Brad Wheeler is the friendly, sharp and, suddenly, long-standing entertainment– mostly music, some film– writer for the Globe and Mail. We share being inveterate Blue Jays– and baseball– fans and I can speak for most Canadian musicians when I offer that, in a world of cynical small ball and pokey media gnats pushing forward their own agendas, Brad’s writing throws back to honestly, acuteness and fair play in the black and white pages. Here he is wandering back to the pool halls and rec. centres of his American youth.
A long, long time ago, the troubadour Don McLean wrote about a time that was a long, long time ago. The song was American Pie. And if it is bubblegum Bob Dylan, as has been suggested, what do we make of Crocodile Rock, a cheesy boogie from Elton John and Bernie Taupin that is musically derivative to the point of near parody, and with lyrics that share American Pie’s wistfulness but none of its poetry.
Indeed, Taupin described Crocodile Rock as a “funny song” he had no regrets in creating, but that it wasn’t something he’d ever listen to.
I listened to it – a lot. I really had no choice. Where I grew up, in Clifton Springs, N.Y., our hangout was a YMCA, equipped with pool tables, ping pong tables and one overworked juke box. In addition to Crocodile Rock, the 45s in heavy rotation included The Hollies’ Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress, Edgar Winter Group’s Frankenstein and Grand Funk Railroad’sWe’re an American Band. These tracks were all vaguely mysterious, frightening and wild to a 10-year-old. I mean, the guys in Grand Funk would not only come into your town, but they would help you party it down? That’s just badass.
And sweet, sweet Connie, doing her act. I think we all knew what that meant.
I had no idea what that meant.
Crocodile Rock was lighter fare, to be sure: Elton John singing about the days when rock was young, when he and Suzie were having so much fun. But while Don McLean’s people were rocking around the clock, Elton’s crowd was hopping and bopping to their own dance – possibly an Alligator variant.
Incidentally, both American Pie and Crocodile Rock share the production placement of Chevrolet. While Maclean desired a rhyme for levee, Taupin could have just as easily gone with “Caddy” as “Chevy.” The latter better evokes Americana, though, and it’s an automobile more affordable for young people.
And another thing, why didn’t the publishers of these two classics receive some General Motors’ dough? American Pie’s Chevy reference in particular is fairly iconic, though there is the troubling issue of drinking and driving. The levee was dry, but the good old boys were not, tipping back both whiskey and rye. (Isn’t rye a kind of whisky?)
But I digress.
American Pie was released in 1971; Crocodile Rock, one year later. Both songs deal with the loss of something years earlier. Innocence, perhaps – youth, at least. In the 1970s I lived the easiest days of my life, spending some of the better hours around a record machine.
Toward the end of the decade our family moved away from my hometown. It was only later that I knew how well I had had it there. I never knew me a better time, it is true, and I guess I never will.