Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Forty Years On
Elton John’s Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy was nearly twenty years old by the time I was born, but that certainly has never made it irrelevant. Arguably the most personal album in Elton John and Bernie Taupin's repertoire, Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy pulled back the curtain and provided a behind-the-scenes look at the beginnings of the famous song-writing duo. Despite the fact of it being John’s ninth studio album, it is the first time fans were able to hear a raw, uncensored look at Elton John before he became the mega-pop star we know.
Rather than being a collection of mini-memoirs about love, lust, and heartbreak, the album is auto-biographical for both John and Taupin, detailing their pasts and the struggles they endured as young musicians. We’re introduced to eponymous characters immediately in the title song—Elton, of course, being Captain Fantastic and Bernie the Brown Dirt Cowboy.
There are two key details established in the title song. First, the contrast between John as Captain Fantastic and Taupin as the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Elton John was quoted on his website stating:
Every lyric on Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy was about Bernie and me […] I ended up being Captain Fantastic and he ended up the Brown Dirt Cowboy: Here, I’m living my fabulous lifestyle, collecting paintings, and Bernie is interested in horses and bull riding and shit like that. We became those characters.
The second idea we see formed on this track is the hardship of kicking off their musical career together. The song poses the question: “Are there chances in life for little Dirt Cowboys / Should I make my way out of my home in the woods” which is clearly a reflection on the undying doubt they felt starting their careers.
The song ends with three lines that not only sum up the duo taking their first steps together as partners, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the album: "Hand in hand went music and the rhyme / The Captain and the Kid stepping in the ring / From here on sonny sonny sonny, it's a long and lonely climb.”
The Captain and Kid, the music and rhyme. All synonymous for John and Taupin.
One theme heard throughout the album is the notion that certain people aren’t fit for the rest of society. Following our introduction to the Captain and the Kid, we hear “Tower of Babel” which solemnly states: "See the letches crawl / With the call girls under the table / Watch them dig their graves / 'Cause Jesus don't save the guys / In the tower of Babel”. Here, the duo recognizes the lack of space for debauchery in society, though it's seemingly the only group they where they fit in.
Side one of the album ends with John's (arguably) most emotional, personal song, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight". The song details a time in the late sixties when John was engaged to his girlfriend; doubting the marriage, he was highly suicidal at the time. The 'someone' referenced in the song is John's friend Long John Baldry, who aided him during this rough period. The famous chorus outlines how John was ultimately saved by this 'someone', whilst abandoning his plans for marriage:
And someone saved my life tonight sugar bear
You almost had your hooks in me didn't you dear
You nearly had me roped and tied
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
The feeling of release and the omission of pain felt throughout the ballad makes it John's most transparent piece—a peek not only into his relationship of the time, but a very honest depiction of his state of being.
The album is more than a semi-autobiographical look into Elton John's past; the range of songs on the album is a display of his vast musical talents. Side two, for instance, starts with a song titled "(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket", which is a clear story of his beginnings as a struggling musician, demonstrated by lyrics like:
Do yourself a favor, the meal ticket does the rest.
My personal favorite from the album, and perhaps the greatest example of John's ability to experiment with his sound, is the track "Better Off Dead". The song illustrates street scenes, made up of people similar to the young artist singing, and once again references the idea that society has no place for creative and "unusual" individuals. The scenes he describes exemplify outcasts and their struggles:
Well they've locked up their daughters and they battened the hatches
They always could find us but they never could catch us
Through the grease streaked window of an all night cafe
We watched the arrested get taken away
And that cigarette haze has ecology beat
As the whores and the drunks file in from the street
Musically, the song is very drum-focused and sounds almost like a march to war. Presumably, this is a representation of an artists' fight to find his place in a society that makes very little room for him. John's forceful instrumentals alongside Taupin's strong, defiant lyrics make "Better Off Dead" the most powerful track on the entire album:
'Cause the steam's in the boiler, the coal's in the fire
If you ask how I am, then I'll just say inspired
If the thorn of a rose, is the thorn in your side
Then you're better off dead, if you haven't yet died
The remainder of the album pays homage to John's own craft and personal journey to stardom. Songs like "Writing" and "We All Fall in Love Sometimes" are what make Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy feel so intimate.
The album was later reissued in the nineties, laced with bonus tracks, like covers of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "One Day at a Time", both a tribute to John Lennon and The Beatles and their influence on Elton John's own musical career. "Philadelphia Freedom" was also included on these reissued albums; a song written as tribute to John's close friend Billie Jean King.
The last track on the album comes in a little over six minutes and is titled "Curtains". Rather than a retelling of an earlier time, like the rest of the album seems to be, "Curtains" is instead a reflection back at John and Taupin's younger selves; their successes and their failures:
I used to know this old scarecrow
He was my song
My joy and sorrow
Cast alone between the furrows
Of a field no longer sown by anyone
I held a dandelion
That said the time had come
To leave upon the wind
Not to return
When summer burned the earth again
Cultivate the freshest flower
This garden ever grew
Beneath these branches
I once wrote
Such childish words for you
But that's okay
There's treasure children always seek to find
And just like us
You must have had
Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy was released in May of 1975 and, deservingly, remained number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart for seven weeks. It remains one of the most real and candid albums by Elton John and Bernie Taupin and has failed to lose its relevance since it was released 42 years ago. It was, and still is, a deeply personal look at Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy themselves.