Saturday, October 05, 2013

Lessons Learned Along the Yellow Brick Road

I suppose many people think of Princess Diana and her death in 1997 when they hear "Candle in the Wind," even if they hear the version that was released on Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album 40 years ago today.

It just seemed so perfect for Diana, a remarkable yet fragile individual whose death truly shocked the world. All John had to do was rewrite a few lyrics, and the tribute was complete.

In fact, you really had to be familiar with John's recording history to know that it was a recycled song. I don't think "Candle in the Wind" was a hit on that album so who would remember it nearly a quarter of a century later — other than those who bought the album in the early '70s?

There were quite a few of those. It's possible that Diana was among them. The double album went gold within a month of its release — for a double album, that was no mean feat — and, in the intervening years, it has been certified platinum several times over.

But it did so mostly on the strength of three hit singles — "Bennie and the Jets," "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Other songs on the album were modest hits, I guess, but those were the big three.

When most people think of that time in John's career, I guess they think most often of his version of "Pinball Wizard," which was featured in the 1975 movie based on The Who's rock opera, "Tommy."

The soundtrack for that movie was quite popular, and John's contribution was one of the hit singles from it. He didn't write it, of course, but he performed it. I remember hearing it on the radio practically constantly for weeks.

But that album was still two years in the future when John released "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

Or maybe they think of "Rocket Man," which was on a different album.

My initial memory of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is different than it is for most people, I am sure.

I was a child when it came out and hadn't even heard of it until one night when I went with my mother to visit a family friend, the son of one of her best friends. He was suffering from a brain tumor (his cancer later went into remission, then returned and, eventually, killed him). Anyway, he was at home, apparently between stays in the hospital, and we went by for a visit.

Mom instructed me to get him alone while she chatted with her friend and find out what we could give him as a get–well present so that is what I set out to do.

I knew I couldn't ask him straight out, that I had to be sneaky so I just started chatting with him. He had a lot of records in his room, and I asked him if there was a record he didn't have that he wanted — and he mentioned "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

As I say, I had never heard of it, knew nothing about it — but, before I could ask any questions, he told me it was a double album.

And I was convinced that Mom would never buy it. Double albums were a really big deal in those days. I was convinced that Mom wouldn't spend what I thought was a small fortune on a double album.

But she did.

In hindsight, that probably should have been a hint as to just how serious his condition really was. But I was a child, and my exposure to death was still limited. I guess I didn't believe anyone close to my age could die. I know, it's ridiculous.

When you're young, I guess, you really don't understand these things.