Archive for November 2009
A New Life
John Robert Colombo reviews a new biography of Gurdjieff written by Paul Beekman Taylor
Here are the particulars: This book is called “G.I. Gurdjieff: A New Life” and the title is a pun. What we have here is a brand-new biography of Mr. G., a man who, by word and by deed, offered his disciples and his followers “a new life” or at least a new way of living. Neat title!
The author is Paul Beekman Taylor who as a youngster “knew Gurdjieff.” Born in London in 1930, he recalls the early years that he and his mother spent at the Priory at Fontainebleau-Avon. Thereafter he became a scholar of Old Norse and Old English; he is now a Professor Emeritus of the University of Geneva. Books that he has researched and written include the very useful and detailed volume titled “Gurdjieff’s America” (2004). I think more highly of that scholarly book, which seems to have been reissued with new written material (but without the photographs in the original Lighthouse Editions publication) as “Gurdjieff’s Invention of America” (2007), than I do of the less focused volume issued the same year called “The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff.” My reviews of these two books are archived on this blog.
Eureka Edition, the publisher, gave this book a respectable and solid format, with a sturdy if somber, maroon-coloured card cover. The volume measures 6.5″ x 9″, the pagination is viii+247+iii, and there is or was a print-run of 250 copies dated August 2008. (ISBN / EAN: 978-90-72395-57-3) Included are a chronology, a bibliography, and an index, plus 18 black-and-white photographs, mainly unfamiliar ones – 19 if we count the full-page one which shows Mr. G. with his arms around Martin Benson and Rita Romilly, a photograph that is familiar and has been unaccountably reproduced twice in these pages.
Eureka Editions is the name of a specialty publishing house located in Utrecht, The Netherlands, It has in print close to fifty new or reprint titles devoted to the Fourth Way. Their authors include Bob Hunter, Maurice Nicoll, Beryl Pogson, and Solange Claustres. Check the company’s website for further particulars.
The knowledge of the life of Gurdjieff that most of us have is derived from P.D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous” (itself a marvellous work!), augmented by the contributions of the “two Jameses” – James Webb in “The Harmonious Circle” and James Moore in “Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth.” Although the latter book appeared in 1991, it has yet to be superseded, even by the present publication which benefits from the inclusion of fresh information from the archives of the former Soviet Union unavailable to Moore two decades earlier.
Taylor’s book offers the knowledgeable reader a harvest of new details. The reader who is unfamiliar with the literature of the Work will not find it appealing. But the more knowledgeable reader will find it quite engrossing, for it takes all the previous literature as its province and adds new information and evaluation. It is indispensable for students concerned with the evolution of the Work and the life of its founder.
There is something else. In the words of the blurb on the book’s back cover, “This biography stands apart from other biographical writings about Gurdjieff by emphasizing his relations with the many children for whom he played a fatherly role in the Caucasus, Fontainebleau, and New York City.” As in previous books, Taylor identifies with Gurdjieff’s immediate family. Indeed, the book is dedicated to three women, two of them Gurdjieff’s daughters. One of these is the author’s half-sister Eve, nicknamed Petey, who was born in 1928.
This book is very much the biography of a man along with the history of a movement. It will appeal to “completists” who have to know everything about these intertwined subjects. At the same time, the spirit of the book is revisionist in nature, in the sense that it tries to test every statement against the record. I am reminded of the adage that goes like this: “Superstition is superstition. But the study of superstition is a science.”
Rather than simply summarize the contents of the book – familiar ground all of it – this review will focus on what Taylor’s book has to offer the specialist reader – new ground or at least nearly interesting ground. In a sense I have had to hop, skip, and jump around, cherishing this morsel, ignoring that one. The text is dense with detail but written with great clarity of expression.
Taylor is generous in the Acknowledgements section, expressing his “incalculable debt” to Michael Benham of Melbourne, Australia, and Gert-Jan Blom of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, who supplied biographical information that is only now appearing in print. In fact, he refers to the present work as “a triadic collaboration.” In his short Foreword, Gert-Jan Blom hazards a guess that this book may be “the most accurate biography available at this time.” He is quite right.
Taylor is an historian of ideas by training, so his Introduction is subtitled “Gurdjieff and the Historian.” I smiled when I read those four words and I am sure most readers will do the same. One can only guess at the difficulties the historian faces in dealing with Gurdjieff, but there is no need to worry because the author alludes to those difficulties: “The best a biographer can do with the stories of his early life is to distinguish the possible from the improbable.” He does make distinctions, though he writes vaguely about probing further “by means of a critical hermeneutics.”
The first chapter begins with a discussion of names – the multiple forms of Gurdjieff’s family and given names. “One wonders why so many biographers cannot get the name of their subject into one accepted form.” He opts for Georgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff – G.I. Gurdjieff in short. Then there is that “bone of contention,” the year he was born. It is known that he was born in Alexandropol, renamed Leninakan, today’s Armenian city of Gumri. A website, accessible through Google, informs me that Gumri is “one of the oldest cities in the world.”
Information suggests Gurdjieff was born about 1866. “Though extant documentary evidence has his birth year as 1877, I continue to suppose that the man I knew in 1948 and 1949 was in his eighties, rather than in his early seventies.” Thus Taylor agrees with Moore (1866) and not with Webb (1874). As for his day of birth, the man himself celebrated New Year’s Day, whether Jan. 1 (Orthodox style) or Jan 13 (Gregorian style).Some evidence favours a less symbolic date: December 28.
Gurdjieff had no children with his wife or partner Julia Osipovna Ostrovska, but Taylor argues that by other women he had four sons and two daughters and Taylor names them. He also devotes some sentences to the suggestion that the young Joseph Dzhugashvili (later known as Stalin) was “his one-time school mate” and well known to the Gurdjieff family in the late 1890s. “It is difficult to extract any certainty out of the apparent contradictory accounts. We can posit the probability that Gurdjieff and Stalin were aware of each other sometime or another before the turn of the century.” It is also possible that he was personally acquainted with the young Maxim Gorky.
The twenty-one years from 1892 to 1913 correspond to Gurdjieff’s “wandering years” or years of quest, and Taylor spends almost as many pages as years trying to follow, to reconstruct his journeys, trying to balance accounts in the literature with those in oral and other traditions. “Gurdjieff measured out life events in cyclical pulsations of time rather than in a linear chronological flow of measured segments. His written recollections are quite purposely not fitted into a continuous flow of a total life experience.”
Everyone knows about the Seekers of Truth, whom he met accidentally near the pyramids in Egypt in 1893 or 1895. There were three seekers: Gurdjieff himself, Prince Lubovedsky, and Professor Skridlov. (The two men’s names bear symbolic meanings: “carriers of love” and “to hide, conceal” respectively.) As to the identity of the Seekers, “he is consistently a single quester, which makes sense considering that his quest is ultimately to discover himself.”
Taylor writes, “Gurdjieff paused for over two years in separate stays in a Muslim Dervish monastery somewhere in Central Asia.” There is no evidence that he ever passed as a Muslim. He claimed he visited Tibet, but evidence is lacking that he appeared as a Buddhist. Gurdjieff seems to have covered his tracks. It is a red herring to confuse him with Agwan Dordjieff or Ushe Nazunoff, secret agents who were conspirators in what is known as the Great Game.
Taylor surmises that Gurdjieff’s “wandering years” were punctuated in 1900-01 with a period spent in St. Petersburg where he was associated with the development of experimental therapies, applying Tibetan and Mongolian medical practices, partly to deal with common drug and alcohol dependencies. Here he would have met the designer Nicholas Roerich and Agwan Dordjieff. “It is easy to imagine Gurdjieff working with these persons, all of whom he knew personally at one time or another.”
