Sunday, October 28, 2018
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I wrote this in mid-September, when I heard that Elton John would be playing the United Center at the end of October. I intended to put it in the paper Friday—heck, he might even see it. But October sped by, and I forgot. Maybe just as well...
When I find myself in front of a piano keyboard—something that seems to happen less and less as time goes by—I will sometimes, if the mood strikes me, lay my hands on the keys, standing there, or maybe even pull the bench out and sit down, then begin to play the opening chords of "Your Song," by Elton John. Surprising—I imagine, if they noticed or cared, which of course they don't—anyone who happens to be around, because I do not know how to play the piano.
But I can play "Your Song," or now, after the corroding years, the first few seconds, because when I was 17 I laboriously taught myself to play it, note by note, chord by chord, first the right hand, then the left, then together, as a present for my girlfriend on her 16th birthday.
She loved Elton John. Loved him, with that singular intensity and passion that teenage girls direct toward certain singers, certain fashions and certain boys. I can't say that her attraction to Elton John and to me were unrelated: we both were guys in glasses, prone to heaviness, adept with words, though of course Elton got his, famously, from lyricist, Bernie Taupin, while I was on my own.
At 17, I was more into Bob Dylan—"Blood on the Tracks"—had just come out, and viewed her extraordinary fondness for Elton with amusement, at first. But then, in the gravity that our loves hold for us, was pulled in too, and her interest became mine.
What Elton John is now—big glam stadium rocker, dressed as Donald Duck, churning out the hits—wasn't how he was then. He had done a pensive, Western-themed album, "Tumbleweed Connection." (ahead of its time; issued three years before the Eagles decided to be desperados). Quiet, trickling love songs, that I didn't realize it, would come in handy when our romance fizzled out, five years later. "Lately, I've been thinking, how much I miss my lady..."
Elton John was performing in Chicago this weekend. I was tempted to go, even though the last concert I attended was years and years ago: Tom Waits at the Chicago Theater, really, because I couldn't not go.
But Elton John, bidding goodbye to his performing career? That's tempting.
"I thought maybe we should go to the United Center and see Elton John," I said to the wife, in mid-September.
"Have you seen him before?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied. "1979. At the Auditorium Theater."
"That would be the time to have seen him, then," she replied, with finality.
Yes, yes it was.
I was in college then, beginning of sophomore year. You had to enter a lottery and the lucky few would have the privilege of coming downtown to buy tickets. I won, and remember the trip to the box office for the newness of going downtown, as well because Steve McQueen was jumping a car off the parking garage at Marina Towers for his movie "The Hunter," and I joined the throng cordoned across Wacker Drive, waiting for the great moment.
But watching a movie being made is like watching paint dry. I had tickets waiting at the Auditorium box office, and eventually gave up waiting and moved on. I can still see the pair of tickets—good seats—in their little envelope. I photocopied them and sent them to her, without any explanation, a tacit invite. The letter, I'm sure, is in the big bag, tied with thick blue piece of yarn, sitting in the basement, the letters she handed back to me when she dumped me in 1982. I could dig into the bag and find it, but I'm not touching the thing. I opened the bag exactly once, read a sentence or two, then closed it and never opened it again. It is not a place I want to go.
The ploy worked. She came to Chicago, my college roommates were banished, and we camped out in the back bedroom of Northwestern Apartments 210, except the night of the concert, a Chicago nightlife whirlwind. Dinner at Jimmy Wong's—the exotic pu-pu-for-two platter, and a big fishbowl of a drink that had, in my memory, a little flame in the center of the glass. Or was that was the night before. Because the night of the concert, staying at what was then the Pick-Congress Hotel, a dark, sub-par refuge, then and now, we ordered a room service cheeseburger and a Heineken. I can still see the tray in the dark room....
The show was Elton solo—that was a big deal, I recall—though, halfway through, a giant clamshell opened behind him, and there was Ray Cooper, his drummer, looking maniacal, hunched over his kit, playing timpani. It was a dramatic effect.
The part of the show I remember was during "Rocket Man," Elton John improvised, "I'm burned out, I'm faded away, I'm a fucking Rocket Man," he sang, and we all cried "No! No!"
He was 32 years old then, though I suppose a decade on the road made him feel that way. I can't imagine how he feels now, after nearly a half century of mega-stardom and enormous fame and wealth. My guess is it can all seem pointless—the drawback of doing what you love every day, day after day, month after month, year after year.
So I thought I would remind him, that beyond the sea of people, there must be an army of duffers, of lower grade Rocket Men, slightly singed, smelling of cordite, looking wearily at the nearly-drawn parabola of our lives, "that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return," as Thomas Pynchon put it.
Countless people, like me, like maybe her—I couldn't say and wouldn't dream of trying to find out—who didn't go to the show. Who asked themselves what they were trying to find that was worth $500 for a pair of tickets, and decided, no matter how good the performance, what we were looking for wouldn't be there. But who still carry all that music around, and know all the words to "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." For all his glitter, nobody celebrated the ordinary like Elton John, "just someone his mother might know." It is probably meaningless to a star like him but, for what it's worth, the ordinary salute him, and say, "Thanks." It meant something.