It has been postulated that, at the end of our lives, chemical and electrical impulses flood our brains and every memory we've ever had flickers across our frontal lobes like a home movie projected on a sheet at a family picnic.
If that's true, my movie is going to have a pretty incredible soundtrack, and one of the prominent performers in the multi-disc box set of my life will most certainly be Elton John. As I look back on some of the important benchmarks in my personal evolution, it seems as though the former Reginald Dwight was very often my musical accompaniment, giving voice to feelings I could not express myself and teaching me definitively that Pop music could be both entertaining and profound.
I had read about Elton John in Circus, my favorite Rock broadsheet at the time, and then began hearing “Your Song” on the radio. I sang it to a girl in our neighborhood and she believed my hormone-drunk rendition enough to be my steady for a few months, until I found my attention drawn to another girl and, in a rare moment of maturity, I realized I couldn't possibly love both of them. I never got the chance to sing Elton John to the new girl. Maybe if I had, she wouldn't have roasted my beating heart over an open flame many years later.
One of the Circus stories involved Elton's American debut at The Troubadour, the famed Los Angeles Folk/Rock club, which was followed by his New York appearance at the A&R Recording Studios for his live broadcast on WABC. A tape of the show had been pressed as a bootleg, and it quickly became a sensation, which forced his label, Uni Records, to officially release an edited version of the set. I bought a copy of 11/17/70 as soon as it was available, and played it endlessly, until it was largely unplayable. I think I've owned a vinyl copy of Elton's first live album three times, and they all wound up in the same condition. I tracked “Take Me to the Pilot” so many times, I nearly wore the groove through to the other side of the record.
Around that time, my father married my first stepmother, not quite a decade after my mother's tragic passing. My newly minted stepbrother and I bonded over music, particularly The Beatles and The Monkees, but being the older of us, I steered him toward things that I had discovered on college radio and other FM outlets.I turned him onto Mothermania by the Mothers of Invention, which I had found for 50 cents in a cardboard box at a place that stocked jukeboxes and sold the used singles cheap, but that's another story.
When Madman Across the Water was released, a station we listened to played every song from the album over the course of a weekend, our favorites being "Levon," of course, as well as "Rotten Peaches" and "Razor Face," and he talked his mother into buying it for him. Although the album seems to have fallen into disfavor with some fans, it still resonates with me. When I moved to Cincinnati in 1982, I met a lovely young woman at my first real job, on the heels of the end of my first marriage, and on our first date, she confessed a love of Iggy Pop and Elton John, particularly Madman Across the Water. Even though I was nowhere near in love with her, I had the fleeting thought that I might have to marry her just to keep the world safe. We've been together ever since.
Somewhere in the vicinity of the end of my father's second marriage, Elton released the transcendent Honky Chateau, which became yet another constant in the rotation of my small but expanding record collection. My grandparents, who I began living with after my mother's death, had bought a cheap record player, which forced me to listen to my albums in their living room. In seventh grade, I'd saved money and bought a super cheap compact record player but I was only collecting singles at that point, and when I began buying the occasional album, I played them exclusively on my grandparents' only-slightly-better system. Many after school hours were spent listening to the strains of “Rocket Man” and “Hercules” and the exquisite “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” a song that can still bring me to tears when I'm in a mood.
The following year, I began saving money for another purchase; as a teenager I worked part-time as an elevator operator in the furniture store where my grandfather had been employed for over 40 years. The store had begun stocking all-in-one stereo systems, and I was eligible for an employee discount, so I picked a nice model with an 8-track deck and laid my money down when I collected the necessary funds, which took a little time, as my spending habits had come to include music, fast food and marijuana.
One of my earliest 8-track purchases was Elton's Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player. I had heard the album many, many times before my father took me to visit his friend Theresa for dinner one Saturday night; she took me up to the music room in her townhouse and fired up a joint that made my stash seem like oregano by comparison, and when we were good and wrecked, asked me to pick out something to play on her living room stereo. I picked Piano Player, which delighted her no end.
Before we went back downstairs, she said, “One last thing...” and she pushed me into a dark room, flipped on the light and closed the door behind me. I was completely disoriented, the room seemed to be swimming around me, largely because it was. Theresa had obtained a parachute from somewhere, and tacked the center of the chute to the ceiling in the center of the room, then draped it into each of the room's four corners and attached it to the baseboard around the room's perimeter. When she slammed the door, the air currents billowed behind the parachute on the ceiling and against all four walls; the only thing not in motion was the carpeting in the empty room. I sat on the floor and began laughing like an idiot. She retrieved me a few minutes later and we listened to Piano Player; it felt like a completely different album, given my first ingestion of real adult pot and subsequent hallucinatory parachute indoctrination; I remember “High Flying Bird” sounding like it should have been playing in a cathedral with a vaulted ceiling, which raised the hair on the back of my neck.
