During my pubescent Wonder Years, my dad’s Johnny Cash and Buck Owens albums filled our house with hard country. Meanwhile, I was hunkered down in my bedroom listening to Elton John. Hank, Johnny, Patsy and Merle may be stamped on my DNA, but Elton’s music is embedded in my heart and soul.
Were there no Elton John, there would be no Bob Wire.
Why would a gutbucket guitar slinger like myself owe a debt of gratitude to a flamboyant, piano-pounding purveyor of pop? Simple: Elton rocks. Every time I listen to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” for example, I am reminded how much of a role the electric guitar plays in Elton’s music. The riff to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” is one of the best-known phrases in rock, and the song is about drinking, fighting, kicking ass and getting laid, the very essence of the country music that is my stock in trade. But even in his lesser-known stuff, Elton frequently puts the six-string front and center. And as a guitar player, that gives me something pretty solid to hang my hat on.
But there’s a deeper connection, one that many music fans of my generation share. If you’re middle-aged, Elton John provided a large portion of your coming-of-age soundtrack. He ruled the charts for nearly the entire 1970’s, a potent run that sold more records than any other artist except for the Beatles, Elvis, and weirdo extraordinaire Michael Jackson. Even the Rolling Stones couldn’t keep pace with Elton’s record sales, despite releasing such enduring classics as Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers, and Let It Bleed.
Elton’s Honky Chateau was the first album I ever owned. It was one of the records I’d received in my initial shipment from the Columbia House Record Club, which began a long, expensive, torturous relationship with that outfit. If you neglected to send in your selection card every three weeks, you’d come home from school one day and discover to your horror that they’d mailed you the latest Bay City Rollers album. Moving didn’t help. The account exec bloodhounds at Columbia House were more relentless than the Sopranos hunting down some schmuck in the Witness Protection Program.
But my first shipment of 11 albums (“Only three more to buy at regular Club prices!”) included three gems by the Rocket Man: Honky Chateau, Madman Across the Water, and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (one of the greatest album titles of all time, right up there with Joe Walsh’s The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get). With my hand-me-down receiver wired to a thrift shop turntable, I rattled my crappy little loudspeakers with “Hercules,” “Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” and “Levon” until my sisters would bang on the wall between our bedrooms with their Barbie dolls because I was drowning out the Bobby Sherman 45 they were listening to on their Close ’n Play.
Now it’s some 30 years later, and I’ve been playing country, rockabilly, blues, and meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll around western Montana since the mid-90s. I’ve worked hard to cultivate the image of a hardcore honky-tonker who’s got nothing to do with that mainstream Nashville crap they play on country radio. I like to think my live shows are as entertaining as they are unpredictable, and whatever I may lack in talent, I make up for with energy and shtick. I’m more Benny Hill than Bennie and the Jets, so it may surprise you that the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was an Elton John tune.
It happened at age 15, when I picked up my dad’s guitar and he taught me a few chords. By a few, I mean three. I was listening to a steady diet of Eagles, Kiss, BTO, Steve Miller, and Elton. I worked hard at that guitar, building calluses on my chording fingers, and improving my dexterity. At last, after weeks of practicing, I had a song down, and promptly ran into my parents’ bedroom to wow them with it.
They were still asleep, this being 7:30 on a Sunday morning. My dad woke up when he heard me strumming, so I played “Shoulder Holster,” a great girl-on-the-run song from Blue Moves. I had boiled down the complex arrangement to the three chords I knew, and when I finished, he said, ‘Not too bad,’ and asked me where the song came from. When I told him it was Elton John, he rolled his eyes and pulled the covers back over his head.
Now, of course, I can see why a career Marine Corps officer like my dad might have a problem with Elton John. He had admitted to Rolling Stone that he was bisexual (Elton, not my dad), and his sexual orientation suddenly overshadowed his music. Still, I spent a lot of time defending my musical hero to my father and my peers, even risking taunts and fistfights by wearing my hand-painted Elton John T-shirt to school. But something in his style, his ability to craft a catchy, rockin’ melody had hooked me and hooked me deep. From the first time I heard “Rocket Man” on my tinny AM radio when I was at the cusp of adolescence, the musician inside me shoved aside the tire-swinging mini-bike rider and sought out ways to make music.
