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Boswells

Elton & Me

Posted on 2017.05.24 at 17:54
Current Mood: fantastic
Current Music: I'm Gonna Be a Teenage Idol
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This essay is years overdue. If my blog represents some sort of extended self-portrait, then the absence of this topic is a huge patch of missing canvas. This is all about my relationship with Captain Fantastic, the Rocket Man himself, Elton John.

When I talk about “my relationship” with EJ, no, we don’t know each other personally. Part of the phenomenon of celebrity is that it invites us, the fans, to create a personal bridge to our heroes out of the thin air that carries their sounds and images to us. A fan who isn’t inhaling that air too deeply should remember that any perceived relationship is illusory. Goodness knows, the image makers of the world do a masterful job of presenting the person they wish us to perceive. All that being said, I think it would be wrong to think that we can learn nothing about our celebrities, particularly when they’ve been in the public eye for nearly half a century. In EJ’s case, more of his dirty laundry has been publicly aired than he would probably like, though he seems to have made his peace with it.

But let’s mostly set aside Elton John (born Reginald Kenneth Dwight) the person. The primary relationship to be discussed here is between me and the man’s music, and that relationship is not illusory, because the music is actually here in the room for me to perceive as I will. This will not be a comprehensive overview of EJ’s career or music catalog; plenty of writers before me have done exhaustive jobs of covering those topics. This essay is personal and subjective in nature and as such, I will feel entitled to ignore chapters in EJ’s story that a more objective author might go over in great detail.

In one form or another, I’ve owned 29 different Elton John albums, plus various non-album singles and B-sides. The artist in second place is so far behind that number that I will not name them here out of simple respect.

My Beginning
You might think of “Your Song” at this point, but you’d be wrong. That was EJ’s first U.S. single to get substantial airplay (“Border Song” came out earlier but barely cracked the top 100). “Your Song” made it all the way up to #8 on the charts in late 1970. It was a pleasant enough little ballad, but it didn’t make me snap to attention and say, “Hey! Who is that guy?” It fit right into the singer/songwriter aesthetic that was blooming in the early 70s. A bit more airplay and a minor hit (“Friends”) followed, but it wasn’t until the Madman Across the Water album came out in late 1971 that EJ came into focus for me as someone with a discernible identity.

The Madman album came out just as the angst and manic depressiveness of adolescence were beginning to hit me full-on. The mournful strings on the title cut, as well as on the single “Levon”, reached deep inside me. And not just me – my mother felt it too. Once, when I was playing the album in the living room, my mother remarked from the kitchen that the string section sounded very depressing and that she didn’t care for how it made her feel. Even the lyrical romance on display in “Tiny Dancer” has that depressive string section working in counterpoint, at least when heard in the context of the entire album. Only later did I read that EJ had been dealing with a nervous breakdown while making the album, and it didn’t surprise me one bit. Overall, I’d describe Madman as an album of oddly compelling pleasures.

His next album, Honky Château, was the first album of his that I actually bought, though I bought Madman shortly thereafter. It was miles away from Madman in its sound, being EJ’s first big step away from Paul Buckmaster’s lush orchestrations and towards a more pop sound. Thematically and stylistically, the songs are as diverse as one might hear while playing Russian roulette with the radio dial, from the country-jazzy bounce of “Honky Cat” to the synthesizers of “Rocket Man” to the steamy antebellum feel of “Slave” to the music hall jauntiness of “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” (which features a tap dance solo by one “Legs Larry” Smith). Yet despite all of its technical flourishes (including Jean-Luc Ponty’s virtuoso electric violin work on two cuts), the album as a whole never feels overproduced; it somehow retains that singer/songwriter vibe. But all of that was about to change.

