Solid walls of sound
I decided to deep dive into Elton John’s discography because I knew it was still easier than going back to the beginning of George Michael's.
|Jan 2, 2020||2|
I wrote this in November and have been intermittently poking at it ever since, but with the New Year and the Golden Globes coming up it feels like the right time to put it out in the wild. Maybe it’s something longer, maybe much longer. But here’s a lightly redacted version for now.
I had absolutely no idea Rocketman was a musical.
There’s no good excuse for the oversight other than I survive running a major entertainment news website by enforcing a diligent approach to delegation: there is simply no way I can know most things about new movies or TV or music, let alone all of them. I had spent such an unfortunate and inordinate amount of time in the lead-up to the 2019 Oscars talking about Bohemian Rhapsody: how we covered the controversies around it, how we contextualized its global box office success, how we grappled with its seeming snowball effect despite being an exceedingly mediocre, sometimes even terrible film. Around the time Rocketman was debuting at Cannes, as we planned our content priorities for upcoming summer films, I reminded my team to be sure we leaned into coverage around its release and went on with my week. I didn’t go to a screening. I read some of the headlines from our stories and kept moving.
A week after the movie was released, a really hard week at work that I was all-too-happy to escape with some kind of distraction, we went to a Saturday matinee. People on Twitter — especially our queer friends — had good things to say about it. It was a decent-sized mixed crowd for weekend two, even mid-day, gayer than your average Pasadena audience. Lights went down, the opening credits came on, and — about two minutes in, when Taron Egerton begins to sing “The Bitch is Back” in the midst of his group rehab session — my wife and I turned to each other. “It’s a musical,” we both whispered, with a mix of confusion and — look, we’re old queens at heart — sheer fucking delight.
And what a musical. Not one of those movies that isn’t sure whether it’s really committed to going beyond a few jukebox hits. A fully-realized musical fantasy, complete with Elton John launching into space. Also it was great.
June 9: Really did not expect that both #Rocketman and #RussianDoll (finally, I know) would have the same take-home message: go to therapy, forgive your inner child, cut out toxic family & stop putting so many drugs up your nose. Also: some men are the hole where a choice should be.
I went to New York, did a bunch of work, came back, did more work, despaired a little about how much work I was doing as the world continued to spiral into chaos.
A hot day in June full of too many hot takes. We escaped with two old friends to the Laemmle Glendale for an absurdly early screening that, somehow, no one else turned out for. It was a small, pristine theater. We’d all seen the film already and, left to our own too-old-for-this but also too-old-to-give-a-fuck tendencies, we had a full-on singalong during “Crocodile Rock.”
Faced on Monday morning with a long morning drive and another day of work, I proposed a way to extend the trend:
June 24: What if instead of listening to the news on my commute this week I start at the very beginning of Elton John’s discography and work my way through?
I like the news, I should say. I love it. I’m a news junkie. I’ve worked in and worshipped this industry since I was 17, when I walked into the local alternative newsweekly and kept talking until they agreed to pay me $5 an hour to do whatever they needed. By the time I graduated high school I was basically working full-time, bailed on studying for (and consequently failed) my AP Chem placement test in lieu of co-writing my first-ever cover story. I was hooked on journalism: it was the perfect mix of being a writer and a pain in the ass, of being not just allowed but encouraged to openly call bullshit on stupid displays of power, of keeping my eyes and ears wide open and then trying to make sense of it all.
It’s truly the best and worst time in American history to give a shit about news and have a lifelong three-pack-a-day monkey on your back about it to boot. The world is on fire; the journalism is somehow simultaneously at its most compromised and most high-octane and daring. I’ve spent so much time since even before the 2016 election talking to friends and colleagues about how we titrate our news consumption, which apps we think might help limit, what’s indispensable and what’s addictive and what’s making it worse. For the first year after the election, I scaled way, way back: top stories on NPR in the morning, and then usually also in the evening because so much had changed that quickly. Lots of music. Every office I’ve worked in was decorated with TVs, so it wasn’t really possible to miss whatever outrage of the day was making cable news headlines. I poked through Twitter and read long New York Times or Washington Post investigations. I probably would have felt more symptoms of withdrawal if it wasn’t for the absolute crushing depression of the world.