Judging from the clamor for tickets in Missoula (and the vitriolic backlash to the disastrous wristband scheme), there are a lot of similar stories out there. But the message is clear: This man’s music is very important to a lot of us.
In that infamous 1976 interview with Rolling Stone, a burned-out Elton suggested that he was going to quit touring after the previous night’s show in Madison Square Garden: “I mean, who wants to be a 45-year-old entertainer in Las Vegas like Elvis?” he asked the interviewer.
I said something very similar about ten years ago. I figured I’d be ditching my popular band, the Fencemenders, and hanging up my battered cowboy hat before I hit 40. “No one wants to see some guy in his 40s jumping around onstage at the Union Club,” I remember saying. Since then, though, Missoula musicians like Russ Nasset, Rick Waldorf, Tim Martin, Erik “Fingers” Ray, Ellie Nuno, Tenley Holway, Phil Hamilton, and dozens of others have shown me that with age, comes soul. With experience, comes style.
Hell, look at Mick Jagger. At 63, he’s rocking as hard as ever, even though his face has more wrinkles than my wife’s favorite blouse after I’ve washed it on the wrong cycle. And Keith, well, let’s just say he looks almost lifelike.
Elton is still a vital force, no doubt about it. He celebrated his 60th birthday this year by playing, ironically, Madison Square Garden—for the 60th time. And as for Vegas, he signed a much-heralded contract in 2003 to rotate shows with Celine Dion. He’s been thrilling thousands of fans with his famous “Red Piano” shows at Caesar’s Palace, where he’s giving the people what they want: the songs he wrote with Bernie Taupin.
“Words and music by Elton John and Bernie Taupin” is a magic phrase. Elton’s uncanny ability to match Taupin’s lyrics to the perfect music was something he never quite achieved with any other writer. Taupin, whose writing is sometimes abstruse, sometimes wry, plumbed the emotional depths of Everyman with his potent imagery.
Check out these lines from “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” a jagged, snotty song of youth gone wild, written from the point of view of a gleefully nihilistic kid who revels in his dead end life: “A couple of the sounds that I really like / Are the sound of a switchblade and a motorbike / I’m a juvenile product of the working class / Whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass.”
While the distorted guitars and barrelhouse piano fight for supremacy, Elton spits out these lyrics as if he were that disaffected young loser, and he makes you believe every word.
Between 1972 and 1975, he released seven consecutive #1 albums, all written with Taupin. No one since has come even close to that kind of chart success. The pair maintained an astonishing two-album-a-year pace from the release of Empty Sky in 1969, to Blue Moves, released in late 1976. After Blue Moves sold a disappointing two million copies, Elton started working with other lyricists, and dropped off the charts, not to return until 1983’s Too Low For Zero, the first album that reunited him with Taupin.
“I was living in England, Bernie was living in the U.S., but we never at any time in our lives fell out with each other or had arguments; it was never, ever, a split, it was just a healthy time apart. If we hadn’t had that break, we might never have survived,” Elton said in the liner notes to Too Low For Zero.
Pulling together the classic lineup of his most successful band also helped Elton return to form. The core group of drummer Nigel Olsson, bassist Dee Murray and guitarist Davey Johnstone provided Elton with the stylish, instantly recognizable sound of his early recordings and scored him two hits from the album. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” reached #4 on the charts, but “I’m Still Standing” sticks out as the pivotal moment from the record. The song is catchy as hell and made a pretty obvious statement concerning Elton’s career, but Lord God A’mighty, that video. If there was any question as to his sexuality before, this thing, with its oiled-up body builders and assorted prancing boy toys, tied up the answer in a big, pink ribbon.
