Sir Elton John Before He Dies: A November Tribute

Elton John performs at The Wiltern on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

How can you stop when your feet say go?
~ Elton John,
Honky Cat

At some point last spring, before Crispin had his license, I was driving him to work and “Tiny Dancer” came on the radio. Cris is a musician, and although his tastes are decidedly contemporary, indie, and alt, he maintains a healthy respect for the full spectrum of rock’s extensive repertoire and legacy. “This is a great song,” I said as we drove. “You know it?” He nodded. “It might be my favorite Elton John song – either this or ‘Levon.’”

There was a pause as we listened, and then I said something that might sound a bit morose: “When Elton John dies, I’ll really mourn him.”

It wasn’t totally out of the blue. Right around that time, we Boomers had been caught off guard by a string of close-to-home pop-music deaths – David Bowie and Glenn Frey in January, followed by Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire in February, Prince in April, and several others. For those of us who can’t help gravitating back to the comforts of classic rock, these announcements were an unsettling reminder of the passage of time and our own mortality.

Undoubtedly, it was that very litany of losses that rattled in my brain when, days before my ride with Cris, I was heading down Miami Street and a sign outside Jovi’s Lounge caught my eye. Here’s what it said:


I was primed to jump to a musical conclusion. “Oh my gosh,” I said out loud. “Did Neil Young pass away?”

He hadn’t – the Neil being memorialized at Jovi’s was somebody else (and, yes, rest in peace, Neil, whoever you are). Even so, my little kneejerk response got me thinking about Young and the impact his music had had on me and my family over the years. neilyoungwsjWe have a CD version of his two-album Decade that floats between the house and our car stereos, and I think there’s a copy of CSNY’s So Far hanging around as well. From these, and from constant exposure to radio retro-rock as I drive them around places, my kids have come to know the standard Neil Young playlist, and they sing along with me when “Ohio” blares from the speakers.

Despite the ravages of age (he’s in his 70s now) and the aftermath of a brain aneurysm, Neil is still recording and performing even now, but eventually he’ll pass on – and he will indeed be missed.

Is that morbid? I don’t think so – just realistic. It’s the same realism that informs the entire month of November when we turn our attention to death, dying, and the dead. We’re prompted by the Church to redouble our prays for those in Purgatory during this time, but it’s a good idea to associate the month with honoring the living as well – particularly those who may not be around much longer to receive those honors face to face. It’s providential, perhaps, that Veterans Day falls in November as well as Thanksgiving – observances that afford plenty of opportunity for thanking directly those whose lives are ebbing, and who deserve our gratitude and expressions of esteem.

A few years ago, November arrived just after news broke that Lou Reed had died. I wrote a tribute at the time, although I recall regretting I hadn’t done so long before – when, theoretically at least, he might’ve read it. Now we’re all mourning the death of yet another deceased musical giant, Leonard Cohen. The homages are piling on – appropriately so – but I won’t be adding my own just yet. Instead of playing catch-up this go around, I want to turn my November attentions to the living. And, given my comment to Crispin last spring, I decided to turn my anticipation of future mourning into a present-day appreciation of the very much alive Elton John.

You’ll note that I’ve already referenced a couple Elton John songs in this remembrance – “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” – and they both appeared on his 1971 Madman Across the Waters album. Plus, there’s that brief appositive line from “Honky Cat” (from Honky Château, 1972) at the top, and that’s all you need to know to date my coming of age, music-wise. My thanks to Sir Elton elton-john-pianobegins right there, because, more than any other artist, he influenced my rock-music consciousness during my most formative adolescent years.

His music was catchy and fun most the time, although often enough it was evocative and moody – just the right combination for a pre-teen and, later, teenage lad who never felt like he fit in quite right. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) was particularly important in that regard, with straight-on rockers like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Grey Seal” to more meditative numbers like “Candle in the Wind” and “Bennie and the Jets.” I wasn’t an athlete, and I didn’t trust my intellect, so music was my hideaway, and I resonated with the grace notes of angst and uncertainty that I heard in so many Elton John songs.

Then there was his reputation for flamboyance. I never saw him perform in concert, but I was well aware of John’s over-the-top, even campy showmanship – something that didn’t exactly appeal to me. Nonetheless, I came to easily look past it to the musical riches he was sharing with me and the world, and, looking back, I’m sure it all amounted to a valuable lesson in latitude at a crucial stage in life.

Finally, there was Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s collaborator since the late 1960s. Early on, I wasn’t clued in to the fact that Taupin wrote most of the lyrics for John’s hits, but that changed when I brought home bernie-taupin-and-eltonthe landmark Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in 1975.

I remember taking the city bus to the record store in Boulder to purchase the album, and the anticipation on the way home of playing it on my stereo. I sat in the back of bus and pored over the album cover notes, and began to piece together the story of Taupin and John’s unusual pairing of musical genius. The collection itself is unapologetically autobiographical, start to finish, and, for me, an encouraging revelation: Even Elton John, with so much raw talent and extraordinary gifts, relied on somebody else to help him bring his ideas to fruition.

It wasn’t long after Captain Fantastic that I drifted into other musical realms, and I admit that I haven’t kept up with Elton John’s continued and sizable creative output over the years. Still, I’m happy to record here my debt of gratitude and even hope he might come across it sometime.

Just in case he does: Many thanks, Sir Elton John, for your music, your individuality, and your vulnerability. I learned a lot from you growing up, and I’m glad to be sharing those lessons and your art with another generation.

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