It’s a little bit funny, but “Your Song” wasn't my song. To my grade-school ear, Elton John's first Top 10 hit, which started pouring out of the radio in late 1970, was a bit too earnest and sappy. (I’ve long since wondered how he manages to keep a straight face on stage when singing, “I don’t have much money but, boy, if I did …”)
Then came “Tumbleweed Connection,” a remarkable, country-tinged concept album that transported me from suburban Long Island to the Wild West, opening my ears to the music of a gap-toothed Brit who would quickly become my one and only teenage idol.
“Tumbleweed” was aural Americana. It was my Huck Finn and Cat Ballou, a favorite storybook that I revisited again and again. There were tales of busted gunslingers, bitter confederates and a fast-talking vagabond who gets his comeuppance. I could hear the rocking chair creaking on the porch in “Country Comfort” and see the red flames light the sky in “Burn Down the Mission.” I was mesmerized by the recurring refrain of “My Father’s Gun,” a six-minute lament that passes with the grief and forbearance of a funeral procession.
Often, I would follow along in the 12-page booklet that was inserted inside the gatefold album. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics were displayed with sepia-tinged photos of Elton and the band as well as line drawings of country life, from a riverboat and locomotive to an oversized six-shooter. The only thing missing was a well-worn leather binding.
The funny thing is I always thought “Tumbleweed Connection” was my own little secret, a hole-in-the-wall refuge that nobody else knew about. There were no hit singles among the album’s 10 songs, though “Country Comfort” got some FM airplay. I remember being shocked when I went to see “Dog Day Afternoon” and the opening credits rolled by to the sound of lusty “Amoreena,” a deep album cut that turned apple-eating into a sexually charged come-on strong enough to buckle the knees of a certain pubescent boy. (“The fruit juice flowing slowly, slowly, slowly down the bronze of your body ….”)
“Tumbleweed” has stayed with me. I still have the original LP on the Uni label. I remember keeping the cassette within arm’s reach during the five-hour drive to college. When CDs were introduced, it was among the first batch I bought. I later picked up an audiophile version, a Japanese import that I’ve seen listed on eBay for as much as $100. I have no intention of selling.
The music feels as fresh as a forest breeze, stirring up memories that are now priceless. I’ve learned life lessons from these songs. “Talking Old Soldiers” taught me to steer clear of any geezer sitting by himself at the end of a bar. And I long ago reimagined “Come Down in Time,” my favorite song on the album, as a three-minute version of “The Catcher in the Rye.” “There are women and women,” sings Elton, channeling a country-boyish Holden Caulfield, “and some hold you tight, while some leave you counting the stars in the night.”
I’ve been chewing on that like a piece of hay for more than 40 years. Life, like “Tumbleweed Connection,” rolls on.