The Early Middle Period
Honky Château was the pivot point in EJ’s development as a pop musician. He was no longer the mopey piano nerd we’d been graced with up to that point, but he wasn’t yet any kind of party band rock n’ roller or power pop music factory. Honky Château gave us a transitional sound we were never to hear again over an entire disc, and it’s one of his few albums that I can listen to straight through without skipping a song to this day.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, I was quickly becoming quite the EJ devotee, and it was time to look back at the albums I’d missed. The first of these was Elton John which was his first U.S. released album, though his second overall. Producer Gus Dudgeon has said that the album was intended as nothing more than a polished collection of demos to hopefully interest established artists into covering, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, it made EJ a little famous in his own right. Beyond the aforementioned “Your Song” and “Border Song” lies a quirky collection of generally pensive though passionate songs, with Paul Buckmaster’s strings leading the way and lending a structure to Elton’s wandering, intriguing melodies. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, often cryptic even in the best of times, are still disarmingly naïve if overwrought and downright pretentious at times on this album, but it works. Even this early on, it was clear that a lyricist and a composer had found one another.

The next early gem lying there for me to find was EJ’s follow-up to Elton JohnTumbleweed Connection. It produced no hit singles but is fondly remembered by a great many of EJ’s fans, me included. As the album’s title suggests, it mostly consists of Bernie Taupin playing out his love affair with Americana and the American West, from “Country Comfort” (later covered by Rod Stewart) to the overtly Civil War-themed “My Father’s Gun.” The production is sometimes barely there, as on the piano-only accompaniment of “Talking Old Soldiers” and the lonely acoustic guitar of “Love Song.” Other times, though, the production achieves a kind of country/jazz gospel/funk that is unique to this album and utterly captivating. The closing cut, “Burn Down the Mission,” pretty much lives up to its title.

I have little to say about the album Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player. Yes, it gave EJ his first #1 single, “Crocodile Rock” and also included the top ten hit “Daniel”, but the album as a whole doesn’t work. EJ and his band jumped headfirst into rock/pop and proved they still had some things to learn. It’s a disjointed collection of mostly mediocre songs that wear out their welcome. One thing about “Crocodile Rock” though – Yes, it’s catchy as hell, but I always feel like it sounds as if EJ is hurting his voice with that incessant falsetto, and that cuts into my enjoyment factor as a listener. Also, a few cuts on the album (e.g., “Texan Love Song”) sound like leftovers from Honky Château and the overall feel of the album is muddled and unfocused rather than eclectic.

And then came Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. EJ had gone from being merely a star to being a big star by this time, but GYBR made him a superstar. This album made it clear that EJ was here and that he was going to be here for a long time. The stylistic ground covered in this album and the high standard of quality maintained throughout elevated EJ into the pop pantheon for all time. If there is a unifying element to the album, I would use the word “cinematic” in light of songs like “Candle in the Wind,” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” “Roy Rogers,” and of course the title cut. For that matter, “Social Disease” sounds as if it’s opening with a cinematic iris shot. So many hits flowed from this album that the record label was forced to pass on a few additional single opportunities because EJ’s next album was ready for release. This moment embodied an embarrassment of riches rarely seen in pop music history.

A list of the hit singles from GYBR reads more like the contents of a greatest hits collection: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (that last one wasn’t released as a single but was for years a staple of FM rock radio). After a magnum opus like GYBR, one was left to wonder how in the world EJ could possibly surpass it. Well, he didn’t, at least not right away.

His next album, Caribou, generated a couple of huge hits in “The Bitch Is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” but as an album, it’s one that I only crack open a few times a year nowadays. It shows the diversity that was by now expected of EJ, but most of its songs appeal more to the teenaged side of me than the grown-up side. One example of this is “Ticking” which is a long, searing, explicitly violent takedown of both repressive parenting and simplistic religious instruction – topics sure to capture the attention of any thoughtful teenaged nerd. Another example is “I’ve Seen the Saucers” a kind of goofy, synthesizer-laden song about alien abduction. All very listenable musically – this was, after all, EJ and Bernie at their hit-making peak – but more passing fancies than long-term commitments.

On the plus side, Caribou features “Stinker,” which has always struck me as Elton trying to channel Van Morrison (though I’m probably wrong about that), “Dixie Lily” a toe-tapping uptempo country number in which Bernie’s love affair with Americana once again spills forth, and “Pinky” which, though a little odd lyrically (duh!), still comes off as one of the most elegantly romantic songs EJ and Bernie have ever put together.

