In my 2015 music mix, I sang the praises of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Now that Robby has assigned me Honky Château, I’ve spent a lot more time with the song, and I love it more than ever. For one thing, it’s built so beautifully. First we just hear Elton’s voice and piano. He hits an aching falsetto on (appropriately) the word “high” — that falsetto will return throughout the song, punctuating moments of emotion in an extraordinary vocal performance.
Moments later, a tender bass part comes in to support the melody, then soft drums building to that first chorus. A guitar strum brings in the chorus, with sparkling harmonies from the band. The song hits its first peak at the words “rocket man” — a huge cymbal crash gets pierced by reverb-drenched slide guitar, a sound that smoothly ascends the scale into the heavens. Producer Gus Dudgeon puts together a sound here that brilliantly echoes the song’s subject, but without a sterile 2001 feel, because after all the song is about loneliness, not science fiction.
The slide guitar goes up, but also comes down at various places in the song, and the first of these leads into the second verse, where all the instruments drop away and we’re left again with only the vocals and piano, the haunting slide occasionally shooting past like a distant star. Halfway through that verse, a new sound comes in: cascading synths, which step to the front accompanying the line “and all the science” — again, the sound echoing the subject. But just to make sure we don’t get the impression this is turning into proto-new-wave, Elton’s voice hits its most poignant run, singing long, sweet notes on “man” at the end of the verse, reprising the notes he sang on “high” at the beginning of the song.
Then the synth joins the rest of the band as another slide and prominent strum leads back into the chorus. It’s even more emotional than last time, with an even warmer sound somehow. Then the chorus repeats, resolving into a repeating outro of “and I think it’s gonna be a long long time.” Each instrument takes its turn behind those words — the synths, the slide, the rhythm guitar — and we get just a few more of those sweet falsetto notes as the song fades away.
Even more than Dudgeon’s production and John’s melody, though, what touched me this time was Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. It’s no accident that he chooses the word “rocket” to emphasize, because I believe Taupin is using the astronaut as a metaphor to describe the touring rock star. He paints a portrait of a man in a capsule, taking a long trip away from home. He’s “high as a kite” for this trip, drug slang for the rock star turned literal for the astronaut. This man may be the subject of popular adulation, but “I’m not the man they think I am at home,” he says. He’s lonely, longing for connection even as he makes his timeless flight.
He’s just a man doing a job, five days a week. That’s a part of the song that’s always confused me — how is an astronaut in space only working five days a week? But it made more sense when I thought about it in context with the metaphor. The rock star may have nights when he doesn’t play. The astronaut may have days when he doesn’t “work” on experiments or observations. But he’s still in space. He’s still on tour. The environment may be exotic, but it’s inhospitable to domestic life — “Mars ain’t the kind of place you raise your kids,” and neither is a rock and roll tour. And it’s going to be a long, long time until he returns to that earthly life.
The contrast between ancient rural purity and modern urban corruption is one that fascinates Taupin in album after album, but it’s especially prominent on Honky Château, from a number of angles. In “Honky Cat” we hear from the smalltown boy who breaks away from his country life and is thrilled to be in the city. Despite all the voices from home that tell him “living in the city ain’t where it’s at,” he decides to quit his redneck ways, and knows the change is going to do him good. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” tells the opposite side, or perhaps just the next chapter in the story. The speaker’s romantic visions of New York, nurtured by the Ben E. King song “Spanish Harlem,” get shattered by the reality of the city, caught between the subway and the starless sky. And yet even in this “trash can dream come true,” he finds people who help him sow his own seeds in the city, the agricultural metaphor settling into an uneasy truce with urban grit.
Elsewhere on the album, the country is celebrated, mainly as it’s personified in women. In “Susie (Dramas)” we get a classic Taupin country portrait, one that would have been perfectly at home on Tumbleweed Connection. Rural imagery straight out of Oklahoma! abounds — fringe on a buggy, a frisky colt, ice skating on the river, and an “old hayseed harp player” sharing the moonshine (in a double meaning) with a “pretty little black-eyed girl.” “Amy” wrecks the dreams of a young kid who adores her from afar and drives her crazy up close. The lyrics don’t reference country imagery in the same way, but Jean-Luc Ponty’s wild electric violin links the song with “Mellow”, another down-home portrait of love where the singer snuggles with his girl in front of a coal fire, occasionally sending her “down to the stores in town” for more beer.
Knowing a little of Taupin’s biography makes sense of this fascination — he grew up in a very rural setting, and in fact his family had no electricity for the first 5 years of his life. It wasn’t until his late teens that he found himself in London, where he suddenly skyrocketed to fame alongside John, who was the Captain Fantastic to Taupin’s brown dirt cowboy. That partnership with John not only gave Taupin the perfect vehicle for his lyrics, it gave him an extraordinary empathy for people in very different circumstances from his own. Nowhere is that empathy more visible than on “Rocket Man”, where Taupin finds the perfect emotional note for both the astronaut and the rock star.
His connection with Elton comes up in a more playful way on “Hercules”. The song is cartoonish throughout, starting with its narrator, a country character who stays gritty up to his ears “washing in a bucket of mud.” This fellow sports colorful ailments like “a busted wing”, and laments how the object of his affection has focused her attention on a “muscle boy” named Hercules. What’s the connection to Elton? Well, it so happens that when Reginald Kenneth Dwight legally changed his name in 1967, it was to Elton Hercules John. There had to have been moments for Bernie Taupin when he felt jealous of Elton John’s stardom, even as he watched his friend suffer under the spotlight, but in this song, at least, his rivalry with Hercules seems like nothing but a laugh. In some ways it’s an extension of “Rocket Man”‘s empathy, taking the hornet’s sting out of what could be a bitter contention, and sowing the seeds for many productive seasons to come.