Prodigies rarely have it easy. No matter how much fame or wealth they may manage to accumulate on the basis of their outsized talent, they often wind up leading desperate lives, besieged by an inner desert of radical isolation from everything—loved ones included—that would offer them comfort and a reason to go on.
Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Rothko, Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Phil Ochs, David Foster Wallace: barely the tip of a vast iceberg of genius talents who struggled mightily before cutting short their own lives when their inner demons overpowered the seemingly all powerful will-to-live that animates all life forms.
Despite multiple dark circumstances that had him pushing toward and then hovering on the edge of such self-destruction over many years, British rock star Elton John has managed to escape a place on that list, at least as of today, well into his 72nd year. That would seem to bode well for his staying off it until he passes from this earth from natural rather than self-destructive causes.
Not that it was easy. John’s biopic, “Rocketman,” which he helped produce and is currently making the rounds in theaters, doesn’t turn away from any of the dark forces pressing up against him and his talent.
John’s demons get their due, but there is no restraining the angels romping through ‘Crocodile Rock,’ nor the poetry they intoned from the first notes of ‘Your Song’ to the last.
Broken home, distant uncaring father, hyper-critical mother, repressed homosexuality, those torments finding all the fuel they needed in a music world and cultural moment awash in illicit substances and cries for throwing off the shackles of conformity. John’s were sizable rocks to be hauling around on one’s back, and director Dexter Fletcher doesn’t flinch from showing their often harrowing effects on his life.
The movie opens in flashback with a dazzling sequence showing John, bedecked in larger-than-life demon wings and crazily outsized glasses, singing “The Bitch Is Back” while literally crashing into a 12-Step meeting of sober-minded addicts who have seen it all in their individual descents to hell and are non-plussed when he takes a seat in their circle and begins to relate his tale.
Many unsettling, wince-worthy scenes follow, but Fowler doesn’t fall into any traps of the music becoming a subplot. For one thing, John, with a huge assist from his longtime lyricist and pal Bernie Taupin, produced too many great songs to have the turmoil of his inner life overpower them.
John’s demons get their due, but there is no restraining the angels romping through “Crocodile Rock,” nor the poetry they intoned from the first notes of “Your Song” to the last.
Because in the end, however much John had to suffer for his music, the much more far-reaching story is his music, and the singular artistic vision that drove him to overcome his life circumstances to produce it.
Back in 1988, Clint Eastwood’s movie about Charlie Parker (“Bird”), seemed to veer into depicting addiction and depravity above all. I remember stopping by my town’s jazz record shop (back when there were such things) at the time, and the proprietor, a jazz-loving Englishman named John, was furious at Eastwood. “What about the MUSIC?” he about shouted to me. (It was an early fall morning, and no one else was in the shop.) “All this great music, and all we see is heroin!”
Jazzman John may have been overstating the case, but the point remains: the likes of Parker and Elton John are musicians first, last and always, and their legacies will not be written from the standpoint of their addictions and psychological failings, abundant as they were. Those are subplots, challenges, roadblocks, lending layers of backdrop and complexity and interest to their stories and perhaps to their art, but they do not replace the art as the sine qua non of these artists’ lives.
With artists, it is always the art that must remain. Which is one reason why many of them keep dutiful journalists and biographers at arm’s length, unwilling to forsake the statement of their art for what they fear will lapse into armchair depictions of their mere personality.
I still remember the first time I heard of John and his breakthrough “Your Song” from his eponymously named album. I was visiting longtime homies on a weekend at UCLA in October, 1970. Got to the dorm room and they pulled it out and put it on the turntable with a simple, “You gotta hear this.”
The beer may already have been flowing but the room was quiet. John’s vocal dexterity, his intonation, his gorgeous melodic riffs wrapping themselves around Taupin’s romantically charged lyrics: I was a sucker for that stuff at 19, and yup, still am today.
Just months later, Carole King came in with her “Tapestry” album and “It’s Too Late,” and the earth moved a little more.
“It’s Too Late” and “Your Song” seemed to serve as bookends that next summer for a supremely impressionable period of life overflowing with exploration: intellectual (I really should broach “How Sociology Rocked My World” sometime; it deserves it), athletic (college basketball), romantic (oh, the joys and torments…), psychic (the wonders of fermentation and plants) and political (exactly where do I come down having been raised in a conservative family and still maintaining some of those bedrock values while the visible landscape of culture and society rocked and rolled and got tear-gassed or drafted to ‘Nam in front of me?).
Some half century later, those explorations-bordering-on-obsessions have changed variously in prominence, shape and texture, but have hardly subsided. They remain their own version of the music of my life, animated by the literal music that seems to forever be playing in the background, through every thicket, triumph and travail.
At one point in “Rocketman,” Bernie Taupin makes a gentle plea to Elton—for them to just get back to making music, sans the glitz & glamour, the pursuit of fame and all its trappings. Music like this kind of music, in early 1971…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rocket by Jason Ahrns, Fairbanks, Alaska https://www.flickr.com/photos/musubk/
John photo from a March, 1972 concert in Hamburg, Germany by Heinrich Klaffs, Bosau, Germany https://www.flickr.com/photos/heiner1947/