Monday, August 20, 2007

Elton John: Sixty Years On

I should have written this blog entry five months ago but, as John Lennon once wrote, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Elton John was my first pop idol. The Beatles had broken up long before I became aware of rock and roll and so it was Elton John who became my beau ideal. The music business has changed enormously (and in many ways not for the better) in the past forty years but Elton in his heyday (1970 to 1977) achieved a stardom that will never be equaled. He (along with his fellow songwriting partner Bernie Taupin) has given the world a collection of music that is ageless, relevant, entertaining, emotive, and inspirational. In the movie of history, Elton John wrote the soundtrack for the 1970s.

I ask myself what it was about Elton that turned me into a devoted fan. Obviously it was the music but what was it about the music? Looking back at it all it was several small but vital factors which, when put together, combined to tip the scales of the human heart in adoration of his work.

First of all, he was (and remains) a magnificent keyboard player. Before Elton John, rock and roll’s best keyboardists were Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Elton brought the piano back to prominence in rock and roll. The melodies he unleashed upon the world were unprecedented and have never been surpassed since. If you listen to Burn down the Mission, Funeral for a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding, and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down you are listening to a grandmaster piano player playing with vim, vigor, and a natural sense for going for the jugular vein of the soul.

Next was his voice. Elton’s vocal abilities have always been astounding. No other artist could offer so many personas with his singing voice. Elton’s vocal talents run the gamut of emotions: melancholy, wistful, humorous, bitter, intense, insanely humorous, and incurably romantic. He could sing gospel, country and western, rock and roll, pop, and classical music. He could sing like a southern redneck or like the English gentleman he is today.

And then there was the way he interpreted Bernie Taupin’s inimical lyrics. It’s ironic that Elton had the courage to allow someone else write his words for him. His partnership with Bernie Taupin could have easily foundered on the rocks but he believed in Taupin’s lyrical genius when others didn’t; still, it was tough going. Elton and Bernie Taupin met in 1967 but it took them three years before they achieved stardom. Please name another artist willing to sing songs titled No Shoestrings for Louise, First Episode at Hienton, Madman across the Water, Texas Love Song (with the immortal chorus which goes “God damn it, you’re all gonna die/Oh God damn it! You’re all gonna die”). And yet Elton John did…and quite wonderfully too.

And let us not forget Elton John the performer. Even when his albums (remember those things?) were no longer selling for a time (1977 to 1982), Elton never let the side down when it came to performing in concert. He could perform with a band or by himself and always his presence filled the halls, arenas, stadiums, and studios with something the world had never seen before or since. What other performer before or since could sport such outlandish costumes or garish eye-glasses or gaudy platform shoes or wigs or hats? Elton symbolized the conspicuous excesses that defined the Seventies and yet was not trapped in them. When Elton appeared onstage with some over-the-top outfit you couldn’t help but smile and enjoy the spectacle (my favorite Elton John costume were the gargantuan boots he wore in the film Tommy where he played the Pinball Wizard—Elton agreed to play the part only if he could keep the boots). He made you want to dress up the same way as well. (I speak from personal experience. When I was kid I would have given anything to have worn Elton John’s insane costumes. I still have the same dreams). Whereas some of today’s stars use excess as a means of separating themselves from the public…with the predictable results and ensuing bad publicity Elton somehow evaded the snares and traps such gaudy imagery could have caused him. Even better was the fact that when you saw Elton on the stage, you were seeing and hearing the real thing. No lip-synching for him. A couple years ago Elton made some waspish remarks about Madonna (and others of her ilk) lip-synching in concert—which drew a harsh response from Madonna) but Elton was right on the mark. Elton never let packaging overcome his professionalism. He always delivers the goods.

But, most important of all, is Elton John the man. Fame and stardom brought Elton John enormous riches and adulation but it also brought those special problems and temptations that devil celebrities. Elton has had his demons: drug, spending, sexual, and eating addictions; moments of insane rage—which biographer Philip Norman called “Elton’s Little Moments” and yet Elton never allowed his weaknesses to ultimately destroy him as it destroyed so many others (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, etc.) Elton survives, endures, and thrives because he still has that inner celestial fire called conscience. He has always striven to do the right thing. His appearance at Live Aid and other charitable concerts; his tireless work to overcome A.I.D.S. all speak of that character. I remember seeing him in 1987 performing at an A.I.D.S. benefit concert in London. Elton couldn’t sing because he had throat surgery but he could still play the piano. What he did was provide background music while British pop star Kim Wilde (and her brother Marty) performed a heart-wrenching interpretation of Elton’s hit Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word. (That performance was, in my opinion, one of the finest cover versions of an Elton John song I would give anything if I could find an MP3 file of that performance). His performance at Princess Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey is another example of this.

Elton John is now sixty years old yet his star has not faded nor will it ever fade. He remains revered by fans of all ages. His life and career are what he makes of it. He remains one of my favorite rock idols and, for that, I am very glad.

Take care! Captain Fantastic (and the Brown Dirt Cowboy too!)

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