So how could a geeky, pudgy mama’s boy from Middlesex, England, chart a course that would eventually make him one of the most beloved and successful artists in popular music history? As with many musicians of his generation, the fuse was lit by Elvis Presley.
According to Phillip Norman’s 1991 biography, Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Elton’s real name) was galvanized by the Bill Haley and Elvis records his mother listened to at home. Gifted with an aptitude for composition and melody, young Reg rebuffed his repressive step-dad’s efforts to steer him into a professional career, and entered the Royal Academy of Music on a scholarship. Elizabeth Rosenthal’s 2001 biography reports that his instructors were amazed by his ability to immediately memorize complex pieces by Handel and other composers.
In 1967 Reg, responding to a newspaper ad, began corresponding with Taupin. Bernie would mail his lyrics to Reg, who would then set them to music. They met six months later, and the pair was hired by Dick James Music, where they cranked out pop songs like so much sausage. By that time Reg had changed his name to Elton Hercules John (nicking it from Bluesology rockers Elton Dean and Long John Baldry), and his songwriting with Taupin would blossom into a fertile, unerring font of creativity that would inject heavy doses of melody, piano, and dynamic string arrangements into the macho world of rock ’n’ roll.
His early affinity for Elvis helped Elton the performer overcome the stage fright of Elton the songwriter. Indeed, his early shows at L.A.’s famous Troubadour were a harbinger of Elton’s showmanship and command of the stage. He became a bespectacled Jerry Lee Lewis, kicking the piano bench across the stage, doing handstands on the keyboard, and basically going balls out to prove that singer-songwriters need not always be sensitive.
It was this showmanship, this larger-than-life stage persona that drew me in and fueled my obsession with the man and his music. During Elton’s heyday, I devoured Creem and Circus magazines, cutting out any Elton photos for my collages, and of course I owned every album he’d released. I’m man enough to admit that I even drew pictures of Elton, complete with receding hairline, pug nose, and oversized glasses, while my classmates were crafting sketches of dragsters and motorcycles.
But simple obsession does not a gay man make. In the 1976 Rolling Stone interview, Elton expounded on his bisexuality by adding that we’re all bisexual to some extent. (At the time I wondered if everyone from Middlesex was bisexual. I mean, come on—Middlesex.) Those comments made a big splash in the mainstream press, because the nation—even in the midst of the Sexual Revolution—preferred its gays to remain closeted.
But why the shock? I mean, look at the guy’s stage gear. Feather boas. Giant platform boots. Enough sequins and glitter to make Liberace look like a drill sergeant. And oh, the glasses. Hundreds of pairs. In typical flamboyant fashion, he used his prescription eyewear as just another way to express himself.
Shortly before the news of Elton’s bisexuality broke, he’d announced a series of concerts at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. I saw a photo of him in Time magazine, wearing a sequined Dodgers uniform, and I simply had to go. We were living in the Twentynine Palms, a mere three-hour drive to L.A. My dad had seen the photo too, though, and wasn’t going to expose his only son to this kind of kinky depravity.
“Hell no,” he said, despite my begging and pleading. He said he wasn’t about to let me drive out there to see a man who prefers actual penises to cigars.
“Come on, Dad! I don’t want to give the guy a rusty trombone, I just want to see him sing ‘Crocodile Rock!’” But it was not to be. Elton’s weeklong stand at Dodgers Stadium went off without a young Bob Wire in the crowd.
But I never really gave a rat’s ass about whether Elton was gay, straight, or bi. As he stated in the “coming out” interview, he thinks people should draw the line at goats. Well, that’s something we’ve got in common.
In fact, there are several things that Elton Hercules John has in common with Bob Wire. One of them is that they’re not above referring to themselves in the third person from time to time.
Another shared trait? We’re both 5’7” (I know I’m listed at 5’9” in the game program, but I only have a 32” inseam). The popular notion is that Elton compensates for his short stature with a highly passionate performing style and outrageous fashion sense. Same here.
