Friday Morning Download – "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John

To say that the 70’s were kind to me would be a lie. Granted, I am still here to tell the tale and that does count for something, but the 70’s represented a period of unbelievable angst – being the shortest kid in my class through 9th grade (yup – that’s me in the class picture in the front row hold the class sign…), clinical acne I treated with a roll-on solution that made me look like a lumpy case of jaundice, and the struggle to figure out what I was looking for in life beyond not getting thrown into a locker by some older kid with an AC/DC shirt. Since I turned 40 last week (if you want to see my ‘turning 40’ iTunes iMixgo here), I suppose I should be thankful that I have the distance I do from such events, but given that the 70’s continue to be re-imagined (i.e. my life and that of my friends was nothing of the whimsy and good looks on display on “That 70’s Show”) it is time to set the record straight.

True enough, the 1970’s may be remembered in current zeitgeist as a time/place of white slacks, Jimmy Carter, and music adhering to the ABC’s (ABBA, BeeGees, and Cat Stevens to name a few) of AOR (adult oriented radio) focus. This was a period that saw the Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” Led Zeppelin’s Fourth album, and other big records from T. Rex and Rod Stewart hitting the airwaves with force. But when I was living through the 70’s, it wasnt force that I needed most, it was empathy. As I tried to embrace Robert Plant in 7th grade, it was Elton John’s subtle sound coupled with Bernie Taupin’s catchy lyrics that continue to capture the broadest audience and continue to speak of loneliness in ways I remember needing. Of Elton John’s early albums, two continue to stand out – “Honky Chateau” (a masterpiece that included “Mona Lisas and Madhatters” and “Rocket Man”) and “Madman Across the Water.” “Madman Across the Water” is named for a cut that originally appeared on his “Tumbleweed Connection” album and has yielded some of Elton John’s earliest AOR staples. “Tiny Dancer,” like the previous “Your Song,” was introduced and carried by John’s masterful piano composition. The song’s sense of longing also employed the falsetto chorus that would become as much of a trademark as his costumes. “Levon,” another entry into the John/Taupin “ballad of” category, is one of their finest pieces. Interestingly, there are references to God, Lord, or Jesus on six tracks on this collection. I wouldn’t say any of these six songs had a religious theme, but it is interesting how Taupin folded in these references on this album.

“Tiny Dancer” is an ode to Bernie Taupin’s wife and celebrates the Elton John Band’s highly successful first trip to the USA in 1970 , where rapturous popular and critical acclaim soon saw Elton become the pop chart star of the decade. It is about the power of music and the joy of being a fan. The magic of the song is a celebration of being ‘in the zone’ – that moment we all find ourselves in when for 3 1/2 minutes we are ‘in’ a pop song and time just stands still and yet soars and everything becomes possible. For me, “Tiny Dancer” is about getting up the courage to ask Debbie Sears to dance with me in the Jane Addams Junior High Fall Dance. The attempt was met with failure (“you wanna dance?” “ahh… no…”) but every time I hear the song, I feel some of that courage come back nonetheless. This is captured brilliantly in Cameron Crowe’s ode to the 70’s – his 2000 release “Almost Famous”. In a great scene where Stillwater’s lead guitarist and iconic figure Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudrup) has fallen out with the band and they are sitting in painful silence on the tour bus, “Tiny Dancer” starts to play. Slowly, each member of the band begins to join in – singing along with the tune with grins spreading across every face. There is a sense of euphoria as the volume rises in the bus – members of a family that had become so lost in their own agendas and ego that they forgot – literally – the joy of the songs that they sang as belt out the lyrics – “Jesus Freaks out in the streets/ handing out tickets for God/ turning back, she just laughs/the boulevard is not that bad.” I remember looking around the dark theatre in Glasgow at that moment and seeing people silently mouthing the words to “Tiny Dancer” along with the joyous reunion of Stillwater on the flickering screen. The benedictus of the scene on the screen comes when Patrick Fugit’s William Miller whispers to Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane “I need to go home.” As the audience and Stillwater continue to sing along with Elton’s chorus “Hold me closer, Tiny Dancer…”, Penny Lane’s reply cuts to the quick – “you are home.”

