Monday, June 3, 2019

Still Standing: Elton John's living legacy, and other music lost and found

Fans and critics are raving about the creative and mesmerizing Elton John biopic Rocketman, and comparisons to other rock star movies have led some to say it's what Bohemian Rhapsody could have been. Seeing the film with a musician pal and an appreciative audience at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco led me to recall how Elton John's music shaped my piano-playing as a teen, almost as much as the music of Queen. Freddie Mercury and his band's music took precedent as an inspiration for my sixth novel, Now I'm Here. But now I regret not giving Elton enough devotion.

As John, cutie Taron Egerton takes us on a wild journey through John's childhood, early starts in playing for other musicians, and his eventual rise to superstardom.

Rocketman's dreamy Troubadour scene
Among the best scenes are the dramatic and fantasy-styled moment when John's American debut at LA's Troubadour nightclub wowed new fans almost overnight. 

The floating magic moment when it all clicked for the singer-composer is only one of many dreamlike fantasy musical numbers that recall the rock and pop music-filled films Across the Universe and Moulin Rouge.

John's LA debut at The Troubadour is recounted in this sweet article in the LA Times.
Variety compares box office and the PG versus R ratings of the two rock biopics. 
 And the GQ review takes the film to task, yet admits its success in comparison to the Queen biopic:

"In the same way that Bohemian Rhapsody presented the superficial, sanitized version of Freddie Mercury—the one that the living members of Queen wanted the public to see—the Elton John we get in Rocketman seems cleaned up and doctored to be a movie subject."
I'm not sure how 'cleaned up' it is, with a musical orgy and the coke-snorting addiction depicted in Rocketman. For a wonderful account of more real events in John's life compared to the film, read the Time Magazine feature.

Rocketman vs Bohemian Rhapsody
I've Seen That Movie Too
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, we see a gay man face his inner conflicts and the ups and downs of the closet. Both have seemingly obligatory orgy scenes, with BoRhap's limited to a murky leather bar. Rocketman's dance club "sexy" nightclub scene approaches a camp level of the Canadian cult classic The Apple.

In this Daily Mail feature, Elton John and director Dexter Fletcher (who filled in for Bohemian Rhapsody when Brian Singer flaked) discuss the 'realness' of the story amid all the wonderful musical numbers choreographed by Adam Murray.

Unlike the story of Mercury, whose sexual exploits are kept mostly off-screen by the prudish script of Bohemian Rhapsody, John's fantasy biopic gets a passionate and realistic yet brief love scene amid all the dreamy music numbers, which are intentionally out of order. Time magazine recounts the anachronisms and inspirations.

John's dilemma is more about his addictions and eventual recovery. Mercury's biopic leads up to his anachronistic HIV diagnosis, while John's strangely doesn't even mention AIDS (despite his later generous philanthropy with his AIDS/HIV foundation). Still, he survived, which probably had more of an effect on his cinematic story's depiction of his life.

Elton John at Outside Lands 2015
Song for Guy
But what if (gods forbid) John had also died of AIDS, a cocaine-fueled heart attack or via the party pool attempted drowning scene depicted in the film? Would we listen to his music differently, as we do with Mercury, Price, David Bowie and so many other lost artists?

The New York Times recently focused on classical composers lost to AIDS. A score may survive, but one can't imagine the symphonies lost when gay artists die too young.

Fortunately, thanks to some extended rehab included fancifully and realistically in Rocketman, John survived his years of drug and alcohol addiction. The post-finale pre-credits bits include updates on the musician's post-film life with some fun visual comparisons to the dramatized moments and the varying costumes and looks John sported over the years. He's still standing, and is now readying for his farewell tour.

I was lucky enough to see John perform at San Francisco's Outside Lands music festival in 2015 (watch the full concert on YouTube). It was a bit strange to sing along with fans who were mostly half my age, and weren't even born when John's hits were all over the radio. I regret not having seen him during my teenage concert-going years, and at any prior time. Unfortunately, I took his artistry for granted. Even as a kid, his albums were hand-me-downs from my sister.
My piano, where the magic happened (with cat Rachel)

My parents were quite tolerant of our music listening, with our stereo in the dining room of our home. More often, I'd listen on headphones in the bedroom I shared with my brother, once we inherited the older record player. Other times in high school, I played along to scores or by ear, mostly to Madman Across the Water, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic.

