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You Were Playing Rock ‘n’ Roll And I Was Just A Fan: Elton John, the ’70s, and Me

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When I was 16 years old, I met Elton John, his band, and lyricist Bernie Taupin backstage at the Nassau Coliseum in New York. A friend who managed a Sam Goody store had the necessary contacts to make this magic happen. It was October 9, 1972 (John Lennon’s birthday AND Columbus Day). Elton was on the cusp of his glittery years of superstardom. But backstage that night he was subdued, his eyes tired behind pink-tinted, white-framed glasses. He wore a tan fringed suede jacket and matching trousers. Thirty-eight years later I can recall my outfit too: yellow blouse with brown piping and short frilly sleeves, navy blue cords and matching platform shoes. I kissed Elton on the cheek and told him he was beautiful. He responded by shyly smiling and lowering his head. He wore nice smelling cologne. It was without a doubt the greatest moment of my 16 years.

70s era EltonA year prior to this momentous event, I discovered the third Elton John release, Tumbleweed Connection, quite by chance. WNEW-FM’s Pete Fornatale played the entire second side of this brand new album one afternoon when I was home sick from school. Something shifted in my life after that, a missing piece of a puzzle clicked in. These songs resonated with me in a way that music rarely had before. Other songwriters of that ’70s singer/songwriter era (James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens, etc.) left an indelible mark on my music-loving psyche, but Elton encompassed everything I loved in a songwriter and performer. He was British, bespectacled, an ordinary yet extraordinary chap, using his piano as a true extension of himself, leaping on it, kicking away the bench to pound out an impassioned musical phrase on its keys. He was aware of his shortcomings, leaving the lyric writing to Bernie Taupin, a Lincolnshire-born scribe he had met through a trade ad. With a penchant for anything Americana (especially the old west) Taupin’s words perfectly complemented Elton’s melodies, which were some of the best this side of Lennon and McCartney.

I began my obsession at an excellent point in Elton’s career, needing only to catch up on two albums’ worth of material: the Elton John album and Elton’s very first record Empty Sky, which at that point was only available in the U.K. I considered it a true find, ordering it through the mail and feeling like I’d struck gold the day it arrived.

On June 10, 1971, I saw Elton John play Carnegie Hall. The performance began with an hour of Elton solo at the piano, playing now classic tunes such as “Your Song” and “I Need You To Turn To.” It was the night he premiered a song called “Tiny Dancer,” which was so fresh, he said, he had to call Bernie Taupin that afternoon to get the lyrics. The second half of the show was where Elton and his two-piece band rocked the house in the grand tradition of artists like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. The sound was orchestral in its grandeur. The solid backbeat of bass player Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson combined with Elton’s piano riffs was so powerful, you never missed the lead guitar.

If my chance meeting with Tumbleweed Connection was my initiation into Elton fandom, this was the night I became a member in good standing.

Elton loved to put non-album B-sides on his 45s and this presented a delicious challenge for me. Not only did the U.S. singles contain these much sought after nuggets, the international releases contained either a song not released in the U.S. or an unusual mix of a familiar tune.

Before file sharing there was tape trading — a cool way of networking via snail mail to add even more treasures to my ever growing collection. How many live recordings, demos, interviews did I accrue in this way over that decade-long period? One of many prizes was a cassette tape with the unlikely title Regimental Sgt. Zippo, a collection of early unreleased demos which I would listen to over and over, ecstatic to have access to this secret stash of Elton tunes. Early material like “A Dandelion Dies In the Wind” and “Thank You For All of Your Loving” would never win any songwriting contests but they were extraordinary finds for completists like me.

I yearned to find anything remotely related to Elton. I collected records he either played on or produced: obscure releases such as Kevin Ayers’s Sweet Deceiver, Blue’s Another Night Time Flight, Davey Johnstone’s Smiling Face, Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy and Everything Stops For Tea made their way into my collection like guests invited to an exclusive party. In those days, Elton was a busy guy, using his power within the industry to promote artists he felt were being ignored or hadn’t been heard from in years (Neil Sedaka and Cliff Richard come immediately to mind). If Elton’s name was on it, I had to have it.  A few releases from then have stood the test of time. The Baldry and Johnstone records are ones I continue to play to this day.

Elton John and John Lennon, Thanksgiving Night 1974My 1972 meeting with the man notwithstanding, it was the 1974 Thanksgiving show at Madison Square Garden that became the most historic night of my Elton “career.” This was the show at which John Lennon appeared onstage for three songs (“Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” and “I Saw Her Standing There”), and it was one of those magical nights which continues to resonate years later. The crowd’s thunderous ovation at Lennon’s entrance literally shook the building. The concrete floor rumbled under my feet and I had to grab onto the barricade to keep from falling. I was so close: front row, Elton’s piano side. Lennon stood directly over us, peered at us in that sardonic Lennon way over his glasses. He waggled his head, stuck out his tongue, tossed a tambourine into the midst of us, which some lucky soul spirited away. I think he thought we were hilarious as we screamed and jumped and danced. When he left the stage, Elton’s emotions got the better of him and he sobbed his way through “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” I’m sure most of the crowd had tears in their eyes. I know I did. If we had known then it was Lennon’s last live concert appearance, I might have called it a fitting sendoff.

The subsequent six years provided a handful of sparkling fan moments: a seven-show stand at Madison Square Garden in 1976 where Elton arrived on stage as a glittering Statue of Liberty. It was during that stand he announced his retirement from the music business, something he would do on and off over the years as the rigors of fame, public reaction to his bisexuality, and declining record sales got to him.

By the end of the decade, my life, like Elton’s, had changed appreciably. I was engaged to be married and, although my love for his music never faltered, my obsession with all things Elton had waned a bit. The last time I saw Elton onstage in the ’70s was at the Palladium in New York City. Although I would see him in concert many times after (even getting to dance by the Red Piano at Caesar’s Palace in 2008 as he banged out “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”), this was to be my last time in the front row. During the show he leaned over, handed me a rose, and kissed me. Perhaps, in some strange way, he knew.

 

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