What Is Life? It Isn't Everything or so the instrumental said.
Never in a million years did I think when I took time out earlier this year from the blog would I return in such circumstances. My dad who was also my best friend, rock, teacher and mentor passed away after a short illness. He seemed to be recovering initially but a cruel fate twist meant he would never achieve his greatest wish at the time and return home. To say it left me devastated would be an understatement, crushed beyond recognition would not overstate the emotion.
That happened roughly a month ago but time has gone quickly but has only dulled the pain minutely. A pinhead of light has appeared, faint but present. I know with my dad's guidance it will get stronger, he'll see to that for certain. It's up to me to pick up that torch and spread the light. Hopefully from this time on his light will shine on through me.
Since Christmas I haven't had a single minute to myself. Back and forth to the hospital and then dealing with the aftermath of his passing. Music was mostly nonexistent in that period, certainly Elton was even further behind on the back burner. Not done on purpose, things just happened that way. When I did get some time to indulge in the aural pleasures it was usually non Elton material of wildly varying flavours. Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto played live by Yuju Wang took me into a deep place with its challenging sections, both in playing and listening terms. Dark avenues that had no walls yet had no way out. Occasional brief clips of light arcs only to be thrust into darkness again. Then I'd stray over to Pink Floyd live in Boston in 1977, Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX) with Part IX being a particularly stirring moment of melancholy and reflection. A lament for a living person who was essentially emotionally dead, the sad bassline from Roger Waters one of the most ebb lowering musical eulogies ever delivered. If that wasn't damning enough in its doom, the twin wails and cries of Snowy White on the Les Paul and Dave Gilmour on the Fender not only knocking dead the Gibson v Fender debate (they both won on the earlier parts) but the harmonious intertwining at odds with the emotional message. Two guitars sounding like a thousand souls pleading for their salvation. The final play out on the synth from Rick Wright fading like a sunset...like life itself.
My dad said he enjoyed his life, he did everything he wanted to do. He was only a few weeks short of 83 when he passed so saw more changes in that space of time than anyone would have in the last thousand years. Being a teacher for most of his working life he helped shaped countless lives for the better. Both in terms of the topics he taught and the shaping of those young minds. Two of whom were myself and my brother. We can count ourselves eternally lucky to be part of that elite bunch.
My dad and I were alike in so many ways but different in many others. Whether it was subconsciously or not, he may have passed his love of keyboard music over to me. His music tastes were incredible diverse, why wouldn't they be when his first music contact would have been in the 1930's right up to the here and now. In amongst his vast vinyl collection stand out two landmark pieces of keyboard elegance. Green Onions by Booker T And The MG's (1962) and Switched-On Bach (1968). Both highly influential albums at the time of their release, both masterpieces of their genre's. Dad was a great organ aficionado, whether it be pipe or electric. The power in both instruments never fails to move the ears or stir the soul whatever the setting.
So what of Elton in the aftermath of this emotional rollercoaster? Last weekend when things had begun to ease off ever so slightly my mind began to drift back to that natural place of comfort. Whereas in other dark times before all of this the music had played a crucial part, this time it had been absent. So I needed a method to get back in. I knew if I could find some route in then maybe, or even certainly, I could begin the slow steps to rebuilding my life again. I gave it some thought as to how to start step one. But there was no choice really in the end, there was only one fitting place to start. I knew it would be the right place, the only place and so it proved to be.
Luckily my dad was never in pain right up to the end but his slow fade away was mentally and emotionally destructive. Whether he was aware of his own decline I'll never know nor need to. What I do know is the rest of us were aware of it. Fully and honestly. There was no hiding place from it. When you have that sort of scenario laid out in front of you, the inner strength reserve drains very quickly. But didn't run dry. There always seemed to be something holding us in there. Just like dad himself.
The Sunday before he passed was the last time we were all together with him as a family. The four of us in our proper places together. But the situation was far from proper. I knew at that stage time was being borrowed heavily and that payback was going to be the hardest thing ever. I was extremely emotionally upset that day, not wanting to acknowledge the inevitable but preferring to look forward to a positive future instead. Putting aside his own feelings which he kept hidden, he could still find time to comfort me even though he was need of it more than even before. '’Don't upset yourself, man. You'll be alright’', he said with a sense of knowing. The positivity came stronger from my dad even at the lowest point for us all. Even at the weakest point of his long life he could sill muster a sense of wanting to go and do more. "We had loads of great times together, didn't we,'' I said through the tears beside his bed as I held his frail hand. ''We did, man. And we'll have many more again,'' he promised me back with a sense of genuine belief. I believed it then and I believe it even greater with each passing day. I know dad did, even more so than I could have imagined at the time. But what reinforced that sense of belief was something familiar and something that made even more sense after this life changing experience.
'Someday We'll Live Like Horses'
My first step was Bernie's painful to write but ultimately joyful expression of a hope yet to be realised. Live Like Horses was just that, his own tribute to his own fading dad. Lyrically it would express that crossing over to better things, that sense of pain released. Whether it be physical or mental the relief is something we can only dream about at this stage. The title says it all and is well in tune with my dad and myself. Both of us being western fans buying into the imagery of free reining together and enjoying the good times together again. That hope which I ultimately pray will be realised is that we get to enjoy that emotion once more together after enjoying our lives together is something that will drive me on for the rest of my life. That vision when it's my turn makes everything here on in more worthwhile.
