Monday, May 27, 2019

Tumbleweed Connection

Back before he became THE biggest rock star of the 1970s – before the commercial blowout success of “Crocodile Rock” and “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets” – Elton John was a somewhat serious folk-rock artist who happened to play piano instead of guitar. Released in October 1970, Tumbleweed Connection is his third studio album and it’s perfectly in synch with the singer-songwriter movement of the new decade. 

The early 70s saw the emergence of a new trend in singer-songwriters who, arising out of the folk music world of the 60s, captivated music fans with albums that featured a compelling and intimate sound. The troubadours of the new decade included Carole King, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. Each artist had a unique way of expressing personal and revealing lyrics wrapped in a blend of folk, country, or soft-rock. 

-From Mountains High by yours truly, page 21

A concept album whose songs are generally focused on themes from the American West, the splendid conceit of Tumbleweed Connection is that neither Elton John nor his thoughtful lyricist Bernie Taupin had yet set foot in the United States. They were Englishmen whose knowledge of the Old West came from movies and from music. Taupin reflected on the inspiration behind his lyrics. 

Everybody thinks that I was influenced by Americana and by seeing America first hand, but we wrote and recorded the album before we’d even been to the States. It was totally influenced by The Band’s album, Music from Big Pink, and Robbie Robertson’s songs. I’ve always loved Americana, and I loved American Westerns. 

-liner notes, Tumbleweed Connection, 1995 reissue

Much in the same way that the Beatles had regurgitated American rhythm and blues and spit it back out with a uniquely appealing British sensibility, so also did Taupin and John present their U.K. take on the Old West, as symbolized visually by the album’s gatefold album cover, which featured the songwriters loitering at a train station. The sepia tone implies rural Americana, but the photo shoot was at Horsted Keynes railway station, approximately 30 miles south of London. Indeed, the advertisements posted on the station walls amusingly display such British products as the Daily Telegraph newspaper and Cadbury’s Chocolates. 

Interestingly, given the Old West themes, the songs themselves do not have the country & western or even the country rock feel that one might expect. The closest the music comes to Americana is on “Country Comfort” with Elton’s amazing Gospel-piano stylings, and the church revival feel of "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun." But it doesn’t matter. The quality of the songwriting is such that it transcends the need to express the lyrics in traditional C&W trappings, and Elton’s fabulous musicians contribute superb rock realizations. 

Tumbleweed Connection is best enjoyed as an Americana opera, and the inclusion of a lyrics libretto supports that idea, enabling the listener to follow along. I don’t have time to review every song but here are some standout favorites of mine. 

“Come Down in Time” 
Bernie’s wistful tale of unfulfilled love is achingly supported by the way Elton weaves his soulful voice around his lyricist’s raw vulnerability, almost like a chant with arpeggio piano underneath. When this duo first started writing together, it was unclear whether or not the partnership would succeed. Taupin’s lyrics, while filled with imagery and poetry, were perhaps too wordy for pop music, but John somehow found a way to make it work, expressing in his exquisite melodies and passionate vocals what Taupin was feeling in his soul. Has there ever been a classier song about the girl that got away? 

“Country Comfort” 
That piano! I lived and breathed each new Elton John album specifically to learn from him how to play rock piano. Elton’s gift is in two areas: his creative arpeggios, and his phrasing. It’s difficult for me to explain on paper but, like a skilled rock drummer, Elton throws in piano fills after every fourth measure that help to drive the song forward. As mentioned earlier, this song has a Gospel-style flavor that greatly influenced the way I play and compose Gospel music for liturgy. 

Ah, that arpeggio piano riff intro! Back in 1972, I learned this song specifically to play it for my friends and I became very popular at parties because of “Amoreena.” Bernie paints another lovely portrait of a young cowboy away from home, most likely on a cattle run, as he yearns for the girl he left behind. 

“Talking Old Soldiers” 
A standout track on an album of standouts, “Talking Old Soldiers” features Elton accompanying himself solo, with no other band member. A revealing dialogue between a bar patron and an old soldier, perhaps a Civil War veteran, John’s recitative approach to storytelling was unlike anything else heard on rock records at the time. This may arguably be Elton’s finest moment as a vocalist on any record he has ever recorded and, given his enormous volume of work, that’s saying a lot. His phrasing, his sincere rawness, and the poignant way he hits the high notes, especially at the end – “You’ve got your MEM-o-ries . . .” Oh, Lord! What a talent! One can almost picture that rundown bar out in the middle of nowhere with sawdust on the floor as the old soldier shares the bitterness of his life of regret. A masterpiece! 