A.R. Orage is the source of the suggestion that, in 1901-02, Gurdjieff “served the thirteenth Dalai Lama as collector of monastic dues, a service that gave him access to every monastery in Tibet.” Suffice it to say that there is no evidence for this suggestion. Also conjectural is Gurdjieff’s visit to St. Petersburg in 1909 where he is said to have established a quasi-Masonic lodge!
It is known that he established himself in Moscow where his mission to the West began. In a sense he “enters history” here. Gurdjieff’s Russian years, spent in Moscow and St. Petersburg, extended from 1912 to 1917, whereupon he left the country never to return. He seems to had gathered his first pupils by 1915, and among them were the sculptors Dmitri Sergeivich Mercourov and Vladimir Pohl. It was Pohl who introduced his friend P.D. Ouspensky to Gurdjieff.
In turn, Ouspensky brought into the circle the psychiatrist Leonid Stjernvall and perhaps the mathematician A.A. Zaharoff. It was the mathematician who introduced the musician Thomas de Hartmann and his wife Olga to the work. An exotic touch is that Gurdjieff may have moved in imperial circles and may have met not only Tsar Nicholas II but also the notorious monk Rasputin who may have been cured of his drug dependency by the aforementioned Tibetan medicines.
Well documented are the years 1917, 1918, and 1919, which take Gurdjieff from Moscow to Constantinople. There are references to “the memoirs of Elizaveta de Stjernvall” and there is a passing reference to “Jeanne de Salzmann’s unpublished memoirs” which presumably describe this restless period. There follows a mosaic of details of life in Sochi and Essentuki where they presented themselves as The Communal House of the International Philosophico-Worker Union of Essentuki, a name that name would appeal to the White Army. Another name used was “International Alliance of Ideological Workers,” which was designed to appeal to the Red Army.
The entire group – followers, emigrés, family members, all fleeing conditions in Russia – numbered some eighty-five persons. It was while at Essentuki, with its concentration on communal work, that Ouspensky began to distance himself. “Curiously, though Ouspensky moved away from Gurdjieff several times since arriving in the South, he kept coming back, even without Gurdjieff’s invitation.”
The group’s long trek across the Caucasus from August to October 1918 is described in great detail. It begins to sound like the long, character-testing marches of Mohammed, the Mormons, the Mounties, and Mao’s Long March. Character-building, indeed! “Gurdjieff, well past mid-life in the second half of 1918, had undertaken an extraordinary risk, but taking risks was the principal way of developing a higher being. What seems remarkable to one viewing this adventure from a distance is that Gurdjieff knew exactly what he was doing and what materials he need to do it.” Further: “Every step taken was an exercise in what he called ‘intentional suffering,’ doing what one does neither necessarily want to do, nor understand punctually the purpose of the doing.”
In Tbilisi in 1919, the rag-tag group was augmented by Alexander de Salzmann and his pregnant wife Jeanne, a student of the eurhythmics work of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, as well as Valdemar Hinzenberg and his wife Olga Ivanovna Lazovich with their infant daughter Svetlana. They were joined by Elizaveta (Lili) Galumnian Chaverdian, a dancer, and they entertained Carl Bechhofer Roberts and Frank Pinder. Many flowers that came to blossom at Fontainebleau-Avon were planted in the rough terrain of the Caucasus. In the fall, “The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man” was founded – or refounded, as it seems it was originally established in Russia in 1912.
The group spent from July 1920 to August 1921 in Constantinople, ostensibly as refugees from Russia. They became people of interest to John Godolphin Bennett who initially confused Gurdjieff with Agwan Dordjieff. Ouspensky, living in Constantinople, “confided to Gurdjieff that he was compiling his Petersburg and Essentuki notes into a volume tentatively entitled ‘Fragments of an Unknown Teaching,’ and Gurdjieff nodded assent.” Ouspensky’s lectures attracted Tchesslav Tchechovitch, not to mention Alphons Paquet and Boris Mouravieff. It was the latter who asked Gurdjieff where he had found his ideas. Gurdjieff replied, “I stole them.”
Established in Essentuki, the Movements were performed in public in Constantinople where performances were reviewed by dance critics familiar with Sufi movements in the press. To at least one commentator in February 1921 and to “other Sufi experts,” “Gurdjieff’s sacred dances were both projections of planetary movements and demonstrations of universal laws, whereas the Dervish dances played out a cosmic drama experiences [sic] by the human soul descending from the Absolute down to the material world.” The group was in Constantinople for just over a year. Ouspensky left for London, and Gurdjieff and his group for Germany.
The interlude in Germany, where the Salzmanns and the Hartmanns had friends and spoke the language, lasted from August 1921 to July 1922. It was punctuated by Gurdjieff’s three visits to London where he addressed groups assembled by Ouspensky which included Kenneth Walker and Maurice Nicoll. England proved insular and unattainable but ideal for Ouspensky. Gurdjieff resolved to re-establish his Institute in France.
Paris and soon Fontainebleau-Avon proved to be promising after difficult times in the Caucasus, Constantinople, and London. Paris was swarming with Russian emigrés as well as expatriate Americans fleeing isolationism and prohibition. The Salzmanns meet (accidentally on purpose perhaps) Jessmin Howarth, a Dalcroze instructor and ballet director at the Paris Opera, so the Movements begin again at the Dalcroze studio on Rue Vaugirard. They are joined by the editor A.R. Orage, who edits “The New Age,” and the psychiatrist James Carruthers Young.
On October 1, 1922, Gurdjieff took possession of the Priory at Fontainebleau-Avon where he was joined by a great number of pupils and acquaintances from the Continent. Orage arrived, followed by Katherine Mansfield, known as Katia at the Priory. Taylor lists the names of some two dozen people who arrived from England, and the roll-call is a familiar one: Pinder, Nicoll and his wife, Young and his wife, the Metz brothers, Merston, Lady Rothermere, Jessmin Howarth, etc. “In all, there seems to have been some fifty to sixty persons residing at the Prieuré at one time or another in the year following its purchase.” It seems there were no French people in attendance.
Memoirs of the exciting and exhausting life at the Priory are numerous, so Taylor is able to focus on events on a seasonal basis. He notes Gurdjieff’s ability to “step on corns” to shock people into self-observation and to act as a jack-of-all-trades. He is under surveillance as the French authorities learn that “he was a Mason who practiced hypnotism”!
Celebrities came into his orb and left it. “The American poet Ezra Pound, whom Orage had promoted in London, was in Paris on his way to a new life in Italy when he met and talked with Gurdjieff. They enjoyed each other’s company, and Pound volunteered to judge a cooking contest between Gurdjieff and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, awarding the crown to Gurdjieff.”
Then the Americans arrived, an illustrious roster of famous names: Djuna Barnes, Peggy Guggenheim, Sinclair Lewis, and perhaps Gertrude Stein. The “Georgian toast tradition” was introduced as “toasts to idiots” with twenty-one levels of idiocy. Interestingly Taylor notes, “Gurdjieff refused to discuss the toasts except at the table.” Much information is supplied about the demonstration of the Movements at the ten performances at the Theatre of the Champs Elyseés in late December 1923.
