Rocketman Revisited


It was the talk of Columbus High: Who was going to see Elton John in concert?

Elton was doing two concerts within a stone’s throw of my hometown of Columbus, Ga., but in 1973 that might as well been Los Angeles for me. If there was ever a tumultuous time in my life, it was my senior year of high school.

That October, several people in Ms. Hussey’s Humanities class had tickets to Elton’s concert in Auburn, Alabama, or the one at the Georgia Coliseum in Athens. In between readings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ms. Hussey’s idea – the upcoming concerts was all anybody was talking about.

I was in the “not going” crowd, although, like everyone else in the Class of ’74, I was a huge fan. Not surprisingly, tickets ($6 the highest price) sold out the first day via word of mouth alone (Who needs the frenzied hype of Social Media and Ticketmaster?).

Elton is what we like to call a creative genius. Over 300 million records sold. Hits in the Top Forty for something like 38 years. He routinely makes the list as one of the most generous celebrities donating to charitable causes. His AIDS foundation has raised between $300-$400 million.  So, he’s also what we consider a decent fella.

It was a given that I would go and see ROCKETMAN. Have you seen it? What did you think? The movie has a La La Land feel to it. A story told through music, very good music, mind you.  I often feel sorry for people who didn’t grow up in the 60s and 70s. They have missed out on some of the greatest artists of all time. This generation has no protest songs or artists, and they need it in the worst way. Where’s their Bob Dylan? Where’s their Aretha? Their Janis Joplin? Where’s their Norman Whitfield? John Lennon?

As an artist, I came away with a heaviness after watching ROCKETMAN. It covers a very troubling time in Elton’s life. Exploitation of the talented is not a new phenomenon, but it always harsh to bear witness to it. Here in the US, we have a whole list of beloved artists who have been destroyed not by fame, but by the people exploiting the famous. Elton John was no exception.

But long before Reggie became Elton, he suffered at the hands of an abusive father. A man, who Elton once said, “would slap me for making noise when I ate celery.”

Like a lot of abused children, Elton covers for his abusive father, sometimes laughing about the absurd ways in which he feels they failed each other. When his father died in 1991, Elton did not attend his dad’s funeral. As a gay man, Elton felt rejected by his father, something that is highlighted in ROCKETMAN. But Elton’s half-brother takes issue with that portrayal of their dad, insisting that Elton’s sexual identity never mattered to his dad.

Years ago I read Mikal Gilmore’s book A Shot In the Heart. Mikal and I had a discussion once about how he was raised by a different father than his brother Gary. Mikal recognized he  was fortunate to have been raised by an older, less violent dad than his brother Gary. Elton, who still carries the wounds of the complicated relationship he had with his dad, believes he was raised by a different dad than his half-brothers. Maybe it’s a matter of when you know better you do better. Elton’s half-brothers should be grateful they were raised by the less abusive father than Elton experienced.

Undoubtedly, the relationship, or lack of it, between father and son became a driving force in Elton’s life. These are the ways in which many of us are propelled forward, this need to right the wrongs done to us. To bring good from the chaos. This need for redemption is a universal desire, which when nurtured, often brings about the best in each of us.

The other reason I left ROCKETMAN with a heaviness had to do with what Elton had to go through as a gay man. I left thinking about the generations upon generations of people who had to live a life of pretense in order to be accepted by a culture that continually tells them they are “less than.”

We simply can’t let people be.

We have to insist that they follow the dictates of a religion that is primarily designed to perpetuate patriarchy.

We are far more accepting of men who slap children around for eating celery too loudly than we are of gay men. The Church has a long history of abusing children and women.

We seem perfectly willing to forgive the preacher or president whose sex drive compels him to abuse women or children – even demanding within church culture that they forgive their abusers – but the only forgiveness  allotted the LGBTQ community by many is if they “turn from their sin.”

Elton knew from the get-go that he had a gift.  Like many, though, it took him and us too long to learn what a gift he is to us all.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Where’s Your Jesus Now? (Zondervan)

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


about 4 years ago

Went to see Elton in concert in the early 80's here in Portland at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Found it WAY too loud for enjoyment or human health, as nearly all subsequent concerts we've attempted to endure have been. A near exception was a Bonnie Raitt / Keb Mo gig out at McMenamin's Edgefield a few years ago along with our then still single adult daughter. Always enjoyed the fact that she came to enjoy much of the music that we did. Back to Elton John, I never figured out the need for him to throw his piano bench off the stage. But then, perhaps it was a way of letting off some lingering steam from earlier abuse. I could certainly forgive that. One bright spot was when he plunked the first piano chord of Benny and the Jets. The whole crowd erupted knowing exactly what was coming. What you say about the music of the era is on target. It was the national dialogue for a generation or two of us in a torn world where the leaders had little, if anything, to say that made sense. If you want a pick-me-up in this time of madness, search out the Youtube of Eva Cassidy singing Over the Rainbow in a live performance at Blues Alley. She didn't know at the time that she had less than a year to live. As a friend said, "She had me at 'Somewhere...'" And she never let go.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 4 years ago

Big fan of Eva myself.


Bonnie Sayles

about 4 years ago

I cried all the way through Rocketman when my husband and I went to see it in a packed theater in Jacksonville the weekend it premiered. I loved listening to people my age whom I didn't know talking excitedly about it as we left. It was very moving what he went through. A week later I watched it in a late night showing in my hometown with my husband, son and three other patrons. The three young women were very loud during the previews and very beginning, then fell into a hushed reverie. Since then I've been on an Elton obsession, watching YouTube videos of interviews with an English broadcast journalist and with Phil Donahue. Reliving my youth. I stayed up late last night watching retrospectives of Elton on the Reelz channel. I believe he was exploited and misled by his gay manager as much as by anyone else. I'm so happy things have turned up well for Elton and his husband and children. The insensitivity of his father and mother was very sad to see. I am so impressed by Bernie Taupin's lyricisim, and their longtime friendship. This movie is Oscar-worthy!


AF Roger

about 4 years ago

Thank you, Bonnie, for stirring a few more things. August 15 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. At the beginning of the summer of '69 after college graduation, I traveled around upstate New York and New England, knowing that on August 15 I would be heading to USAF basic training. Travel options would no longer be my choice. I didn't even know such a thing as Woodstock was in the works and did not learn about it until months later. Finally saw the movie 'Woodstock' in 1970 while stationed, of all places, in Syracuse, New York for Russian language training. Back then, Woodstock had seemed an outrageous, scandalous thing to do. I now own a DVD of the film. Watching it again over the last several years it strikes me as almost a stone-cold sober and logical response to the time. Two things might stand out to moderns who watched it today: 1) the body types look a bit different... 2) people are actually paying attention to the music and EACH OTHER (OMG, eye contact!!!) because smart phones did not exist. Compared to today, it's almost like being a Jane Goodall and observing a different species. Yeah, we probably were. I miss us. When did we go extinct and in less than 50 years?


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 4 years ago

Where did we all go? Some of us got caught up in the Evangelical movement, trying to fix the sins of our youth. Others got caught up in the Prosperity Gospel, trying to extort God. Others got caught up in politics, in a reach for amassing not only wealth but power, too. Too many of us got caught up in whatever carrot was held out before us. But there are plenty of others who are out doing - fixing - healing. Like you, Roger. Like so many of my friends who have come to see the world, not as black and white and red-lettered, but multi-dimensional and multi-cultural. These are those who listened to the lyrics and heeded those warnings.


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