One or more of the Circus stories made mention of Elton's first album, 1969's Empty Sky, which at that point was only available as an import, and thus sported a heftier price tag and was harder to find. My problem was solved by my friend Barry, who had finagled his way into a job in his high school's library where he volunteered to buy albums for the school's audio catalog.
He was generally very responsible and bought a broad cross-section of music to appeal to the entire student body, but he also snuck in a number of things that were on our mutual wish lists, and Empty Sky was among his many purchases along those lines. We taped the import version of the album and played it nearly to destruction until Elton's massive success forced his next label, MCA Records, to release Empty Sky in an affordable and available American issue. I still prefer the original version of “Skyline Pigeon” featuring Elton on harpsichord, but it's impossible to hear any version of the song and not tear up at the memory of him singing it at the funeral of young AIDS victim Ryan White.
Ten months after the amazing Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, Elton unleashed his magnum opus, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The album's first single, “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting,” had been released in the summer of 1973 and when it came on the radio, my adrenal glands started pumping like every oil derrick in Texas. The album as a whole was a revelation, a concept album that was nostalgic without being maudlin, reflective without sinking into toxic self-awareness, and the perfect combination of single spotlight nakedness and play-to-the-balcony bombast. Little did I suspect that 13 months after the release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, I would experience my one and only live exposure to Elton John.
In 10th grade, I met my friend Rob in gym class. I'd seen him coming and going every morning of the new school year, as we had adjoining homerooms; our homeroom teachers were the school's two art instructors. The subject of music came up pretty quickly which uncovered our mutual love of Elton John, who became among the many artists that blared out of our 6x9 Jensens when we began driving in the summer of 1973. I introduced him to my friend Kevin and the three of us were as Musketeered as we could possibly be, smoking, drinking, listening to music and devouring pizza by the metric ton.
The summer of 1974 was supposed to be our last hurrah after the conclusion of our senior year. Kevin was headed to engineering school in Detroit, Rob was enrolled at our local community college until he figured out what he wanted to do and I was moving to California to hang out with my father, who had relocated there right after my graduation party, trading his self-employed accountant status for his first 9-5 job in a decade and a half.
We spent that summer partying our asses almost completely off, blissful with a hint of melancholy at the prospect of maybe not ever seeing one another for some time. That summer, Elton released Caribou, an album that was ultimately disavowed by producer Gus Dudgeon as “crap” but we certainly didn't think so; every time we heard “Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” it was a reminder that our friendship was something to be nurtured and maintained, and the album was rarely out of Rob's cassette deck. I personally loved “I've Seen the Saucers,” the epic ballad that was a favorite of John Lennon, and “Ticking,” the seven-and-a-half minute psychodrama that closed the album.
Plans changed. Kevin found out that his school was not on the rolling green campus of Wayne State University as depicted in the brochure but deep in the heart of downtown Detroit. We were solicited by three prostitutes on our way to his enrollment, and when Kevin opened the door to the classroom where he was supposed to sign up for the fall, a chair flew past the doorway and ricocheted off the blackboard. He let the door close and we headed back to the car. He too enrolled at the community college later in the week.
My own path swerved sharply later in the summer when my father decided that he couldn't stand the pace or alone-in-a-crowd solitude of the Golden State — or the job, for that matter — and announced that he was coming home. By that time, classes were closed at the community college so I returned to my job at the furniture store, which had morphed from elevator operator to stockboy and enrolled for the winter quarter at the appropriate time.
That fall, we heard the news that Elton John would be playing three shows at Detroit's Olympia Stadium in mid-November; his tour would essentially be the last leg of Yellow Brick Road and the first leg of Caribou. Kevin had never been quite as fervent a fan as Rob and I, so he begged off, preferring to save his money for a later concert, given the expense of the ticket and the 70-mile trip to the Motor City. Rob and a mutual friend had driven to Olympia when the tickets went on sale, but the line at the box office stretched for blocks and they hadn't built a long wait into their work schedules. Within days, all three shows were sold out.
Hope reared its oddly-shaped head when Rob heard from someone (he still can't remember who) that a strange little shop on the edge of our downtown area called George's Cigar Store, that dealt in a variety of tobacco products and somewhat exotic pornography, also sold concert tickets at a slight upcharge. After an inquiry to confirm the availability of tickets, Rob collected money from me and six other people who wanted to see Elton on Nov. 14, the second of his three Detroit shows. The tickets were an almost unthinkable $8.50, scalped up from their face value of $6.50. Highway robbery.
Rob and I each drove over to Detroit with three passengers in tow. He had a fairly spacious Ford Fairlane, while my car was my father's 1966 Cadillac Calais, which could comfortably seat six (and sneak an additional three people in the trunk into a drive-in). Once we got to Detroit, the early evening rain we'd experienced along the way let up and it was warm enough that we decided to leave our coats in the car so we wouldn't have to deal with them in our seats.