Taylor has devoted an entire book to Gurdjieff’s nine visits to the United States, and while he has unearthed additional information for his new book, largely from newspaper coverage of demonstrations of the Movements, here the details will be glossed over in the interest of saving time. Taylor is able to synthesize the published accounts of the group’s movements and activities, even proving on that trip that there never was a demonstration in Philadelphia. Gurdjieff did say, “All must get to Philadelphia,” but Taylor suggests that in Gurdjieff’s mind the city in question is located “not in eastern Pennsylvania, but east of Ephesus in Asia Minor.” Gurdjieff regarded the United States in an odd way: “America is the backdoor to Asia.” His first visit for the entourage of two dozen people (all of whom are named) was a long one which extended from January 2 to June 15, 1924.
The result of the first American journey was the installation of Orage as Gurdjieff’s point man in the United States. Upon returning to the Priory on 15 June 1924, he faced “Mrs. Serious Trouble.” The immediate problem was that of the outstanding debt on the Priory, principally the sum of $2,000 owed on the mortgage. Americans, including Stanley Nott and Jean Toomer, begin to arrive, but they did not bring a flow of capital. The suggestion is made that Gurdjieff was giving some thoughts to closing the Priory when “the accident” occurred. The Citroën he was driving ran into a tree at a cross road near Chailly-en-Bière, north of Barbizon, between Paris and Fontainebleau-Avon.
The accident took place on Saturday afternoon, 5 July 1924. Or did it? There is evidence it occurred the next afternoon. Various and varied accounts of what happened and its consequences are duly credited and discredited. Except that there were no eye-witnesses to the event, there is an old Russian proverb that could be recalled: “Nobody lies like an eye-witness.” Apparently the sole witness – the victim himself – told Jane Heap and the author’s mother Edith Taylor, “I sick man, truth very weak, now institute die for everybody.” No longer did Gurdjieff plan to summer at the Priory and spend autumn or winter in the Untied States. Indeed, plans were put in motion in August to liquidate the priory.
A new direction was signalled when, five or six weeks following the accident, Gurdjieff told Edith Taylor, “I wish write book. Surprised? No? Some time in life every man must write book, but such book already I begin, and if you very much wish we can even English read.” Taylor is quite good at discussing the evolution of the text of “Beelzebub’s Tales” which Gurdjieff dictated and also drafted in pencil. It is usually said that tranches were dictated to his secretary Lili Galumnian in Armenian, which she translated into Russian, and Hartmann with the assistance of Bernard Metz translated these into English. Gurdjieff also scribbled notes in Russian at the Café Henri IV in Fontainebleau and at the Café de la Paix in Paris. Taylor says there is no evidence that Gurdjieff ever composed anything in Armenian, but solely in Russian, which Olga de Hartmann, the author himself, and Orage translated into English. In late 1925, Orage was entrusted with the task editing of the bulky manuscript and with the ordeal of contacting possible publishers and raising the sums required for this. All of this is worthy of a George Steiner, the polyglot scholar who regularly lectures in four languages!
The sums of money raised by Orage and Toomer in New York towards the publication of the manuscript and the work of the Institute, as well as the misunderstandings around them, must have caused Taylor to burn the midnight oil. He also offers detailed accounts of motor trips to Orleans and Vichy, then to Geneva, Contreville, Nevers, and Rouen. In the midst of all this coming and going, Orage was editing “Beelzebub,” the “first series,” and Gurdjieff was working on the “second series,” that is, “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” Rumoured to be in the works but sight unseen was the “third series.” Orage proposed that the three volumes be published at the same time.
As a Canada-watcher, I was surprised to read that early in 1926, “Orage was off in Quebec with Jessie Dwight, Sherman Manchester and Daly King, ostensibly to scout the possibilities for a group in Montreal.” Years would pass before the city would acquire a group. The original initiative took place as Orage was about to marry Jessie, to Gurdjieff’s consternation. Gurdjieff called her a “squirming idiot,” and her husband his “super idiot.” As well, Gurdjieff came to the conclusion that “Beelzebub” would have to be revised and rewritten in order to reflect “the peculiar form of my mentation” which would be otherwise lost to the average reader. He felt the loss of his voice in Orage’s version.
Taylor reminds us, “It is easy to lose sight of the person of Gurdjieff behind a banal chronology of the dates, events, and movements that fill a biography.” Yet nothing about this book is “banal,” though at the same time there is nothing about it that is “miraculous,” except the biographer’s need to mediate the truth of the various memoirs of participants and the reconstructions of various historians. Taylor is unique in that he is both a participant and an historian. In an interesting aside, he tries to account for his subject’s uniqueness as a human being.
“One can presume that he possessed certain virtues: mechanical inventiveness, artistic creativity, powers of persuasion, medical and psychological skills, but these fail to characterize the humanity of the man.” He continues, “One can wonder how he attracted so many people of diverse bloods and backgrounds. That he possessed hypnotic powers is obvious, that he used them for the good of others is apparent.”
The reader wonders where this is heading. Here is the heart of the matter: “One aspect of Gurdjieff’s character that is not recorded sufficiently, however, was his paternal comportment. Gurdjieff was father to all those children who ‘knew him in the sky.’ There were always at least a dozen about him at the Prieuré, and he enjoyed their company, just as they felt comfortable in this. There was a ‘purity’ of communication between him and the children.” I have cut the paragraph short in the interest of economy, but it is apparent that the author identifies with these children.
The Great Depression brought an end to transatlantic extravagance, and a sign of the times is that Lady Rothermere explained that she would no longer contribute to the support of the Institute. “Instead she was supporting Krishnamurti and T.S. Eliot’s ‘Criterion.’” Fund-raising would have to be done in America, hence Gurdjieff’s second visit on 23 Jan. 1929. It was difficult going and Orage said that he wanted to resume his literary career. The Hartmanns were pressured into leaving the Priory. The turning point seemed to be “after Gurdjieff told Olga her husband was a pederast.”
Americans did not flock to the Priory that summer but one woman who did was Mildred Gillars, who in later years became one of the broadcasters on Radio Berlin who was dubbed “Axis Sally” and subsequently convicted of treason. It is not known what effect her visit had on her, as she was a woman of many parts and no fixed resolve. Gurdjieff’s third American visit took place in February 1929, where he was greeted on the gangway by Louise Welch and Dorothy Wolfe. While in New York, Gurdjieff gave thought to restructuring the groups there in the absence of Orage. The visit did not entice many Americans to visit the Priory in the summer of 1930.
The fourth visit extended from 11 Nov. 1930 to 13 March 1931. Taylor gives hotel locations and even the text of the classified advertisement that appeared in the “New York Times” on 12 Nov. 1930. “Lost. Portfolio Brown marked G. Gurdjieff containing typewritten manuscript left in taxi Tuesday midnight. Reward offered for return to 204 West 59th Street.” Taylor writes, “One can assume that the manuscript was a draft of the third series.” That may be true but one wonders if the placing of the classified ad had some other undisclosed purpose.
It is on this trip that Gurdjieff staged his confrontation with Orage. What was the meaning of it? It was “a fascinating episode in the lives of two close friends and a mystery as to why they parted ways. I say ‘would appear’ because exactly what happened in the complex play between the two during those months, particularly during the first two weeks of January, could not be understood by those who did not know both men personally, and a puzzlement to even those who were close to both.”
Taylor calls the reversal “an axial turn in both their fortunes … an epiphany.” The author is at his best here, reconciling detailed accounts, but I will leave the matter with Taylor’s statement: “It is difficult from this distance to comprehend the extraordinary ‘power’ Gurdjieff exercised over those who came in contact with him personally. That he was held in awe by persons of various artistic and scientific persuasions is well documented. It is easy enough for current spectators to assume he was a charlatan with malefic hypnotic powers.”