As the 2018 midterm elections gained steam, I dipped my toe back in. I had a very, very long commute. Hours to fill with podcasts, and almost all of what I subscribed to was about politics, through one lens or another. It had been unsettling to spend a year not being able to name major and minor political officials, even if only to curse their names. But in late 2018/early 2019, in the post-Blue Wave, things are still awful even with a Democratic house time, I just got so tired of it all again. I didn’t want to be entertained by outrage. I didn’t want to be outraged. That didn’t feel much better than being depressed.
I had some very basic questions about Elton John, flush with a second time through the movie: Why hadn’t I been a bigger Elton fan already? Why hadn’t I grown up with his music when my parents had steeped our diet in other rootsy Americana rock, from Johnny Cash to CSNY? Why hadn’t I at some point on my reclaim-your-queer-heroes run through my teens and twenties had at the very least a single strong opinion about him?
I definitely had Freddie Mercury feelings. I can remember like it was fucking yesterday the afternoon in ninth-grade science when this kid Rich I knew from marching band proudly showed off a greatest hits of Queen CD set he’d gotten for his birthday and said, “Yeah, they were a bunch of fags, but they really knew how to rock.” I would reach back through time and punch that asshole in the face if I could, that’s how much that one sentence fucked me up.
I barely knew who Queen was outside of MTV and Wayne’s World, which came out that same year, but — I mean, I had eyes. I knew Freddie was gorgeous and gay and could throw his head back and belt out a note that crawled down your spine and lit you on fire. And now I understood with crystal clarity that it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to sing like that. If you were a fag, that’s what people would remember.
I said nothing. I was 14. It was 1992. I was already angry so much of the time. At the world, at injustice, at my parents who were finally, finally realizing it would be better for us all if they got divorced. I usually had no problem telling my classmates they were being racist or sexist or even homophobic.
But also I was in love with my best friend. I had a boyfriend, my second in a row that freshman year who was a senior and in retrospect that feels creepy instead of something to be proud of, but at the time it felt normal, like how high school was supposed to work. He was fine. It was easier to be around my mom and dad together when he was there, a perfectly bland boyfriend buffer.
My best friend and I were obsessed with each other and had been since we first met at a smart-kids summer camp when we were nine. She went to a different high school across town, but I probably called her that night to tell her about this jerk in my science class and the ignorant thing he said about Queen.
We were smug, superior young women who were very sure we were not going to get dragged down into the mediocre small-mindedness of our strange small city. When we eventually confessed to each other — safely, on the phone, of course — that we were each bisexual, it was an easy relief. Duh. How dumb and unenlightened would it be to assume sexuality is so simple that you can’t be into both? We were also adamant that, obviously, we were too close to confuse our grand friendship with a need to do something so pedestrian as be girlfriends. We were beyond that. We were scared, of course, and it turned out we were the dumb ones who would do our worst to each other in weird passive-aggressive ways to cope.
None of that, not even little assholes who questioned Freddie Mercury’s legacy, could really explain how in the decade following, when I did get out of that mediocre town, when I called bullshit on the idea that best friends couldn’t also want to fuck each other, when I came out over and over and over and led queer kiss-ins on my college campus perfectly timed to interrupt new student recruitment tours, when I read literally every gay history book in the university library and took every special seminar offered by grad students because there was no such thing as a queer studies major yet — I never particularly cared about Elton John.
Of course I knew who he was — for a couple solid decades he was genuinely probably the most famous gay person in the world. But even as I worked my way through other icons, some having only recently been properly excavated back into queer hero status, I just kind of...skipped him.
The timing wasn’t great. In the early ’90s, when I was belatedly really discovering popular music, Elton was just beginning to re-emerge as a newly sober musician whose comeback albums were more adult contemporary than rock. In my early teens, my main measure of whether music perhaps intellectually interesting but not urgently cool was whether a majority of the comparatively rich families I babysat for had the CD — U2’s Joshua Tree, for example. Grunge and alt-rock was re-shaping radio even in a casino cow town where one FM station religiously played “Stairway to Heaven” at noon and midnight, every day. Nirvana, Alanis and Pearl Jam were a new outlet for the always-simmering rage, and when I wasn’t angry I was cuddled up in a pile of teenager theater geeks who would get together to go see Disney’s new musicals, rowdy teenagers at late night screenings of Beauty and the Beast. We were bold enough to feel confident in our utter dorkiness.
