I did not really make acquaintance with English-language music almost until after high school. I was not only entirely uncool, but had no real pop culture influence. My mom does not listen to music except when attending concerts of the classics—one of the trademarks of good breeding in our culture. Although of the Baby Boomer generation, not having grown up in the US made her completely unable to pass on any retro musical heritage to me. The only records in our home were mine.
In the way of awkward teenage communication, I could never figure out how to seek guidance from peers. I mean, when one is fourteen, one does not simply say, hey, to what music should I listen so that I am not an outcast? Of course, pop music then was not as easily accessible—records cost money. In high school, I had no money. I did somehow manage to procure the following: (1) Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man”—because I saw “Uptown Girl” on Friday Night Videos and liked the catchy tune; (2) Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health”—because a boy on whom I had a crush seemed to be into it, and (3) Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—because it was all the rage, and made me feel quite with it and in the know.
Around my high school graduation time, The Monkees made their decennial revival—the show, of course, which immediately reminded me of my beloved Marx Brothers. I thought I made such a profound connection—turns out, John Lennon said it first. Through them, I discovered other 60s music (technically, the music of my parents generation, even if they remained oblivious). And then came Elton John.
In typical college drama fashion, the lousy boyfriend du jour (the same one from the “Arc de Triomphe” post—he was just a remarkably bad boyfriend!) stood me up on Valentine’s Day. A friend came over to cheer me up, with leftover filet mignon from a dinner with her boyfriend (who turned out to be not much better than mine, if somewhat more attentive), a couple of bracelets from her own collection, and the music of Elton John. She is still a friend, albeit a geographically removed on. She was, and is, fabulous, beautiful, self-assured, stylish. She might have been the only friend I ever had who actively influenced my musical taste. It does not seem likely now that she came with the sounds of music on that occasion, but in my flawed memory, that Valentine’s Day is conflated with the day I first heard “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”.
It is still my absolutely most favorite song of all time—even though I have misheard the lyrics for all these years. I am not entirely sure I ever knew exactly what they were until I just looked them up now! “Horny back toad”—really, those are the words in this song? I just like “It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics to set you on your feet again”. True then, true now. Although I do not believe I ever had vodka and tonic together. I have had more than my share of vodka over the years, and quite a bit of tonic, but never together. Still, it’s the sentiment that counts. And I have to this day the “favorite breakup songs” playlist on my iPod. Do people still have iPods? It used to be a tape, then a CD, so I count myself as quite technologically advanced! “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is always opening that party.
When I got married, my thoughtful husband suggested an Elton John song for our first dance as the wedding reception. The problem was, all my favorite songs of his were either sad or inappropriate (“The Bitch is Back”? That would have pleased my in-laws, at least…) “Your Song” was a natural choice. My eyes are not green nor blue, neither are his, but we made it work.
And now they made a movie about Elton’s life and music. Well, not they—he. He made it. He loves it. I love it. I was wary of it at first, because I expected another “Bohemian Rhapsody”—a strangely sanitized account of a vaguely unhappy but tremendously successful musical genius who had indulging and supportive family and friends (especially Brian May—I want to be friends with Brian May, he is clearly just The Friend of Friends!), made the crowds go wild at Live Aid, and then discreetly died of AIDS. The music was awesome, but the rest was ambiguous. And the lead actor constantly licking his prosthetic teeth was downright distracting.
Not so with “Rocketman”. Elton’s unhappiness despite success is very clear—and dare I say, justified? His parents are shown as just awful, cold and critical throughout. I do know that such parents exist, of this I have no doubt. My sons and I argued who was worse, his father or his mother, but does it really matter? Elton’s tremendous and destructive insecurities seem to have been rooted in their lack of love. As one of his songs goes “mama don’t want you, daddy don’t want you”. Add to that an equally unpleasant and downright abusive manager/lover, and voilá– “sad songs say so much”.
It would all not be so impressive without (1) the wonderful music of Elton John and the way it is inserted to advance the plot (I can’t wait for this story to be made into a Broadway or West End musical!) and (2) the unexpectedly (at least for me) potent and poignant performance by Taron Egerton. That kid from “Kingsman” really sings! And he really acts! And he really looks incredibly much like Elton—the wonders of theatrical makeup never cease to amaze me. I could not picture this transformation until I actually saw it on screen. Although I must note, Bernie Taupin was never as handsome as the kid from “Billy Elliott” all grown up.
The reason that “Rocketman” is so powerful is rooted in the simple fact that, despite all the extraordinary accomplishments, love is a basic need, and without it we are nothing. We, as humans, joke that if money cannot buy love, it can buy other things that are just as good. But I do know that those of us who say this come from a position of “love privilege”. We are not lacking in affection in our lives, so can look to that next stage in the hierarchy of emotional needs. Even that cranky old St. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 13, the famous treatise on love. Elton John’s life seems to have embodied the 2nd verse of that chapter, “If I have the gift of [we have to insert music and riches and anything else that comes to mind], but do not have love, I am nothing”. And so I walked away from the movie not irritated by the plight of a sad rich musician but touched by the tragedy of a man is craves acceptance and affection from all the wrong people, those who are fundamentally incapable of giving it, and finally, happy for Elton that he found his happily ever after. My son pulled out an album of Elton John’s greatest hits which I recognized as pilfered from my own old record collection (plus ça change…), and all was well with the world.