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"Captain Fantastic: Elton John's Stellar Trip Through the '70s" by Tom Doyle

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BOOK REVIEW: Captain Fantastic: Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the ‘70s by Tom Doyle (Ballantine Books) 2017

In 1976, when English singer/pianist and global superstar Elton John, along with his mother Sheila, had the opportunity to meet Elvis Presley, backstage, at a concert “The King of Rock n’ Roll” was performing in Maryland.

Upon meeting Elvis, the mother and son were shocked by what they saw. “The King” was beyond portly. He was, as rock music writer Tom Doyle writes in his new book Captain Fantastic, “(H)e had gone to fat: a ballooned phantom in a garish white, gold, and lilac suit. Black hair dye dropped down his forehead.”

It was an eye-opening moment for Elton John, who, like Presley two decades earlier, had rapidly risen to fame, following a few years in utter obscurity. Beloved and with records selling in the millions around the world.

And while Elvis had gotten just about everything he wanted, Elton thought he looked miserable.

“Elton looked into the eyes of the King and felt there was ‘nothing there,’” writes Doyle of the experience. Elton and his mother would watch the show, riveted by the sheer spectacle of what they saw. Sheila Dwight, Elton’s mother, thought Elvis looked so bad that he would be dead in six months. As it turned out, Elton notes, “it was a year.”

Ironically, Elton John – like Elvis – was touring nonstop, drinking and taking drugs and struggling with weight issues and his gay identity, which by this time was no longer hidden. His onstage (and private) demeanor and moods were all over the place and what Doyle notes is that in this point in Elton John’s career where the “uncomfortable truths” of the Elvis encounter provided “parallels for Elton.”

Fortunately, Elton John – then 29 - tells Doyle that part of what got him through those highs and lows was by not taking himself too seriously. But Elton, the author writes, knew that his meeting with Elvis was “a warning” and that if he didn’t make changes in his life “he could easily go the same way.”

But Elton Hercules John (born Reginald Dwight, native of the town of Pinner in England) has always been a fighter – and a lover, for that matter. It comes through in his songs and his passions and his desire to be, essentially, a “people-pleaser,” but on his own terms and not in an ingratiating way.

Doyle, who writes for British music magazines Mojo and Q, is an acclaimed rock writer ( he penned Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970’s in 2014) and that conversational, easy-to-read-and-understand style he has developed over many years comes through in Captain Fantastic.

Born into a middle-class English family in 1947, young “Reg,” as he was called, recalls one of his first memories of being at a piano.

He took right to it at an early age and, despite his uptight father’s protestations, the man who would become Elton John just lived and breathed music through childhood and leading up into adulthood (becoming quite the avid record collector), and finding a fairly steady role in a white, soul and R&B band called Bluesology, where he played organ and played in support of American soul artists of the 1960’s, from Major Lance to Patti LaBelle.

Doyle’s story of Elton’s life takes us through those heady years in the 1960’s, when a rather naïve young man was living a rock n’ roll lifestyle of tours around Britain and parts of Europe. It was during these years that the man behind the piano met the man who would write his biggest hits – Bernie Taupin. They would forge an unbreakable, brotherly bond, beginning in the autumn of 1967, that would last them to this very day.

We learn of Elton’s awkward years before fully become who we know today, when he nearly married a young woman, before a friend and blues musician, the openly-gay Long John Baldry (from whom the “John” in Elton John  comes from) intervened and warned the ambiguously gay piano man to not tie the knot, unlike, say, glam-rock guitarist Marc Bolan, later of T. Rex, who was gay, in all likelihood – and married.

It is Elton’s arrival in America in 1970, after recording some singer-songwriter pop in England, while developing a forceful, fun, onstage persona, that really seals the deal for both critics and the record-buying public in the immediate years, who marvel at his obvious talent and his ability to make magic out of Taupin’s lyrics.

And by the time he is recording what would be 1972’s Honky Chateau, and the release of “Rocket Man,” a song “filled with alienation and a sense of sad adventure,” Elton managed to excite the public – and even NASA, who tied the song to their Apollo 16 launch and even invited Elton, Taupin and the Elton John Band and entourage to Houston for a fun-filled visit. As Doyle notes, though, David Bowie was “apparently livid” about the song, which was too close lyrically and in style to his 1969 song (re-released in 1973) “Space Oddity” and featured the same producer. Bowie and Elton John would forever have a rocky friendship, while both becoming musical, gay icons. 

The records would get wilder, as would the recording process, with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road recording process in Jamaica being a druggy haze, while managing – with bassist Dee Murray, guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson – creating a masterful record featuring some of Elton John’s biggest hits, from the straight-up rocking of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” to the beautiful balladry of “Candle in the Wind.”

Doyle takes you there to the studio, or to his various homes or aboard his tour plane, where the lines of coke were endless and the whiskey seemed to flow endlessly (except for that time in New Zealand, where Elton John’s manager/lover, John Reid, ended up in jail for assaulting someone who failed to provide the whiskey as requested). And then there are Elton's trademark, outrageous costumes. He was one of a kind!

The book is really a wild ride (the mid-70’s recording projects at Caribou Ranch in Colorado – built, allegedly on an “Indian burial ground” and resulting in weird numbers like “I Have Seen the Saucers”) including his love for the British Royal Family, the Watford Football Club, and for being a bit catty at times towards his contemporaries, from McCartney to Mick Jagger to, well, Bowie. But through it all – some of which Elton admits he has long forgotten – he seems to be having the time of his life, even if some bad records were recorded over the years. But he became friends with former Beatle John Lennon, even become godfather to John and Yoko's son Sean and would briefly bring Lennon out of retirement, with "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" and a Madison Square Garden appearance on Thanksgiving of 1974 - which would sadly be Lennon's last live performance. 

And in the midst of this hedonistic decade, there is Elton meeting Elvis. It’s one of the most interesting parts of Captain Fantastic, because it’s that point where “Reg from Pinner,” who loved Elvis as a kid, had that moment of clarity (with his mother by his side) and realized that his idol wasn’t quite what he thought he was. That he was human too and was a bit lost and trying to bury the hidden pain.

And while Elton John had his own demons to face and struggles of all sorts, he would survive the ‘70s – and far beyond – turning 70 years old just a couple of weeks ago. 

Yeah, Elton John, through it all, has been pretty fantastic. And Tom Doyle really gives us a peek into that wild decade when Elton John was at the peak of his musical powers.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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