"I consider myself responsible for a whole new school pf pretensionsthey know who they are. Don't you, Elton? Just kidding. No I'm not."David Bowie from an interview in 1976.
"I've never seen so much fine china in my life."Mick Jagger commenting on one of Elton John's palatial estates in the 1990s.
"What an incredible worldwide treasure Elton John continues to be! ... He uses his fame and popularity to be one of the best gay activists gay people have ever had."From an e-mail from the godfather of gay activism, Larry Kramer.
Larry Kramer's recent quote about Elton John struck me as odd until I thought about it for a single second. John has been with us without a break for more than 40 years and is about to descend on Chicago in full force. On March 18 his latest theatrical mega-success, Billy Elliot, opened here after sweeping the Tony Awards and is set for a long and entrenched run. And the man himself will play the Sears Center, without Billy Joel, April 15 for a "Greatest Hits" tour. By the time this article is in print the only seats likely to be left will probably be the ear-popping nose-bleed seats. [ Editor's note: John was in Chicago April 12 for the official opening of Billy Elliot. ]
Then there's David Bowie's crack, which now seems snide. One of the attractions of John then as well as now is that he never presented himself as anything but a "pop star," and I do mean "pop" in Andy Warhol's vernacular as "disposable, plastic, art." When his breakout single "Your Song" crested at No. 8 on the Hot 100 back in 1970 nobody had a clue, least of all him, that he would be far more influential, popular, persuasive and relevant for the better part of half a century. That's not the half of it.
Far beyond being a familiar soothing voice from ages past, John has become a sphinx-like fairy godfather at home on Top 40 radio, theatrical stages, in the press or on talk shows speaking his mind and holding nothing back. As Kramer mentioned, he's also a huge humanitarian but also a role model for us all. It's not so much that he's a model of sobriety; or that he's in a successful high-profile, long-lasting gay marriage; or that his AIDS foundation has routinely given away tens of millions of dollars annually; or that he has no guilt about being rich or showing it. Bowie and Jagger may have snickered at John's vulgar wealth and lowly pop status, but in the long run they can't hold a candle to his influence. While Bowie stays holed up on some secluded island with his bride Iman ( in 1983 when he was angling for a comeback with "Let's Dance" Bowie recanted his admission of bisexuality entirely, just when the AIDS crisis was moving into a protracted peak ) and Jagger plots some new move to stay relevant and youthful, John will be calmly gliding into his next big project with typical calmness and dry palms. The man makes megastardom look so easy, but of course being Elton John couldn't be. The only way to look at him is in parts rather than as a whole. It's the only way he makes sense.
Just how John got so big is hard to fathom even with 40 years of hindsight. The easy argument would be that the 1970s were an era of such uncompromising musical dullness that it was child's play for a raving peacock like John to take over the airwaves. At a time when blandness ruled ( The Carpenters, Jackson Browne, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John and The Captain and Tennille ) John's hyper hits were a reliable current of fresh air. For a short time ( 1972-76 ) he could be counted on to deliver instant classics that rocked, shimmied, enticed and engulfed on first listen. Better still the man never got stale: "Bennie and the Jets," "Rocket Man," "The Bitch is Back," "Island Girl," "Pinball Wizard" and even the flop "Ego" all sound fresh and exciting, even now. But the hits don't defend the violently erratic quality of John's albums. Only the double-album set Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ( 1973 ) and Rock of the Westies ( 1975 ) are worth listening to from start to finish, and that's pushing it. ( Goodbye's "Candle In the Wind," "Dirty Little Girl," and the ugly "All the Girls Love Alice," with it's blatant homophobia, are some of the worst dreck put on vinyl by anyone. )
But to call him a mere singles artist isn't fair. The reality is that his contract with MCA stipulated two albums a year and that didn't include the multitude of singles that were released individually ( "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" ) . For five solid years John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin cranked the music out like ground beef and it's hard to say if they knew a good record from a bad one ( the average spent on each album was no more than 10 days ) . Even if the albums didn't work as a whole there were still gems that made them worth owning: "Your Sister Can't Twist ( but she can Rock and Roll ) ," "Tower of Babel," "Idol," "Texas Love Song," "Gray Seal," " ( Gotta Get a ) Meal Ticket," "Harmony" and "I Am Your Robot"all of them gems of pure pop finese.