No discussion of Caribou is complete without mentioning “Solar Prestige a Gammon.” It stands alone as the worst song Elton and Bernie ever released – and that’s saying a lot. Its lyrics are, in large part, recognizable English words, possibly arranged in a manner that is grammatically proper but completely nonsensical. For example, here are the words to the refrain:
Solar prestige a gammon
cool kar kyrie kay salmon
Hair ring molassis abounding
Common lap kitch sardin a poor flounding


Well, I warned you. For his part, EJ contributed a vaguely Latin-sounding melody and punctuated his vocal with rolled R’s and a slight accent of some sort. In interviews, EJ has babbled some nonsense about it being inspired by The Beatles’ “Sun King,” but he hasn’t elaborated on the matter to my knowledge. At this point, I have to stop myself from speculating further based on my conviction that the song just isn’t worth the trouble. But if you’ve ever wondered what EJ’s worst song was, I have put forth a nomination.

Somewhere around this time, MCA Records, EJ’s U.S. label, decided to release EJ’s actual first album, Empty Sky from 1969, previously available only in the U.K. Naturally, I rushed out and bought a copy. It is – let me put this delicately – for aficionados only. There are cuts on it that I enjoy to this day, but its shortcomings are evident. It was produced on the cheap. I seem to recall reading that EJ and the band would hang around the studio until it closed for the day and work on their album far into the night. EJ was still figuring out how to write and sing a pop hit, and Bernie… well, Bernie was still sorting through a lot of Gothic imagery, psychedelia, and clumsy poetic notions. When lyrical passages occur that are completely lucid and understandable, it comes as something of a shock, given the impenetrable nature of so much of his work at this time. Okay, I have to give you a sample. This is the refrain of “Hymn 2000”:
And I don’t want to be
The son of any freak
Who for a chocolate center
Can take you off the street
For soon they’ll plough the desert
And God knows where I’ll be
Collecting submarine numbers
On the main street of the sea


…But I guess ya gotta learn how to crawl before you can learn how to write a million selling single. The most well known song on Empty Sky is “Skyline Pigeon,” which memorably features EJ going to town on the harpsichord. He re-recorded it several years later with a more conventional arrangement and used it as the B side for the “Daniel” single, and he’s been known to perform it in concert.

And then… Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy happened. Any of us who thought EJ might never surpass the grandeur of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were proven wrong in a sudden bolt of creative lightning. It is solidly a concept album, the concept being a retrospective of EJ’s career to that point, with particular emphasis on the early days before stardom hit. Though one big hit single came out of it, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” the feeling throughout is that this album was not written with hit singles in mind. It was written with Elton and Bernie trying to be as honest and eloquent as they could be in the format of a pop album. Despite the absence of a long roster of singles, the album debuted at #1 on the album chart in its first week of release – the first pop album ever to do so. This is another one I can still play from beginning to end. And by the way, if I’d have been calling the shots at the record company, I’d have released “Meal Ticket” as a single. I regard it as A Hit That Should Have Been.

The initial album release of Captain Fantastic came with some cool extras: A lyric book and a scrapbook, both filled with news clippings and photos, some going back to Elton and Bernie’s childhoods. The whole thing felt like the culmination of a great arc of stardom. And so it was, in some ways.

As Captain Fantastic was coming out, drummer Nigel Olsson and bass player Dee Murray left EJ’s band. In addition to their respective instruments, Nigel and Dee, along with guitarist Davey Johnstone, were the core of EJ’s harmony section. Nigel and Dee’s departure left a hole in the band that proved impossible to properly fill.

EJ’s next album was Rock of the Westies. Dee and Nigel were gone, new band members were making new sounds, and Elton and Bernie seemed to be looking for new ideas themselves. The result was one big hit – “Island Girl,” one little hit – “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” and a lot of mediocre stuff in between. Maybe “mediocre” isn’t the right word. It was all well produced and performed by a bunch of talented musicians, but it wasn’t pleasing to the ear quite often enough. The opening number, “Medley” seemed ill-conceived and creatively thin from the outset, and no amount of screaming background singers and keyboard pyrotechnics could conceal that fact. The only song that has worn well on my ears is the album closer, “Billy Bones and the White Bird.” Goofy as it is, it gets the blood pumping and the feet moving.