Like Elton, I’m not beyond shedding a tear or two when a song particularly moves me, or when I’ve broken my femur falling off a table while playing a guitar solo. And my fashion sense? Well, let’s just say it’s like Larry the Cable Guy if he shopped at Quality Supply. I’m a firm believer that live music has a big visual component, and I don’t want to look like I’m just another patron. I want people to look at me and say, man, there goes Bob Wire—dressed up to get messed up.
The stern, military father and artsy, sympathetic mother? Check. Addictive personality? You bet. A penchant for spending money like there’s no tomorrow? Hell, yeah (especially when I’m at Home Depot).
Married a woman even though he’s happier with a man? Um, well, maybe we’re not THAT much alike.
I never did get that: He married Renate Blauel in 1984, only to separate a few months later, eventually divorcing in 1988. I mean he could have just bought her a house right after he met her and saved himself a lot of heartburn. After their divorce, he announced that he wasn’t bisexual after all, but homosexual.
That starter marriage came in the middle of a fairly disastrous decade for Elton. His drinking and drug use during that period from 1977 to the early ’80s is well documented, and in a free-wheeling interview with Larry King in 2002, he spoke of his addictions to cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.
“It took me 16 years of drug addiction and alcoholism to actually have the humility to say, ‘I need help,’” he said. He also discovered that large amounts of income had “disappeared,” and he filed a series of lawsuits against his former manager, John Reid. British tabloids were gleefully ripping Elton and his lavish lifestyle, but he successfully sued the bastards, receiving hefty damages and front page apologies.
Still, in all this madness, depression and substance abuse, he managed to release several albums, working with various lyricists and musicians.
He sold off thousands of personal pieces of memorabilia, including stage costumes, platform shoes, and hundreds of pairs of his trademark outlandish glasses. He bought a soccer team. He played a huge concert in Central Park wearing a duck costume (perhaps he was smoking quack).
To his credit, he didn’t just continue his tailspin and wind up with some stupid reality show on MTV (“Shoppin’ Wid Elton!”). He checked himself into a Chicago hospital and joined some 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Over-Eaters Anonymous, and Louis XIV Wigs Anonymous. With countless meetings of various support groups under his belt, he began the uphill march to resume his career.
Having finally sought help for his addictions, Elton branched out musically. He teamed up with Tim Rice to compose the spectacular soundtrack for The Lion King, which reached #1 on the U.S. charts, largely on the strength of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” The album sold over 10 million copies, and won a wheelbarrow full of awards at the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Oscars, and other awards shows you watch hoping to see some starlet’s boob fall out of her dress on the red carpet.
Elton began to receive the serious recognition he deserved from his native England, when in 1995 he was bestowed one of the highest honors given, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (I believe it was named by Keanu Reeves). Three years later he was given a knighthood for his contributions to music, and for his fundraising efforts for AIDS charities. A little validation from the British Empire as this point in his career seemed to be the stamp of approval he needed to complete his rebound.
The new millennium has seen a resurgence of creativity, and a more focused sound for Elton. The last few albums, especially “Songs From the West Coast” and “Peachtree Road,” are some of his strongest work in 30 years. The time-warp cheesiness and fussy pop of his middle period have given way to leaner arrangements and more straightforward, honest songs. In his interview with Larry King, Elton said that Ryan Adams’ breakthrough album, Heartbreaker, inspired him towards a more back-to-basics style on Songs From the West Coast. The follow-up, Peachtree Road, is a more pensive, but powerful collection of tunes that show a bit of Southern flavor, perhaps influenced by Elton’s recent relocation to Atlanta.
Of course, not everyone is a fan, although Elton’s music has always been populist at heart. He writes songs the way Steven Spielberg makes movies—hugely entertaining, easily accessible, pushing buttons that we like to have pushed. But fans of edgier music dismiss Sir Elton as an old fogey, a dinosaur whose time came and went long ago.
