On “Rocketman” and Artists, and Rocking One’s World

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, 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.

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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.

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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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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

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/

14 comments to On “Rocketman” and Artists, and Rocking One’s World

  • tom_pollak  says:

    Andrew – thanks for telling your story about “your song” and your life. I am touched.

  • David Moriah  says:

    It was October, I think 1970, and with a van full of college students and ample quantities of what we now call cannabis, I rambled down the road to a concert in Syracuse, NY featuring Eric Clapton’s group “Derek & the Dominoes”. As the hall slowly filled, an unknown piano player played a 10-15 warm-up act that blew me away. And yes, “Your Song” was on the docket. I played that song 1000 times on my LP player and still have the original vinyl, not worth much for all the scratches lovingly etched into it. P.S. Clapton was great too.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    It’s very much my pleasure, Tom. Glad you connected with this piece, and glad you let me know.

    David, my original vinyl of that album also suffered the 10,000 scratches that equate to “a damn good record,” but alas, it was lost somewhere in the many moves or loan-outs one made in those days. Also, I am guessing you heard “Layla” that night along with “Your Song,” yow! Serious double-feature there!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    About 40-years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Elton John perform at UCLA’s Royce Hall, a venue that seats about 1800, for a mere $10.00 student-ticket. On the eve of the 29th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he pounded away on the piano for about an hour, which included his first hit-single “Your Song”, a B-side released in the United States barely a month before. I got lucky! Damn good concert at a damn good price. However, considering gas cost hovered near 30¢/gallon, perhaps the meager $10 charge isn’t all that remarkable.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, if my math and historical timeline are correct, that would’ve been much closer to 50 years ago, yes? Time flies when you’re listening to music!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Drew, you’re right. 49 years ago come December. As a math major, I’m somewhat embarrassed at my computational error. I guess that I’m trying to deny the fact that so much time has elapsed since those “Tapestry” nights at that Westwood bar.

  • Lou Denti  says:

    Hi Drew,
    Lou here. Enjoyed your piece on Elton John. Like others, I saw him for 75 cents at Landis Hall at Riverside City College (not Community College). Everyone in line kept asking who is this guy, yet everyone knew it was a show not to be missed. Word of mouth and a buzz (good ole non-digital days). I remember where I sat and was blown away-intimate concert hall maybe 500-to 800 seats. I was so into guitar based bands, Hendricks and Cream in particular that I didn’t think a piano guy could hold a candle to those artists. Wrong! He was so passionate, humble and beyond fantastic. When he finished, the audience was stunned. As we peeled out of the hall, a new buzz was in the air about this little English cat who brought the roof down. Could have been 1970 and that would make it about 50 years. Still fresh in my mind. You are right, music does have a way of sticking to your bones.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Drew – it was a pretty good film (singing was a bit weak but…) – loved the relationship between Elton and Bernie – think this is very unique in song writing/musician circles… almost like putting lyrical poems to music, collaborative in a sense but each element pretty autonomous… love the recollections of Elton’s shows from your readers… I have one, actually a non-concert memory, it was 1970, I’d just moved to So Cal (Riverside) to work w/disabled kids (whole other story!), and longtime HUGE music fan, saw a flier for the “Elton John /Trio” at Riverside City College – $10… I’d never heard of him so I declined… later friends just raved and I kicked myself for not going… oh well! Here’s a good recording, OK video) of that trio doing Burn Down the Mission – gives a really good sense of how they could rock it out w/just a trio (and NO guitar!) – really shows off his voice as a youngster (a main beef I had with the film) http://performingsongwriter.com/elton-john-american-debut-troubadour/
    As for Tapestry, another great album by a gifted singer/song writer – but my primary memory was of my then girlfriend’s best friend (we all lived together) played it constantly – I mean ALL the freaking time until I HATED it… still can’t really enjoy it… must have been seared into my musical soul! Great stuff Andrew and readers!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Good to hear from you, Lou! So are you hyperbolating about that 75-cent concert ticket, or is that what it REALLY cost to see Elton Friggin’ John in 1970? Love those stories!

    Kevin, I didn’t really pay the singing all that much mind and was actually impressed with Egerton’s talent, but now that you mention it and I had occasion to listen more to the younger John, I think you’re right about the movie not being up to John’s standards of those early days. But that spoke to me more about what a fine, perhaps underrated singer he was. Made me appreciate his way with a lyric, and of course the fact that he married such great tunes to Taupin’s lyrics with such apparent ease speaks both to his genius and the fine, almost mystical fit two people can enjoy with each other—when they’re extremely fortunate…

  • Lou Denti  says:

    If my memory serves me ( and that’s debatable), I still had my RCC student card from 1968 and for students it was almost a free concert. I’ll check with Lisa and see what she paid. She remembers as a 15 year old paying maybe $2.50 and had to borrow some of it. I do remember seeing a ton of my no money friends, so I’m pretty sure it was way cheaper than 10 bucks. From hyperbolating to corroborating to EJ still percolating after all those years.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    For a long long time, “Your Song” was the first song that HAD to be played when I moved into a new place. Unpack the stereo (that was what it was called, remember?) and put on this LP and song. And there were lots of moves back then. Playing it just had to be.
    Once I grabbed a cassette of Elton John – one I had never heard of – in a gas station I think. It was his very cool “Sleeping with the Past.” Not sure if it’s famous but for me, it showed his musical genius in a whole new way. Go listen to the song, “Sacrifice,” from that LP. One of those times when I had to rewind 100’s of times to get my fill.
    Thanks for this, Andrew. And, I look forward to this blog: “How Sociology Rocked My World.”

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Okay so here is that old favorite song, “Sacrifice,” one schlocky video of EJ singing (lip synching) but the hat is worth it; and once recorded with lyrics, because they are great.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrLkTZrPZA4
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQu8oL2mfz0
    i am now hearing this song for the 5th time. Right back into the addiction!!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Robert and Andrew, I too attended that UCLA Royce Hall concert at the urging of my roommate, Dave. It is remarkable to think that we saw EJ about the time he appeared at the Troubador. Indeed, I believe that the UCLA concert was on the front or backside of that concert depicted in the film. Knowing little about EJ’s troubled past, I found the film both touching and enlightening. I was disappointed that there was no mention or footage of his time passed on the island of Montserrat in the eastern Caribbean. EJ did some recording at Sir George Martin’s Air Studio on the island. We did a six week house sit on the island last year and heard some wonderful stories of him walking into small, roadside cafes and banging out tunes to astonished locals, unaware of his fame. Nicely captured insights and summary, Andrew. Many thanks.

  • Pat  says:

    My fav Elton songs were never hits. This Song Has no Title. Grey Seal. Cold as Christmas. Thanks for another great article, Andrew!!

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