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The Boston Phoenix Word Man

Bernie Taupin and Farm Dogs.

By Jonathan Perry

MARCH 30, 1998:  Bernie Taupin has been putting words in Elton John's mouth for the better part of 30 years. And for a good many of those, he might as well have been feeding his better-known half pure gold. Only Elvis Presley has charted more Top 40 singles than John, and Taupin was the lyricist behind many of his collaborator's biggest hits: "Your Song," "Daniel," and of course, both versions of "Candle in the Wind." Since its release, the new, mildly rewritten version honoring Princess Diana has become the best-selling single of all time, usurping Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Not bad for a guy who describes this last experience as if it were another day at the office. "The hardest thing about talking about it," Taupin says, "is that there really isn't that much to it. Because I basically just went in and did my job -- although obviously, it was far more emotionally motivated because I wrote it just two days after [Diana's death]."

Clearly Taupin is uncomfortable talking about death and tragedy when life and renewal are the topics occupying his thoughts these days. Relaxing inside the Omni Parker Hotel, he is, at the moment, doing what he does best: telling a story. The main character of this particular tale is a man who, after living his life largely in the long shadows thrown by a far more famous friend, finally decides to emerge from beneath those darkened wings. So he forms a band called the Farm Dogs and writes and sings songs that hark back to the American roots music he's always loved. It's a sound that in many ways recalls early Elton albums like 1971's Tumbleweed Connection, and one that's reflected in both the words and the music of the Farm Dogs' 1996 debut, Last Stand in Open Country, and their new Immigrant Sons (Discovery/Sire).

The guy in question is, of course, Taupin himself, whose fellow Farm Dogs include three ex-members of Rod Stewart's band (Jim Cregan, Robin LeMesurier, Tony Brock) and newcomer Tad Wadhams. Despite their past triumphs, the five of them have found themselves paying dues once again. On the morning we speak they're relishing the thought that for the first time in days they haven't been hustled out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to make the rounds of the morning TV talk shows.

"Although we're a little older than most, this is a fledgling band and we're starting at the bottom, so we have to do these things," says Taupin, a mischievous grin spreading underneath his shock of close-cropped platinum-blond hair. "But we've all been lucky in our lives to have lived quite well with private jets and big hotel suites and that sort of thing. So there's something fun about all this, as long as you've got a sense of humor -- and believe me, you need a sense of humor to get up at 5:30 in the morning."

Despite recording solo projects over the years, Taupin claims that none of those albums captured the dynamic he's always been after -- namely, the intuitive, communicative interplay of a band. "While these guys all did that," he says, gesturing toward Cregan and LeMesurier seated nearby, "I got into another side of music. I got kind of sidetracked for 30 years."

"Yeah," interjects Cregan, "your route was going straight to the top of the charts -- that was your strategy."

Taupin blushes for a moment and continues. "As I've gotten older and Elton's music has gone in a much more mainstream direction, I realized I was missing something by not being able to express myself with the music I've always loved."

The rustic, blue-denim hues of Immigrant Sons, as reflected in songs tiles like "Workin' in the Fields" and "America on Trial," may not be what you'd expect from a bunch of stolidly British musicians. And though it's unlikely the disc will make anyone forget Taupin's watershed work with Elton John anytime soon, it's far closer in spirit -- if not exactly inspiration -- to what he originally had in mind when he was penning lyrics for Elton classics like 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

Taupin says he's always been attracted to the American country and blues traditions of storytelling. "The first people I ever listened to were people like Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly, and they told stories about places I'd never heard of and had never been to. When I started listening to the radio, I would hear people like Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash -- all these storytellers -- and I thought, shit, this is great. And from that day on, all I wanted was to go to America and see those places."

What he wants now is the freedom to offer an idea for a melody or a chord change -- to take part in the creation of the whole song, not just one piece of it. "With the Farm Dogs, after I've written a lyric, we figure out what mood the song should take -- unlike Elton, who never pays any attention at all to what the lyric is," he says with a laugh. "I remember once when I was on the side of the stage and Elton was playing a song that had been a hit 10 years earlier. And he looked off-stage at me and suddenly said, 'Hey! I just realized what this song's about!' "

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