For a lot of (mostly under 40) folks in Missoula, it’s just not cool to be into Elton John, and many of them feel the need to boost their own hipness quotient by announcing that tomorrow night’s concert means nothing to them. Elton’s not relevant, they say. “What has he done for me lately?” they ask.
To those who lack cultural perspective, who refuse to acknowledge Elton John’s impact on popular music, I answer your question with another question: Who are the mega-talented, platinum-selling artists of “your” generation? American Idol products? Please. They should just have “Mattel” stamped on their foreheads and get it over with. Green Day wannabes? Justin Timberlake? Fergie? Kid Rock? Kanye, Fiddy, Chamillionaire, or any hip-hop flash in the pan? Give me a lunch break. These artists (and in the case of hip-hop, I’m being generous with that term) come and go faster than George Bush’s second-term speech writers.
Maybe in 30 years you’ll be driving down the road when “My Humps” comes on the radio, and a wave of nostalgia will move you to tears.
Not bloody likely.
Elton John appears at the UM Adams Center on Friday, Sept. 28, at 8 PM.
Bob Wire and his band, the Fencemenders, will be playing at Sean Kelly’s on Saturday, Sept. 30. You can seek him out for online communion at bobwiremusic.com.
The cream of the crop by Bob Wire
In just under two years, from early 1972 to late 1973, Elton John released three albums that are truly the crown jewels of his remarkable six-year domination of the American pop charts.
The first of the trio, Honky Chateau, is never far from my CD player. “Honky Cat” opens the album with a Floyd Cramer-style honky tonk piano, and a vaguely Chinese-sounding counterpoint creeps in. Brilliant. Intriguing. Dynamic. And that’s just the first 15 seconds. Most of the album features the piano skillfully juxtaposed with a soulful, articulate bass, and tasteful strings wrapped around understated guitar and glorious harmonies. My favorite track here is “Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” a hilarious Brecht/Weill-style song that has a killer tap-dancing solo.
Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player was the next album, and has one great song after another. “Daniel,” “Elderberry Wine,” “Midnight Creeper,” I love ’em all. “Texan Love Song” is one of the funniest, truest country songs ever recorded, and it’s even more spot-on today than when it was written 35 years ago. Toby Keith and other faux honky-tonkers of his ilk can only wish they had the talent to write something as good.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is arguably the artistic pinnacle of Elton John’s career. A double album packed with top-notch songs, GYBR has stood the test of time better than perhaps any of his albums.
The heart-wrenching loneliness of “Roy Rogers” paints a vivid portrait of quiet desperation, yet does so with a light touch. “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is so catchy you’re singing along halfway through the first chorus. GYBR is loaded with hits, of course, but the rest of the album represents a songwriting team operating at the absolute top of their game. I listen to it often, but only when I’ve got the time to hear the whole thing uninterrupted. It’s always a great ride.
Blue Moves closed out the remarkable run of hit albums in the 1970s, and it is my favorite Elton John album. For my 18th birthday my mom gave me two records: Blue Moves and a little country-rock album called Hotel California. The Eagles’ masterpiece would go on to sell over 16 million copies worldwide, while Elton’s ambitious double album sold somewhere around two million copies, a relative dud for an artist who had already moved over a hundred million units up to that point.
But that’s part of the reason I love Blue Moves. There was only one single, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” and I felt like the rest of the songs were mine alone—I didn’t have to share them with the world.
I listened to the album nearly every day of my senior year, and the songs were woven through every aspect of my life. “Theme From a Nonexistent TV Series” served as the soundtrack to my 8mm animated film in art class. “If There’s a God In Heaven (What’s He Waiting For)” spawned another art class project. The song is a stately, pleading hymn that questions the concepts of faith and religion, something I’d struggled with myself since I was a young teen. Thus inspired, I made a papier-mâché dome painted to look like a cracked planet Earth, with the song’s title lettered above it.
The project sent a substitute teacher into sputtering paroxysms of righteous outrage, and I was sent to the office. It was my first example of the Power of Art, and I was
forever transformed. Thanks, Elton.