I wonder now whether there was a bit of second-hand gay embarrassment to factor in, too, some measure of internalized homophobia under layers of the aching adolescent need to be cool. I can’t remember ever having the impression that Elton John was cool. Freddie was dangerous, dressed up in leather harnesses and a sharp, almost angry curl of his lip, like he would have dared you to call him a fag so he could kiss the surprise off your face. Even Bowie, under the mid-’90s haircut, still had that insouciant maybe I am what you say I am punk attitude, the same gentle defiance that you could see glowing through Kurt Cobain or Billie Joe Armstrong. In any MTV News package, there was still file footage of Elton dressed up like Donald Duck, in silly Amadeus drag. He was the very definition of too much and not in a John Waters way. Later I loved his collaboration with Eminem mostly because I was a contrarian First Amendment hard-liner who thought it was unbearably boring that GLAAD was more interested in censorship than in having a sense of humor or context.
The closest I came to appreciating Elton before that was because of George Michael, because no matter how meh I felt about the man he was still on an unprecedented streak of hit singles, including their duet for “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which seemed to be on MTV every day. I’d had my first belated brushes with pop, but as much as I loved Tiffany, or Debbie Gibson, or New Kids, George was the one who made me feel.
George didn’t feel safe exactly, either. Three years before Rich-the-little-asshole tried and almost succeeded in scaring me off Queen, I remember being out at sixth grade recess, talking as kids do about the one thing adults least want them to even know exists: “I Want Your Sex.”
Some kid, faceless in my memory, said, “George Michael’s gay.” And maybe I’m remembering this how I want to, but the way I recall what happened next is that my friend Gabe shrugged it off and said, “Maybe, but who cares?” (Gabe was both the kind of cool tough kid who truly didn’t give a shit what other kids thought and the most unbelievable dork, a hippie who’d bring whole tomatoes to school and bite into them like an apple, like that was normal. He’s also the person who introduced me to Tracy Chapman, loaning me his cassette copy of her debut album.)
When Listen Without Prejudice came out in 1990, I would lie in bed for hours and hours, listening to the tape over and over. I was 13. Everything that happened in my life had layers of meaning. There was something there. Something he wasn’t saying outright in the lyrics but just below the surface. There were songs that made sense only if you could read them in more than one direction, full of unrequited, confused love. It was like a secret message maybe only I could hear: how was no one else noticing that “Cowboys and Angels” only made sense if it was about both a man and a woman? I truly don’t think it occurred to me that maybe most people weren’t spending as much time thinking about this as I was.
I didn’t stop overthinking George. In college, I cobbled together a double-major in women’s studies — the closest they offered to queer studies at the time — by taking what was typically the sole special-topics seminar offered by a department about LGBT people: Gay film. Gay literature. Gay sociology. In a mid-level gay linguistics course, I wrote my final paper examining the many ways that George described his own sexuality following his 1998 arrest. In some 40 pages, after coding literally hundreds examples, I concluded that while other people on the news almost always referred to George as gay, dismissing his very well-documented earlier affairs with women—not to mention his own comments about those relationships—he personally stuck to a much more fluid vocabulary, or language specific to given partners, when describing his own orientation.
More than 10 years later, after I’d moved to Los Angeles, a woman I didn’t know walked into a party at my house. At the time I worked from home, my giant desk set up in the front room of duplex in Echo Park. Hanging next to my desk was a poster from George Michael’s album Patience, and she immediately demanded to know whose house this was, whose poster it was, who there was a George Michael fan. I pled guilty on all counts.
Her name was Jessica, and she’d come with some mutual friends. She’d just taken herself to France for her 30th birthday so that she could see George, who’d basically stopped performing in the U.S., play a show in Lyon. I was stunned. Who was this woman? And why hadn’t I thought of that?