I took the version on The Big Picture as my first port call, the tolling bell effect at the start heralding Elton's sharply delivered vocal. A powerful orchestral backdrop, carefully timed by Guy Babylon, rises and falls with depth and height but always stays in view. Occasional drum reverb from Charlie Morgan resonates with a heavy ricochet. Sharp acoustic strums and picks from Davey add a balance of sadness, the pedal steel effect from John Jorgenson on the 'blues' lyric equally sympathetic. The Angel Voices are critical here, expertly chosen with an exquisite delivery. Their sound is neither here nor there. In other words is it on this side or the other side? Answer is, neither. It just exists. Here, there and all around us. Sending dad on his way and welcoming him home. All at the same time and at once. The final chorus is the ultimate evocation of how music can be emotional and an affirmation of the certain joy. Sadness in time will become a non entity.
I had to put on the Pavarotti version as my dad was a fan of his. I remember when they did the duet version live in 1996 my dad was impressed with the song. So this version is kind of even more momentous now. On a La Scala scale, Pavarotti adds a dynamic of drama that grabs emotion by the throat with a soft grip. What else would you expect from one of the defining voices of the 20th Century. His phrasing readjusts itself with a swagger to align itself with (which for him are) unusual changes and timings. So even though both voices never meet they still have a terrific relationship. Chris Thomas is often queried as to his production values at this time but each choice he made was essential and worthy additions. Understanding the lyric is key to a great producer so he finds the elements that are required to give a properly choreographed delivery. Hence Elton's vocal is clear and unaffected by too many outside influences; the backdrop has a great balance between the delicate and the might.
Which sums up the song perfectly. It was always a top class one in my opinion but like I keep saying on this blog over last couple of years, perspective is everything. From my current perspective the song has changed irrevocably. From a sad standpoint but one that ultimately brings something good. Hopefully.
'To Be Friends'
But I wasn't done yet. I still had an avenue or two to go down. One intentional, the other by pure chance. Another song in the back of my mind that I wanted to explore at this time was Keep Right On by Davey on his Smiling Face album. This song is another super favourite of mine for various reasons. The guitar solo shouldn't be a stranger to anyone with familiar with the live version of Rocket Man from 1982-86. Secondly the song features all of the 'Pillars' and 'Hercules' himself on harmonium. It's a terrific melody with some short but incredibly poignant lyrics.
Like Bernie's later tribute, Davey wrote this song too for his dad. As Davey sang, I too have been thinking of dad and all the good things he told me and indeed taught me. How else for instance would I have made the model of Starship 1 or the model of the Spitfire I sent to Nigel a few years back without him passing on his skills to me. Davey's gentle vocal delivery is the perfect light handed touch needed here. The opening nostalgic feel is swept up by trademark Nigel fills and breaks that could have been handpicked off Don't Shoot Me or GYBR. As could have Dee's bass with its full plectrum picking sound. The solo is a myriad of guitar colours, Leslie speakers swimming back and forth as Elton on the harmonium gives it that slightly reverential feel. Del Newman's strings are introduced on the solo, the repeat of the solo where they really kick in with the 'full' sound rounding out the package. The guitars dance a ballet, communicating with each other and to the audience before slowly retreating with bowed heads.
The lyrics here are a simple reminder that the basic things in life are to be cherished and valued. Once you get those priorities in line, then the complicated stuff will look after itself. To be able to write such a simple wish and put it too music is truly a gift. Again this song will have a greater more personal resonance as the lyrics say exactly what I feel and always felt. I was now setting out again but still needed that kick inside. Unexpectedly I got it.
'Fly Away, High Away, Bye Bye'
The next day there was nothing on the telly box so I popped in the DVD of the full Bonnaroo show from last June. I had heard the audio of it already but this was the first time viewing said extravaganza. Anyway I was watching it and was enjoying it but waiting or hoping for a spark to light up. And it did, I was saved! Not by Someone, but by Elton that night!
Someone Saved My Life Tonight is a thoroughly uplifting song at the best of times, even when you're on cloud nine. It still has that knack to push that cloud nearer the abode of the Blessed. So imagine when you're still on terra firma and it belts up. Ready to fly, high away. My dad was a great aviation fanatic, not a number cruncher but a true expert in all aspects of it right from the engineering and technical aspects outwards. So when Elton sang that line a vision came into my mind of dad flying somewhere. Suddenly I could feel an invisible switch go on somewhere. Elton banging out the chunky chords of the riff like a clarion call, then when Nigel's drum crashed in and the band's vocals came into formation with Elton it was as if life had been reaffirmed and had been declared winner alright. No matter how dark it is, no matter how dimly lit the light is, the pitch black atmosphere will be punctured. And that's what happened here, when Kim brought the string synth into play it was like the shrill of a distant jet engine. Matt's driving bassline before the outro is introduced and Davey blazing like an afterburner on his solo were perfect replies to Elton’s charged emotional vocal on the final chorus.
So totally out of nowhere...well not really I expect, another song that was always special to me will now have a greater depth of emotional attachment. I would never have associated the lyric of the butterfly flying high with my dad flying at a similar altitude but someone...I wonder who...sowed that seed. I heard Elton and the band sing it and then I really HEARD it. Not for the first time of course but for the first time under a new relationship. My relationship with my dad was the best thing I ever had…and still have…wherever he is now he's making my relationship with the greatest music ever even more critical to my wellbeing.
Finally I’d like to thank everyone who messaged me over the last while, especially all the Elton Facebook fans, the EJ band and their alumni for their support. Top class people first and foremost, top class musicians with equal grace and style.