One of the first records I remember hearing was Elton John’s Greatest Hits — the one with him in that white suit, staring back at me from the album cover. Being 10 years old at the time, I was just discovering my musical taste buds. “Crocodile Rock” was yummy.
The only consolation about just missing the classic late ’60s/ early ’70s era of rock ’n’ roll is that I’ve been able to rediscover it. I did that with the Who and the Stones in college, devouring everything they did. Lately, it’s been Elton John — who’s playing here at the Spokane Arena Friday with some of his original band members. If you’re going, all I can say is … Lucky!
What’s odd is that my favorite Elton John record today didn’t land a single track on Greatest Hits. For me, all his early albums are great, but Tumbleweed Connection (1970) is the essence of Elton — before the glammy glasses and being knighted by the Queen.
It’s one of those rare records that reaches the heights of great literature on the power of John’s impeccable sound and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. The most remarkable thing about Elton John is that the genius of his music comes from a partnership. Most of his lyrics have been written by Taupin; they started collaborating when they answered the same musician-wanted ad in London in 1967.
Taupin came from the country, and he always had a fascination with the rural American experience; Tumbleweed Connection is a series of vignettes about old soldiers, farmers, outlaws and men desperate to save their families. The lyrics — more evocative than literal — are powered by American roots music, mining the same vein that the Band and the Grateful Dead were working at the time. It’s a genre that’s still kicking today in the music of Ray LaMontagne and Wilco.
Our own stories of the pioneers are so familiar, we may not see them quite the same way a young Brit on a Lincolnshire farm did in his daydreams. But Tumbleweed Connection should be somewhere in the discussion with Zane Grey novels and John Ford movies when it comes to the great monuments of the West. (The song “Indian Sunset,” from Elton John’s next record, Madman Across the Water (1971), is also worthy of a mention as an epic rumination on the fate of Indians in the Old West.)
Elton John has given us great music over the years, and Friday’s concert will celebrate that. But he and Bernie Taupin also created some truly great art along the way.
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.