Hunting The Horny-back Toad

hornytoad

Gumby has written here about the futility of asking one generation to understand another generation’s music. I think he’s mostly right, despite a few exceptions that prove the rule, like the Beatles getting rediscovered every twenty years, or that Canadian guy who thinks he’s Frank Sinatra. What Gumby didn’t mention is that there’s plenty of popular music that no one understands even when it’s brand new. I was in college when the Bee Gees detonated the vast, fetid stinkbomb that was “mainstream” disco music, and I think younger people today have a more objective grasp of that event than those of us who were trapped inside the catastrophe as it unfolded. And then there’s Elton John, whom I mention because I saw an old documentary last night about the making of his album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

1973 wasn’t a bad year for music. Several legendary rock bands of the day released legendary albums. The singer-songwriter movement was still in gear, and the real artist of the period, Joni Mitchell, was at the top of her form, in between Blue and Court and Spark. Where I lived we didn’t place Elton John in this sort of company. He’d written some unique and wonderful things (like “Rocket Man”) but also plenty of kitsch (like “Your Song”), and his biggest hit in the States had been “Crocodile Rock,” part of the inexplicable Fifties revival that seemed in those innocent days like the worst thing that could ever happen to pop music. With apologies to your little sister, as 1973 wound down, Elton John was somebody who mattered to your little sister and her friends at the junior high.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was different. It opened with “Funeral For A Friend,” in which synthesizers wandered through variations on a hymn-like theme for six minutes before anyone sang a word — overall, the track was fully eleven minutes long. Eggheads looked up from their Yes and Jethro Tull albums (which had no track divisions at all that year). Elton had created a rambling monstrosity that could never be played on the radio, and this earned him a few status points. Following it on side 1 was the now-familiar “Candle in the Wind,” which everyone agreed was a pretty song, even if we weren’t sure why you would choose 1973 as the time to get upset about Marilyn Monroe all over again. So far so good. In the UK, “Candle in the Wind” was released as the first big single from the album. In the US, they chose a different single, which is where the trouble started.

“Bennie and the Jets” was a prime example of that cultural paradox, the massively popular song that no one can stand. It plodded rhythmically, with just enough time elapsing after each thudding chord to raise your hopes, again and again, that the song might be over. “Hey kids,” the narrator begins — he seems to be on stage at a rock concert introducing the main act, and the sound of a large audience applauding is dubbed in throughout. (Why not? It worked on Sgt Pepper!) Pretty soon he’s telling us, in a weird falsetto, about some characters with names like Candy and Ronnie who read fan magazines and talk like the kids in Bye Bye Birdie. Probably this was meant to be parody, and in the hands of a Frank Zappa it would have been. But it backfired somehow on poor Elton, who when he tried to paint with a satirical brush often managed to just get it all over himself.

Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin later described “Bennie” as a song about a band of futuristic sci-fi automatons. I can’t explain this, because when I take away the references to the 1950s, the 1960s, and the gospel of Luke (“we’ll kill the fatted calf tonight”) I’m left with just two words: electric boots. But Taupin told Esquire magazine a couple of years ago that the song is futuristic and indeed “almost Orwellian.” By coincidence, yesterday a federal district court judge issued a ruling against the NSA’s massive collection of data about American citizens’ telephone calls, describing it as “almost Orwellian.” It could be the federal judge who has the better grasp of Orwell here, but you decide for yourself.

Another big hit from Yellow Brick Road was “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting,” in which the narrator expresses his intention of getting “about as oiled as a diesel train” and setting out on a night of violent aggression. We listened to this with some puzzlement, because photographs showed Elton to be a relatively small and harmless-looking person who might have weighed about 125 pounds. We didn’t doubt Elton’s virility or courage, but by the laws of simple physics the odds of his surviving the first fifteen seconds of a typical bar fight seemed negligible. Lyricist Taupin didn’t look any more robust than Elton. If “Saturday Night” was about anything, it was about suicide, and in 1973 that was not yet a normal pop music topic.

But the biggest hit from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the title song. Musically this was Elton John at his best. The melody was really haunting. It was full of interesting modulations — in the chorus, the unexpected III chord on “road” was the kind of thing that still distinguished well-crafted pop music from plain old rock n roll. Even the lyrics, about disenchantment with urban sophistication and longing for a return to a simple life, were effective up to a point. But then you got to this:

You can’t plant me in your penthouse,
I’m going back to my plow.
Back to the howling old owl in the woods,
Hunting the horny-back toad.

