Shavawn Berry on Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released October 5, 1973
I was thirteen-years-old when Yellow Brick Road was released.
I remember heading out to get it. Heart palpitations. Sweaty palms. I had it bad in those days. I couldn’t wait to hear it. My cousin and I talked about it for days, mapping out each movement after school on the day of its release, in order to get to the store before it “sold out,” which we were certain it would do. Exactly five weeks’ prior I’d seen Elton John in concert for the first time. I saved my babysitting money (50 cents an hour doesn’t add up to much) for weeks to afford it. Price: $7.99 + tax.
As I walked into the record store, all I could think about was grabbing the album, getting back to the city bus stop, and popping it onto my stereo the moment I got home. I saw it, displayed in several long rows on the wall. Elton. My breath caught in my throat. The cover showed a drawing of EJ stepping into a “portal” on a wall, wearing pink platforms, a lilac bomber jacket with his name on the back, and white pants. In the center of the cover, a pale purple bird crossed a lemon-washed sky. A tiny wind-up piano sat on the scuffed up street at the base of the sign. Across the top of the cover it simply said, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
Grabbing the first one I could reach, I headed to the front counter, handed the cashier $9.00 in crumpled one dollar bills and waited for my change. He bagged the album – the double album – in a brown paper bag, carefully folding the top shut. Hurry up. I ran all the way to the bus stop two blocks away on Magnolia, making it just before the next bus came. As soon as I dropped the 10 cent bus fare in the box and sat down in the back seat, I broke the seal on the cellophane wrapping, and scoured its cover and liner notes, then turned my attention to the words of the songs. One after another, I read the lyrics, running my finger under the titles: "Love Lies Bleeding," "Candle in the Wind," "Bennie and the Jets," "Dirty Little Girl," "Harmony…"
Arriving home half an hour later, I went straight to my room, shut my door, opened my stereo, took disc one out of its white protective cover, put it on the spindle and hit play. The album dropped to the turn table, and the first eerie chords of "Funeral for a Friend" started. The opening (which I’d heard just once on the radio a few days before) was a long piano solo that gradually got faster and faster and faster until it hit a crescendo of synthesizer chords which eventually lead into the distinctive opening of "Love Lies Bleeding" and the first sound of Elton’s vocals. I sat in my room, knees tucked under my chin, listening intently, fingers absently tracing the album’s back cover. First side one, then two, three, and finally four.
By the second song, tears filled my eyes. As I heard the luminous "Candle in the Wind" for the first time, I wondered whether anything better would ever be written about Marilyn Monroe. "Candle in the Wind" perfectly captured a school-boy crush on an iconic movie star, whose fame literally devoured her. “Goodbye Norma Jean, from the young man in the 22nd row, who saw you as something more than sexual, more than just our Marilyn Monroe…” I wiped my face on my sleeve. At the time of its release, Monroe had only been gone for ten years.
The signature chord progression that opened "Bennie" felt infectious, joyful. A smile spread across my face. I wanted “electric boots, a mohair suit,” just like her. And as Elton stammered “B-b-b-b-b-b-Bennie and Jets,” the music danced, embracing me. By the end of side two ("I’ve Seen That Movie Too") I was completely smitten. I skipped dinner, opting instead for a diet of side three, followed by the frothy dessert of side four. When the album finally wound down, ending with the plaintive vocal in "Harmony," I was convinced that Elton John was a rock god. I sat, writing his name in pen, on my thigh. I felt a rush of pure love, amazement, joy.
I’m sure my cousin and I exchanged gushing letters to each other that very night with our own heightened o-mi-god-i-love-it sort of reviews.
