Tiny Dancer - Elton John
After not seeing him for over 10 years, Jeremy (see November 22nd entry) popped in for supper and an overnight stay in our seaside home and, us having chewed the fat for far too long, he espied the piano in the living room and we reprised some of the old songs we used to sing together in our schooldays. Most of them were Jeremy compositions or co-compositions where I tried to be Bernie Taupin to his Elton John. Which is an apt description as Jeremy's piano style is very influenced by said Mr John, and my lyrics were.....well they were my lyrics, earnest, sanctimonious and instantly dated. But what is extraordinary, in the era of singer songwriters, Elton was the only major British exponent of this craft, and, unlike his American counterparts such as James Taylor, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Carole King he co-wrote his songs with a partner, in his case Bernie Taupin. We finished the night with "Tiny Dancer", the song we most liked to sing at school, and even (if I haven't dreamt this) sang once to a gobsmacked audience in assembly. And I still think this is the best song he ever recorded.
It may be a surprise to some people today, but for the first few years of his career, say 1971 - 1974, Elton John was cool! I mean COOL! He was gently alternative, wore laid-back specs, and at first hadn't bought into the naff glam rock thing that only Bowie and Bolan had the originality and class to get away with. His second album "Tumbleweed Connection", besides having a terrific cover, was excellent as was his 1971 hit "Your Song". But his next few singles were unsuccessful, and "Tiny Dancer" from the album "Madman Across the Water", was considered too long for release as a single, and almost disappeared as the LP bombed before John's fortunes revived with his space age hit "Rocket Man", after which all was plain sailing.
In 1978 I went up to London to see my friend Nina acting in the National Youth Theatre's Peter Terson play, "England My Own" at the Shaw Theatre on Marylebone. This was the last night after a successful though somewhat nervous run, and Nina had got me an invite to the after-show party which, she told me, was fancy dress. The play was about the leader of a barely disguised National Front, whose daughter falls in love with the head of a radical black youth group and the Romeo and Juliet style ructions that follow. The aforementioned nervousness occurred because there was talk of an NF blockade of the theatre and even a telephoned bomb threat. In the event, there weren't even any protests, but what there was, was Elton John, who was the patron of the National Youth Theatre and had kindly leant his spacious, multi-roomed London flat to the company for the after-show party. At the interval, I rushed out of the auditorium five minutes early to be sure of getting my drink, and found myself at the bar waiting to be served next to Elton himself. We were the only two there, and I felt I had to say something, so I asked him "what do you think of the play?" "Terrific" he replied "this is the second time I've seen it." I was about to agree and enter into a detailed discussion on the drama's finer points when the doors opened and out came the audience, he was engulfed and there was my chance of a great friendship gone.
It is typical of the thoughtfulness of the man that he didn't attend the party at his flat, correctly surmising that the young company would enjoy themselves much more in an atmosphere that was free from musical superstars. I wouldn't have had much time to talk to him anyway, as, for my fancy dress, I had brought along my mother's donkey outfit (see the last post) which I soon discovered, while being a terrific costume to look at, was useless for communicating with people, especially when I knew only one person in the room. The gauze nose ridge was difficult to see through - you had to get quite close up to people to make them out - and what with the costume covering the wearer from head to foot, it was bloody hot. To top it all, I couldn't drink anything and the sumptuousness of the outfit wasn't bringing me the hoped-for success with the young actresses that were everywhere. So I finally snuck off to change and re-enter the land of the living. The bathrooms were all full, so I fumbled my way upstairs in search of an empty bedroom. There were loads so I chose one at random, and entered leaving the light off so I wouldn't be surprised midchange. I was just about to remove the donkey's head when, beneath and perhaps accompanying the party music, I became aware of rhythmic heavy breathing as though someone was doing press ups very close to my ear. Instinctively realising that this might be a bad time to take the head off after all, I put the Eeyore nose down low to see what was happening below, and at the moment I glimpsed the male and female lead naked on the bed, she with her white, long legs and ankles linking behind his black, slender back, the air was split by a high pitched scream followed by a grunted "shit". Romeo shushed his Juliet, and I, reverting to the trusted "Uncle Donkey" persona, nodded affably at them both before slowly loping my way to the door and closing it softly behind me, whereupon I legged it speedily to another room for the quickest change of my life.
Beside the epic construction, the steel guitar, and Paul Buckmaster's balanced string arrangements, the song has a rare thing, a kind of centre, an apex, a combination of the sound of the words and tune, that transcends the moment of listening, when he sings:
"Jesus freaks out in the street
handing tickets out for God,
looking back, she just laughs,
the boulevard is not that bad....."
It was a good party but, having made Nina swear not to give away my donkey alter ego, I mostly kept a low profile. For the rest of the night, until well into the small hours, I would glimpse the lead looking suspiciously around the assembled company or, between tracks, hear him demand petulantly "Who the fuck was the dude in the donkey outfit?"