Sunday, January 13, 2008

Levon

By 1971 Bernie had really come into his own as a lyricist, I do believe, and for proof one needs look no further than this memorable track, in which he uses names and words to maximize listener interest.

The subject matter of "Levon" has been a bit of a mystery over the years- on the surface, it seems to be a simple narrative about an immigrant family. But the nature of the lyrics themselves, with its precise people names and hot-button words such as "Jesus", would seem to suggest otherwise. However, according to the Straight Dope website, it is what it seems, and nothing more. But by placing the name "Jesus" prominently, which is automatically going to suggest the Christian Savior to most listeners rather than the son of Alvin Tostig (a name which led many others to wonder if he was an actual historical person or allegorical entity), Bernie ensures that ears perk up to hear what's being said. And I'm sure many were nonplussed by

And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus
Leaving Levon far behind
Take a balloon and go sailing
While Levon, Levon slowly dies
.

But according to the StraightDope post that I linked to above, the story isn't quite so exotic. According to Bernie, Alvin Tostig is the grandfather, Levon his son, and Jesus is Levon's son. The whole "Levon" name was suggested by the Band's Levon Helm, as I've written many times an obvious influence on Elton's music, and Helm's name inspired the song. Simple as that.

Elton and Paul Buckmaster's arrangement certainly adds to the air of importance and significance; the dominant strings, as is the norm for the Madman album, are soaring and grandiose, almost Wagnerish, and Elton pounds the keys in rhythm right with them. Barry Morgan also makes a solid contribution on several drum fills just before the choruses.

"Levon" was the first single release from Madman Across the Water at the tail end of 1971; it wasn't released in England, but made it to #24 in the US. It was included on his second greatest hits album as well.

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