I was inspired to write this one by an advert on telly: an outfit calling itself Rakuten is using it in their latest campaign, somebody having realized that hey, “Rakuten” – sounds like “Rocket Man”, amiright? I don’t know what Rakuten does, it’s something to do with coupons and cash-back programs, I think, but they reminded me that I used to adore that old song. As I became irritated with what they were doing to it, I realized that I still do.
Like everybody who was an adolescent in the Seventies, I bought my share of Elton John records, most of which, in retrospect, were stuffed full of bumph and dross. Elton could write a memorable tune, all right – he’d hardly have sold X-hundred million albums and earned X-kabillian dollars otherwise – but his stuff was pretty uneven, and even the best of it could be a little, well, repetitive, sloppy, and self-indulgent. The much admired Levon and Tiny Dancer off the early album Madman Across the Water, for example – they started strong, but dragged on too long while their composer, apparently at a loss, hid behind the string section while struggling in vain to bring them to a proper conclusion (a failing that always drives me to distraction). Just about everything on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road now seems unlistenable, from the meandering title track (something about forsaking the bright lights of the big city in favour of hunting Horny Toads – no, really), to the execrable Candle in the Wind, the lugubrious ode to Marylin Monroe that he reworked (to my horror) to play at Princess Diana’s funeral. There was that overblown, overhyped nonsense of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy – does anybody remember anything from that magnum opus? – and numerous mega-hit ear worms certain to drive any sensible listener to drink. I’m hoping to go the rest of my life without hearing Crocodile Rock or Bennie and the Jets ever again. Those and so many of his songs sounded like rejected show tunes for Broadway musicals that never got off the ground, as if secretly, Elton longed to be Andrew Lloyd Webber. And the lyrics! Oy! Elton, for some reason, didn’t feel competent to write mediocre verse on his own, and let this fellow Bernie Taupin come up with the pop poetry, which couldn’t have been much of an improvement because folks, Taupin was no Oscar Hammerstein, was he? He was no Hal David. Nowadays you’d probably do better to hand it off to an algorithm that generates random rhyming couplets. And yes, ultimately, Elton devolved into a preposterous figure, a sort of modern day Liberace, a schlock artist vying for a steady gig in Vegas, apparently more concerned with outrageous costumes than pop songcraft.
OK, so I’ll grant you all that. Sometimes, though, he stroked ‘em right out of the park. Daniel, say – a sour-pussed critic might complain that it was maudlin, but if so, I’d argue it was just the right kind of maudlin, well arranged, tightly constructed, and unusually disciplined (plus it always made my mother cry, and that’s reason enough to admire it in my book). Even better, to these ears, were many of the songs off the earlier Honkey Chateau, which, despite its cutesy name, was a quite serious, straightforward, and really rather melancholy collection of tunes in the classic Seventies singer-songwriter mold, not unlike contemporary albums by Cat Stevens and his ilk (c’mon, Cat wasn’t so bad, now you think about it), and almost in the same league as Paul Simon’s early solo output (well, sort of almost). Listen to Slave, the lovely Mona Lisa’s and Mad Hatters, and of course today’s featured tune, Rocket Man, a real gem which, like a lot of Rod Stewart’s early Seventies work, seemed to belong more to the prior decade than the monotonously thumping, Disco Ducking era that was soon upon us.
Everything about Rocket Man, from the very first piano chord, is just indefinably right. That opening line, She packed my bags last night, pre-flight, really grabs the listener, despite the absurdity of the idea that an astronaut on the eve of liftoff has bags to pack, like some kind of tourist about to hop on a jet to Puerto Vallarta. It’s equally silly, I suppose, to posit a member of the space program who doesn’t really understand the science behind what he’s up to – trust me, there never was an astronaut, or cosmonaut for that matter, who didn’t understand the science (all were superbly educated, often with advanced scientific degrees). Yet it’s a lovely tune, isn’t it? Elton’s piano work is just perfect, complex and clever, and the chorus is irresistible. Who doesn’t sing along every time it comes ‘round again? And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…
It was a big song back in the day, a Major Composition; something resonated, perhaps because it came out at a time when astronauts, and the insane risks they were taking, were prominent in the public consciousness. The Apollo program was just winding up (the last Moon mission, Apollo 17, occurred at the end of the year Rocket Man was released), and after the near death experience of Apollo 13, everybody was keenly aware of how alone and vulnerable they were out there, floating in their tin cans, as Bowie put it in Space Oddity, another early Seventies hit in the same vein. This is the mood Rocket Man captures so well, that feeling, so rarely expressed by anyone who was actually involved in the space program, that leaving the good Earth for the airless, frigid void of interplanetary space was actually, upon reflection, completely frickin’ terrifying. There were a million ways to die up there. There were a million ways to die just coming home, and riding out the fiery trauma of re-entry, something the narrator seems to understand all too well.
It’s that confession of anxiety, almost ashamed, that makes Rocket Man so affecting. We can identify with that. It feels true, and disarmingly honest. Of course none of us knew the first thing about what it was really like to slip the surly bonds of earth on a rocket that stood a fair chance of exploding straight away, or of floating weightless in a fragile cocoon of air and warmth in the midst of the most hostile environment ever braved by human beings, but we thought we did. We saw it on TV, and figured we could well imagine. Those guys up there were only human, after all, and surely there were times when real astronauts, despite their cool-as-a-cucumber test pilot demeanours, found themselves afraid, not so much of dying as of being revealed as weak, frightened, and not the men we thought they were at all.