Today is the birthday of flamboyant glam rock songwriter and performer Sir Elton John (b. Reginald Dwight, 1947). Where to start? Impossible to start. His career sort of coexists timewise with my entire life.
Sir Elton’s career has had at least three major phases.
The first phase was about showmanship and costume and outrageousness and “rumored bisexuality” (that’s as far as anyone would admit in those days). He almost single-handedly revived piano as a rock and roll instrument (it had been a major one in the days of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis). It’s seldom used as one any more even today, although it has great potential in that direction. (I suppose people associate it too much with the 1950s. Well, re-invent the damn thing, then. That’s what Elton did!)
If you look through his song catalog, it’s almost insane how many popular songs he’s written and performed. In the early years, being a child I didn’t have his LPs, but I did have almost all the major singles on K-Tel and Ronco records and listened to them endlessly: “Rocket Man”, “Crocodile Rock” (1972), “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Bennie and the Jets” (1973), “Philadelphia Freedom”, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, “Island Girl (1975), “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976, a duet with Kiki Dee). I heard his version of “Pinball Wizard” before I ever heard the Who’s, and his version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” before I ever heard The Beatles’. And I did actually have one LP, 1974’s Caribou on a cassette tape I got at a yardsale. This one had the epic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, and opens with “The Bitch is Back”, the lyrics to which for some reason appalled my parents, who used worse swear words before, during and after their morning cup of coffee.
Then in the mid to late 70s as far as Americans were concerned, though he kept turning out records, he appeared to vanish off the face of the earth. He was to come back in the mid 80s with yet another long string of hits for the MTV age. (His straw boater period, although properly speaking he was much more the vaudevillian during his glam phase). And then he reinvented himself yet again in the mid 90s by penning musicals for Hollywood and Broadway, as he still does to this day. I’d say he’s earned that knighthood, wouldn’t you? He’s a one man industry.
Ah…but you’re wondering about the title of this post, aren’t you? Very well. This would have been about ten years ago. More than that, actually: 2002. I was p.r. director for the New-York Historical Society which was then doing a rapid-response series of exhibitions related to September 11, which the entire city was still recovering from. And Sir Elton wanted to come see the current one, which had a lot of artifacts from the actual disaster. And neither my boss nor my boss-of-bosses were available to escort him through, so it fell to me. (We blocked it off so he had the place to himself).
The most amazing thing about the experience was that I think I blacked out. Well, one of two things happened, and I’ll never know which of them it was. I was standing near the entrance desk at the top of a small flight stairs in the atrium. I saw them (he was accompanied by Interview magazine’s editor Ingrid Sischy) through the glass doors about to come in. And either they took their time and I spaced out waiting for them, or….I went into shock, which seems more likely, because the next I remember they were standing next to me, waving their hands in front of my vacant stare saying, “Hello?”
And so I took them both through the exhibit and answered their questions. They were both appropriately somber (it was easily less than six months since 9-11, I think). There was really no opportunity for me to do anything but be there for them (as opposed to something inappropriate like cracking jokes, or inviting them to come see my latest vaudeville show). But yes, thanks to the worst thing that ever happened to New York, the hand that is typing this once shook Elton John’s.