Dear Straight Dope: Previously, you have expounded upon such rock ‘n’ roll conundrums as the “pompatus of love” from Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” “colitas” from the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and others too numerous to list here. But here’s a real obscure reference that I have been unable to decipher. The song “Levon” from Elton John’s Madman Across the Water album has the following lyrics: He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day, When the New York Times said God is dead, And the war’s begun Alvin Tostig has a son today. OK, who the hell is Alvin Tostig? My CD-ROM encyclopedia did not have an entry for him. My best guess is that he is some British icon of stability and normality, or maybe some member of Parliament. Please enlighten this poor uneducated colonist. Matthew Mitchell
SDStaff DavidB replies:
You’re making things waaaaaay too tough on yourself. Your answer is within the song. Alvin Tostig is, in fact, Levon’s father. To put it another way, Levon is the son that Alvin Tostig had that day. The next line, which you didn’t quote, is, “And he shall be Levon.” Put together, it says, “Alvin Tostig has a son today, and he shall be Levon.” (Which, to extend it to the rest of the song, would make Alvin Tostig “Jesus'” grandfather.)
But at The Straight Dope we can’t just spend one lousy paragraph to answer a question. So I kept digging. Or, more precisely, I contacted a member of the Teeming Millions who I knew to be a huge Elton John fan. He’s a peaceful, honest type of guy and led me to some background information on the song.
According to Gus Dudgeon, who produced Madman Across the Water and wrote an essay containing this information to accompany the remastered version, the name “Levon” was inspired by Levon Helm, drummer, lead singer, and founder of The Band, a group from the 60s and 70s. The Band was apparently Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s favorite group in those days. (Taupin is the guy who writes or co-writes a lot of Elton John’s songs and who wrote the lyrics for “Levon.”)
Tracing the name “Alvin Tostig” is fairly straightforward, but with a bit of a twist. Taupin has said the name was fictitious. But Taupin was from Wessex and there was a historical “Tostig,” who was the Earl of Wessex back in the 1040s. So perhaps Taupin pulled the name out of history without realizing it.
Anyway, there’s your answer plus a bit more. Not quite as interesting as a pompatus of love, but what is?
SDStaff DavidB, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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