Thursday, February 17, 2022

Top 40 Entry 1/1/72: Elton John - "Levon"

Elton John — “Levon”. Uni 55314. Top 40 debut: 1/1/72. Peak date: 2/5/72. Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Produced by Gus Dudgeon. B-side: “Goodbye.” LP: Madman Across the Water. Charts: Billboard Hot 100 (#24).

The Elton John we saw before us at the end of 1971 was a complex case: An explosive live performer devoid of leading man looks; a demonstrative pianist whose pop chart track record showcased reflective ballads; a musical purveyor of earth-toned frontier Americana while dressing up for gigs in tights, gold lamé and battery-powered accessories. Those are just a few of his contradictions, and there’s more, but all of them only strengthened the popular appetite for him.

The fruitful collaboration between John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin kept consumers well fed. The music poured out, filling up three studio albums, a soundtrack LP, numerous non-album tracks, and a live album all between 1969 and 1971. The Madman Across the Water album, with its title implication, blue denim cover and the antique photos in the gatefold booklet, kept the Americana vibe alive, as did “Levon,” its leadoff single. It was a song about a war vet, son of one Alvin Tostig, who kept the lucrative family balloon business going, and whose quirkily named son Jesus, a rocket man at heart, fantasized about breaking free and flying to Venus.

Although lyricist Bernie Taupin told Rolling Stone magazine that he’d only intended to tell the story of a “guy who wants to get away from his father’s hold over him,” he was underselling the richness of meaning in the symbols he chose. “War wounds” evoked Vietnam and so much more, “Jesus” tapped into one of pop music’s favorite preoccupations of the day, and the balloons signified the escapism and whimsey of childhood, another of the era's topical biggies. So yes, there was a generation gap meaning at heart, but one rife with the metaphorical tools of independent interpretation. (Taupin and John had previously treated that dad theme in a number called “In My Old Man’s Shoes,” the UK B-side for “Your Song.”)

My favorite personal reading of "Levon" involves the transformative nature of Jesus as a concept, His flexibility as an icon in different parties’ hands. This gets fuel from the lyrical bit about the New York Times declaring “God is dead,” because many listeners, in fact, from the standpoint of the early seventies Jesus revival, remembered the provocative 1966 Time magazine cover asking, “Is God dead?” People can get a tad testy about this sort of thing, which is certainly why Taupin attempted to clear the air.

As for the song title, Taupin surely latched on to the contemporary Americanism of The Band’s southern-drawled singer-vocalist Levon Helm. His given name was memorable enough (or perhaps he was just so vain) that he thought the song was about him. One word in “Levon” glares, though, and that’s John’s first-syllable British emphasis in “garage,” but only because it disclosed his non-American pedigree, which no one really begrudged. Listen to Mary McCready’s 1974 version of the song, though (one that John had declared to be better than his own), and you’ll hear her singing that word like a proper American. Come to think of it, perhaps the two songwriters didn’t realize that naming your kid “Jesus,” as in hay-SOOS, was more of a Mexican-American thing, and maybe John misappropriated that one too.

Musically, “Levon” surged with additional invitations to give it meaning, namely Elton John’s elegaic piano and the movie magic orchestration by Paul Buckmaster. The Madman Across the Water album, in fact, laid those solemn cinematics thick by leading off with “Tiny Dancer” and following right up with “Levon.” These were two sister songs that stirred one’s soul in similar ways. “Tiny Dancer,” dedicated to Bernie Taupin’s girlfriend Maxine Feibelman, likely fell short of the top 40 (peaking at #41) as the follow-up 45 due to its perceived over-familiarity. Both songs would enjoy long lives, though, as FM album rock staples, with "Tiny Dancer" racking up bonuses for its singalong sequence in Almost Famous (2000). In his autobiography, John explains why so few of his future albums swelled with the strings of Paul Buckmaster: He washed his hands of rock’s favorite arranger when he spilled an inkpot on a stack of notations just before the Madman sessions were to begin. “An expensive mistake,” writes Sir Elton.

The Madman Across the Water album is notable for two more things worth mentioning here: 1) It contained a song called “All the Nasties,” in which concerns about the artist in question's sexuality get assessed out in the open; and 2) so distinct was the album chart position discrepancy between the UK (#41) and the US (#8), that Elton John decided to base himself in the US—and to focus his efforts there—for good. “Levon” was the surging singer-songwriter’s third Top 40 hit, after “Your Song” (#8) and “Friends” (#34). “Rocket Man” was next, so the way from here was up.

Side A: "Levon"

Side B: "Goodbye"

No comments:

Post a Comment