV shows we watched: Love, American Style or Hollywood Squares. Just like I understood Paul Lynde was charming and funny, I knew Elton John’s songs were telling a story. I didn’t get what I wasn’t meant to get.
But back to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; it was a double album and I loved the first one. We all did. Especially my dad. My dad played songs he liked repetitively and repeatedly tediously. It was frequently troublesome because any of his five children could be called upon at anytime to pull up the needle on the record player to restart the song. And even a good song played ad nauseam is irritating. (Ask any of us about Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder album.)
My dad eventually commandeered Yellow Brick Road. And as much as my dad loved it, my mom did not. “John, stop playing that song about the prostitute around the kids!” she lamented when Sweet Painted Lady took its turn at being overplayed.
No song pleased him more than Bennie and the Jets. B-b-b-bennie! When I hear that song and tell my kids or friends that my dad loved that song, doesn’t convey the obsession properly.
So picture this: the fateful afternoon in that dining room when Colleen, attempting to sew yet another fantastic ’70s fashion statement, clashed with the PBR-laden Bennie and the Jets maniac. He played the song so many times in a row that my sister, frustrated that her sewing puzzle wasn’t fitting, got up and removed the vinyl from the turn table and smashed it over the vacuum cleaner. Smithereens. And silence.
It was over. For that album anyway. There were still more songs for him to ruin. He hadn’t discovered Billie Joe’s Stranger yet. Or Manhattan Transfer’s Brasil. The songs are countless. And every time he overplayed a song, it was like my dad was was saying, “I’m still standing.” (Better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid.)