Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Elton John's Bit Part



Early on, when I was about nine years old, my friend Dominic introduced me to Elton John, and I became an instant fan of his songs. My mother had been weening me on classical music from children's stories to help introduce me to the style. I recall spending a lot of time listing to the music from "Peter and the Wolf" in my bedroom.

Then, I was over at Dominic's house (he was the grandson of Dalton Trumbo by the way), and he played song after song from various Elton John Albums such as "Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, " and "Yellow Brick Road." What I heard were great melodies against really smooth western chord progressions with a honky-tonk piano and a confident bass-guitar sound, which all felt good to me. I was totally aware of why his music pleased me as a child; it's hard to explain.

I pestered my dad long enough, and he finally took me to Tower Records on Sunset Blvd, and being his aerospace-working, logical self, suggested I start with,  "Elton John's Greatest Hits." This turned out to be a great choice of course. It was the album with Elton sitting at a piano in a white suit and accompanying fedora and cane.   I liked the artwork because Elton looked so professional, as if he were personally presenting me with his collection of musical works.  And the funny thing about the actual vinyl record was that the position of his hand seemed to wrap around the record player's center spindle peg. I would play the record, enjoying the songs, and get dizzy from watching him spin around, hanging on for dear life to avoid flying off of the record label.  The songs on this greatest hits album are all legendary now and baked into the minds of music lovers around the world.

The year was now 1975, one year after my discovery of Elton John, and a movie was coming out.  Someone told me that Elton was in it, so I quickly asked my dad if he would take me. He researched it in the LA Times, found out it was called, "Tommy," and then read a review resulting in his decision that it probably wouldn't be his type of movie.  My dad listened to 93 KHJ in the car, which played mostly pop and easier rock, and this movie was some kind of exotic rock opera by, The Who.  He also cautioned me saying that from what he read, Elton John only had a bit part, whatever that meant. I imagined that Elton walked into a bar at some point, asked for a drink, and was out the door. But that was enough. I still had to see it.  My dad eventually gave in and said I could probably go see it if I wanted to. 

Luckily I had a friend, Nick, who also loved movies, music, and who was always up for something new. He lived about two miles from the Studio City Mann Theater on Ventura Blvd near Laurel Canyon and Ventura Blvd (now a BookStar), a theater which was playing, "Tommy." I arranged for a sleep over at Nick's house, which always meant that my parents would be made to schlep me down to the San Fernando Valley from the Hollywood Hills where we lived; about a 20 minute drive, even for a quart of milk, which turned out to be why we eventually moved down to the Valley a year later.  A night at Nicks during those earlier years typically included lugging a bicycle down to his house so that Nick and I could ride around on the flats of the Valley floor; something that even to this day feels freeing to me when contrasted against my life in the topographically imprisoning hills.

Nick and I didn't 'know what to expect from the movie. It was theatrically rated PG so we wouldn't have trouble getting in to see it.  In retrospect, it probably should have been rated R for it's content. But he I went on that summer afternoon and rode our bikes to the Studio City Mann to see if we could get in.  There was a long line in front. A lot of people were waiting for the next show, and after we bought out tickets and luckily weren't hindered from getting in due to our age, Nick and I stood in the cue on the sidewalk alongside the theater entrance where they displayed their movie posters for current and upcoming films. We saw the Tommy poster, and it looked a little wild. "He's in this film?" I asked Nick as if he were some cinematic expert.  He pointed to Elton's head-bust within the poster. Yes, he was in it.

The movie was overwhelming and hard to follow at that age, and a little evocative for someone who had lost his biological father five years earlier (Tommy's father is killed towards the beginning of the movie). But it was full of exciting, new music for us presented in Quintaphonic Sound, which at that time was not typical for movies.  And it had some really strange scenes; Ann Margaret immersed in baked beans, chocolate and dish soap, making it with a couch cushion (this became my dad's favorite scene when it was later played on Z-Channel), a sadistic scene with Tommy's cousin Kevin with Hitchcockian camera-reveals, and women running around WWII bombings in gas-masks and braziers.  But Elton John's scene ended up being one of the showcase chapters of the film, so you can imagine how delighted I was when his segment came on; glittery and overstimulating as it was. And, the end of The Pinball Wizard sequence was edited with high-velocity timing.  It's still fast even for today's standards.  Director Ken Russell was obviously a man-man.  But as I'm sure you can imagine, I was absolutely delighted to see that Elton had a whole scene for himself as the "The Pinball Wizard."

And, as fate would have it, almost immediately upon release of the movie in theaters, Elton John's version of "Pinball Wizard" was played non-stop on 93 KHJ for months.  There was no getting away from Tommy for my dad.  Incidentally, the movie is now available on Blue Ray with it's Quintaphonic Sound restored.