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15 Nov 2013

Claude Bernardin Rides Again........ (Part One)

“A Tremendous Leap Of Faith”: The Diving Board, The New Album by Elton John Review by Author, Artist - Claude W. Bernardin, 11/10/13 

A determinedly devout fan of the music of the 1970’s, I was a young witness to the talents and rise from total obscurity of Rock Legend Elton John. It was the singer-songwriter Era, and of all the albums a young teenager could buy, I was always saving my best for the next album by Elton. The guy churned them out non-stop for five years, every six months a new studio album to hold and cherish. The Music ripped, it shone, it even glowed….Not one performer could catch his tail winds, he was a barnstormer alright, and you either caught that train, or it left you eating his dust. 

I loved every aspect of the Glamor, the glitz, the melodies, the electricity of it all. The lyrics were my own Poetry, I owned them, poured over them. The Liner notes, I used to use a magnifying glass and read every word over and over again. By the time 1974’s Captain Fantastic came out, we were buying two and three copies of each album, one to play, one to never open, one to plaster a bedroom walls with. 

But the dream had to end. It came to a screeching mind numbing stop in the Fall of 1976, for reasons a million times over we all know well. Sadly, the late 70’s and 1980’s would be troubling times for a fan of this guy. We fans stood by him, as much as could humanly be expected, but it’s hard to admit you like a gay guy in a Donald Duck suit singing “Crocodile Rock” now isn’t? But we did! 

By 1995, The Legend was kind of faded, for me. The World had just granted him a Hit in “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and The Disney Film, “The Lion King. But I was beginning to struggle with the music. It just didn’t have the same salt and pepper that I’d grown up with. What was even worse I had just met the man in Columbus, Ohio. He was pleasant, vibrant, caring, thoughtful…and all I wanted to say was….”Dude….What’s with the music? What’s going on these days? Your albums are like roller coaster rides of Highs and lows….” But I couldn’t muster it. He was a complete gentleman, and I was in awe. That day he and I shared some very nice pleasantries. One particular conversation focused on my favorite song of his, “Talking Old Soldier”. I soon realized we shared a similar love for the song. At this particular moment, having just published a book entitled, “Rocket Man: The Music of Elton John from A to Z” I hardly saw myself as some kind of Public Enemy Number One in the Life and Music of this Great Legend. But two years later, after the death of My Mother and Father, I found the Internet, and decided, TRUTH must prevail! I opened up my Great big mouth and began singing the Billy Joel tune, “Honesty is such a lonely word…” ! I figured it was high time we saved this man from a life of downward spirals, inconsistent music output and so off I went. I am none too proud of those moments today. In fact I am embarrassed by them, and would apologize for them if the chance were to ever arise. I was wrong. A fan is just that, and so if I had fallen off the Star, and the Star no longer twinkled, it still wasn’t right. 

I guess for me, this is my way of paying that back now. If nothing else, I certainly owe Bernie Taupin, Nigel Olsson, Davey Johnstone, and Elton John this much. I mean these guys were And still are Legends. I’m just a shcmuck from wherever America. But I had been there, I had flown to Legendary-Halls in Nashville, Columbus, Boston, New York. I had seen him and his band for decades, standing at the edge of 17,000 fans playing the King. The 2 – 3 hour Power House sets, The Lit candle encores, The Thundering applause, the Clamoring to stage for an autograph. I knew the ups and downs on any given night, the truth behind, “Bad Sushi” in New Jersey, and yet, as the years progressed, It seemed odd to me that the same stage magic and energy, was disappearing on every studio album he’d release. Don’t get me wrong, I found the odd track to love, “Cry To Heaven”, “One More Arrow”, Burning Buildings”, “The One”, “Blue Avenue”, “No More Valentines”, “Wake Up Wendy”. 

There was a hopeful glimmer in 1989 with the release of “Sleeping With The Past”, but that didn’t seem to do enough to resurrect the Historic Electric Light of a Rock N Roll Legend. Somehow it all seemed a bit sad to me. Like the game was over, And The Legend was walking off the field for the one and final time. He had left his mark, No one could surely argue to the contrary that The songs of John and Taupin did not live up to the Statuesque Grandeur of Springsteen, Simon, Lennon and McCartney. 