Indeed, he quotes the literary critic Frank Kermode who wrote that “some gurus are wrong and others are dangerous: Gurdjieff is both wrong and dangerous.” Taylor finds no evidence for such a view among the dozen men and women who had first-hand knowledge of the events that ensued. He concludes, “Gurdjieff did not insist that his pupils should devote their lives to following him …. Gurdjieff made it a practice to send those people who have reached a certain stage in the work back into the world.” Yet his followers seemed to bounce back like India-rubber balls.
Taylor devotes ten closely reasoned pages to the breach in their relationship. He calls Gurdjieff’s version of the split a “fable” that eschews “fact” and describes it as a “morality play, or parable,” “post-modernist fiction.” In fact, he goes to some length to interpret Gurdjieff’s redaction of events of history as presented in the “third series” by contextualizing episodes, whether real or imagined, “into seven and three year periods, representing the Laws of Seven and Three that are the creative and maintaining forces of the cosmos.”
I find I am uncertain what to make of Taylor’s interpretation of Gurdjieff’s revision of the historical record (so much seems to be ad hoc), but I find it ingenious. As Gurdjieff told Ouspensky in St. Petersburg, “There is nothing that shows up a man better than his attitude towards the work and the teacher after he has left it.”
Apparently the traveller and artist Nikolai Roerich, who attended Gurdjieff’s meetings in 1930-31, had been a member of his “1909 lodge” in Moscow and that he was associated with Claude Bragdon, the architect (once described as a minor version of Frank Lloyd Wright) and co-translator of Ouspensky’s “Tertium Organum.”
The chapter titled “20 March 1931 – 4 June 1935: End of the Institute” has a cast of wholly new characters. There is Toomer’s colony at Portage, Wisconsin, Toomer’s bride Margery Latimer, Zona Gale, Katherine Klenert (sister of Georgia O’Keeffe), and others. It coincides with the semi-print production of one thousand copies of the 638-page mimeographed version of “Beelzebub’s Tales” sold to group members at $10 a copy. The fifth visit took place in 1931-32, and once in New York he was interviewed by Rom Landau in “God Is My Adventure.” Tall tales are told, some of them from Child’s restaurant on 57th Street, where Gurdjieff met with his followers and others.
The priory in its dilapidated state was vacated and seized for debt (owing was the sum of $17,000) in May of 1933, and Gurdjieff shifted his headquarters to Paris where he was joined by many Russian expatriates and he met with his pupils. Eventually he moved into an apartment on the second floor of Rue des Colonels Renard not far from the Arch of Triumph.
Taylor checked shipping records for a phantom “sixth visit” to the United States in 1932 but finds no evidence for such a transatlantic crossing. Orage refused to edit the text of “The Herald of Coming Good,” so the task was undertaken by Payson Loomis, who had willingly worked on “Beelzebub,” in the first half of 1933. As Taylor notes, this booklet was the only work of his to appear in print during his lifetime. It was issued at the time when Gurdjieff’s fortunes were the lowest: his American prospects were, like his British prospects, nil.
Yet he sailed for New York for the sixth time, on 20 April 1934, and remained in the United States longer than ever before. There is much to-ing and fro-ing, with Gurdjieff travelling to Chicago and then to Taliesin East, invited by Olgivanna and Frank Lloyd Wright. He had hoped to establish a group at Taos, but Mabel Dodge Luhan was inhospitable. He toyed with the idea of replacing Toomer as a fundraiser with Olgivanna, which seemed a senseless notion. After one of their dinners, with architectural apprentices present, Wright and Gurdjieff sparred: “Well, Mr. Gurdjieff, this is very interesting. I think I’ll send some young people to you in Paris. Then they can come back to me and I’ll finish them off.” Gurdjieff replied furiously: “You finish! You are idiot …. No, you begin, I finish!” Not as a devoted spouse but gracious as a host, Olgivanna sided with Gurdjieff.
Before he left for France, Gurdjieff broke off relations with Toomer who said, in despair, “I have reached the limit of my possibilities.” He became a fan of American movies, explaining, as Fritz Peters recalled, “The hopes, dreams and desires of Americans in general … were very accurately portrayed in films. In fact, he said that only in the movies was the prevalent attitude towards sex, for example, revealed for what it really was.” The visit ended, in a sense, with the airplane crash on 6 May 1935 that took the life of Bronson M. Cutting, a wealthy U.S. Senator who was reputed to be interested in committing funds to the revival of the Institute. There is no new information about this subject and the next chapter is appropriately called “4 June 1935 – 1 September 1939: Marking Time.”
Gurdjieff’s visit to Germany is well documented by Taylor who has access to his subject’s various passports and visas. It seems unlikely he visited Persia or Leningrad, as had been conjectured. There is information about Soviet government agents and bureaucrats, including Cheka officers – exploited some years ago by a Russian-language TV special produced in Moscow – but what passes for information is principally conjecture, speculation, hearsay, and rumour, the kind of “factoid” beloved of conspiratorialists who are now called “truthers.” Taylor concludes, “It is probable that Gurdjieff did not go there at all.”
The record is spotty for 1935. “What he was doing in Belgium during the weeks between 8 September and 4 October is still unexplained.” Back in Paris, his four-year association with the members of The Rope is described, as well as some of his quasi-medical practices that involve injections and the transfer of electrical impulses. With the ladies he conversed about many subjects, including language. He despised English: “I can pronounce 400 consonants for your 36 … America worst nation for sound-producing.”
In 1936, he moved into Apartment 6, Rue des Colonels Renard, a lovely flat maintained to this day in his memory. In 1938, through Jeanne de Salzmann, he met Vera and René Daumal the poet, Henriette and Henri Tracol, Philippe Lavastine who was married to Salzmann’s daughter Natalie, journalist René Zuber and writer Luc Dietrich, the advent of the belated interest of the French in the Work.
The seventh American visit, which commenced on 8 March 1939 and concluded on 19 May 1939, is covered in some detail, including the purchase by Louise and Walter March of Spring Farm in Bloomingburg, N.Y. Various other Work locations are described, including Toomer’s Mill House, Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania. In an uncharacteristic linguistic flair, Taylor writes, “Mother World War II, following Grandmother Russian Revolution, showed her face to Gurdjieff.”
The subtitle of this next section is “The Occupation of Paris.” Ouspensky and his family members moved to the United States. Gurdjieff, having just returned from that country, now gave some thoughts to returning there. Ouspensky’s pupils who remained in England joined groups led by Maurice Nicoll, Kenneth Walker, or J.G. Bennett, and not Jean Heap’s. In Paris, Gurdjieff’s pupils, either dead or dispersed by the vicissitudes of war and occupation, left him high and dry.
The descriptions of the comings and goings on two continents of these disciples recalls the celebrated paragraph in “Brideshead Revisited” in which Evelyn Waugh details the movements of families following the surprising decision made by Lord Marchmain, after decades of life abroad, to return to his family seat.
Conditions during the Occupation are interesting in themselves but somewhat peripheral to the biography. Indeed, Madame de Salzmann, from her hometown, Geneva, and on visits to Paris, directed students his way and kept the Movements going at the Salle Pleyel. “Most of the French were artists and writers who, for one reason or another, were exempt from military service or forced labor in Germany. The sole survivor from the Prieuré days was Tchesslav Tchechovitch, who had been with Gurdjieff in Constantinople twenty years earlier.”
Transcriptions of Gurdjieff’s talks to these groups “revealed a softened style of teaching resembling his Petersburg and Moscow manner During World War I.” Indeed, he survived the Occupation in some style. Taylor examines suggestions that he dealt on the black market and hoarded food, but concludes: “It is easier to suppose that Gurdjieff maneuvered among the Germans in the same manner he had managed with Bolshevik and White Russian administrations a quarter of a century earlier.”
