Saturday, January 16, 2016

Wonderful Crazy Night: Elton John at Disneyland

On March 25, 1947, the individual now known as Elton John was born.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened.

The culture of the middle of the twentieth century was an alien realm, mostly for worse, from the perspective of a perspicacious observer today. However corroded “serious culture” and politics already was, the results had not yet metastasized in popular culture and economics. Americans, still relatively free and on the gold standard and the Breton Woods monetary system, produced genuine wealth and real prosperity on a grand scale in nearly every corner of every city and town, from the enterprising small business owner to … Walt Disney. Motion picture studios and record labels still produced large quantities of intelligible, stylized “products” that depicted life as exuberant, or, at least, exciting and fascinating, with characters that were heroic and dignified, or, at least, not depraved. Musical compositions had melodies and a modicum of instrumental skill and complexity, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to the early rock and rollers who also inspired … Elton John. He would synthesize both styles into something unprecedented during what was arguably popular music’s apogee. Introducing him and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin as they were inducted into a worthless, meaningless institution not worthy of inductees or even orator, W. Axl Rose referred to it as “my classical music”.

Popular music has long since degenerated into the worst kinds of rap and punk (and worse), and even The Walt Disney Company now dabbles in aesthetic modernism (and more than dabbles in propaganda of the worst sort). But the Enlightenment has not entirely faded yet, and when two of its waning rays meet, it is a cause for celebration.

Last night, Elton John and his tight, versatile band performed on Disneyland Park’s Plaza, in front of the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, while cameras were rolling for a forthcoming television special celebrating Disneyland’s sixtieth anniversary. Thousands celebrated.

Although rumors had been circulating for days, they were not entirely confirmed even after Friday morning’s park guests saw a stage set up with a draped grand piano. (The “release form” signs acknowledging the ongoing filming of Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special were not out of the ordinary.) Throughout the day, after a soundcheck with a choir exposed said piano as a familiar red Yamaha, they were just about confirmed.

After an unusually early iteration of the nightly Disneyland Forever sixtieth-anniversary fireworks display, an emcee greeted the gathered crowd and gave the usual directions/encouragement for the sake of the camera crew and television footage. Around 7:59 PM, the choir and band took the stage. Band members included original Elton John band guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson (unfortunately, bass guitarist Dee Murray died over twenty years ago). Flamboyant erstwhile percussionist Ray Cooper may have been present; my view of the auxiliary percussion stand was blocked. The percussionist behind the bass drum emblazoned with Wonderful Crazy Night", the title of the new Elton John album, was likely John Mahon. Normally, I would complain, but Elton’s piano and, later, Elton, were blocking the percussionist (and Davey Johnstone). To a roaring ovation, the star singer/composer/performer/knight ascended the temporary stage in a characteristic full-length coat with his initials embroidered on the back. He’s older than Disneyland, and he and Taupin addressed some of the concerns of advancing age more than a decade ago in “Weight of the World”. Although my companion said he was transported to and from the stage in a wheelchair, he looked nimble and agile enough onstage, and his voice, while worn with age, has the weathered strength of experience. Unlike many of his peers, when he started singing, he sounded indubitably like himself.

What he started singing was “Circle of Life”, the song he wrote with Tim Rice for Disney’s The Lion King, the first John/Disney collaboration and one of the more satisfying cultural artifacts of an otherwise dismal decade. It’s not one of my favorites (even from that film), but it was hard for anyone but the most cynical modernist and pop culture detractor not to feel empowerment from the music (including that voice) and gratitude for life itself. Indeed, Elton John, even Disney at its best, is more than pop culture. It is art in a culture of dumbed-down pop non-art and modernist anti-art, from the ironic realism, surprising subtlety, and texture of the animators to the rock-classical concept album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA, 1975) (which I had the privilege to see Sir Elton and company perform in nearly its entirety at Madison Square Garden in 2005). The band’s and choir’s performance was a harmonious blend. Johnstone was hard to hear in the mix, but the “pop” aspects of Elton John’ s pop have never overemphasized the talents of the backing band. The entire ensemble contributed to an integrated whole that emphasized the quality of the songs over the competent musicianship. For the first song in question, Rice’s lyrics are slightly too maudlin in their post-hippie ethos, but they are well-written and do not detract from the music’s majesty. The musical, exuberant “Yeah!” that climaxed the song cemented its effectiveness in the moment. Afterwards, Elton enthusiastically engaged the audience with his trademark earnest gestures and expressions without any of the smug self-importance and seeming condescension of so many performers. The audience chanted his name. When he sat back down at the piano, he said, “It’s great to be back at Disneyland. I’ve never played here. I’ve never been here at night!” He announced another run-through of “Circle of Life” for the audio and video crew. Before running through the song again, he puckishly banged the F major seventh chord that punctuates the beginning of “Bennie and the Jets” followed by the impish grin and finger to mouth of a lovable child caught doing something vaguely naughty but harmless. Then he sang “Circle of Life” with the same conviction and soul. Keyboardist Kim Bullard’s synth doodles added whimsical color. Afterwards, Elton said, “How about a cheer for the choir; they’re amazing.” 