Oh, but time waits for no one, not even Elton John. And as the years blitzed by, we would see again and again a little glimmer of the old self, but soon we’d see it lapse back in to a state of hibernation or worse, obscurity. Some of it just wasn’t fair. 2001’s “Songs From The West Coast” , for instance, was a brilliant effort, that matched The absolute best of this songwriting teams 1970’s classics. But the World was too busy reeling from 9-11, and the death of Princess Di, to notice. Album after album would be treated to a quick hello, some fan and critical praise, and then back to the shadows of the record bins they’d go. The tours as well, would be littered with the memories of a few new gems, here today, gone tomorrow the mantra of the day. Many times, I admit now , I began to fade off myself into new musicians, settling down with the likes of Tori Amos, Ben Folds, John Mellencamp, even dare I admit this Bruce Springsteen ( shudder ), for a different musical fix. I suppose you could say I needed something more. BY the mid- 2000’s, I had settled on only one studio album in his illustrious career, 1976’s “Blue Moves”. Why you may ask, wasn’t it reviewed back then as a HUGE career disappointment? Yes I suppose it was, but for me….it was the exact moment the Man, his words, his melodies, his arrangements, his Production fell into a dark cold vacuous wasteland. I needed to understand it, to hopefully fathom its deepest depths, to come to terms with its inevitable brilliance and weaknesses. And so I did just that, day in, day out the album played. And I fell in love with its every nuance. I longed for an album as rich, as passionate, as creative, as self-expressive, and still nothing seemed to quite measure up. 

In 2009/2010 The Union was released, featuring Leon Russell, paired with Elton. My Two Childhood Piano Gods back in the saddle once again, what were the chances of this happening? Was God really listening up there? Was he as much a fan of that Rock magic, as I had been in 1970? Now I may be an old fool, but I knew there was no way we were going to “MATCH” the energy of “11/17/70” or “Amoreena” and “Roll Away The Stone” or “Delta Lady”, I mean come on! They were in their 20’s! But the album did not disappoint. For me personally it remains a career milestone for both musicians. It had wonderful, honest moments. Touching moments. And songs that clearly rose to the “Style” of their heyday. I could want very little than that. It made me smile daily as I played this CD, and I would say softly, “Isn’t life grand when music like this is made with such love?” I let all the battles the die-hard fans had about who would play on what, and why this wasn’t featured on that? Left it all in the dust. I had what I had needed, I had passion once again…and it was all over that record, no I had two things…Passion…and Total soul opened to the stars “Honesty”, once again…..and it was breath taking music . It still is, when the CD is allowed to occupy my CD player in my truck. But I was fine with it, I figured this was it, like that clip of Leon…saying in to a camera….”That’s all folks” and the camera pans back for one long fade away shot down a dimly lit hall. 

In 2013, the news broke, we were to ready ourselves for new product that just “MIGHT” be better than that album. Better? I was cynical to say the least, been there, heard this before. Well this long awaited album, even went through several studio sessions, and several name changes, THESE were signs of greatness???? I was sure that this was Elton and Bernie’s, “High Noon”, like Gary Cooper, Personally compelled to stare down the barrel of his past shadows, defiant but still terribly weakened by his own demons. And what were they…1. The singer hated working long hours in a recording studio, this was evident now after all these years and all those interviews. 2. Neither lyricist or musician seemed willing to recognize they had a heavy weight hanging around their necks, 1973’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”! Comparisons were going to be natural. 3. His voice, the guy who sang “Blues…. Ooowwwhhh , Owwhs…” In Yellow Brick Road, that was this guy? His voice was surely in question, too road weary, too shagged out. So we waited, and we waited…..and finally, The day arrived, September 24th. The release of “The Diving Board” was a career achievement! Both musician, and lyricist had created another Masterpiece, a magnificent body of work – A Stephen Foster/Nina Simone/William Faulkner-esque montage of gritty New Orleans blues, smoky jazz clubs, and pure AMERICANA – fuel injected by the brilliant cinematic visage and storytelling of Bernie Taupin. The songwriting team of John and Taupin handed us the musical equivalent of Thornton Wilder’s classic 1930’s , “Our Town”. Who said Rock N Roll was only for teenagers? That was then…this is now! Those words of 1973, on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” had finally proven to be prophetic: “Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies…beyond the Yellow Brick Road!” 

And apparently they discovered their future down the back roads of American History.
(Continued on Parts two and three)

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