A Once Upon a Time

A while back, I told the story of the only thing I wanted for Christmas in 1974Elton John’s Greatest Hits. It marked the beginning of a year of Eltonmania, not just for me but for much of the civilized world, as Elton enjoyed a period of cultural ubiquity like nothing since the 1964 Beatles. His ubiquity was only different and not new, though. By the spring of 1975, Elton John had been a fixture on the radio for a couple of years. His dominance was remarkable. Over a period of 173 weeks, between December 9, 1972, when “Crocodile Rock” spent its first week on the Hot 100, and April 3, 1976, the final week for “I Feel Like a Bullet,” Elton failed to appear on the Hot 100 in only two weeks. (They were the weeks of July 21 and 28, 1973, after “Daniel” had dropped out and before “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” charted.)

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” took Elton from 1974 into 1975 before falling off the Hot 100 for the week of March 8, 1975. It was replaced by “Philadelphia Freedom,” about which I was completely crazy. (Performance on Soul Train here.) From the first time I heard it, I craved hearing it again, and I’d quite literally run to the radio and crank it up whenever it came on. Within a month, it was Number One. Oddly enough, I didn’t buy the single, although my brother did; I was waiting for the album. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy came out in late May 1975, a couple of weeks before school got out.

But Captain Fantastic did not include “Philadelphia Freedom,” and I can remember listening to it for the first time on the big console stereo in the living room with a sense of disappointment, because I had just spent $5.98 or $6.98 or whatever it was and I still didn’t have my favorite song. But it didn’t take long for the album to ingratiate itself with me. The album package was totally over the top, with an elaborately illustrated book of lyrics, another booklet of memorabilia that included a comic-strip biography of Elton, and a poster of the album cover that adorned my bedroom wall until I moved away from home for good, five years later. I’d never heard any music as ornate and interesting, and I listened to it obsessively.

There was one song that bothered me, though—the album closer, “Curtains.” The album was autobiographical, and for that reason, “Curtains” sounded like a farewell. Of course, Elton didn’t retire. He scarcely waited a reasonable interval to release another album, Rock of the Westies, which came out only 5 1/2 months later.) But eventually, “Curtains” became my favorite song on the album.

The lyric contains the usual degree of Taupinesque opacity, but as reminiscent poetry goes, it ain’t bad. It dropped into just as my freshman year in high school was ending. I had always been reluctant to let academic years slip away—always preferring the life I had to the one implied by the fact of change—so I latched onto the words about time and memory almost immediately, and I’ve never let them go.

I held a dandelion
That said the time had come
To leave upon the wind
Not to return
When summer burned the earth again

And even then—when I was but 15 years old—I must have recognized that I would forever be looking back.

Cultivate the freshest flower
This garden ever grew
Beneath these branches
I once wrote such childish words for you
But that’s OK
There’s treasure children always seek to find
And just like us
You must have had
A once upon a time

All of this is delivered at a slow, portentous tempo, building tension that explodes on the lines “and just like us/You must have had a once upon a time,” which gives it an emotional wallop unmatched by anything else in Elton John’s catalog. Three years later, I would borrow those lines for the end of the speech I gave at my high-school graduation.

I’ve bought Captain Fantastic twice more since the spring of 1975, once on CD in its original configuration and again in a deluxe edition which includes “Philadelphia Freedom” (and “Lucy in the Sky” and other rarities from the period), as well as a second disc featuring a live performance of the entire album, recorded in July 1975. And if you asked me to pick a single favorite album of all time, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy would be the one.

“Curtains” from the 1975 live show is a remarkably intense performance that features all the drama of the original version, and it includes a coda (not heard on the original) that rocks the hell out. It’s below.

“Curtains” (live 1975)/Elton John (wma file; buy the deluxe Captain Fantastic here)

6 thoughts on “A Once Upon a Time

  1. Willie

    The title cut from Captain Fantastic was a favorite of mine. Too bad it didn’t get any commercial airplay. It did at WSUP, though. Ah, how I miss the album rock format. Classic rock is good, but fails to explore an artist’s hidden gems. All hail A/R!

  2. Shark

    My favorite song form “Captain Fantastic” was “Meal Ticket,” a song that got some airplay on an automated Top 40 station called D93. When “Captain Fantastic” first became available on compact disc, I got it right away.

  3. Yah Shure

    The local MCA rep gave me several Captain Fantastic “coasters,” the punched-out label center remains from the album’s defective initial pressing. They’re nice, but not as much fun as my college radio friend’s Bally Capt. Fantastic pinball machine.

    My Elton LPs had sat pretty much undisturbed on the shelf for the last couple of decades until I listened to them all two weeks ago. The biggest surprise was how unfamiliar ‘Captain Fantastic’ was after all that time. Aside from “Someone Saved…” and the title track, nothing jogged the memory until “Curtains” came on. Loved it then, loved it again. Thanks for sharing that great live version.

  4. Chuck

    I remember “Meal Ticket” getting some airplay on WYCR (York/Hanover, Pa.) during the summer of ’75, too, though that station was Top 40 rather than AOR. But then, Elton was super hot and just about everything he touched got airplay … “Pinball Wizard,” “Bad Blood” with Neil Sedaka, etc.

  5. You mentioned “Rock of the Westies”, wasn’t that one of the albums Elton recorded at the Caribou Ranch owned by then Chicago producer/manager, Jimmy Guercio? I know Elton’s aptly titled “Caribou” album was recorded there, but I thought he recorded another album there as well… I think it was “Rock of the Westies”

  6. Pingback: TVD Class of ’75 | Elton John "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"

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