I had been looking forward to this moment all week.
He was going to be performing on television. I desperately wanted to see him. I’d been fascinated, perhaps even a little obsessed, with him for a year or more. I’d listened to all of his music and pored over his albums, studying the lyrics, the pictures, the precious details about his band. I was caught up in his mystique. The British name. The colorful outfits. The enormous shoes and glasses. But I had never actually seen him. I had never heard him perform or speak. My obsession needed satisfaction, and tonight was the night.
I readied the only source I had to record the event — a shoebox-sized tape recorder with thumb-sized buttons that clicked and stayed down when you pressed them. I put in a new cassette, and readied myself to hit “play/record” at the exact same time. That’s how it worked. I sat down on the carpet of my parents living room, a few feet from the TV, and waited.
At 8:00, the show came on. I don’t remember what show it was—some sort of variety show.. Not at first — but sometime after a commercial break — it was time. The band was on stage. There was Dee and Davey and Nigel (How much more British could they be?) And finally, there he was. Sitting at the piano wearing an outfit I only remember as white and yellow, with the trademark glittering glasses and elevator shoes.
He began to play. It was a strange sounding melody of a song I didn’t understand. “PIcture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies…” I wasn’t crazy about the song choice, but I was ecstatic to finally see him. I got it all on tape, and listened to it over and over again.
My rock hero, Elton John.
I was 8 or 9 years old. I imagined myself on that stage, singing like a superstar.
I wanted to be him.
I suppose many of us have memories like this, when we first get to see our musical heroes. It’s different these days, when all albums are nothing more than Spofity links, and there’s no need to record anything unless you plan to be the first to upload it to Youtube. Cover art is a thumbnail image. But for those of us from a previous generation, we have memories of seeing our musical heroes coming to life for the very first time. Many remember their first glimpse of Elvis Presley. For others, it was the Beatles or Michael Jackson.
For me, it was Elton John. I’d never heard or seen anything like him.
I have two older brothers, and most of my early musical taste was a copycat version of theirs. I shared a room with my brother Dave, whose stereo took up half of his dresser. I can remember some of his collection. There was the odd and mysterious stuff like Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, and The Who. There was tamer stuff like America and Herb Alpert. My brother Chris had his own collection, leaning more towards the singer/songwriter side, with James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot. Later my own collection would favor Billy Joel, The Eagles, and The Police.
But for two or three years, my obsession was Elton John. I don’t remember which brother owned the albums. Given their age-fueled mildly-possessive animosity, they probably both did. But those records were fascinating to me. Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, and the most incredible one of all, the bright yellow thick coffee table heavy Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Opening up that double-album was like finding a suitcase stuffed with fascinating treasures from a distant and exotic land. Inside were pictures of the band, with their long hair and polyester suits. There were the lyrics to each of the songs and drawings rendered for each. I studied them like baseball cards, trying to discover the meaning of things I was not old enough to understand, and many of which were inappropriate at my age. What’s a Sweet Painted Lady, anyway?
So, she lays down beside me again
My sweet painted lady, the one with no name
Many have used her and many still do
There's a place in the world for a woman like you
I’m sure my parents had no clue what was on this album.
But it was more than the lure of the forbidden for me. It was the music! Elton’s unhinged fingers playing at warp speed. The incredible orchestration, guitar riffs, and emotional build-ups. Best of all was his voice. Elton John could flat-out sing. He soared on Benny and growled on Saturday Night. He crooned on Candle and twanged on Roy Rogers. He had his Elton-esque way of either swallowing or opening up every vowel, creating a blend of black and white, pop and rock, British and American, blues and cowboy—that made it sound like he was singing from the depths of his soul, leaving just enough of the words indecipherable to send you back to the liner notes to figure them out.
Later, my favorite cousin and I spent a week at my Grandma’s house pretending we owned a radio station. The call letters were W.I.G. and our intro was, “This is DOUBLEYOU EYE GEE — WIG, WIG, WIG, WIGGY!” (Don’t ask — I have no idea.) The best thing about the imaginary station was that it was all-Elton, all the time. We played Gray Seal every other song. We recorded our shows on that same tape recorder borrowed from my parents living room. What I wouldn’t give to hear one of those recordings now.
I had no idea at the time how big Elton had really become. I didn’t know he was responsible for 5% of all record sales in the world, or that he was becoming insanely rich. I certainly didn’t know anything about his personal struggles and the demons which almost killed him. I just knew him as a larger-than-life musical genius who was my first rock star hero.
Nobody could sustain that level of genius forever. I thought Elton’s music lost its edge with the next few albums. By 1975, I didn’t listen as often. My brothers moved on. WIG closed up shop. In 1978 I bought a copy of Billy Joe’s The Stranger. I sang it every day for an entire year. I could sing every word in the time it took to mow my grandma’s lawn.
I write this now because Karen and I saw Rocketman this summer. I had forgotten how obsessed I had been with Elton John as a kid. We loved the movie. It was artfully and creatively made. It was a little strange, but it was beautiful, sad, tragic and triumphant. Taron Egerton was spot-on as Elton John, and the music was terrific. It brought back a lot of great memories.
It also left us both pondering the brokenness of Elton’s life, of the cost of fame and fortune, of the price he paid for his parents’ lack of affection and affirmation, and of his lifelong search for love. That’s really where the gift came from — from the pain of his childhood. Although he has remained a superstar, there was something about the brightness of his star in the early 70s that was never duplicated. He nearly killed himself giving us that music. I’m glad he survived to tell us his story.
And I also had one last thought as I reflected back on my life with Elton John. That night — as I sat there on my parents’ living room floor more than 40 years ago, I wasn’t alone. My parents were there, too. They didn’t care about Elton John beyond perhaps a mild curiosity. But they were there watching him with me that night, not at all condescending towards my obsession. That’s how they always were. They were always there, in that living room, sitting together, creating a place of security and acceptance and affirmation. If it mattered to me, it mattered to them, even if it didn’t matter to them. I never for a second doubted that they loved each other and loved me.
I sat there that night wanting to be Elton John. I didn’t know until I saw Rocketman that Elton John wanted to be me.