After doodling at the piano a little (it sounded like “Take Me to the Pilot”), the pianist said, “No fireworks from beginning to end of the song, all right? This is a song called ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’. You’ve never heard it before, and it’s the title song from our new album. So, pretend you know it.” Wonderful Crazy Night (Capitol/Mercury) will be released February 5 and is available for pre-order in multiple editions and formats. All of its songs have Taupin lyrics, and it is the first album with the band since 2006’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sequel The Captain & the Kid (Interscope). “Wonderful Crazy Night” may or may not become a future John/Taupin classic, but the songwriting team is an active cultural treasure, and the song is a joyful, rollicking romp that was perfect for the occasion. Elton’s welcome and familiar skillful piano fills, chords, and glissandos do provide the song with the characteristics of a John/Taupin classic. A fireworks spectacle lit the castle and backdrop. At song’s conclusion, Elton remarked offhand that they had to wait for another set of fireworks.

During downtime, he continued, “About 50,000 people work here every day … 80,000 people come through the park every day. That’s 130,000 people a day that come through this park. When I came over on December the 23rd, I thought there was 330,000 people: the busiest day of the year.” He announced another run-through of “Wonderful Crazy Night” for the camera eyes and microphone ears. “And they’re going to spend more money on fireworks! You’ve been amazing, by the way. Thank you so much.” Someone in the audience yelled, “You’re the amazing one!” and the amazing one bounced another F major seventh chord off his red Yamaha, with the predictable response. He followed this with a longer “teaser”: a full chorus of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, the perfect song from The Lion King with perfect, enlightened Tim Rice lyrics. It seemed much longer in the moment, and the absence of the rest of it was acutely felt. Then the ensemble played another rousing version of “Wonderful Crazy Night”, and the glorious twenty-five minute set was over, capped by a director’s further instructions for the capturing of incidental B roll footage.

These are trying times, and the continuing popularity of perennial icons like Disney and Elton John is a testament to the paucity of artistic culture in the West’s post-twentieth century doldrums. The audience gathered last night seemed to have some idea of the significance of the occasion even if few had the slightest idea why it was significant or how profound it really was in an unspeakable culture of vulgar, atonal, cynical, snarky trash. To the credit of the institutions behind the performance, what could have been pointless nostalgia was not. “Circle of Life” may have been predictable, but it is still relatively new in the context of a songbook of hits and artistic obscurities stretching back several decades now. And it was not only new; it was appropriate as well. And “Wonderful Crazy Night” is not even out yet. In a time when even Bruce Springsteen (of all unlikely artists) has succumbed to the nostalgia of “The River Tour 2016”, Elton John’s indefatigable commitment to new music is notable and admirable.

I recommend Disney animated classics (through The Lion King, but no later), even with their necessary limitations, and I recommend a visit to the Disneyland Resort if it’s logistically and financially feasible in the false, government-engineered "prosperity" of this "extended recovery". I cannot recommend Elton John enough [personal favorites include the aforementioned John/Taupin autobiography Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the secular gospel Peachtree Road (Universal 2004) among many others]. But if neither is to your taste, find your own skillful, representational celebration of life. Or, better yet, make your own, if you can. And support others who do, from your local school/theater group/small concert hall to the aging baby boomers who still fill the arenas and stadiums (and movie screens). You need it, and so does a dying culture.

Capitol and Mercury will release Wonderful Crazy Night on February 5, and the Disney ABC Television Network will air the Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special later in February. Check the listings.

Elton John

Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special
The Plaza
Disneyland Park
Disneyland Resort
Anaheim, CA, USA
Friday, January 15th, 2016

Circle of Life
Circle of Life
Wonderful Crazy Night
Can You Feel the Love Tonight [excerpt]
Wonderful Crazy Night

My friend Mindy captured all of the spectacular images. Thanks, Mindy.

Words and music, impeccably integrated and impeccably delivered ...

Nigel Olsson, who started playing with Elton in 1970, looks on.

Important, but not self-important.

My sources tell me that Kim Bullard is the brother of underrated vocalist/lyricist Mike Tramp, best known for fronting White Lion.

Band of brothers: Matt Bissonette's brother is Greg, best known for providing the beat behind David Lee Roth, Steve Vai, and Billy Sheehan.

Nigel Olsson, senior band member--even more senior than Davey Johnstone

Captain Fantastic--not self-important, just important