“Burn Down the Mission” 
This is another song I learned to impress my friends at parties. The piano intro once again totally grabs your attention. And the track’s production is truly impressive, especially the way the band explodes in the middle and at the outro, which makes for an epic  end to the album. The excitement is underscored by arranger Paul Buckmaster’s symphonic orchestra, which was more understated on Tumbleweed, in comparison with the way the strings almost overwhelmed the singer’s previous album, the self-named Elton John  (the one that gave the world the iconic “Your Song.”) 

So many great songs! I do want to mention at least one more: “Love Song” by Leslie Duncan, a friend of Elton whom he generously wanted to showcase. No piano; just simply guitar, which proved to be a good counterpoint to the other songs. “Love Song” became a popular song to perform at weddings in the 1970s. 

Love is the opening door.   
Love is what we came here for. 
No one could offer you more.  
Do you know what I mean?  
Have your eyes really seen?

If you haven’t heard Tumbleweed Connection yet, I encourage you to do so. I’m a big fan of the Rocketman’s 1970s output but, after all is said and done, I think Tumbleweed is probably my favorite Elton John album. It reveals a hungry artist who was on the cusp of fame, doing everything in his power to find his voice and his place in popular music. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Perfection and the Christian Life

We are all mystified and entertained by magicians. We watch them do their tricks and we say, “That’s impossible! How did they do that??” 

And that’s what some people say about the Christian life. Consider Jesus’ challenge from Matthew 22:37: 

You shall love the Lord your God 
with all your heart, 
with all your soul, 
with all your mind, 
and with all your strength. 

And we might think, “That’s impossible! How can we do that?”

The First Greatest Commandment challenges us to make God the center of our lives. Difficult? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No, because the Christian life is not the magic act that some people make it out to be. 

The Christian life seems impossible from two points of view. First, there’s the staunch believer, someone who has tried to be good all through life, or perhaps has had an emotional conversion experience and was moved to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. The problem for such Christians is the failure to take into consideration one’s humanity: We will sometimes fail and disappoint. We will fall to sin. So the Christian life, at one time a matter of joy in finding Christ, becomes a life of guilt and disappointment in not living up to God’s and one’s own expectations. 

On the other side of the coin are the people who shy away from Jesus and anything that smacks of religion, which seems to be only for the goody-two-shoes. It means giving up all the fun and pleasurable and sinful things that one likes to do. “Make God the center of my life?” such a person might say. “Don’t make me laugh!” 

The problem lies in the perception of the Christian life as a life of perfection. If we think that being Christian means being perfect then we are doomed to failure. Like a magic trick, it’s a premise based on deception, however well intentioned. 

The idea that the Christian life is a life of perfection comes from a rigid translation and misinterpretation of Matthew 5:48, which is usually translated as "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." But if we go back to Greek, the earliest language of the New Testament, we find an alternative definition in that original Greek word teleoli:  to be COMPLETE, to be WHOLE. So the passage would be more openly understood as, "Be complete and be whole, as your heavenly Father is whole." 

What a difference! That understanding makes the Christian life more attainable because it means our relationship with Jesus is a process, a means of becoming, a lifetime of growth. It means allowing Jesus to work with me to reach my fullest potential. It means leaving room for the Holy Spirit when it comes to those aspects of my life that might seem wanting or inadequate. Or, as that popular 1970s button said: 

Please Be Patient. God Is Not Finished With Me Yet.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bodexpress: The Hero America Needs Today

I’m not into horse racing but my father was, and in his loving memory I watch the three races of the Triple Crown every year. Two weeks ago, the Kentucky Derby ended in a controversial first-ever disqualification of the wining horse. Shocking! So was the $1000 mint julep, but I digress. 

But it was last Saturday’s Preakness Stakes that had America jumping up and down in excitement. The gate opened and Bodexpress, a feisty 3-year-old colt, threw his jockey, Hall of Fame veteran John Velasquez. I was at home fixing a sandwich but the sight of the jockey sitting on the ground in disappointment made me drop my mayo knife as the race suddenly grabbed my complete attention. (Velasquez was all right, by the way.)

