Elton John has delivered decades’ worth of moving and dramatic performances, but this has to be the most moving. It is also, of course, one of the most personal. It recounts a particularly low point in John’s life, when he contemplated giving up his struggling music career for a sham marriage to a wealthy young lady, and felt so trapped and hopeless in his situation that he attempted suicide. The thwarted suicide may have been more of a cry for attention than a serious attempt to end his life – he turned on the gas oven and opened the kitchen window – but the angst was surely real. It would be many more years before Elton John finally fully freed himself from the half-assed pretense of straightness, but at least he realized that a life of phony bourgeoisie would never be his path. He listened to his friends, did the right thing, ended the engagement, kept on playing music and no doubt felt a lot better about himself. The memories of those low days, however, yielded some of his very best work.
Lest you start thinking of Elton John too much as a purveyor of portentous power ballads, let me remind you of this gem. No, it’s not Italian. It’s just Elton and Bernie having a laugh at critics who scrounge too hard looking for deeper meanings. Artist vs. Critic has been a pitched battle since, probably, art began, and it usually involves the bruised-ego artist taking himself way too seriously. Sometimes the artist vows to show them all by doing something so deliberately unpalatable to human ears it becomes legendary (see, Metal Machine Music.) More often than not, the artist comes off looking like a butthurt little baby, (not that rock performers are known for their grace and maturity.) And in some rare cases they just do something silly and fun that reminds everyone how great they are. Elton John is so great that he can go off singing vaguely Italian-sounding gibberish and it’s one of his most rollicking songs. Call it the charm offensive.
Well, Saturday night still hasn’t come yet, but the days of the week mean nothing to me, so I recommend getting out and doing what Elton John recommends; get a belly full of beer and go get oiled down at the pub. It’s hard to imagine Elton John living the life of a tough lad as he describes, but I guess it wasn’t always cocaine and tiaras. Young Reginald Dwight started his professional music career as a pub pianist at the age of 15, and most likely saw a fair share of switchblades and fisticuffs while he was at it. Maybe participated in a fight or two himself, who knows. And we all know that Elton John knows how to party. (Observe his nose-wiping tic in the Wembley performance.)
Elton John makes a keen observation. When all hope is gone, it’s the corny West Side Story choreography that gets you through. Even though 1984 was very much not his year, at least he had one song that’s lasted. It’s schmaltzy, which is always a danger with an emotive performer like Sir Elton, but it holds up. Not least because it is, indeed, a good observation. Indeed, sad songs are there for us to lean on, when everything seems most bleak. It’s just basic emotional medication, the blues as cure for the blues. The emotional connection to a good song is like a neon beacon in an otherwise black and white landscape, or at least that’s the literal-minded illustration offered up in the video. It’s a pretty bad video and frankly it’s distracting. Points for trying, though.
I don’t listen much to anything Elton John did in the 80’s and 90’s. He was one of those high-profile stars who high-profile had a hard time staying relevant during those years. He was hardly the only one not keeping up with the times musically, of course. For his part, Elton John was also having a very rough time in his personal life, dealing with substance abuse and the pressure to stay quietly in the closet at the height of the AIDS crisis. Today we all know and love his prissy-gay-uncle persona, but back in the day he somehow convinced the world he was straight, and was actually seen as being pretty wholesome for a guy who wears that much glitter. That combined with a lot of cocaine and booze certainly drained away at the creative energy. It’s hard to keep producing heartfelt, honest work when you’re living a lie and constantly trying to medicate reality into submission. Still, there were some shining moments even in dark times. Elton and Bernie could still put their heads together and produce something of value. Even though the production is maudlin and lazy, the performance is moving and it shows that the artist hasn’t really lost his touch after all.
“The carpet’s all paid for, God bless the TV”
Elton John wouldn’t know what it feels like to be resigned to a tiny, meaningless life confined by carpet and television. He had a bigger destiny. But if he hadn’t made it as a rock star, he would well have been facing a miserable lifetime of conformity and complacency. Alcoholism, depression, divorce, alimony payments, poverty, all of the fun stuff. If he’s any sort of a reasonable thinking person at all – and I’m certain that he is! – he’s thanking the skies above that he had the talent and the drive and the luck not to end up a sad lonely little man with nothing to lean on in life but the westerns on TV. But he has a ton of empathy for those people who did end up like that. And he’s saying that there ain’t nothing wrong with it. It’s a sign of Elton John’s empathy as a performer and Bernie Taupin’s empathy as a writer that they don’t use the small person’s small life as a metaphor for some grander point about the general meaninglessness and unfairness and grinding ennui of a society that dehumanizes and isolates even as it comforts and tranquilizes etc. etc. Lots of people’s lives revolve around small comforts and familiarity and dumb entertainment and they’re not really aching for anything more. They just want to settle down and watch Roy Rogers reruns in peace, and that doesn’t make them bad people and it’s not an indictment on all of society.
Grab a clean hankie and prepare to experience Rocket Man in a whole new light. In 2017 Elton John (in partnership with YouTube and others) held a contest for filmmakers to create original music videos for some of his most famous songs. This was one of the winning entries, created by Iranian refugee Majid Adin, based on his own experiences. And, yeah, you’re gonna need that handkerchief. Obviously, you have to have grasped that the song is a metaphor for loneliness and alienation, but you may have never thought of it as a metaphor for a more real and down-to-Earth right here right now human experience. In its own time, aka 1972, this song was kind of critically dismissed as an attempt by Elton John to ride the then-happening trend of songs about space and being from space and being alienated out in space and making a show of your alienation while wearing flamboyant shoes. (Harry Nilsson had a comical take on the theme with Spaceman the same year.) However, that’s really unfair to Elton John. He had his own reasons for adopting glitter rock aesthetics, and his glam persona has carried him far beyond any possible accusation of merely being trendy. Secondly, Rocket Man may cover the same tracts of space as Space Oddity, but Elton’s performance owes nothing to no man. Elton John may be flamboyant and dramatic – even tacky – in his sartorial tastes, but as a singer and musician, he’s full of empathy, soul and emotional nuance. This is a great opportunity to really appreciate an often-overlooked classic.