I heard recently that like Paul Simon, who has decided to call it quits on touring, Elton John has announced he’s retiring from the road. While this is sad news for all rock and roll fans in general and Elton fans more specifically, the news could be worse. Poor Neil Diamond just announced he was retiring from the road due to Parkinson’s. I hated to hear that. A friend of mine saw Diamond in Wichita once… he said the blue hairs went crazy after Neil stood up and said, “If you want to, you can sing along, but if you’ve got any guts you’ll stand up and dance…” My buddy says it’s as close as he’s going to get in his lifetime to seeing Elvis. I was also told by a backstage hand once that during soundcheck, Neil chain smokes and cusses like a sailor…Oh, to be a fly on the wall. You gotta love Neil Diamond, but I digress.
Again, while the news that Elton is retiring from the road is sad, in light of some of the huge losses the rock and roll world has seen over the last few years – Petty, Prince, Chris Cornell, Lemmy, Glenn Frey, Bowie (to name but a few) – at least Elton is going out on his own terms and not feet first. Elton is a rock and roll survivor, managing to get through drug addiction and alcoholism to find joy, contentment, marriage and fatherhood waiting at the other end. Good for him! I certainly hope he continues recording because I’ve loved his late career LPs, from Songs From the West Coast all the way through Wonderful Crazy Night. It’s nice that he’s going to take this “victory lap.” The man is simply put, an Icon. The tour is supposed to last three years…And here I thought I struggled to say goodbye. The Rock Chick says it always takes me about a half an hour to leave a party… gotta get one more hug/handshake/joke told…
For those of you who only know Elton from The Lion King (and I feel sorry for you), let’s step back a bit… It’s hard to overstate how huge Elton was in the early 70s. From 1970 to 1976 he was the king of not only the rock charts but the pop charts as well. He was even big in the Soviet Union, which in the Cold War was no minor feat. Not only was his music popular, the albums he produced during that period are some of rock’s greatest: Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, 11-17-70 (Live), Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy. That’s a pretty staggering discography. Elton was to the first half of the 70s what Michael Jackson was to the 80s, The Beatles to the 60s, Elvis to the 50s or dare I say, what Sinatra was to the 40s. And like Sinatra or Elvis, you only need one name to identify Elton… although now I guess it’s Sir Elton.
He and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin rank up there with Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards as far as I’m concerned. His backing band during most of his “golden” period were also a pretty top-notch outfit: the intrepid, often overlooked but fabulous Davey Johnstone on guitar, Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass. These guys could play great, hard rocking tunes like “Funeral For a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” or one of my favorites, “Elderberry Wine” or turn it down for any of Elton’s intricate, beautiful ballads. In the early 70s they really were untouchable. But, like happens to all artists, both physical and artistic energy begins to wane. It’s hard to sustain white-hot, fiery success like that forever.
By the end of the 70s Elton had started writing songs with other people. I don’t believe he and Taupin were estranged, but Elton decided new lyricists might give him a spark. The almost constant touring and partying probably weren’t helping, but we don’t judge here at B&V, especially Rock Stars. Surprisingly, by the latter half of the 70s Elton had also slowly separated from his backing band… first Olsson and Murray and later with Davey Johnstone. Along with all this change to the creative unit, Elton’s fortunes on the charts began to slow down. The chart topping juggernaut finally came to an end. I have heard some theorize that the cooling in his commercial success was a backlash to Elton’s admitting he was bisexual in a magazine article. 1976’s Blue Moves, his second double-album in 3 years only produced one hit song, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” The album’s melancholy tone seemed to signify that something had ended…
While the backlash was probably real, it’s hard to understate how much music changed in the latter half of the 70s. Punk rock blossomed in 1976-1977 and that changed everything. Elton wasn’t the only artist who was knocked back on their heels by the new attitude and energy of punk. Facing that, while dismantling his backing band and forging new songwriting partnerships was probably difficult and would have been for anybody. Luckily, by the time 1982 rolled around, Elton was slowly (literally) getting the band back together. He’d already pulled Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray back into his band. He had never fully stopped writing songs with Taupin. The final piece was put in place with the return of guitarist Davey Johnstone. In April of 82, with the support of his “classic” line-up, Elton released Jump Up! The album’s hit single was a beautiful Taupin lyric honoring the late John Lennon, entitled “Empty Garden.” I’ve always thought of that record as a minor come back for Elton… but I think I may be the only one who feels that way. The real comeback came with 83’s Too Low For Zero.