Going back to a plow, if you knew anything about plows, seemed like an extreme solution to this person’s problems. But what really confused us here was the wildlife. We might have been willing to suspend disbelief about an owl that howled, rather than hooted. Perhaps there were howling owls in England. The internet didn’t yet exist, so we had no easy way of finding out. But the horny-back toad was clearly a mistake — a serious one. There is in Texas a creature known to science as the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), and to absolutely everyone else as the horny toad. There are related species scattered around the North American continent, also generally known as horny toads. There is no “horny-back toad” anywhere in the English-speaking world, and in fact if you Google this phrase you will get few results related to reptiles of any kind, but many links to pages about Elton John. But nomenclature aside, and granting that the narrator even knows what a horny toad is, why would you hunt one? What would you hunt him with? A crossbow? A shotgun?

Maybe this was over-thinking the issue, but you see we’d already had problems with Elton John in my home state of Texas. Earlier in 1973 he’d released “Texan Love Song,” again with lyrics by Bernie Taupin. The song was a satire on Texas redneck culture, a type of satire which was extremely popular with me, my friends, and — believe it or not — a fair number of Texas rednecks. We all agreed that Texas redneck culture needed satirizing. What Elton and Bernie didn’t seem to know was that Texas already had plenty of locally-sourced satirists in the 1970s. We had Kinky Friedman and his band, the Texas Jewboys. We had an increasingly subversive Willy Nelson. We had Jerry Jeff Walker singing “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother.” It was widely considered that Willy and Jerry and the boys didn’t need any help from a couple of 125-pound, toad-hunting Englishmen. Not even if those Englishmen were capable of lines like this:

And it’s ki-yi-yippie-yi-yi,
You longhairs are sure gonna die.

“Ki-yi-yippie-yi-yi” — really? If Elton hadn’t already put us on the defensive, we might have conceded that this was funny. It did evoke a vivid image of what awaited any hippies who visited Texas if they happened to encounter a band of 19th-century trail drivers. But the phrase “ki-yi-yippie-yi-yi” hadn’t been heard in our part of the world for generations (if indeed ever) and most of the rednecks we knew were over at Armadillo World Headquarters, getting stoned.

Somebody took a survey of young music listeners in the early 1970s and most of them claimed they paid little attention to song lyrics — even to the lyrics of their favorite songs. This was supposed to be good news, because parents at the time were in a state of high anxiety about rock lyrics. They’d grown up in an age when a song simply said what it meant, and now suddenly everything was written in code. A teenaged girl wrote to an advice columnist (Ann Landers, I think) that her father had confiscated her copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters because he thought the “silver girl” in the title song was a hypodermic needle. (Parental paranoia tended to focus on coded drug references, because coded references to the other thing were too embarrassing to mention. The same girl probably still owned her copy of Led Zeppelin II, with Robert Plant singing “wanna give you every inch of my love.”)

Of course the idea that young people didn’t listen to lyrics was silly — we’d just learned by this time to listen to them in a newly non-literal way. Lines like “the pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles” or “hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease” made no sense at all to people on the far side of the Generation Gap, but to those on the near side they’d spoken volumes. Elton and Bernie entered this scene with their tin-eared miscues and broken metaphors, their lost cowboys and their doomed bar-fighting leprechauns, and they managed to baffle everybody. And yet — even that wasn’t the end of it. At the end of the day we went on suspecting that somehow the joke was on us. Elton and Bernie were superstars, so who knew? They might be practicing some kind of ultra-sophisticated meta-irony that was going over our heads.

I know Gumby’s right when he says you can’t convey the past to future generations, least of all in the form of your old CD collection. I’ve tried it myself, handing out copies of everything from the obvious classics to beached whales like Jesus Christ Superstar and the orchestrated version of Tommy. It’s a mistake every time. But I’m still thinking of giving Ariel’s grandkids my Yellow Brick Road CD. Maybe they can explain it to me.

4 thoughts on “Hunting The Horny-back Toad

  1. Rediscovered this one when it was used, to great effect, on The Americans. To offer one possibility of the lyrical confusion, perhaps it was the owl that was hunting the toad.

  2. DGB, I should have thought of this myself, and it seems very likely you’re right. The overlap between “woods” and horny-toad habitat is tiny, but I live right in the middle of it so I can’t plead ignorance. I’m going to cower behind the probability that the songwriters can’t have known anyway.

  3. Herman I loved your article and I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have seen your comment as well. Like DGB I assumed that the owl was hunting for toads, but I’ve been worrying about whether these horny backs coincide with owl habitat. Great news to hear that they do (even if they’re not strictly horny backs at all).

    Next, which breed are the dogs of society?

  4. Yes, I agree: it’s the owl who’s hunting the horny-back toad. It’s a metaphor of him returning to the natural order of things, instead of the artificial life of high society. He, as a man, is returning to his plow, and is going to be in a place where owls hunt toads, and everything is back to the natural order that it is supposed to be in.

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