All in all, Rock of the Westies, though possessing a few small charms, was a quietly frightening album. It made me wonder if the glory years were irretrievably gone. After a few other projects – singing “Pinball Wizard” in the movie Tommy and releasing a live album – it was time for a new studio album on a new record label. In my mind, EJ was threatening to become a treasured oldies act and he needed to show me that he still had something wonderful to offer. The album was called Blue Moves.

Alas, Blue Moves turned out to be an album that made me miss Rock of the Westies. It was an almost total whiff. It was a double album that droned on interminably from one unmemorable song to the next. Bernie seemed to have forgotten how to be interesting and Elton seemed to have lost his edge with melodies. More than that, though, the band no longer seemed to have an identity. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but you notice its absence. The album generated one big hit single, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” which is a perfectly decent ballad, I suppose, although the only song from the album that I ever listen to is the minor hit, “Crazy Water,” a song with a legitimately infectious jump to it and a fascinating contrast between Bernie’s seafaring folk song lyrics and Elton’s funky disco music. But man, you had to get through a lot of forgettable junk on the album to get to that one jewel.

The Late Middle Period
I was now at a crossroads with regard to EJ, though I was still listening to his old albums regularly. In truth, I was never someone who bought albums offhandedly. In my first fifteen years of buying records, I bought less than a hundred of them. And EJ now had a lot to prove with regard to his new material. Gone were the days when I could confidently buy his work before hearing it. His next studio album was A Single Man. I heard a bit of it, was not impressed, and left it unpurchased. EJ had stopped writing songs with Bernie Taupin and had dropped Gus Dudgeon as his producer, so there was even more reason to be cautious. I still wanted to love EJ, but he wasn’t cooperating.

Next came The Thom Bell Sessions EP, which didn’t work at all, and which produced possibly the weakest big hit in EJ’s entire catalog, the disposable “Mama Can’t Buy You Love.” That one also went unpurchased, as did the following studio album, Victim of Love. EJ was still out there, selling out concerts and putting out the odd hit, but something was missing.

Signs of life appeared in his next album, 21 at 33. While it didn’t represent a total return to form, it sounded like something was moving in the right direction. It didn’t hurt that he’d surrounded himself with an exceptional collection of helpers on this one, from the Eagles to Bruce Johnston, Toni Tennille, Peter Noone, and – most notably – Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray coming back to play on two tracks, and Bernie Taupin contributing lyrics on three tracks. If it doesn’t hold up as a particularly memorable album, it at least gave me hope and got me paying attention again. But the road back would continue to be bumpy.

Next came the entirely forgettable album, The Fox, which went unpurchased. Then came Jump Up! which showed promise if not brilliance, though it contained EJ’s heartfelt tribute to his friend John Lennon, “Empty Garden.” Then, suddenly, a real comeback took place.

It can be no accident that EJ’s comeback on Too Low for Zero coincided with the return of Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray, and Bernie Taupin as full participants in the process. It pulsed with rhythm, energy, and listenability with tunes such as “I’m Still Standing,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and “Kiss the Bride.” It had been years since EJ had given us the goods and it was awfully nice to have him back.

The trend continued with his next album, Breaking Hearts. Though there were four songs from the album that charted, there’s no utter classic on display. Instead, it’s more a collection of songs that almost all excel. Bernie was back in form as well, and aside from a few odd ones, his lyrics were surprisingly coherent. And I say that with love and respect.

One note about the biggest hit from Breaking Hearts – “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”: There was a clothing company in the 80s called Sasson (not to be confused with Vidal Sassoon). At the time this song was a hit, EJ could be seen in TV commercials singing “Sasson says so much…” Sasson was a sponsor of the tour that followed (during which I saw EJ live for the first time). It all seemed so very convenient, and I’ve always suspected that EJ and Bernie wrote this song from the ground up to be used by Sasson. I have no corroborating evidence to offer; it’s just a suspicion. I’m not knocking the song, but don’t bullshit a bullshitter, guys.