Coincidentally by April of 1982, I had become an adult and could legally buy beer, which seemed like a huge deal at the time…”walk like a man…” By May of that year I had graduated from high school. I was getting ready to head off to a new life at the University that upcoming August. I spent that summer working in a local restaurant as a busboy, utterly filthy work, for minimum wage but I was happier than I’d ever been. I also spent the summer going out every night to drink beer with my friends or as was more likely the case, hanging out with my girlfriend… Ah, 1982. I was in love for the first time. And when I say, “in love,” I mean it in all the tragic, dramatic, painful intensity that youth brings. “Ah to be young and feel love’s keen sting…” One might say I had the tunnel vision of any narcissistic, in-love teenager who was drinking a lot of beer. So I was utterly surprised when my mother appeared in my bedroom to announce we were attending the Elton John concert at Starlight Theater. I had heard my brother, who was always light years ahead of me on music, listening to Elton’s first volume of Greatest Hits seemingly constantly through the shared wall of our bedrooms, but I didn’t remember him asking for these tickets for his birthday. At the time, I was focused on more temporal things…
And, here’s the thing that bugs me to this day. I didn’t want to go. I tried to get out of it. I wanted to go and park in some dark corner of the neighborhood with my girlfriend. I was listening to a lot of Van Halen at the time. I was a Stones and Zeppelin guy. I didn’t think I really knew a lot of Elton’s music, save for what I was hearing coming out of my brother’s room. I mean, everybody knew the hits, they were hard to avoid. To make matters worse, I’d be attending with not only my brother but with my parents. When you’re a teenager the prospect of spending a beautiful summer night with your parents is as appealing as a dental appointment. The show we were attending was the first of two dates at the Starlight Theater. The second show, July 7th was going to be broadcast on a radio station and blasted across America (what I’d give for a bootleg of that show!) so we weren’t even going to be a part of the broadcast. We attended the July 6th show. Last but not least, the Starlight Theater was a gentile, beautiful outdoor theater in Swope Park. Starlight had only recently started allowing rock concerts to be held there – while I’ve seen Bowie, Rush and Soundgarden at Starlight since then, that would have been unthinkable until my senior year in high school. Starlight was more known as a musical theater destination. My Fair Lady, anyone? I remember thinking, well it’s Elton, no wonder he’s playing Starlight, he’s mellow…. or so I thought.
I remember standing in the hot July night, trying to look like I wasn’t really there with my parents, sitting on the other side of my brother wistfully missing my girlfriend… we’d seen each other earlier that day, I have no idea what was wrong with me. Mere hours apart were enough to turn me into Rimbaud. I had to admit, begrudgingly to myself, that we had really good seats – in the center and just far enough back I could see over everybody. I quietly noted to myself to ask dad where he scored the great seats. I was still lukewarm on the whole thing when the opening act came out. I have vague memories of that part of the show, but I remembered it was a female lead singer. I finally Googled it and it was Quarterflash, a one-hit wonder whose song “Harden My Heart” was big at the time. The only thing I truly remember about Quarterflash’s set was that Elton himself came and stood on the side of the stage and watched the show. I went from cynical teenager to utter fanboy at just the sight of Elton. He was dressed exactly like he is in the picture I used for this post. He had the black cowboy hat and a sport coat on. His mere presence changed my attitude.
Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The lights dimmed and the electronic keyboard/synthesizer opening to “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” started and in a fog of smoke, out comes Elton. The band launched into the song with a ferocity I had not anticipated. I was familiar with the song from the local rock station, KY/102 but hearing it live was like trying to pilot a 747. Every other thought in my mind – my girlfriend, my impending departure to college, even thoughts of ice cold beer – all melted away. I was mesmerized. What followed was simply one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. I have thought back and I wonder if it was the low expectations I carried in that made me respond to that show, but I don’t think it was. They were on fire that night. At the end of “Funeral,” Elton picked up his piano bench over his head and threw it to the back of the stage where it crumbled into pieces. I don’t know why, but my father thought that was hysterical. Every time Elton did it, and he did it a lot, my father doubled over. Me, I just thought it was cool.
The mix of hits and deep tracks was amazing. I hadn’t realized how much of his music I knew. He played songs everybody knew, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Empty Garden” (which was the new one), “The Bitch Is Back,” and “Pinball Wizard.” He also played deeper tracks, which, somehow, most of which I knew. “All the Girls Love Alice,” “Where To St Peter” and best of all “Teacher I Need You,” a song he announced by saying, “Most of these songs I pick for you, this song, I play for me…” Even the handful of songs he played that I hadn’t been familiar with, “Ticking,” “Elton’s Song” or “Chloe” were executed with such brilliance, I walked out of there loving them. The band must have been on stage for over 2 hours.
If my misty, gimlet-eyed memory serves me, they ended the main set with a crushing version of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” They returned to the stage and mellowed things out with “Daniel,” before revving it back up with “Crocodile Rock.” Now, I’ll admit “Crocodile Rock” has never been a favorite of mine, but that night, after all this band had put into the performance, I was up on my feet and dancing like everybody else. The last song they played, and I still remember this, was Jerry Lee Lewis/Beatles medley consisting of “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On/I Saw Her Standing There/Twist And Shout.” I walked out of Starlight wordlessly with my parents and brother, all of my self-consciousness about being with my family washed away. I had just witness rock and roll Royalty put on an amazing show. While Elton’s banter in between songs seemed a tad stilted and slightly shy, his playing had been that of a crazed, confident rocker.
I learned a lot of valuable lessons that night. First and foremost, Elton John kicks ass. There is nothing mellow about the guy. I also learned, always buy the ticket and see the show. It’s important to open yourself up to all things music. And, last but not least, try not be to so whipped… Well, ok it took me a few more months and a brutal break up to learn that last one… “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word” actually played on the radio during my break up, so that seemed fitting. I’m sad to hear that Elton is retiring from the road. He’s truly one of the greatest rock’n’roll showmen of all time. It’s my hope I can talk the Rock Chick into going to the KC show. I’ve gotta see him one more time. After seeing him in 1982, I kept my ear tuned to what he was doing… do yourself a favor and check out any of the albums he’s put out since 2001, especially Songs From the West Coast and The Diving Board, you’ll thank me later…
Congratulations Sir Elton John on your impending concert retirement. I certainly appreciate the time I spent with you in 1982.