Ironically, when I revisit the songs on GYBR now, I realize there is a certain “kind” of woman being chronicled. In "Bennie and the Jets," she’s “weird and wonderful,” but mostly she’s “a dirty little girl,” a whore, a lesbian, a broken starlet, or a biker’s sister, with “a handful of grease in her hair.” Taupin’s lyrics also shadow imaginary gangsters ("The Ballad of Danny Bailey") and legendary cowboys ("Roy Rogers"). Later, they troll in the aisle of tawdry sex or the promise of it ("Jamaica Jerk Off"; "All the Young Girls Love Alice"; "Dirty Little Girl"; "Social Disease"). There are fightin’ words ("Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin’") tucked in-between the solitary beauty of "This Song Has No Title," "Grey Seal," and "Harmony." Even so, I love these songs. I love the dark lives that live in them. These songs became the soundtrack to my life. What I adored about the songs on Yellow Brick Road is the stories they tell about the sometimes numinous, sometimes lurid carnival the world can be. My home life fell apart during the 70s. My parents’ implosion as a couple and their subsequent divorce was ugly, acrimonious. All I had during those years was the promise that once a year I’d see Elton on tour, and there’d be a new album every six months to drown out my often pervasive sadness. Somehow, Elton’s woven into the thread and warp of what makes me, me. His music is like the marrow in my bones. “Tell me, Grey Seal, how does it feel to be so wise? To see through eyes that only see what’s real?”
Almost forty years later, the songs (and the arrangements) stand up. They sound as good to me now as they did in eighth grade. Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics for all 17 songs on the album (with the exception of "Grey Seal") in two and a half weeks; Elton John wrote the music in three days, mostly at the Chateau in France where all the recording took place. Even to me, the absolute connoisseur of all things Elton, that is astonishing. The record –brilliantly crafted and produced by E’s longtime producer, Gus Dudgeon – seems strangely magical. It has an other-worldly quality that art that is “channeled” has. I often wonder where the inspiration came from.
As I did with all my Elton albums, I wore Yellow Brick Road out. The album I bought that fateful October day in 1973 did eventually end up on the Goodwill pile. However, I still have it on both tape and CD. It’s a record that I never get tired of. Even if I don’t listen to it for a year or two, when I return to it, I know every word, every turn, every chord. At the time of its release, a snarky reviewer in Rolling Stone gave the album an “unfavorable” review. Thirty years later, that same magazine ranked Yellow Brick Road number 91 on its list of the 500 greatest albums ever made. It rated even higher in 2009 on Britain’s Channel 4 list: #59 in the top 100 albums ever made. It is, in fact, Elton’s best selling studio album of all time, selling over 31 million copies.
I’ve been a quintessential Elton fan for four decades. I’ve seen him in concert on two different continents (North America, Europe), in three different countries (the U.S., Canada, England), and in seven different cities (Seattle, Vancouver, London, New York, East Rutherford (NJ), Las Vegas, and Phoenix). All told: 17 times. I met him backstage at Drury Lane Theatre in London’s West End, on my 19th birthday, where he gave me a kiss on the mouth and autographed a page of my diary. He dedicated a song to me at the end of his stint in London that week, singing “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” to, “Shavawn. She’s from America and she’s been here for several nights,” while I wept in the front row.
In lots of ways, Yellow Brick Road, was the record that cemented my relationship with Elton John’s music. I got hooked in 1972 on Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player. I fell head over heels in ’71 when I heard "Tiny Dancer" for the first time on my brother’s copy of Madman Across the Water (another favorite), but Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the album that catapulted me into what later became nearly twenty years working as a musician and songwriter first in Seattle and then in New York City. My love for what I considered “a good song lyric” shaped the songwriter/writer/ poet I became. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road changed my life. Truly, it changed my life.
Shavawn M. Berry received her Master of Professional Writing degree (MPW) in 1998 from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she specialized in Creative Nonfiction and Memoir. Her work has appeared in Poet Lore, Westview - A Journal of Western Oklahoma, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Concho River Review, North Atlantic Review, Synapse, Living Buddhism, The World Tribune, addictionsolutions.com, Blue Mountain Arts/SPS, and Poetry Seattle, to name just a few. She has been teaching writing at full time at Arizona State University since 2004. Ms. Berry was one of just four recipients of the Pedagogical Best Practices Writing Programs Teaching Award at ASU in both 2008 and 2009.