There was Bodexpress, unencumbered by an annoying whipping jockey, running the race riderless and scott free! Are you kidding me!? Come on, Bodexpress! 

The long-range camera showed how Bodexpress kept pace with his horse buddies. He even seemed to keep a respectful safe distance from them so as not to interfere with their race. But the close-up cameras kept bouncing back and forth between the lead horses and the riderless renegade. Meanwhile, sports bars across the nation suddenly came alive as patrons cheered loudly for the horse that had captured America’s hearts in a matter of seconds. Check out these Twitter tweets: 

Maggie: #Bodexpress is my hero! He raced his own race. 

Rick: I watched one horse the entire trip around… #Bodexpress 

TexasMonkey: It’s great! The bar erupted and everybody stopped cheering for their horse and EVERYBODY in the bar started cheering for #9 Bodexpress after he decided to make the run solo! 

Within minutes, a new Twitter hashtag emerged: #AmericasHorse. And Bodexpress earned it! 

Oh, they tried to rein him in. As you might imagine, the Pimlico Race Course staff was aghast and they dispatched an outrider to catch Bodexpress as the horses galloped around to the final stretch. But the independent colt was having none of that. He increased his speed, evaded the outrider, and even managed to beat two horses to the finish line! And then . . .  Bodexpress kept on going! He took a victory lap, running around the whole track a second time as the Pimlico crowd roared. It took the racing staff two minutes and several outriders before one of them could finally intercept the rebel and tell him, “Whoa!” I’m laughing as I type this! What a horse! 

Why did Bodexpress capture our hearts so quickly? I think there are three reasons. First, Americans are starved for good news. With so much division in politics and social policy, so many mass shootings, plus the rumblings about the looming possibility of war, we are ready for a feel good story. 

Secondly, the horse racing industry has been beset by controversy this past year, with race horses dying at an alarming rate. 24 horses have died since last December at Santa Anita alone! Something is deadly wrong and the industry is doing some serious investigating and soul searching. Bodexpress’s solo run was the ultimate equine statement. Who needs jockeys? Who needs humans? Let me be Bodexpress! Let me be horse! 

Lastly, I think everyone can relate to the idea of casting aside all our excess baggage, letting down our hair, and doing our own thing. I did it, and while my days of care free independence were exhilarating, it took me years to recover as my life settled into a new groove. (Another story that I will perhaps someday share.) But not everybody has the courage or wherewithal to go prodigal. In his renegade race, Bodexpress was running vicariously for anyone who has dreamed of being wild and free! 

So thank you, Bodexpress, for such a thrilling four minutes of elation! You are the hero that America needs today. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

7th Grade Peanut Butter Memories

Why do mundane childhood memories stay with us all our lives while the really important stuff is hard to recall? It was March 1966 and I was in 7th grade at Marina del Rey Junior High School in Mar Vista (West Los Angeles), California. It was 10:15am and time for the mid-morning break between classes. We were big kids now so they didn’t call it “Recess” anymore. We didn’t play Four-Square or Dodge Ball in the school yard as we did in grade school. Now the whole mass of us just hung out at the lunch area to shoot the bull (chat) and grab a snack. The morning break period was known by the highbrow name, “Nutrition.” 

I was a new altar boy and I served the 6:30 Mass that morning, which was still in Latin at my parish, St. Gerard Majella. “Itroibo ad altare Dei. A Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum.” Yeah, I was a public school CCD kid but I somehow got snagged into serving Mass, and my easy facility with Latin, plus my willingness to wake up early, really impressed my parish priests. After the liturgy, I quickly rode my Schwinn bike from the church to my school, which was about a twenty-minute ride in the biting chill of that early Southern California spring. But because of the Eucharistic fast (three hours at that time, I think), I did not have breakfast, and I was starved. 

I stood in line at the cafeteria and weighed my options. I only had $2.00 in my pocket and that was for lunch. I had already planned to get a hamburger, chips and milk for the Noon meal, and that cost $1.50, so I only had 50 cents to spend on Nutrition. 50 cents! What could I possibly buy for half a dollar? 

Scrambled eggs and rolls were out of my price range. The only thing I could afford was a lowly Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich. I hated PJB, but what other option did I have? I was so starved I would have been happy to suck a lemon. Reluctantly, I plunked down my two quarters, grabbed the Saran-wrapped sandwich, and found an empty seat at a lunch table. 

