I know I’ve been veering off this blog’s typical format and focus with this series, and I’m about to deviate further into full on nostalgia. Just this once, I’m using this site as a public diary of sorts, but I think it’s justified by the nostalgia I am feeling as the release of Rocketman approaches. I am sure there are millions of other fans who have just as many stories about the importance of Elton John’s music in their lives, and I’m sure many of their stories are far more interesting than mine. What follows is my experience. My hope, aside from you reading and enjoying this post, is that you’ll share with me any stories you have about the awesomeness and delight of being an Elton John fan.
As with many people my age (I am a few months shy of 30, to be completely honest), the first time I heard any of Elton’s music was when The Lion King hit theaters in 1994. Of course, I didn’t become an Elton John fan right then, because I still didn’t know who he was (or Tim Rice or Hans Zimmer for that matter). I was too young to comprehend that anyone other than Simba or Timon and Pumba was responsible for the music and lyrics in the film. It wasn’t until 1997 that true fandom hit. In the months following his performance of Candle in the Wind 1997 at Princess Diana’s funeral, Elton John was everywhere. That’s of course not to imply that he has ever been hard to find, but I had just reached a point, at the age of 7, where I was an avid news and talk show watcher. As media attention turned from Elton’s Candle in the Wind 1997 performance to his promotional stops for the album The Big Picture, I became hooked on the tunes. Most of what I had heard by this point where his songs from the 90s: The Lion King soundtrack, the entire The One album that a family member had copied to cassette for me, and a couple singles from The Big Picture. The only 70s tracks I was familiar with were Your Song and Bennie and the Jets, because both of them had been performed on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Then on Christmas came the present that would forever impact my musical tastes. I received Elton John Greatest Hits on cassette that Christmas morning. I never made a formal list, and I never asked for that album specifically. I had been telling my parents for months that I was saving up to buy some Elton John tapes, and I think buying me one for Christmas was my Dad’s way of preventing me from buying albums containing tracks like The Bitch is Back and Sweet Painted Ladies. I’m sure strategic parental censorship is not the only reason I received this present, and come to think of it on the allowance i was getting at the time it would have taken months to save up enough to buy any brand new cassettes. I laugh about it now, but my parents were big believers in giving the same allowance they received as kids, unadjusted for inflation. My fifty cents a week did not go far.
I played that greatest hits album so much over the next two weeks that the tape actually severed in the machine only a few days after winter break ended. My Dad was able to splice it back together that there was only a half second of silence during Bennie and the Jets. We copied the album over to another cassette so I could just keep the original as a collection piece. I still own the tape. it obviously isn’t worth much money, but it is the first (as I would call it then) “grown up” album I owned. later that year, I bought a CD player with my birthday money the following September. It was great. I didn’t have to fast forward or rewind to get to songs I listened to repeatedly.
My allowance remained rather small for the five or so years, but my parents were generous about providing occasional gifts in addition to my chores stipend. One of those occasions was for my 10th birthday, when I was surprised with tickets for Elton John’s first (and to this day only) concert in Rockford. I was told about the tickets shortly after my Dad purchased them, and it was an agonizing four week wait. Looking back now, that four-week wait seems cute. Let me reiterate, that four week-wait was from the time the tickets went on sale!
To add a little more drama to the anticipation, I cam down with a really bad stomach virus just days before the concert. I quarantined myself in my bedroom and lived on nothing but water for three days, which was definitely a day or two after I could have started eating again, but I was not going to be too sick to see this concert. It was worth it. My first concert experience was nearly three hours of just Elton john and his piano. The performance was part of one of his solo tours that he did frequently at the time. No offense intended to his bandmates, because they are all wonderful, talented people, but there is nothing like watching Elton sit at the piano and create new versions of classics right before your eyes. The riches of this experience went beyond super-extended versions of hits like Rocket Man and Honky Cat. The setlist also included many album tracks that he plays less often, some of which I was hearing for the first time, including Tonight and Elton’s Song.
Small increases were made to my allowance over the next couple of years and I was able to start collecting Elton John albums a little faster. I was buying his CDs at a rate of about three per year, and I usually received one a for Christmas too. While I was aware of many of the current artists at the time, my CD money went almost exclusively to Elton John. Many of my friends think back to 2001 and 2002 and, depending on their tastes, get nostalgic about albums by Britney Spears, Blink-182, Eminem or Destiny’s Child. I recall those days as the era when I first listened to Madman Across the Water, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and Songs from the West Coast.
Eventually, I did develop interests in contemporary artists and bands such as Green Day, Foo fighters and The Killers. I went through a country phase that has mostly passed. I developed a taste for classic rock that continues to grow to this day; leading me to see artists like Cheap Trick and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts multiple times. Still, I kept adding Elton john albums to my CD collection whenever I could, until finally, by around the time I was about to start classes at NIU, I was able to say I owned all the studio albums. Then the vinyl resurgence caught hold of me and I started the process all over again. It continues.
There are also a few less pleasant memories that come up when looking back on this fan experience. I was raised in a very conservative household. I am someone who will talk about something constantly once I am interested, be it a film, a project, a hobby or a musician whose music speaks to me. As a child in a conservative family, the early and most obsessive phase of Elton John fandom raised some eyebrows among the many homophobes around me. The first time anyone explained homosexuality to me was when one relative took it upon themselves to say “Elton is weird. He loves men the way husbands and wives love each other, but men aren’t supposed to love other men that way. God doesn’t like that and it’s not normal. It’s okay to like Elton John’s music but just realize his lifestyle is bad.” I remember it being explained to me exactly that way; the typical “love the sinner, hate the sin” Christian-right holier than thou garbage.
Some of my friends (I use that term loosely) in Kirkland also delighted in mocking me for listening to an artist they referred to by terms that need not be repeated. Though I would later also have to come to terms with racism and sexism in my town and my family, this was the first time I witnessed hate first hand. I’m glad my fandom helped expose me to that hate at an early age, because it helped shape my politics over the years, and not in the way any of those so-called friends or intolerant relatives would have wanted.
For the most part though, this journey has been a happy one, and it might be a cliche to say this, but Elton is the most frequent contributor to the soundtrack of my life. It’s great that, unlike so many artists from the 70s and 80s, Elton still releases new material often. Those more recent albums are part of my memories of going to college, moving out of state, getting my first job, falling in love and getting married. I was lucky enough to be able to see the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour in Chicago last October with Alex, and I look forward to seeing Rocketman with her very soon.
It’s funny how people have various media-related tests for those they are dating. I was no exception. It was clear Alex would pass the first one even before we started dating. That test was that she had to have watched and enjoyed at least some seasons of ER and The West Wing. Another test, and she passed, was that she had to get (on the second viewing, but that’s fairly normal) The Big Lebowski. The most important one, of course, was that she had to be okay with, better yet enthusiastically support, how often Elton John albums are played anywhere that some level of control over the nearest turntable, CD player or Bluetooth speaker. Obviously, she passed that one as well.
Being an Elton John fan has led me to many great times and wonderful people. Whether or not you share this interest with me, I hope you are a fan of something that brings you as much joy as this journey has and will likely continue to bring me.