By 1976 all the joy of John seemed to vanish. Fatigue ( from him being the biggest star on the planet with all of its responsibilities and from us for getting John every day all the time for years ) wrought the lumbering, hookless, ponderous Blue Moves. Hyped against Stevie Wonder's Songs In the Key Of Life as the year's big Christmas release, John didn't stand a chance. Discontent filtered into his interviews, he abruptly stopped touring, and he admitted his bisexuality in an interview. That last one put a chill on everything. It's not enough to say John got blasé because the quality of rock and roll suddenly got better in 1977 ( the year Fleetwood Mac released Rumours, The Eagles released Hotel California, a nerd named Elvis Costello stormed Saturday Night Live, The Kinks returned to America, the punks invaded from England, and Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder took disco to the airwaves ) , but that statement about his sex life took everyone where nobody wanted to go; for all of his cheekiness, flash, glam, glitter and in-your-face jolliness. John seemed pleasent enough but hardly an obvious sex symbol. He seemed too full of frolic, fun and brio to be taken as more than a 2-D cartoon which in a way is his own fault. Face it: He always dressed the part.
But he wouldn't go away. Bowie and Mick always made a big fuss whenever they came back but John would do it with subtle style and finesse. After some singles in the early '80s ( "Victim of Love," "Part-Time Love," "Mama Can't Buy You Love" ) "Little Jeannie" and "Blue Eyes" put him back at the top of playlists. "I'm Still Standing" was the slam dunk and really said it allto Bowie, to Mick, to anyone dumb enough to count him out. "Sad Songs" with its charming video of a newly slimmed-down John doing a soft shoe was the capper ... an ode to vintage songs in his domain, Top 40 radio that was both nostalgic and sly. At this point hit singles and albums hardly seem to matterthe man is the event himself.
" [ But ] I don't want to wake up one morning and find myself stuck in the hermetically sealed centrally heated showbiz world, which can destroy you. I wouldn't like to think that I couldn't go to the laundrette when I felt like it."Glenda Jackson on being suddenly famous after snagging an Oscar nomination in 1971.
John couldn't go to the laundrette at all after 1973's Don't Shoot Me ( I'm Only the Piano Player ) hit number one worldwide, and that must have been a shock. Born in the anonymous town of Pinner Middlesex, England, in 1947, Reginald Kenneth "Hercules" Dwight was a prodigious piano whiz who was encouraged to pursue his dreams of music and show biz by his parents. ( Obviously Elton and Billy Elliott had a lot in common... ) His first band, Bluesology, morphed into a backing band for R&B performers ( Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Major Lance, Billy Stewart and Long John Baldry, although they were rejected by one Wilson Pickett ) . Always scrimping to get by, John went to work for Bob James Music Publishing, but instead of hitting the top of the pops, he acquired lyricist Bernie Taupin. Aside from being house composers, the two released John's Empty Sky ( 1969 ) which went nowhere. Then came Elton John ( 1970 ) and "Your Song."
John and Taupin actually hit at the right time in the right way though it was hard to see that until years later. "Your Song" and the albums Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water ( both 1971 ) appeared at the flameout of the hippie era and suddenly ponderous, self-focused, self-conscious singer/songwriters ( James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro ) were the rage. Though John could be as ridiculously full of himself as the rest of them, he and Taupin went in the opposite direction; with 1972's Honky Chateau they threw their Top 40 hit factory into overdrive with the singles "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man" which behaved spectacularly. In two years he had his first "Greatest Hits" album which sold unheard of gazillions and is still selling by the truckload.
John and his gap-toothed grin were the most recognized physical attributes on the planet. And when he wasn't grinning off the cover of any number of magazines, he was cranking out records or popping up on the telly or touring or at the cineplex ( as the Pinball Wizard in The Who's Tommy ) . Such fame and pace don't lend themselves to "normalcy."
