Back in 1975, when my best friend and I were screaming, weeping, Tiger Beat mad about Elton John, our small grade-school hearts raced faster the minute one of his songs came on the radio or one of his antics made the news. Although I acquired an earlier devotion to the Beatles and Beach Boys that was equally important, those two bands were a taste inherited through records passed down by my older brother. Elton John made the first rock music I chose for myself. Many other bands and musicians would claim the hero role in my lifetime, but it was the songwriting of John and lyricist Bernie Taupin that first affected the way I've listened to everything since.
Then came the '80s, when John split from Taupin and morphed from hard-driving rock icon to a weary, poppy poster boy for bow ties and schlock. The manic stage presence, the killer instinct for bringing a great lyric to life, and the swagger that informed even his sweetest ballads somehow evaporated, replaced by a cartoon character who seemed to be screaming "I've fallen and I can't get up" through every clenched smile.
Though time has begun to rectify that situation--as John has dealt with his various personal issues and reunited with Taupin--his resurgence as an artist still suffers from light-pop malaise. His new CD, The Big Picture, represents a bold step in songwriting, worthy of the more muscular arrangements and passionate delivery that have marked his best work, but retains the fluffy trappings that have fueled his more recent hits.
The concert stage, however, is still the only place to fully revive John's talent, and he reaches back through his 30-year career liberally on his current tour. So he may wheeze a little when he's kicking over the piano bench, and he may need to throw in a slow number now and then to get through his average three-hour show. His musicianship and enthusiasm haven't dimmed, and even the most syrupy love songs are but a minor inconvenience to bear when "Saturday Night's Allright For Fighting," "Bennie and the Jets," and "Honky Cat" are on the horizon.
In a decade in which cynics are prophets and sincerity is a slow, undignified killer of icons, there's frankly no room for aging, swoony piano players who have willfully exchanged their fire for a little peace. Thankfully, Elton John refuses to give up his seat at the arena and continues to take his shot at blowing the doors off.
Elton John appears on Wednesday, January 28, at Reunion Arena.