38. Elton John - Tiny Dancer

The dynamics of songwriting fascinate me.  In a band, for instance, there are so many combinations of who writes what as far as the music and lyrics go that the permutations are staggering and I won't go into them here.  The relationship of composer/lyricist is much easier to break down, yet is just as fascinating.  There's the chicken/egg question of which comes first and the idea of singing songs whose words you had nothing to do with.  For Elton John and Bernie Taupin, this is exactly their relationship.  For the chicken/egg answer, Taupin writes the words first and then Elton weaves a melody and writes music around them.  And although many artists never sing words that they created, it's very rare that those words are created by only one person.  It's a relationship that confuses me, but has produced a marriage so brilliant that I could easily put a half dozen Elton John songs on my list.

"Tiny Dancer," my choice as Elton John's best work, is actually a love song written for Bernie Taupin's wife, who was his girlfriend at the time.  Elton starts with that instantly recognizable piano introduction that always puts a smile on my face when the song starts.  The arrangement stays simple, with a basic bass line joining a seemingly improvised guitar with some subtle drums underneath.  The vocals and piano are the stars of this song.  Some strings are added in the choruses to give some extra sonic fullness. 

Every lyricist needs a muse to give them those aha moments of inspiration, and Bernie Taupin definitely found his.  He describes her to a tee in just four lines:

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady
Seamstress for the band
Pretty eyes, pirate smile
She'll marry a music man

Their whole relationship, her style and character - even the fact that he knows he's going to marry her, all in that one verse.  She was on the road with Elton and often patched up stage clothes that needed repair.  And then Bernie lauds her support for her man and his music partner:

Piano man, he makes his stand
In the auditorium
Looking on she sings the song
The words she knows
The tune she hums

The humility of Elton John to know that he needed someone else to give his songs lyrics that matched the brilliance of the music is astonishing.  Most people just can't put their egos aside for the betterment of their music.  Elton John is not one of those men, and thank goodness.  Elton John is one of those musicians musician.  When you're backstage in a band's dressing room, I doubt that forty five minutes go by without at least one Elton John song being played. 
There's a great scene in Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous" that shows the power of music to bring people together when you thought nothing could.  As the fiction band Stillwater is driving in their tour bus on their way to the next gig, the fractures in the interpersonal relationships are readily apparent.  Nobody's talking and that's just fine with everyone.  Lead guitarist and main songwriter Russell Hammond has become the focus of the public's attention - the band knows it and doesn't like it.  Now they're all in the bus, pissed off and distracted, thinking about only themselves.  Then "Tiny Dancer" comes on.

At first, it's just background music, like the song before it.  But then they start paying more attention.  The drummer taps along on his knees and slowly heads start bobbing to the rhythm.  Then the bass player starts singing along - he just can't help it.  Again slowly, others start joining in and before long, the entire bus is singing along and smiles abound.  A simple song by a brilliant artist takes a broken group and starts to put it back together, one chorus at a time.  It's one of the most brilliant representations of the positive power that music can have on people.

At over six minutes, the song goes by before you know it.  I've listened to it hundreds of times and if you'd asked me, I'd have said that the album version was about 4 1/2 minutes long.  That's another sign of a brilliant song.  You never find yourself bored, thinking to yourself "man, this song is loooong."  And even at six plus minutes, you feel yourself wanting to cue it up again, singing along with the guys from Stillwater.

There are three videos for this one.  The first is Elton John's version with a slideshow as the lyrics pop up.  The second is the clip from "Almost Famous" that I talk about.  The last is proof that I'm not the only one that mishears lyrics.  It's that great clip from "Friends" where Phoebe talks about the young Tony Danza.

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