Two years later we got married. We said, entirely seriously, that George was our fairy godfather, our good-luck charm. We said our first I-love-yous at a tour he’d suddenly announced not long after we first started dating. Our officiant quoted his lyrics in our vows.
And then, on Christmas Day, 2016, while visiting my mom and stepdad’s house in Reno, we went for a walk, bundled up for a chilly if sunny afternoon. My phone, buried deep in the only heavy coat I owned, started buzzing, one text after another. It was the office: George had died. We were devastated. I sat on the couch, choking back tears, and wrote an obituary for the website I ran. Then, finally, I crawled into a hot bath and sobbed. We shut ourselves in the guest bedroom and watched music videos on my laptop, feeling like heartbroken teenagers.
In the almost three years since then, I’ve barely been able to listen to George’s music. I avoided most of the reporting about the circumstances of his death — compartmentalization by delegation reigns again — and waited for the aching hole to feel less like a gaping wound.
It didn’t really work, though. And when I decided to deep dive into Elton’s discography I knew that on some level it was because it was still easier than going back to the beginning of George’s. I think I hoped, vaguely, that maybe overthinking another queer musician might help me work out what I needed to say or write about George to heal that hurt, for me and Jessica both. I’d write a couple thousand words about “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” and feel better.
But I was going to apply some rigor to this thought experiment. I came up with a simple methodology for my deep dive into Elton’s more than 30 live and studio albums:
No peeking. I opened Spotify, went to Elton’s profile, and scrolled back to the beginning. I didn’t research anything in advance; whatever I had absorbed from pop culture over the course of my life had to be sufficient background.
No skipping. Even if a song was atrocious, I pledged, I had to listen all the way through each and every album. The only exceptions to this were granted in progress: If I wanted to repeat an album, I could skip individual tracks. I didn’t have to listen to any of the compilation or greatest hits packages. If a reissued version of album included copious demos or live versions, that was at my discretion.
I tried to keep up with my progress in a steady stream of tweets, though at times my commute far outpaced my energy to craft mini-reviews in anything close to real time, which often meant going back to listen through and jog my memory again. Once I’d finished an album, I could crack open Wikipedia or Google, and a month or so in I began to read in parallel an Elton John biography.
I was inspired in part by my dear friend Will, who had in 2012 woken up on New Year’s, newly sober himself, and decided that it was time to tackle a lifelong loathing for his fellow Long Island native Billy Joel by listening to that other piano man’s similarly deep catalog. I couldn’t imagine when I started that I would have either the time or patience for such a detailed storytelling project. I figured if I was lucky I’d get a solid summer away from the worst of a never-ending news cycle and then move on.
Instead I spent more than four months listening to Elton nearly every day, mostly while driving back and forth across Los Angeles. By the end of that period I had also read a detailed biography of his career in the 1970s (twice), tracked down a bootleg version of the documentary Elton’s now-husband made about him that I hadn’t seen since it came out in 1997, pestered the book and music editors I worked with to get a copy of Elton’s own first memoirs a few days before they were published so I could read it in 48 hours (and detail what was actually more dramatic than Rocketman), then listened to the unabridged 11-hour audiobook read by Taron Egerton. Also I interviewed Taron for the film awards podcast I co-host and wrote a long profile piece in which I tried to untangle how this young actor became so entangled in Elton’s legacy.
In October, Jessica and I flew to Nashville to see Elton John in concert for the first time. The week before we’d seen Rocketman at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, accompanied by a live orchestra. Afterward, Elton and Taron had come out to sing a couple songs, one of which was their first public performance of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Santa Ana winds whispered through the trees in Griffith Park around us.
October 17: Thank you George for always watching over us, and thank you Taron & Elton for singing exactly the song we needed to hear.
I’ve pushed myself to play George’s albums when I’m puttering around the house, just to get used to the sound of his voice again. I have a copy of Andrew Ridgeley’s memoir by the side of the bed, waiting to be cracked open. I read and listened to Elton’s own bittersweet memories of his friend he couldn’t save no matter how many times he tried to intervene.
As I write this in November, I still haven’t worked out how to confront head-on my underlying grief about George, or how to explain the hold Elton has on me still.
But the only way out is through, and at least I’ve begun.