EJ’s next opus, Ice on Fire, is a little trickier to discuss. It is well attested that EJ was at his absolute coke-head worst during production of this album. The cover photo shows him looking puffy and mostly hidden beneath dark glasses and a wide-brimmed hat. Producer Gus Dudgeon was back in the fold at this point, and he has said that he feared for EJ’s life during the process. The album is not generally regarded as a classic by Elton, Bernie, or the general public. And yet…

…I think it’s way underrated. “Nikita” is certainly on the short list of the best songs he and Bernie ever produced. The album’s overall sound is a little cold and detached – more Ice than Fire – but that sound mostly seems to be in the spirit of the material at hand. “Cry to Heaven” is a dramatically brooding piece that is more overtly political than Bernie usually gets. “Too Young” becomes compelling because of/in spite of its weird arrangement, which manages to sound both underproduced and overproduced at the same time. Even the gimmicky disco duet with George Michael, “Wrap Her Up” is pretty irresistible. How does a coked up, half dead man produce this kind of work? It’s a mystery, though it is a testament to EJ’s irrepressible musical abilities. To quote one of Bernie’s early lyrics, “Thank God my music’s still alive.”

Ah, but no one said the road back would be without its potholes. EJ’s next offering was Leather Jackets, which EJ has said is the worst album he’s ever released. You will find no argument here. A couple of years would pass before his next studio album.

That album was 1988’s Reg Strikes Back. The album was not titled casually. If Reg wasn’t yet completely cleaned up, he was at least pointed in the right direction, and he was ready to tear it up again. It’s not a backward-looking album. There’s no ruminating about the bad times. He and Bernie charge straight ahead with a fresh immediacy into songs like “Town of Plenty,” “A Word in Spanish,” “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That,” and my personal favorite from the album, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Part Two,” which knocks a whole lot of dust off of EJ’s shelf.

EJ’s next studio offering was Sleeping With The Past and it continued his and Bernie’s renaissance in fine style. It was supposedly fashioned as a tribute to the R&B sounds of the 60s and 70s that had first inspired them, but it isn’t retro in its sound; that inspiration is merely subtextual through most of the album and it turns out to be a jumping off point for a lot of terrific songs. Nowadays, the song you’re most likely to hear from this album is “Sacrifice,” but for my money, “Club at the End of the Street” is the great keeper from this collection.

Three years after that, with a few greatest hits collections in between, came the album that closed out an era for EJ. That album is 1992’s The One. Depending on when you ask me, it is my favorite of all his albums. To this day, I’ll listen to the whole thing in running order. Side one starts out with the deceptively restrained “Simple Life,” though it carries with it an insistent rhythm that is a harbinger for what’s in store. Through the ensuing four songs, the intensity and the volume keep growing. By the time Eric Clapton joins in for “Runaway Train,” you’re ready to jump up and scream, but there’s still one more song to go on the side. That’s “Whitewash County,” which threatens to make the room explode. When it ends, you’re breathless and numb from the sonic assault of the preceding half hour.

So there you are, broken and spent and wondering what could possibly be in store on side two. The answer is that side two tries to soothe you musically while taking you down some curious darkened roads along the way. It takes a leap of trust and surrender to fully go on the journey, and at the end of it comes “The Last Song,” a heartbreaking tribute to victims of AIDS. EJ has said that he cried all the while he was writing the music, and I believe him. If I were to pick nits, it would be fair to say that Bernie lays down some pretty trite lyrics here and there, but I have to look past that. At this late date, there can be no more bitching about Bernie’s lyrical quirks. One may as well critique his taste in clothes for all the good it would do you. The whole is far, far greater than the sum of its parts on this one. As for Bernie Taupin, he is a lyrical blessing and curse rolled into one, and no one can ever truly say where the blessing ends and the curse begins. All we know for sure is that without Bernie, Elton is much diminished.