Following the liberation, American friends and students sought him out. Former students who had now established their own groups reappeared – Stavely, Heap, Nyland, etc. – as did Pentland, Bennett, the Wolfes, Anderson, Caruso, the Herters, etc. In charge was Madame de Salzmann.
The biography proper ends with the chapter incongruously titled “16 December 1948 – 29 October 1949: Infinity and Finity Conjoined, Eighth and Final Visit to America.” English groups helped Gurdjieff with current expenses and American groups helped him to liquidate his debts. In New York, he revived the Movements with Alfred Etievant, and Jessmin Howarth did the same at Franklin Farms.
It is a period of grand reunions. “Many were surprised and pleased by Gurdjieff’s demeanor. He seemed to be on a peace mission to mend broken bridges to former pupils of Orage, Toomer and Ouspensky.” As Taylor notes, he paid particular attention to the youngsters brought to him by their parents. “On the whole, the children were in awe of Gurdjieff, and he treated them as ‘candidates for initiation.’” With the toasts, a child was an “unformed idiot” or “aspirant for ordinary idiot.”
I had long been curious as to why French students identified themselves as “adepts.” Taylor writes, “Gurdjieff had Pentland send out a circular letter under Gurdjieff’s Paris address to all his ‘adepts’ announcing the forthcoming publication” of “Beelzebub.” The sum of $25,000 was subscribed to Harcourt Brace to issue the book. Lord Pentland handled the negotiations. Apparently the publisher requested no subsidy for Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous.”
Interesting details about the work being done in Paris upon his return in February 1949 appears here, punctuated with automobile journeys around France. But he was not well, suffering abdominal edema associated with cancer of the pancreas. “On 27 October, thanks to Dr. William Welch’s intervention, he was admitted to the American Hospital of Paris.” He died two days later. “If he was eighty-three years of age, he died at the same age as his father thirty-one years earlier.”
A short chapter titled “Postscript: Gurdjieff and Meta-history” follows, in which Taylor notes, “Shortly before he died, as I was about to return to New York, he told me that I owed him stories, and I have been spinning stories about him for the past several years, but have not yet acquitted my debt.” He discusses the nature of “objective facts shaped into subjective designs.” He has certainly dispatched that obligation. “In my writings I have struggled to expose what I feel is not quite the truth in the process of elaborating what is, for the moment, what appears to be the truth.” This section is sobering in that limitations of previous memorists and biographers, including the “two Jameses,” are discussed.
“Were I to state my own general assessment of Gurdjieff’s career, I would say that he possessed and exercised an exceptional genius for influencing other people to work for their own ‘perfection of being.’ If there was a flaw in his method, it was an implicit conception of self as a model for emulation, whereas the man, in my opinion, could not be emulated. Perhaps he judged the intellectual, moral and physical possibilities of others too highly.”
It seems apparent to me at least that those men and women – those adepts – who knew the man personally were in no position whatever to separate the man from the message, so to speak: the movement, the system, the “special doctrine,” the Fourth Way, or the Work as it is now known. Much was gained, but at the same time much was contained.
Following such sober assessments as these there is the arresting chapter called “Excursus: Gurdjieff and Women.” It is three pages in length. Taylor neatly summarizes its argument in one sentence: “That man is superior to women is apodictic in his writings.” Feminists will find the instances of male chauvinism that appear here to be alarming. Taylor himself finds them disarming. He is to be congratulated for presenting them in print.
In the immediate aftermath of this line-by-line reading of Taylor’s biography, perhaps some stray thoughts of the reviewer are in order. This undertaking was neither an ordeal nor a romp, but an instructive experience. The author has created a giant, Byzantine-like mosaic that consists of colourful bits and pieces of stone selected for size and shape. The overall pattern makes greater sense viewed close up than it does viewed from a distance.
Taylor himself is ideally suited and situated to follow this life of Gurdjieff with a composite biography of “the women of the Work.” If he excludes the women of “the Rope,” who have already been well described by William Patrick Patterson, he could concentrate on the Madames – Ostrowska, Ouspensky, Saltzman, Hartmann, Hinzenberg – and fill a need, especially in light of his “Excursus.”
After I turned the final page – number 247 – of my copy of this book – which is itself mechanically numbered 185 – a short passage from a long poem came into my head, form where I am not sure. It expresses the sense I have of what hovers over the panorama of the amazing characters and personalities who have been described and analysed in these pages with all their actions and reactions projected over a period of a century.
The passage comes from the philosophical poem “The Prelude” (1805) in which William Wordsworth wrote evocatively about the sense of the yet greater forms that lurk within the great natural forms around us:
” … o’er my thoughts / There hung a darkness, call it solitude / Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes / Remained, no pleasant images of trees, / Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields; / But huge and mighty forms, that do not live / Like living men, moved slowly through the mind / By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.”
John Robert Colombo lives in Toronto and is a specialist in Canadiana. His most recent publications include “The Big Book of Canadian Hauntings” (an anthology of accounts of psychical experiences) and “Indifferences” (a selection of his own aphorisms). His website is colombo-plus.ca
Bernie Taupin and Elton John
“It is on your own self-knowledge and experience that the knowledge and experience of everything else depend.”So spoke the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing more than 600 years ago, in what is the greatest work of mysticism in the English tongue known to me (see ch 43 of Clifton Wolters’ translation). As I said in the first Elton John blog, it is through knowledge of this life and our selves that we come to knowledge of a higher life and, once more, our selves. But, of course, our experience of our selves on that other level is quite different.
And so it is that I return to Elton John, because I sense that sometimes something sublime comes from beyond and can be felt through the songs Of all their work, perhaps John and Taupin touch the sublime most often on these songs of self-knowledge, such as “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”, “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “The Sweetest Addiction”.
Other than John Lennon, I can think of no other artistes of their era like Elton John and Bernie Taupin for excelling in what I might call “songs of self-knowledge” or perhaps “songs of reflective biography “. Certainly, I do not know of anyone else in popular music who has developed such a sustained corpus of work over a period of 30 years. I think that Taupin’s work is marked by an impartiality and even fearlessness as much as Lennon’s was. After all, Taupin is writing lyrics for another person to set to music and perform, and not just anyone, but Elton John.
Meditating on the Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy album led me to a discovery which really should have been apparent before, but had somehow escaped me. And that is that although we exclusively think of Taupin as someone who writes the words, he is in a very real way, a musician. His instrument just happens to be his words, an instrument few can master, and his great achievement is that he developed his art to the lofty degree where his words sing on the page with an unheard melody. Incidentally, much as I respect Dylan’s achievements, I don’t hear that much self-knowledge in his songs, although there is certainly tremendous insight and his lyrics often have the musicality I find in Taupin’s. But in the end, Dylan seems to me to hide behind his presentation, while John and Taupin reveal, and so whatever self-understanding he has remains in obscurity. Only outside of popular music, for example with Gerard Hopkins, do I find even more self-knowledge and musicality combined than I do in Taupin.
However, we must come back to this fundamentally important question of the search for self-knowledge. If one has been touched by the search, then the questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” always demand a response, although – and perhaps even because – they can never be answered once and for all. If we speak of self-knowledge, then because it is self-knowledge, we can take no one else’s word for it. Self-discovery is only possible because a higher part of us is impartial. When I see myself, the lower self becomes transparent to a higher part in myself, and that higher part operates under entirely different rules, and has different powers.
