Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Elton John: I’m Still Standing (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, CBS-TV, aired April 10, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a quite interesting program on CBS-TV, one of the series of “Grammy specials” paying tribute to great songwriters of our time — in this case, the team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Sir Elton was front and center in the audience, with Taupin on one side of him looking rather sour and Elton’s husband, documentary filmmaker David Furnish, on the other. I can recall how Elton John’s career disintegrated in the late 1970’s when he came out as Bisexual, and he had to marry a woman (his sound engineer, Renate Mueller), to start selling records again — though in the middle of this he sneaked out on a non-LP single, “Ego” (a song he wrote with Taupin before briefly working with other lyricists like Gary Osborne and fellow Gay rocker Tom Robinson), a B-side called “Flinstone Boy” that’s one of his best songs, that is not only openly about Gay men but is one of Elton’s few personal statements since it’s one song he wrote entirely by himself, words as well as music. I give the producers of this show credit for including at least some of Elton John’s more obscure material as well as his greatest hits, though I wish the modern-day Gay rocker Sam Smith had done “Flinstone Boy” (aside from Elton’s courage in putting it out in the late 1970’s, it’s also one of his greatest songs) instead of the rather sappy hit “Daniel.” The show opened with what turned out to be its best number, Miley Cyrus dressed in a frilly top and a pair of ultra-tight shorts that made her look like a Sunset Boulevard hooker, belting out “The Bitch Is Back” — and while the song takes on a quite different affect when sung by a woman, it’s still a great piece of material and Miley Cyrus sang it in all-out soul style: who knew Miley Cyrus, of all people, had one of the great white soul voices? After that Ed Sheeran (who said Elton John arranged for his first Grammy Awards appearance, when he was so terra incognita to me I thought his last name was “Shearing” and that he might be a relation to the blind jazz pianist George Shearing) did “Candle in the Wind” — the Marilyn, not the Diana, version — and did it way too fast: Elton John mouthed the words from the audience (not for the last time on this show, either!) and I wondered how he kept up with Sheeran’s rush through the song, so different from the poignant slow tempo Elton himself used. After that Sam Smith came out and before he sang “Daniel” praised Elton for blazing the trail for openly Gay music artists, and then Hailee Steinfeld introduced Alessia Cara’s version of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” I love Alessia Cara — I think she’s one of the great modern singers — and she poured her heart into this song even though she wasn’t quite at the level of Miley Cyrus.

Then Lady Gaga came out and did “Your Song,” Elton’s star-making hit and one of the sappiest things he ever did, though she did it in a feathered costume and at the end put on a big pair of sunglasses that outdid the ones Elton himself was wearing in the audience. The next song was “Rocket Man,” performed by Little Big Town, who sang well enough but whose arrangement simply didn’t have the scope of Paul Buckmaster’s on Elton’s original record. (I recalled to Charles that because of the sequence in which they were released in the U.S., a lot of people thought David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was a ripoff of “Rocket Man” when Bowie’s song was actually two years older — and the similarity between the two was heightened because Paul Buckmaster had done the string arrangement for Bowie’s, too.) After that came one of the evening’s downers, pianist Valerie Simpson accompanying someone whose name I didn’t catch in time — he’s from the Hamilton cast and his name, I think, is Chris — reading the lyrics to “Border Song (Holy Moses)” the way Steve Allen used to read rock lyrics on his show to make fun of them. “Border Song” is one of Elton’s most powerful early hits and it deserved a full-out soul treatment — Aretha Franklin covered it shortly after Elton’s version came out and it needed either her or someone in that style (like Jill Scott or Jennifer Hudson), after which Shawn Mendes and Sza (the improbably named young Black singer — the name is pronounced “Sizzah” — who seems to be channeling Sade; like Sade, she has a warm, romantic voice and a good sense of phrasing, but she’s also dull) duetted on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Charles told me that Shawn Mendes is a crush object of a lot of the Gay men on his Twitter feed, though I find him blankly pretty — frankly Sam Smith is a lot sexier — and not that great a singer either.

