As I wrote about in a recent post, the music of 1972 seems to be appearing with regularity in my life lately. I was at my local health food store last week and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (from his 1972 Honkey Chateau album) was playing on the in-store sound system. As I walked through the produce department, an employee stacking planet-sized watermelons sang along to the song quietly to himself. Proceeding up the ice cream aisle, a young guy reached for his organic coconut ice cream while singing along about the coldness of Mars. This was getting odd, even more so when I walked by the bags and boxes of coffee and tea, including “Rocket Fuel” coffee, and a middle-aged woman brushed by me with her loaded down basket, humming along to “Rocket Man” as well.
Like the scene in the movie Almost Famous where everybody on the tour bus sings along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man” has the distinction of being yet another Elton song that everyone knows the words to. Not many artists have even one song so part of the mass consciousness, much less two (and, arguably, he has others like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Levon” which one could make a case for as well.)
I think it’s interesting how many inspirations there have supposedly been for the song. John’s lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin has cited the Ray Bradbury story of the same name, as well as the song “Rocket Man” by Pearls Before Swine. As an aside, the Swine song, written by bandleader Tom Rapp, is a great track (and was also inspired by the Bradbury story.) A bit darker than the John/Taupin cut, but it covers much of the same thematic ground, yet through the eyes of the rocket man’s son. Others have pointed out that David Bowie’s Major Tom character from “A Space Oddity” seems to be a direct influence on Taupin’s words, as well.
Taupin has said that he was driving to his parent’s house when the first few lines came to him and he had to repeat them over and over to himself for the two hours it took before he got there so he wouldn’t forget them. “Which was unfortunate,” he later said. I think what was more unfortunate are a couple of lines later in the song that have always bothered me: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids / In fact it’s cold as hell / And there’s no one there to raise them / If you did” If you did what?! There’s no one there to raise them if you raised them? Assumedly, you’d be on Mars with the kids and doin’ the raising. I used to think I was mis-hearing it and the line was “If you’re dead”, which would make sense. But, no, the actual line is “If you did.”
Yet Taupin’s words, overall, do a good job of conveying the possible everyday life of an astronaut of the future. Elton John sings them well, too. But there’s a line in the chorus that I’ve never been able to make out. Is it his British accent? I think it’s just a case of mumbling. Looking it up online, I see the section in question is “Rocket man burnin’ out his fuse up here alone. “ But to me it sounds like “Rocket man burnin’ out a loofah / Half a gnome.” It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who can’t make out that line as a Volkswagen commercial a few years ago had people singing things like “…burning out this useless telephone.” (And, the commercial echoes my health food store experience in an uncanny way with the guy stocking shelves in the beginning).
Yes, “Rocket Man” would seem to be universally loved – parodied in commercials and covered by everyone from Alvin and the Chipmunks to William Shatner and his famous hallucinatory version to Kate Bush. Bush gave it a light reggae re-working which sorta works, but I’m not sure if it completely succeeds. But then, it’s hard to match the original. When it comes down to it, the covers are just half-a-gnome’s aren’t they?