Finally seeing Elton John brings it all back home


Elton John wasn’t exactly your typical rock star.

When I was a teenager, I was embarrassed about wearing glasses, and taking years of piano lessons. But when I was 16, an album came out by a guy who looked nothing like a rock star. He was pudgy. He wore glasses. He had a gap between his teeth. And he played the piano. Did he ever play the piano.

I got my hands on the sheet music for “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and spent hours playing every song, but especially the title song and my favorite, the opening pairing of “Funeral for a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding in my Hand.”

Throughout high school, Elton John provided the soundtrack for every heartbreak, every triumph, and of course the parties. During my early 20s, my dream was to be the next Elton John. I started writing my own songs, and I played in clubs like The Rex, recorded demo tapes, imagined moving to L.A. to pursue my dream. But it was never in my blood, apparently. When I discovered writing fiction, all thoughts of being a musician went by the wayside.

But I never lost that awe of the man who introduced me to the magic of the piano. I never imagined there would be an opportunity to see Elton John play live, but I did imagine what that would be like, and it always started with that haunting opening synthesizer on “Funeral for a Friend.”

Wednesday night it happened. A few months ago, when I found out that Elton John was coming to Billings, I noted the time the tickets would go on sale, and a half hour beforehand, I logged on to the interweb and tested my luck, expecting to fail. But to my shock, there were tickets available, and I could buy them, and I was so damned excited that I paid no attention to the ridiculous charges that were tacked onto the original $35 price, nor to the location of the seats. When I proudly announced to my girlfriend that I had gotten tickets, after her initial excitement, she asked where the seats were.

I was annoyed. What difference does it make? It’s Elton Goddamn John. But when I checked, I realized they were about as far from the stage as you can possibly get, and for the next few months, I kicked myself for not paying closer attention, and almost even regretted buying the tickets at all.

So, Wednesady night, I wore a red shirt to prepare for the inevitable blood shooting out of my nose, and we marched up flight after flight of concrete to get to seats where we could lean against the back wall. The stage looked like it was in Rosebud County, and knowing the acoustics in the Metra, I was prepared for the worst.

And then, from the pitch black, promptly at 8 p.m. (how many rock stars start right on time?), that powerful, piercing synthesizer riff rose up from the stage, and I was transported back to the red-and-orange shag carpet of our living room on Hoover Avenue.

Elton John can still bring it, 43 years later. And he’s not too proud to know that he reached his peak right around the time I was in high school. His first seven or eight songs all came from either “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” or “Madman Across the Water,” his two best albums. The highlight of the night was a 15-minute version of “Levon,” with a honkytonk piano solo after the song seemed to be over, a solo that would put any ragtime player to shame.

He has lost some of his upper register, and when he walked off the stage, his gait was one of a man who is nearly 70 years old and has played thousands of concerts. But Elton John played for 2½ hours and he still had the chops to pound out an incredible piano solo at the end of “Crocodile Rock,” bringing the house down one more time. I have been to many rock concerts in my lifetime, but this one was different. This time, the music entered me and I became that 16-year-old kid again. Only this time, I was not embarrassed. I danced without a care in the world.

About 20 years ago, I was moving from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, and as I was packing, I came across a big salesman’s satchel that for years I had used to carry around the dozens of pieces of sheet music I loved to play in my youth. On complete impulse, I decided at that very moment that I needed to let go of that particular part of my past. I left that satchel where it sat, and for the past 20 years I have regretted it.

I have a piano in my house, but I rarely sit down and play. I felt as if I had carved a chunk of my soul and left it to rot there in that musty basement on Fifth Avenue NW. Wednesday night, I regained a huge part of it.

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