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)