Even if I am alone in my room, yet all of my learning takes place within a socially-constructed world, and I am forever learning from and with others. It is not just that we can compare ourselves to others, find similarities and draw distinctions. Neither is it just that we can get good ideas, or follow other people’s methods. We can also, to an extent, recognize ourselves in others. This doesn’t mean seeing that the details of our loves are identical, although this can occur. More deeply, it means seeing the human condition beneath the accidental facts and biographical details; seeing that we all share in this common humanity, and that we make it what it is in all its inexhaustible variety.
The essential self may be approximately described in words, and we can even figure out some things about ourselves with our intellects, but it’s only discovered through feeling, and, of course, there are levels of feeling and hence of self-knowledge. But affirmation of the goodness of life is a feeling impulse which will bring impartiality. This entails seeing myself without undue self-appreciation or self-hatred. Full and complete impartiality, however, is a function of the essential self, the soul. The soul brings something trans-personal in self-knowledge, an awareness of a call, a memory of something always just forgotten.
When I speak of songs of self-knowledge I am not speaking of narcissism. “My Way” is narcissistic and self-congratulatory, but as we shall see, the music I’m discussing is not. It is not spiritual, either, and yet it isn’t divorced from the spirit. Perhaps the first striking feature of these “songs of self-knowledge” is their quantity: John and Taupin entered the field in a convincing way with 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and updated this tour de force on 2006’s The Captain and the Kid. These were albums completely devoted to reflection on their own history as artistes. In addition, there are many songs of this genre on The Fox, Made in England, Songs from the West Coast, and Peachtree Road. The theme clearly means a great deal to them, and has meant more as they grow older, having both more material and more leisure for reflection. To really understand what I am writing about, you will need to hear the music, beginning with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which for my money (and I’m not alone in this) is their greatest achievement, surpassing even the magnificent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In the discussion, I’ll be referring to the tracks as they were on the record, five tracks on each of its two sides. We shall see why a little later.
The first track, the title track, is a good example of Elton John’s originality: it sounds like no song you’ve ever heard before. Until the chorus, it has no almost melody, although it has a sound and a rhythm, and the effect of the song seems perhaps even stronger for all that. You know that this song was not produced in a hit factory, because small clusters of words are broken into islands of sense by a jagged phrasing and oddly placed emphasis: “Captain Fan-tastic … raised and regimented … hardly a hero … Just someone his mother might know.” This works, partly, I think, because he’s telling a story, and an achingly beautiful tune like that of “Your Song” might distract from the narrative, while the strength of the lyrics is quite sufficient to hold our attention and interest. “Raised and regimented”: it is hard to imagine that any three less assuming words could be found to say so much about what in a later song they would describe as a “repressed” youth.
Elton, of course, is Captain Fantastic, while Taupin is the Brown Dirt Cowboy, turning brown in his ‘saddle’ even as the precocious Captain inhabits the stimulating but artificial city. They are painted not quite as opposites, but as contrasts united by a common aspiration for the “honey the hive could be holding”. In a wonderful expression, their pursuit of their art takes them “from the end of the world to your town”. After all, wherever they are seems to them to be the end of the world, while wherever you are, and no matter how small a target, they are infallibly delivered to you through the electronic media. And yet, for them, their careers have been a ‘long and lonely climb’, which they also describe as walking on a wire and as ‘stepping in the ring’.
In an artistic touch of considerable finesse, these two characters, our hosts in this autobiography-for-two, are distinguished by their food. The Captain has cornflakes and tea with sugar: the Cowboy eats “sweet chocolate biscuits, and red rosy apples in summer”. Later in the song, when they are struggling to establish themselves in their chosen careers, they share the same food, “cheap easy meals”, which as Taupin wryly notes, “are hardly a home on the range”. I am fairly certain that readers will be able to point me to many examples of autobiography rock, hitherto unknown to me. And I’m quite sure that some of these will prove to be considerable achievements. But I’ll be very surprised if any of these use simple references to differences in diet with anything like the symbolic force that Taupin does.
There is a lot of history in these lines: one couplet juxtaposes the ‘City Slick Captain’ with the ‘still green and growing’ Cowboy. Then we’re told of “weak winged young sparrows that starve in the winter” and “broken young children on the wheels of the winners”. The Captain and the Kid must have seen a lot of callousness and even bastardry. The lyrics for a song called “Dogs in the Kitchen” were printed with the lyrics, although the song is not on the album, if it was ever recorded. The sentiments seem so raw that if Elton did them justice, the product may not have been a palatable release for the average record company. The very first line is: “All our innocence gave way to lust”. And that was the sweetener:
Poor boys fight to stay alive …
Uncage us, we’re restless, snarled the dogs in the kitchen.
Howling in the heatwave, riding all the bitchin’ ladies.
Who got the first bite in on the greasy bone?
… the vultures belch in their swivel chairs,
And the vampires all wear ties.
It is unnerving to think of writers being likened to greasy bones and quarrelled over by cannibalistic entrepreneurs. This gives us a gritty perspective on the title track, where Elton sings: “We’ve thrown in the towel too many times, our for the count when we’re down”. This is why I say that this is fundamentally a universe apart, and two dimensions deeper than Sinatra’s “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again …”.
However, even the most powerful missiles need to be launched and guided, and it’s the music which delivers these words. The real magic, for me, is in the combination. To start with, the simplicity of the title track is like innocence made audible. Then, at about 1’ 46” when Elton begins to sing about the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the music picks up. Steady country and western strumming effortlessly evokes an air of ‘childhood at home’ feel, but becomes ‘rockier’ as the song proceeds. This musical development naturally bridges the twin worlds of town and country, the passage from youth to adolescence, the fall from fruit to fat, and the journey from the idyllic woods to wherever we are. The important connection, of course, is between John and Taupin: “hand in hand went music and the rhyme”. One of the odd things is that while Elton is the city-slicker and is significantly called ‘the Captain’, he was, in some ways more vulnerable and innocent than Taupin: one has the feeling that the Cowboy was canny enough for the two of them. This masterly track nicely sets the stage, and introduces its heroes to the challenging world at the same time as it introduces them to us.
The very next track is the knowing “Tower of Babel”. Its first sounds are as ominous and resonant as two tolls on an undertaker’s bell: “Snow – cement – “ and we are immediately submerged in a world of barely speakable cynicism:
Were the darlings on the sideline
Dreaming up such cherished lies
To whisper in your ears before you die?
As with the title track, Taupin is not saying that their early years were tough. He is saying that they were facing starvation, and even the prospect of death. There is not much here about knowing yourself, but knowledge is demonstrated. Too often, we lie to ourselves about the past: we paint it in pictures either too black or too white. In each case we’re really trying to project an image of ourselves (“I understand and forgive all”, or the opposite). But there is no honesty without fearlessness. If someone was a bastard, why not say so? Here, someone has learned a lesson and tells the truth, let the chips fall where they may. Had he said it in those words, it would have sounded indulgent. But Taupin just tells it as it was, so we can take it or leave it. Then we’re into the chorus:
It’s party time for the guys in the Tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah, Cain meet Abel. …
Watch them dig their graves,
‘Cos Jesus don’t save the guys in the Tower of Babel.
The Biblical terms add a surprising solemnity, and universalise the experience of these two young men. Taupin will open his bible again, for example, on “Just like Noah’s Ark”, from The Captain and the Kid. It’s funny how often non-believers quote the Bible and appeal to Jesus and salvation. It’s also an odd image because the point of the Tower is that it was never completed. The ‘Babel’ here is both the ‘Babylon’ of John’s Apocalypse, the city of the harlot and unspeakable sin, and the Tower which is cast down and has became a symbol of false pride and arrogance. And it also fits the skyscrapers where the captains of industry lurk as if it were designed for them. So, even if it’s a rather anomalous metaphor, it’s nonetheless evocative and multi-dimensional. The crudity of their money-chase is underscored by the fact that, as even more than with the title track, there is no tuneful melodic line : it is as if the omen-like intensity of the words breaks their symphonic chains. But that changes at the chorus “It’s party time for the guys in the Tower of Babel. Sodom meet Gomorrah! Cain, meet Abel!”