The show was magnificent, to say the least. After a lively opening set from EJ protege Kiki Dee, the house lights were turned completely off and Elton stalked onto the stage wearing a black bodysuit into which were sewn hundreds of long flexible springs, which were capped by the type of fluorescent styrofoam balls that people attached to their car antennas to be able to spot their ride in a packed parking lot. Because the stadium was completely dark, the only time Elton was visible was when he was illuminated in the flashes from cameras at the front of the stage, and only for a brief moment. The effect as he crossed the stage was stroboscopic, as he seemed frozen in space for the split second that he was lit, which was repeated as the flashes went off at irregular intervals. The really interesting effect was that the fluorescent balls were in constant motion as Elton strolled to his piano, and so even as he was captured in the still frame of light, his costume was simultaneously in full frenetic motion.
The house lights slowly crept up as the synthesizer intro to “Funeral for a Friend” cut through the darkness, swirling to the inevitable dramatic transition to the ecstatic anthemics of “Love Lies Bleeding.” At that point, I had my $8.50's worth.
I could have gone home happy if for some unexplained reason Elton had kicked back his piano stool, shouted “Good night, you little pricks,” and stormed off the stage. Of course, when he finished nine songs later with the encore of his first hit single, “Your Song,” followed by his freshly minted chart-topper, “The Bitch is Back,” I knew I had witnessed one of the greatest Rock shows by one of the tightest bands that I would ever see in my lifetime. And I knew I would probably never again get to see Ray Cooper and whoever was the second percussionist on that tour tossing tambourines that looked to be the size of garbage can lids back and forth over drummer Nigel Olsson's head. I was right on both counts.
The trip home from the show was almost as eventful as Elton John's spectacular performance. When we emerged from Olympia Stadium, we were shocked to find the temperature well below freezing and a good four inches of snow on our cars, with snow still coming down hard. The rain that had fallen earlier was now frozen to the asphalt, with a slippery and heavy snowfall covering it, making the 70-mile trek back home slow and treacherous. Rob's former girlfriend Sandy was in my car and when we couldn't figure out how to get to the highway because snow had stuck to the road signs, Sandy rolled down her back window, got halfway out of the car and shouted to a frozen pedestrian, “How do we get to 94?” A response came back, and Sandy returned to the back seat, completely covered in snow.
It had taken us nearly an hour to get out of Olympia's parking lot, and another three to get home; there was so much snow packed in my wheel wells, I could barely turn the steering wheel to make the exit, and I had to get out and kick it loose to be able to make a 90 degree left at the light. After taking John, Bob and Sandy to their respective homes, I headed for mine, finally getting into bed around 5 a.m. After a nap of about 90 minutes, I hauled ass out of bed, grabbed a quick breakfast and made it down to the furniture store to help load the first truck of the day. Once that was finished, I slunk off to the store's fourth floor, where I tore a hole in the end of the paper covering of a new couch in storage, crawled in and slept for another hour and a half until the store was open.
I maintained my devotion to Elton over the years, although I'll admit I had little use for his Dance Pop years when he and Bernie Taupin parted ways. Once that fence was mended, I returned to the fold. I never had the opportunity to interview Elton, of course; my status as a writer was not of a caliber that could assist him in any significant way. I did, however, leap at the chance to interview Bernie Taupin in the late '90s when he was fronting a band called Farm Dogs with former Family/Rod Stewart guitarist Jim Cregan, who I also spoke with for a feature story. I'm rarely starstruck by the people I interview, but I was nervous to the point of tongue-tied distraction at the prospect of speaking with the man who wrote the lyrics for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in the two weeks before recording began. He couldn't have been nicer and was a wonderful and engaging interview subject.
Twenty years later, I watched Bernard McMahon's American Epic Sessions on PBS, which documented the restoration of studio technology from the '20s and tasked contemporary artists with the challenge of creating recordings with antique processes and equipment; the highlight was the segment where Elton was handed a set of lyrics freshly written by Bernie, titled “Two Fingers of Whiskey,” and proceeded to write the music in a matter of minutes, which was then laid down by Elton and Jack White on the ancient recording device.
Fandom and friendship are very similar relationships. You can become discouraged, frustrated, enraged and ambivalent with and to people from both of those experiences, but if the root of your devotion to the people you're friends with and fans of remains true, you will return to them without question and so it has always been with me and Elton John. Anytime I've doubted wether Elton (and Bernie, of course) have anything left to say to me, I go back to the beginning.
One listen to “Your Song” is all it takes; “But the sun's been quite kind as I wrote this song/It's for people like you that keep it turned on.”
If they can do that once, they can do that anytime.
You can say farewell all you like, Sir Elton, but it will never be goodbye.
Elton John performs Wednesday, Feb. 27 at U.S. Bank Arena.