Elton John has had his moments – both great and downright scary – in the past few decades since “Madman on the Water” and “Tiny Dancer.” But he continues to invite the lonely and lost to a place of ‘home’ amidst the common heartbreaks of life that few pop musicians have ever done. As the church continues to draw its fellowship into selfish praise music filled with first-person drivel, I am thankful for moments when I can sing along with those seeking hope – both with the pimpled teenager that I was, the adult I am still asking the same questions, and the others seeking to “hand out tickets for God” as we all “count the headlights on the highway.”

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  1. Isn’t there a poem with the line, “The 70’s are the cruelest decade…”?

    Beg, buy, or steal the WKRP In Cincinnatti episode “I Want To Keep My Baby” which features “Tiny Dancer”. The image of Johnny Fever in the foreground with Elton John in the background has always framed that song in my mind .

  2. Ok Jeff, I know very little about popular music, but because of you, and the community at Church at the Center, I’m getting better. Up to now, I have been pretty clueless about the artists and the music you have written about. In fact, I have marveled at the depth and breath of your knowledge of popular music.
    This has been one artist that I have been a little embarrassed to say that I know quite a bit about. That artist is Elton John.
    I was a teenager in the 70’s and had a good friend who not only turned me on to Elton John’s early music, he also taught me to play it as well. I bought the music to Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John, Honky Chateau and my absolute drop dead, no contest favorite “Friends”.
    While Tiny Dancer is one of his best, Friends overwhelmed my heart completely because I watched the movie with my first love. Although Meredith pursued me and then dropped me in a short 3 months, I will forever have the memory of my 16th summer as my season of wonder. We watched the movie Friends early in the summer and the plot fused with our lives. It is a simple story of an English teenager from a rich family who hates his dad and his life. He meets a French girl, an orphan, falls in love, and they run away to her house in southern France where they set up housekeeping. They marry–sort of–have a baby, the boy gets a job and the music chronicles their blissful life together. Of course, all this is done in secret and the boy’s dad puts together a massive hunt for his missing son. The tale ends sadly, with the couple discovered and their private paradise smashed.
    Perhaps it was my girl friend leaving me at the end of the summer–a devasting event which sent me spirling down into a dark vortex of misery and tears–but the music from Friends was forever welded to those feelings of Paradise Lost.
    I remember the scene you mention in Almost Famous. It was perfect. Elton John’s early music–Burn Down the Mission, Amoreena, Michelle’s Song, Friends, as well as Tiny Dancer-unlocked a well of joy and peace and bliss and ectasy possible in the Wonder Years. A bliss secretly longed for again in the sometimes flat middle years. A bliss hoped for in the promise of heaven, a bliss which can still be sometimes caught in a numious moment of worship, or prayer.

  3. great memory, James – I will have to track that film down on Netflix if it is available. I saw that the music for the film is on Elton John’s “Rare Masters” CD issued in 1992 – tracks 10 through 19 on disc 1 to be more specific.

    Perhaps I am a bit of the romantic (here I am humming the musing and pondering lyric from Over The Rhine’s “Spark” from “Drunkard’s Prayer” – “Is God the last romantic…?”) in this way… but here I go: why do so many people connect with a sing-a-long moment in a film (ie. Magnolia’s Amiee Mann sing-a-long; Almost Famous “Tiny Dancer”) and we struggle to capture anything close in most so-called seeker-sensitive worship service? My thought has to do with the difference between certainity and longing – most praise music has a triumphialism and certainity that members in the congregation desire, but dont have in spades… mustard seeds at best. Songs of longing, desire, hunger for more… and songs of despair and angst as well…offer opportunity to gather with honesty that most ‘worship music’ just doesnt.

    Thoughts?

  4. “triumphalism and certainty” – I think you’re quite right. we need more doubt, more emptiness, more brokeness…and of the sort that dwells there for a moment (since that’s how our lives tend to be) rather than immediately offering the solution in the very next line.

    great post, by the way.

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