So “Babel” is one raw and fiery song. The significance of its first black statement, the stark single word ‘Snow’, is obvious. The second verse opens with the knell of two words ‘Junk – Angel’, and takes us down beneath the floorboards into the company of cockroaches, where the dealers in the basement are “filling your prescription for a brand new heart attack”.
On track three, the tone softens with the beguilingly musical: “Bitter Fingers”. It opens in the voice of an entertainer addressing the songwriters:
I’m going on the circuit, doing all the pubs,
And I really need a song, boys, to stir those workers up,
And get their wives to sing it with me …
It isn’t that the entertainer is insincere, he’s just selfish, insensitive and second-rate. He’s been deeply dyed in the industry. After two bouncing verses of this blarney, the gears crunch, and Elton snarls:
It’s hard to write a song with bitter fingers,
So much to prove, so few to tell you why.
Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing
At the keyboard player’s hollow haunted eyes …
No more long days hocking hunks of garbage.
Bitter fingers never swung on swinging stars.
I had to cite those last two lines if not just for the alliteration. Although it is the first track on side two, I shall deal here with “Meal Ticket”. It covers something of the same ground as “Tower of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers”, but this time, it directly reveals what “Fingers” had only implied: that the songwriters could themselves be mercenary. I take it that, in the very first line, Elton is aggressively addressing music industry power brokers:
I can hound you if I need to,
Sip your brandy from a crystal shoe …
While the others climb reaching dizzy heights,
The world’s in front of me in black and white:
I’m on the bottom line, I’m on the bottom line.
… While the Diamond Jims
And the Kings Road pimps
Breathe heavy in their brand new clothes.
So here are both sides: the boys’ desperation, and the cynical, selfish parasitism which has driven them where they never thought to go. We’re now removed from the innocence of the title track by a margin that can be crossed but not measured:
And I gotta get a meal ticket.
To survive you need a meal ticket,
To stay alive you need a meal ticket.
Feel no pain, no pain; no regret, no regret.
When the line’s been signed you’re someone else.
I took this song out of turn because these last three songs, like “Dogs in the Kitchen”, deal directly with an important issue: how we relate to being abused. Here the abuse is bloodsucking by professionals in suits and ties, but in life we find countless other examples. The starting point is to see it for what it is. Of course we have been taught to love our enemies, but this does not mean to pretend that they are not your enemies or have not harmed you. One can aspire to say “Forgive them for they know not what they do”, although to be candid, one can know that but yet be incapable of feeling anything which corresponds to it. As the late George Adie said, that sentiment is the ultimate in impartiality. We are still learning to be impartial for short moments. The ultimate is not yet within grasp, though we must not give up on that account.
What I like about these three songs, indeed, what I respect, is that Taupin states his disgust in all its bare ugliness without excuse, apology or evasion. He does not indulge in hatred, he just paints what he saw and felt. It isn’t pretty, but it is arresting. It has, to my mind, something of the quality of some of Tennessee Williams’ work, which is noteworthy, because Taupin mentions him at least twice, on “Lies” from Made in England, and on “Old Sixty Seven” from The Captain and the Kid. Of course, Taupin was attracted to Williams’ work because of a pre-existing similarity of disposition, just as Lennon was. You could, perhaps, call it a thirst for the truth, accepting that someone may be hurt. And I have to add here that I just don’t believe people who urge ‘love’ as if it were as accessible to the heart as money to the hand. This is one area where Taupin has never, from what I can presently recall, slipped in syrup. Even on an early piece like “Border Song” on the Elton John album, he is aware that the love which ends enmities must be sweated and prayed for. Perhaps I shall come to that in a future article. For now, we have the powerful and almost transcendent close of side one: “Tell me when the Whistle Blows” and “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”.
“Whistle Blows” is a story of the country boy going back home for a visit: “And I still feel the need of your apron strings once in a while”. The London railway is seedy, and he himself feels like “a black sheep going home”. Yet, he’s drawn back, and wonders whether the “street kids (will) remember”, whether he can still play pool like he used to, and whether “this country kid (has) still got his soul”. I hear something big in the music, rather as if Elton John also related to it, although it’s really Bernie’s story. What I hear in it, and in its inspired string arrangement, is “moving on to the moment of truth”, if I can put it that way. Has he changed? Who is he now? How will others, his family and his peers receive him? What it comes down to, perhaps, is this: has he been true to himself?
Perhaps questioning yourself is always the first step to seeing yourself, and thus to self-knowledge. This song is Taupin’s record of questioning himself. Great as this song is, it’s greatest value perhaps, is to set the stage and open the curtain for what may be the strongest song this duo ever produced: “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”. On the record, this track closes side 1 with the closure of a red curtain at intermission; and these two tracks are balanced by the last two tracks on side 2, which reprise them in a different emotional key. If “Whistle Blows” is a story of going back home, “Someone” is the same story, but in tragic-triumphant tones, of returning home, to light from darkness. Just quickly, the loss of the two-side album has not only spelled the effective end of the art of record covers, but has robbed the artiste and their audience of the dramatic opportunity to close one side and open another. This is why the record is different from, and superior to the CD.
The piano and cymbals of “Someone Saved my Life Tonight” take us to a world far from that the black sheep waiting at the station, however near it may be in miles: “When I think of those East End lights, muggy nights, curtains drawn in the little room downstairs.”It is not innocent, and its stolid respectability is barely skin deep. The woman Elton almost married is hardly painted in flattering terms: “Prima donna, lord, you really should have been there; sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair”. He gets drunk so that he can’t hear her, and his friends are as legless as he is. We know that this is all true, and that to escape a marriage he felt he could not disavow, he tried to gas himself, but was saved by Long John Baldry. This is the song of the man who came through:
And someone saved my life tonight, sugar bear.
… You nearly had me roped and tied,
Altar bound, hypnotised.
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear,
You’re a butterfly, and butterflies are free to fly,
Fly away, high away … bye, bye!
The lyrics are almost stunning in places: “A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams. … Just a pawn outplayed by a dominating queen. … Saved in time, thank God my music’s still alive.”
This last line is the key to the album, that music equals life. Yet, as we shall see, there’s more. There is an odd kind of contemplative interlude, where he says “I would have walked head on into the deep end of the river”, almost as if he is somewhere above his body, watching it move. The same disembodied calm possesses the line “They’re coming in the morning with a truck to take me home”, the line which formally links this to “Whistle Blows”. Then the music swells until it is would be too intense to bear but for the band’s masterly restraint: “Someone saved my life tonight, so save your strength and run the field you play alone”.
Bear in mind that this is the man whom Bernie Taupin calls ‘The Captain’. And after Taupin wrote him these lyrics, he set them to music of singular potency and sang them. Somewhere or other, I came across that when it was being recorded, Gus Dudgeon asked Elton to put more emotion into his voice, until Davey Johnstone told him to let up: “he’s singing about an attempted suicide”, or words to that effect. That the Captain should submit himself to the ordeal is significant. It had a life purpose, it was written and recorded for a purpose, for fulfilment, not for money.