After that one of my favorite current singers, Maren Morris, did an Elton John-Bernie Taupin song I’d never heard before, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” inspired by Taupin’s first trip to New York — it’s a great song and Morris belted it out with some of the fervor of her own star-making hit, “My Church.” Charles noted how petite she was — “even in high heels, she looks about 4’ 7”!” he exclaimed — though I liked the way Morris was dressed, in a grey top that showed off one shoulder and full-length black pants. Unlike most of the young women singers on this show, she managed to make herself attractive without looking like a hooker! Then Chris Martin of Coldplay came out and did another song I didn’t know, “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” which was beautiful and moving in the first chorus when it was just Martin singing and playing piano but got leaden and pretentious when a string section came in later. Afterwards there was another one of those dismal “readings,” with Gail King reciting the lyrics to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (one verse, anyway) while someone named Ryan Secombe sawed away at a cello behind her. Then Miranda Lambert came out and did one of the songs from Elton John’s third album, the country-themed Tumbleweed Connection, “My Father’s Gun” — though it has some good material, this album is almost camp in its utter misunderstanding of country music and Southern culture, and Lambert phrased the song beautifully and somehow managed to sing it “straight” despite how silly it really is. (It also seemed an inappropriate choice of material after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting; I’d frankly have rather heard Lambert sing a song about how the melted down her father’s gun and turned it into a plowshare!)

Then Kesha did “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” — it’s great to see she still has a career, though given her much-publicized complaint that her record producer sexually assaulted her, and her refusal to record for him again led to a three-year hiatus in her career, it fascinated me that the song they gave her to sing was one about leaving fame and fortune behind and going back to the country! Then there came another bit of bathos — Neil Patrick Harris reading the letter Elton John wrote to Ryan White on the 20th anniversary of White’s death, crediting White with inspiring him to get off alcohol and drugs and wishing White had lasted long enough to take advantage of the advances in AIDS treatment — and John Legend did “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” in what was the best performance of the night by a male singer. It helped that the song suited him a lot better than the last material I’d seen him do on TV, the songs Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote for the title character in Jesus Christ Superstar. The show closed, as these things usually do, with Elton John himself taking the stage, which I was actually somewhat dreading after his awful duet on “Tiny Dancer” with Miley Cyrus on the last Grammy Awards telecast. Fortunately he picked three songs — “Bennie and the Jets,” “Philadelphia Freedom” and the inevitable closer with the full cast, “I’m Still Standing” — that he could sing with the voice he has left; certainly one missed (and mentally supplied) the falsetto effects from the original records, but he could still do these in full-bodied renditions instead of picking a song so high his voice would just crack all over the place. Indeed, I thought “Philadelphia Freedom” came off better last night than it did on the record, made during the first flush of Disco Fever in 1976; the arrangement sounded sparer and the song’s eloquence came through more strongly.

If the intent of the Grammy tribute to Elton John was to establish him and Bernie Taupin as a great songwriting team on the order of Gilbert and Sullivan, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers both with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, and John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and without the bitterness that ultimately broke up Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hart, and Lennon and McCartney — Taupin boasted during the show that in the nearly 50 years they’ve worked together they haven’t had a single argument, though part of that may be due to their arm’s-length relationship: through most of their partnership Taupin has written lyrics, then mailed them to Elton, who set them without Taupin’s involvement after that), it succeeded: as I noted after the last Grammy Awards, I think Elton John’s success has come mainly from the high quality of the songs, and his voice, though not “great,” has been a serviceable means of delivering them. The producers seem to have deliberately avoided bringing any of the survivors of Elton John’s generation onto the program and instead culled their talent list from younger performers, which made the point that these songs are going to make it into the standard repertoire and they can encompass a wide range of interpretations. There were surprisingly few of the miscalculations that often arise in tributes like this — Ed Sheeran rushing “Candle in the Wind” was about the only case of a singer on this program thoroughly misunderstanding the song — and overall the evening was a delight even though it underscored just how gynocentric the pop-music scene has become: in terms of sheer power and soul, the women on this show soared far above the men!