The Late Period
What’s that? I’m consigning the past 25 years to “The Late Period”? Yes I am. Like I said, this is a subjective essay on my relationship with EJ’s music, and this is how it shakes down for me. To my ear, to my brain, The One is a kind of last hurrah for EJ. Maybe he even knew it himself. After all, The One has the longest running time of any single disc record he’s ever put out, and the results were epic. His following project was Duets, which was probably a ton of fun for him, but which resulted in something very… I guess the word would be “safe.” After that, he teamed with Tim Rice to do the Lion King soundtrack. It wasn’t until 1995 that he released his next album of original material, Made in England. It’s a fine album with some lovely songs on it, but when you listen to songs like “Room,” “Latitude,” and “Man,” you know you’re listening to someone who has reached middle age and who isn’t going to bust his hump trying to be king of the hill. That isn’t a criticism; the most recent quarter century has brought us a lot of wonderful music from EJ, but it also means that we’ve reached The Late Period, no matter how long it lasts.

Another factor is that the apparent pace of time speeds up as we age. It’s true for me, and I’m sure it’s true for Elton and Bernie. It’s now been 25 years since The One was released. 25 years before that, it was 1967 and Reggie Dwight was a complete unknown who had just met Bernie Taupin. Those first 25 years represent several worlds of evolution, growth, and accomplishment; far more than the last 25 have given us. Yes, I’m presuming to know something about EJ personally here. Sue me.

A few notable moments since then: The Big Picture from 1997. Though it contains the hit single, “Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” which I rather like, Bernie considers it to be the worst album they ever put out. At the very least, it can certainly lay claim to having the ugliest album cover in their entire catalog.

Songs From the West Coast from 2001 has more than a little quality stuff on it. It’s really not bad at all, but it’s more of an album that I listen to two or three selected songs from and skip the rest. The song “Birds” is another fine example of a John/Taupin record that will have you rocking in your seat and tapping your feet even as you’re contemplating some fairly depressing lyrics.

Peachtree Road from 2004 was, as one might infer from the title, recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, and it definitely has a country vibe to it, which I’m sure Bernie was only too happy to embrace. EJ has slipped into a noticeably lower vocal register by this point, and it works. “Answer in the Sky” got some airplay, though the catchiest song in the collection is “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave” which demonstrates that Bernie has not lost the ability to write a strikingly corny lyric.

The Captain & The Kid from 2006 currently stands as the most recent EJ album I’ve purchased. It is a sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy thirty years on. When I heard about the concept, I was enthused, but for all its promise, that album arrived D.O.A. It is flat and unengaging, returning us to the uncomfortable feeling that EJ and Bernie’s candle may be burning out long before their legend ever does.

There have been several new albums since then, but what little I’ve heard from them has failed to engage me. I continue to listen to his work from all over his recording history. In the past 45 years, few weeks have passed without me listening to something of his, so this isn’t a listening habit I’ve picked up as I’ve aged. No no no – it’s a habit I got into at a young age and have continued with. Like any long-term relationship, we have evolved. Along the way, different songs and albums have come and gone as favorites, and some of the songs themselves have changed in their meaning. Because ultimately, I can’t know what these songs meant to them; I can only know what they mean to me.

So where does that leave the duo of Elton & me? I told you at the outset that any perceived personal relationship between the two of us is illusory, and so it remains. I may have known very little about EJ the person twenty years ago, and I know even less today. Having just turned 70, he may, for all I know, be a cantankerous character who cusses out his dog and blames it for every smell of passing gas. He may be a witty raconteur who puts all his friends in stitches. He may be a stamp collecting nerd. I have no idea. And all of those things are okay by me. The EJ I know is the one who could play an arena of 20,000 people like a yo-yo. I’ve seen him in concert three times to date and he has never failed to conduct a master class in the art of performing. The EJ I know is the outrageously gifted composer who can quickly throw together a melody that simultaneously sounds completely original while sounding like something you’ve known your whole life. The EJ I know is a character half made up by me and half made up by the musical DNA that’s been on public display for nearly half a century. In the end, I don’t guess I have any use for Reginald Dwight the person, because I’ve got Captain Fantastic at my disposal, and that makes me the guy with the embarrassment of riches.

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