Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road
Elton John, Bernie Taupin
Google tells me the “horny back toad” only exists in the lyrics to this well-known 70s song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, also the title of John’s “magnum opus” double LP that sold over 30 million copies. But the “horny toad” (lol)? Yep. North America has ‘em. Ever heard an owl howl? They hoot, right?
Of course, “howl” just sounds better, and also rhymes with “owl”. And “horny toad” would fail to deliver, unless you sung it like this: “horny-ah toad”.
This is often the way of songs; I’ve sung along to favourites and not had a clue what I was singing about. Lyrics can be similar to koans, a Zen practice employed to provoke “great doubt”. Eg. two hands clapping creates a sound; what is the sound of one hand clapping? It’s meant to pluck you from slumber, accept the limited strength of reasoning by reflecting on an impossibility and point you in the direction of enlightenment.
While tending to gardens on either side of the “yellow brick road” that leads to my hot tub the other day, I belted out as many lyrics as I could recall – loud, proud and off-key. No neighbours around. Who cares? This song probably came to me because I was standing on a greyish stone walkway, I’d ditched my podcast-delivering headphones and was existing, in the moment, with nature.
I’ll admit, I’ve been addicted to podcasts since discovering them, but lately they’ve been failing to satisfy. Why? Sometimes, most times, events that I label “bad” – war, insurrection, climate change, inequality, gun (or any other type of) violence, the economy – feel so devastatingly overflowing with injustice and void of hope and solutions that I end up feeling too sad. Dang! Just remembered the pandemic is still kicking around with a new variant. Oh, and then there’s politics, which we can’t discuss because it gets more divisive by the day. I often turn to Trevor Noah and The Daily Show “Ears Edition” for a good laugh on the latest issues, but he must be on vaycay because there’s been no new episodes lately.
Working with a song in your head, or on your lips, or flowing through your lungs, well, it’s just so damn satisfying! I, too, can be like that robin that sang from the high peak of the roof the whole time I was in the hot tub: “tra-la-la-la, lah, la-la-la-la-laaah”. Does it even matter what is sung? What collection of words? Sometimes you just wanna shout: “Boom-chacka-lacka!” For no good reason. Don’t you?
So I puttered and mused. On the point of the yellow brick road. Is there a “beyond”, like in the song, and am I there? Or is it just a tempting, gleaming thing leading you right back to where you started, like in Oz? Flowing, but circular, like Earth, the sun, the moon, our heads (I figure that’s why we get stuck in loops from time to time), life. I mean, there I was, rapidly approaching 64 (there’s some meaningful lyrics: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64” The Beatles), yet at the recollection of a beloved old song? Instantly a teenager again!
It’s pretty elusive, isn’t it, hunting a thing that doesn’t exist, like the “horny back toad”? And who-who-who is doing the hunting? Bernie, Elton, or the “howling old owl”? Does it even matter? What matters? Who-who-who cares?
This did lead my brain back to a recent podcast I’d listened to, a most satisfying one, Ideas by the CBC, “A Good Enough Life”. The argument is that we revere – and reward – greatness in a way that can be stifling for the majority of us who excel at mediocrity. Let’s face it, we all can’t be Elton, belting out in that falsetto – “Ro-oh-ohd, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ahhh” – whilst fingers dance effortlessly and elegantly on ebony and ivory.
Acknowledging that world news will always be out there, the bulk of it depressing, we can just pull back, look around, find ways to contribute to our communities in meaningful ways. Host Nahlah Ayed shared a touching one about a community store in Toronto that became a vital hub during the pandemic.
No one knows what to do about the quandary of capitalism. It creates such disparity, but what is the solution? A controversial guy like Elon Musk becomes the richest man in the world (Tell me, who-who-who needs a billion dollars? Isn’t a few million enough to live on?) and yet this poor woman in her 50s I was reading about the other day, who lives in Toronto and is suffering from long Covid, has applied for assisted suicide. It seems mostly because she’ll be out of money in a few months; she doesn’t have the energy to return to her previous job as a chef. While she’s suffering, physically and mentally, she’s not completely opposed to continuing to live.
I belted out yet again, in my sub-par way: “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl!” Elton’s fine voice, image, grace danced in my head as I pulled and clipped more Boston ivy, brushing dirt from my brow with the back of my wrist. I don’t begrudge him the fame, the money. Talent like that must be shared, yes? His AIDs charity does good work, yes? As I worked away, grateful for the shade, I recalled seeing him live about eight years ago, performing the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in its entirety. A mystical fog accompanied the opening notes of “Funeral for a Friend”. I drank in every precious moment of that 11-minute gem and was so impressed by his humble acceptance of the crowd’s response after.
Songs, old or new, can’t fix what I label “bad” out there, but they sure do alleviate the pressure, the pain. I guess that’s where the blues came from, huh? I’m gonna keep belting them out (you might not want to be within earshot) and I’m sure everything will make complete sense – or absolutely none whatsoever! – down the (yellow brick) road.
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