I unwrapped my sandwich and stared at it for a few seconds. Wheat bread. Yuck! I preferred white bread. A thick layer of peanut butter. Double yuck! My PJBs at home were just a thin spread of the peanut stuff. And a gross slab of strawberry jam on top. What had I done? I slowly took a bite and . . . wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles! It was absolutely delicious! 

I started slowly but ended up chomping quickly at the sandwich like a starving Third World child in those CARE posters. My best friend Geoff was sitting next to me and he laughed derisively. “Pig!” he said. I didn’t care. I was famished and that was the most scrumptious treat I had eaten since last Thanksgiving. Or so I thought. 

Why was Marina del Rey Junior High’s Peanut Butter Jelly Sandwich so darned good? I have tried to analyze this over the years. First, they used wheat bread while my family ate white Wonder Bread. I had no idea wheat bread tasted so good. Next, the peanut butter was generously thick, and I found out later that LA City Schools might have been using Army surplus PJ, which had a strong taste and stuck to the roof of your mouth. Lastly, the strawberry jam was equally generous, and its moist texture softened the peanut butter in a complementary way. Institutional wheat bread, PJ and jam came together in a perfect storm of ingredients that more than satisfied this hungry altar boy. I made it a point to order that PJB sandwich at least once a week. 

As I got older, I tried to recreate my junior high PJB, to no avail. Skippy peanut butter just doesn’t have the thickness or sharp taste of LA City School’s Army surplus. Safeway’s strawberry preserves pale in comparison to my Nutrition experience. And I’m still trying to find the right kind of wheat bread. I’ve come close but I have never been able to replicate the sheer delight of my 7th grade peanut butter-jelly extravaganza. I also think the Eucharistic fast and the Latin Mass are part of this joy. These are the details that make our childhood memories so vivid and unforgettable. 

The bell rang and the whole lot of us noisy middle schoolers groaned and trudged to our next class. If memory serves me correctly, I was heading toward Science with Miss Mizuti. I was the class clown and I’m sure I was thinking of wisecracks and puns that would make my classmates laugh as my teacher shook her head in exasperation. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Humility as a Path to God

One of the Christian virtues is humility. I might add, it’s also one of the forgotten and most widely ignored virtues. Being humble just doesn’t seem to cut it in this day and age. We are an overachieving, dog-eat-dog society. If we don’t put our best foot forward and really push ourselves and our causes and agendas, then somebody else will get ahead of us and succeed, leaving us behind with failure and disappointment. Yet, in the midst of this millennial angst for success, we hear the ancient and eternal words of Jesus: 

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12) 

What are we to do with this paradox? 

I think humility has a bad rap. Our stereotypical image of a humble person might be someone like Clark Kent, as he has been traditionally portrayed, with thick glasses, stuttering voice, and a clumsiness that borders on annoying. Who wants to be a nerdy geek like Kent? So much better to whip off those glasses and be Superman, performing heroic deeds for all the world to admire.

Humility was a guiding path for many of the saints. 

“Humility is truth. Therefore, in all sincerity, we must be able to look up and say, ‘I can do all things in God who strengthens me.’” 
-Saint Teresa of Calcutta 

Humility is not putting oneself down, or self-chastisement, or bowing and scraping in a way that, ironically just draws attention to oneself. Humility is recognizing the blessed individual that you are, realizing your strengths and limitations and, in the process, recognizing the gifts that others have. Humility is understanding that “God does not make junk,” as we are so fond of telling our kids. Humility is accepting yourself just as you are. 

“Holy humility confounds pride and all people of the world and all things that are in the world.”  
-Saint Francis of Assisi 

Humility has helped me deal with the temptation of pride and the lure of fleeting fame. Celebrity can be a toxic drug. Who doesn’t like to be liked? Humility helps keep me focused on the “ministry” part of music ministry. Any applause that might come my way is directed back to God. Give the glory and the honor to the Lord! For me, humility is the secret of the universe. 

Jesus, Saint Francis and Mother Teresa preached humility and lived humbly. If humility is indeed truth, then we can throw off our pretensions and masks and rejoice in who we really are. And if there is something we don’t like about ourselves, some habit or perceived weakness, humility helps us turn to God, who has given us a truly amazing gift: our capacity to grow. For when we humble ourselves and turn to God, we will be exalted.