In retrospect, John's admission of bisexuality, taken as half-truth or cop out depending on who you ask, was a ballsy move on his part. This was back in the day when the public willfully denied what flamers like Liberace, Paul Lynde or Clifton Webb were really up to. This was also a time when "outing" hadn't been invented and of course John didn't have to say a word. The clues on him were all there ( the nonstop "tasteful" glam, the $35,000 eyewear ) but the big tip off was the newly divorced Cher's first solo TV special without Sonny. Cher's other guests were Bette Midler and Flip Wilsona straight Black comedian whose biggest claim to fame was a drag persona known as Geraldine. You can say what you want about Cher, but she's obviously no dummy; the Cher Show trounced Sonny's own show and all takers for years afterwards, and made her a gay icon for the ages. ( If you don't believe me, check out the cash she took in on her years-long "farewell" tour. Those weren't housewives coming to see her month after month. )
In the closet or out, John just kept grinning through everything, which made it hard to get offended by him in any way. Face it, even if you were the hardest-hearted conservative homophobe, you probably did have one, or a few, or many beloved songs or albums of John's in your collection.
"I don't like celebrity anymore."Elton John in Parade Magazine.
With such amounts of cash, fame and attention, who else is there to hang with besides other famous people? John's closest personal friends of course were no strangers to controversies ( John and Yoko Lennon, Princess Diana ) but though they urged him into different directions ( Diana urged John toward humanitarian causes ) , John still got stuck in the trap that Glenda Jackson mentioned. For several years John appeared bloated, cantankerous, and in a long-standing foul mood where he seemed pissed at everyone and everything. The turning point came when his boyfriend at the time, David Furnish, intervened and dragged him off to detox and therapy. Coming clean in an interview in Interview magazine, John seemed to have wised up to the fact that he had survived what most rock stars didn't; a damaged self coupled with ownership of unlimited riches. The death of Kurt Cobain had a profound impact on him, but it would be hard not to recognize the influence that Furnish had also; he simply brought out the best in his partner.
John's colloboration with Tim Rice on Disney's The Lion King was the last and only brilliant gesture. Disney needed to prolong the resuscitation of its animation legacy ( Al Menken and the late gay Hal Ashman had rebooted the "mouse house" with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast ) , and Lion King was a huge risk. Though he had far less to lose on the surface, the project meant a lot for John; and the combination worked beyond anyone's dreams. John's familiar ( i.e., safe ) voice pulled the single "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" into the No. 1 spot, enticing millions even without children to see the cartoon again, and rack up high grosses. Now John was relevent to kids who hadn't even been born when his third comeback single, "Kiss the Bride," had been released back in 1983.
With the royalties from the song and his catalogue, he established his AIDS foundation, which he had set in motion a full two years before the Lion King opened. ( In 1993 John held his first post-Oscar ceremony fundraiser, which replaced the legendary Irving "Swifty" Lazar's tradition. But instead of doing a single benefit, John's event has become the go-to gala year after year, with the Vanity Fair party the only competition in sight. ) Even that in itself was sly John with subtlety; John's foundation was up and running in Hollywood where at the time the industry wouldn't make a movie on the AIDS crisis or acknowledge the epidemic. His first shindig was before Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia opened.
Where there had been one-off events or recordings ( i.e., "That's What Friends Are For" featuring Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and John himself ) , John's foundation was built to stay in place for as long as needed. You can't fault John and Furnish ( who serves as CEO for the foundation ) on commitment.
So he'll be here in a day. [ Note: John is performing April 15 in Hoffman Estates at the Sears Centre Arena. ] I doubt if he'll do any of the leaps while playing piano that he used to do in the '70s. I'm sure that the sight of him walking onstage will send a charge at me like it did when I was 14 and seeing him live for the first time at the old Chicago Stadium.
I doubt if the suburban family sitting next to me ( more than likely ) will see John as the lord king of homo-queerness ( or that his cameo at the end of the movie Bruno wasn't merely a joke but mandatory ) , or that he's meant so much to so many people for far different reasons besides the joy of his music. In John John's case I doubt if it really matters why people like him so much.