Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Grounding Emotion: Elton John: "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long, Long Time)"

If nature abhors a void, then I wonder what nature made of the departure of the Beatles in 1970; there had to be someone as versatile and transatlantically famous as them, as willing to sing ballads as rock out, willing to be over-the-top odd and yet for all that, perfectly normal.  Just as it's hard to think of the 60s without the Beatles, it's hard to think of the 70s without Elton John.  And he, rather quietly at first, but determinedly, became famous first in the US in 1970, just a man and a piano playing ballads, songs which were maybe love songs ("Your Song" is a song about finding the words to say something as much as the saying it) and maybe weren't (I have yet to figure out what "Levon" is actually about, but Elton sings it with so much passion, it doesn't matter). 

It is that passion I'd like to focus on; the earnestness in David Cassidy's songs is magnified here, because Elton has a better voice and in his songwriting parter Bernie Taupin he has someone who is trying to express the inexpressible, which maybe works sometimes, and maybe doesn't.  "Rocket Man" is one such song, one of their best, mainly because it presents itself so much as one man's thoughts as he is alone in space, thinking of that morning's events.  Some might compare it to "Space Oddity" but here the secret subject/inspiration isn't Syd Barrett; the passion Taupin and Elton have is poured forth to...the Every(wo)man who is doing something extraordinary but somehow is also being taken for granted.  The narrator of the song knows he's special, but what he is doing also cruelly separates him from his family, and the acres of space between how he sees himself and what he does.  Sure he's an astronaut; it's "just his job five days a week"; but he's also "not the man they think I am at home" and maybe it's in space where he feels he can best be himself; where the mundane world literally falls away and he floats, unencumbered, for a "long long time."  That others don't understand him, that he himself doesn't understand the science around him - there is a very recognizable ordinariness to his life - he doesn't regard himself as a hero, neither do others.  If the 70s were in some way a comedown from the heights of the 60s, this song describes how split the decade was; split between that 60s specialness and uniqueness and a kind of routine drabness that tends to grow around that specialness once the wonder and spectacle have worn off. 

The songwriting partnership of Elton and Taupin is interesting, if only because the lyrics come first here, as always; because they were written first, and Elton then had to pick out a melody and tempo and chords and bring the lyrics to life.  That he could find hooks as well goes without saying; their songwriting rests on both of them - Taupin to express something, something inspiring enough for Elton to go to the piano and figure out what it's going to sound like.  Here the music is serious, soaring into nothingness at the chorus and then arching back down again, much like the astronaut will eventually come back down to Earth; the heavenly and mundane in a cycle.  This isn't a song about Major Tom, hopelessly cut off and floating around; this is a man who misses his kids (that he feels he has to note that there's no one on Mars to raise his kids just shows how grounded he is, in a way) and can only take solace in the fact he's doing something most other people will never get to do. 

It is not a long stretch to take this song and use it to reflect on Elton and Taupin themselves; Elton as the Rocket Man (there's even a best of by him with that title) and Taupin as the normal guy who helps him as he gets ready to go, writing the lyrics so that the music has a basis from which to soar*.  In the 70s Elton John was simply the biggest star there was, especially in the US - but it is important to remember he didn't do it by himself, that each ballad or rocker or funky groove was inspired by lyrics, lyrics provided by someone who wasn't there in the room with him (they didn't work in the Brill Building fashion, to say the least), someone who knew Elton's capabilities as a composer and pretty much pushed them to the limit.  Elton then took those lyrics and formed a song around them, stretching words or cushioning them or scrunching them to suit his needs (his late stretching of "man" emphasizing the regular-guy aspect of the song, as well as how elevated, literally, the narrator is).  So all of Elton's songs are attempts to make the lyrics sing, and it is noticeable how the better the lyrics are, the more inspired Elton's melodies will be.  (The middle part of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is meh because of this, just as the end and beginning are great.)

That Elton John took over the 70s - well, by 1972 he was well on his way to getting popular everywhere, including his native UK - is undisputed; but at this time he was still the relatively modest figure who was friends with David Bowie and Marc Bolan, who sang plaintive songs and had to (with Taupin's inspiration of course) produce two albums a year, and who maybe wasn't quite ready to be as famous as he was; but he of course took the fame ball and ran with it, making the word superstar come to life.  That he earned and kept so much public goodwill is remarkable, and it was mainly because he was always true to himself, and truly loves music in a way few famous musicians do.  That dedication and heart was always evident; a willingness to take emotion and put it to music.  (I always think of Elton as a pianist first, btw, and singer second.) 

This blog will return to Elton in time; but next...well, there's only one time I'm going to do this, and thus I will be writing about all of one man's eligible songs here, instead of spreading them out - why will become obvious.  It's going to be a long essay, and may take a little while to write; bear with me.    

*I know I'm making Taupin sound like the wife here, but I also think there's a yin/yang balance here, and that in order for this songwriting relationship to work so well the two had to fundamentally like and understand each other, and there is an openness and sympathy evident in their work that makes the more personal songs very touching; that girls loved Elton straight off was due to that emotional openness in his songs. 

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

Eric Weisbard's observations about Elton representing the core of *pop modernity* perhaps explains why his chart success was generally greater in the US until relatively, and surprisingly, late in his career ("Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" was an exception, but then it was glammier and much more small-town working-class in subject matter than his other hits): the UK wasn't fully open to pop modernity at this point compared to its receptivity to both working-class tribalism and residual haute bourgeois innoculation from commerce - hence Slade, obviously, but also a particular *idea* of prog (not its totality, or its best manifestation, but its most public face). He was too much a total figure of pop modernity - for Weisbard, the true cosmopolitanism, the true equality - to reach his highest level of global popularity in a country where the working class was strong and powerful enough that it needed and felt for its own kind, its own voices. Pop modernity was viewed, by that working-class power force, as too rootless, too much something for everyone.

Elton's latterday career, when he finally reached critical mass in the UK, may suggest that there was something in that. Certainly, pop modernity has been far more of a force helping the historic ruling class in Britain than elsewhere, but then "elsewhere", in all relevant cases, is not an only half-reformed feudal state; it could far more easily fit into Weisbard's dream in pretty much any other state but this.