I Remember When Rock was Young: Elton John at 71

Elton John in concert at Wembley in 1976 wearing rhinestone jacket and matching glasses. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/WireImage)

At Vulture, Bill Wyman remarks on the surprisingly slow start to Elton John’s career, the seeming inauthenticity of some of his songs, and the incredible stamina he maintains for live performances at age 71.

Indeed, to many, John is a bit too obvious, now: the teddy-bear pop-rock star, the burbling sidekick of royalty, the aging, bewigged gay icon. But that cozy mien has always hidden something uncompromising and a bit strange underneath. He is a dubious figure set against the high intellectualism of Joni Mitchell, say, or the assuredly more dangerous work of Lou Reed, or that of Bowie, and on and on. But in his own way, originally, and then definitely as his acclaim grew, he found his own distinctive passage through the apocalypse of the post-Beatles pop landscape — and offered us ever more ambitious pop constructions, culminating in some sort of weird masterpiece, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and then an odd autobiographical song cycle, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, in which he looked back to examine his life and the years of insecurity preceding his stardom.

But for the record, it should be said that if there is one thing John is not, it’s obvious. He doesn’t write his own lyrics; he has spoken to us, if he has at all, through the words of other lyricists, most prominently Bernie Taupin, with whom he formed a songwriting partnership in 1967 that lasted through the entirety of his classic years. Over the decades, the themes and subjects of Taupin’s words have benignly reflected onto the singer’s persona, even though we have no reason to think they accurately represent it. And John’s songwriting process make their significance even more obscure. The pair didn’t (and still don’t) work together; instead, John walks off with Taupin’s scrawls and, with uncanny speed and focus, makes the songs he wants out of them. (Band members and producers over the years have testified that the composition of some of his most famous works was accomplished in 15 or 20 minutes.) In effect, he has always made Taupin’s words mean what he wants them to mean, giving himself the room to identify with or distance himself from them at will. In other words, if you think you know Elton John through his songs — you don’t.

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