In the film, John, then a preteen Reg Dwight, displays a perfect ear for music, and plays along to music after just one listen. While I can't compare to his skills, I did enjoy finding chords and melodies by ear when I didn't have sheet music. 

And while Reg Dwight's parents were dismissive of his budding talents, mine were quite encouraging. Said David Furnish, John's husband, in the Daily Mail feature, "Music as a young boy pulled [Elton/Reg] out of a very unhappy childhood, and that opened a door to an infinite amount of possibilities."

Ashland Jr. High's girls' gym
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
One memento from my youth should serve as proof of my young devotion to Elton John. In junior high school, I got into a cafeteria fight with some other kid about the origin of Elton John's cover of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." This was in 1974, I think.

Bigger still, I somehow managed to organize a school dance entirely filled with Elton John's music for a Drama Club benefit. Three hours of teenage kids danced to (mostly) ballads and a few upbeat songs at the height of John's Captain Fantastic album. Imagine being able to fill a stuffy girls' basement gym with three hours of one artist's music.

In retrospect, it served as an unknowing coming out; unknowing to everyone else, at least, and aside from instinctively knowing that both Elton John and Freddie Mercury were gay (even when they didn't). 

My draft of a flyer for an Elton John dance!
Above the gym floor, on a balcony, I selected songs with a classmate, also named Jim, who somehow found out about my idea for the dance, and offered his then-complete collection of albums to play. 

I had a wild crush on the other Jim, unspoken, of course. We played from two turntables hooked up to what was probably a rickety set of speakers. I can't recall those specifics, just being relieved to not have to ask girls to dance and remain above it all with my handsome co-DJ.

I do have a box of songs with the lyrics written below chords. I only wrote out sheet music for Music Theory classes in high school (including a Gregorian chant I composed, which was performed by my high school's choir a year I graduated), for my previously written-about "Bohemian Rhapsody" solo performances, and later for one semester at Kent State, before I sadly put aside piano for acting (and later dance, performance –which included electronic music composition– and finally writing).

One of my many morose high school songs
Tiny Dancer(s) 
And, after hours of searching through my boxes of programs, flyers and juvenile artwork, I found my hand-written draft of the poster that was later redone, and taped up in the halls of the Ashland Junior High School.

The at-the-time daunting school, built in 1915, housed the teen angst of generations of students, first as a high school, until its closure in 2015. The building, which any sensible historian would recognize as an architectural beauty worth preserving, was demolished a few years ago. To take a tour, visit

Some aspects of this mindless destruction is dramatized in my novel Now I'm Here. And while there are a lot of Queen references (and even a Pink Floyd concert!), including a fictionalized version of the concert I attended, there are several Elton John references as well. The main character, Joshua, plays Elton John songs for fun, then later at parties in Los Angeles only a decade after Elton John's Troubadour debut, but only a few blocks away.

Budding composer 1974
Poring over my personal "juvenalia" in composition led me to compare the unusual and prolific relationship that Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin had for decades. While my own scribblings pale in comparison (see above), at least I was inspired to try composing music and songs. 

The meeting of Taupin and John is shown in Rocketman as mere happenstance, but also fated. I mean, really, can you imagine a world without "Daniel," "Your Song" or "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting?" It was meant to be.

While I may not splurge on a $300 ticket to John's upcoming farewell tour, I do appreciate his artistry, his activism and his generous fundraising. I prefer not to comment on his occasional odd choice of friendships with dubious right-wingers or allegedly anti-gay musicians. That's his life. His music still stands.

So, if you want to hear some of Elton at his best, visit his website, see him one last time in concert, and see Rocketman. On YouTube, enjoy his concerts, including one of my favorites, his radio-broadcast solo concert.

And when you buy and read Now I'm Here, look for my little tributes to Elton amid all the Queen love. He inspired me as much as Freddie, perhaps a bit more.

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