This is one of those songs where I feel that although the spirit is never mentioned, yet the music bears within itself something of the sublime. In the first blog, I wrote: “I call the ‘sublime’ that precious, subtle feeling of myself as if on the cusp of touching the mystery of eternity. It is the life of what Gurdjieff called the “higher emotional centre”, and its music is, as it were, music delivered through the flesh, but heard by the ears of the soul. … For example, when I listen, with quiet attention, to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” or “Funeral for a Friend”, I feel that there is something majestic swelling in and above the music, which calls me on and upwards.” And I’m not alone in that.
Now, as mentioned, side two opens with the visceral “Meal Ticket”, but from there, the mood of the record changes. Track two is the startlingly original “Better Off Dead”. Driven by the piano, Elton sounds almost derring-do. If a song were to be written for the Scarlet Pimpernel, this could be it. It’s early morning in the grimy city, people are being arrested as the fag end of the night plays itself out: there’s vandalism, and there’s trouble. And yet, here is life! As in “Someone Saved”, music and life are linked:
‘Cause the steam’s in the boiler, the coal’s in the fire!
If you ask how I am, then I’ll just say ‘inspired’!
If the thorn of the rose is the fire in your side,
Then you’re better off dead and you haven’t yet died.
Life is acknowledged, accepted and affirmed with its thorns and all. The means to affirmation is the music, or to be more precise, the feeling of self which comes through their music. This feeling comes through clearly and warmly on the next track: “Writing”:
Inspiration for navigation of our new found craft.
… Will the things we wrote today sound as good tomorrow?
Will we still be writing in approaching years?
… Don’t disturb us if you hear us trying
To instigate the structure of another line or two,
‘Cause writing’s lightin’ up,
And I like life enough to see it through.
I don’t think the music of this song is particularly wonderful, but it’s pleasant, and it allows one a nice breathing space between the precocity of “Better Off Dead” and the symphonic triumph of “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”, which really form one sustained statement. Here, the love we all happen to fall for is their music. Now not everyone writes music, but music here is a symbol of realising one’s potential, and love for what we have made of ourselves.
This is, I think, the manifesto of the album, if it has one. If the music is alive (not prostituted to the highest bidder), if it is your music, and you are true to yourself, everything life sends you can be accepted. We have seen how the preceding songs have provided the material of this ‘manifesto’, and it all comes together now on “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”
The song opens with some simple descending piano lines. It’s as if someone has walked into the room. Then Elton starts singing, describing the two of them, late at night on a subway station, tired and aching, but believing that “it’s all worth it, we all fall in love sometimes”. Accidentally or not, Elton’s accent falls equally on the three words “all – worth – it”. Exactly what it conveys, beyond the intuition that ‘it’ is something special, is hard to say; yet I feel meaning in it. Now comes the romance:
Full moon’s bright, starlight filled the evening,
We wrote it, and I played it,
It’s so strange this feeling.
Naive notions that were childish,
Simple tunes that tried to hide it.
When it comes, we all fall in love sometime.
The melody is simple, and has a subtle sway which comes more to the fore in the chorus: “Did we, didn’t we, should we, could we …”. The evocation of close-of-day fatigue married with the discovery of the wonders of their “newfound craft”, is as accomplished as it is – to my best knowledge – unique. In a funny way, such is the achievement of this song that there I have very little to say about it. To my ear, at least, these songs of self-knowledge are amongst the greatest songs of the last hundred years, and “We All Fall” is perhaps the jewel in the crown. It segues straight into “Curtains”, once more, a strikingly original song in melody, lyrics and format. Like the total track, it practically has no tunefulness, and yet, as chimes softly toll, its slowly paced incantation gives the lyrics an almost oracular status:
I used to know this old scarecrow,
He was my song, my joy and sorrow.
Cast alone between the furrows
Of a field no longer sown by anyone.
As with the previous song, there are no illusions that everything they wrote was brilliant. Yet, the old scarecrow is not disowned, and in one concise phrase we have a generous spectrum of feeling: “He was my song, my joy and sorrow”. The next words are given poignancy by the bells which have been unobtrusively sounding:
I held a dandelion that said the time had come,
To leave upon the wind, never to return,
When summer burned the earth again.
Cultivate the freshest flower
This garden ever grew.
In between these branches
I once wrote such childish words for you.
We have seen these motifs above, the country imagery, and the naivety of some of their earliest songs. But the themes are now drawn together and bring a coherent, almost convincing power, as Taupin refigures them. We have come now from summers in the saddle to summers which will never be repeated, from aspiration to achieving. Yes, the lyrics were naive:
But that’s okay, there’s treasure children always seek to find,
And just like us, you must have had A Once Upon A Time.
This is an important insight: we can punish ourselves for the mistakes of childhood and adolescence, but we were learning and, we can punish ourselves beyond any sane reason for our ignorance. This understanding is allowed its full weight by the evenly chanted spell which Elton John casts. Finally, there is a lengthy “outro” in which Elton and the vocalists compete in bursts of “o-o-o-o-o” and “lum-de-dum-de-day-do” while the drums rumble and the bells ring. No wonder Elton John’s output went into a slump after this. Where else could he go? If it is a law that every force has an equal and opposite reaction, then the law applies to output (which makes me think of how the Beatle’s greatest triumphs, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper were followed by the mediocre Magical Mystery Tour, and the splendid John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine by the barely listenable Some Time in New York City).
Captains Fantastic is the most perfectly executed concept album I have ever heard, forming a satisfying thematically unified whole. I mean that it makes a better album because, being integrated, it leaves one with a sense of the whole which rounds out any uneven spots along the way. It’s as if the weak points are effaced by the strengths, because after the title track, no song is beginning from zero point. There is a building, an accumulation, and it’s all gathered and harvested in the almost spectacularly brilliant “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”, two limbs of one musical statement.
More than I can recall in popular music, John and Taupin demonstrate the continuity between childhood and adulthood, acknowledge it, and understand that with the development there come also lawful changes. It is an album of metamorphosis. Although it’s never stated, there is something of the story of the Ugly Duckling here about Elton John: the nerd who grows up to reveal a soul of heroic steel.
The album is a statement of metamorphosis: the album cover, the work of Alan Aldridge and Harry Willcock, but conceived by Taupin, I believe, evokes a world of chimeras, unearthly combinations and familiar monstrosities. Once again, I have reason to mourn the passing of the album cover. Perhaps if CDs could be released within record sleeves? It is a manifesto of metamorphosis, because the message is that only if you are true to yourself and do not compromise on the music inside you (whatever form that music takes) can you realise your potential. This message is rather more explicitly developed on The Captain and the Kid, so I’m fortunate to have the advantage of hearing that music in my head as I consider this one.
While Captain Fantastic is about the lives of John and Taupin, it is also of almost universal relevance: it deals with ambition, love of life, sacrifice, great sadness, triumph, realism, creation, manipulation, excess, generosity of spirit, perseverance, and human existence. Ultimately, everyone can relate to its forceful artistic statement that life is worth living, despite the pain. And the statement is put all the more powerfully for not being put directly. If you let the music in, the enlightenment rises upon you, in all its splendour, and lives inside your feeling. Considering Captain Fantastic from that perspective, it’s clear why it is, at least in conception, superior to Yellow Brick Road.
But that’s not all. When I said that the message is that life is worth living, despite the pain, I think that there’s something else implied. And that is that you have to make it worth living. I would say that an aim is needed, and in Gurdjieff’s terms, this would be an aim to discover and develop your essential individuality. In Taupin’s terms, speaking about Elton and himself, it was the development of their musicianship. When he said “thank God my music’s still alive”, what was his highest gratitude for: himself or his muse? And yet, perhaps the two come down to the same thing.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.