The politics of the piano in rock & roll has never been as simple as black and white. A half-century after Jerry Lee Lewis set it ablaze as a pioneering and incendiary musical device, we, as listeners, tend to forget that the instrument can pack a thunderous wallop. The piano has a dubious history within the rock & roll canon. The genre has served up no small share of fiery-fingered practitioners, but the various great ivory (and ebony) hopes tend to stray, be it Billy Joel (classical) or Bruce Hornsby (jazz). Sir Elton John has logged hours away from the craft (Disney), but in running through his three-plus-decade career over the span of twenty-seven songs at New York City’s Madison Square Garden last night, John proved that the piano is still a viable medium for rock, and that he’s still among its most able players. Further, after decades of rockers attempting to bust free from the bench with cock rock abandon, the instrument turns out to be the perfect vehicle for the post-twentysomething star: It still holds a rolling thunder, but without the pecker-centric posturing that looks unbecoming of many musicians over the age of fifty.
John’s performance was a triumph of substance over style, no small feat for the notorious clotheshorse. The set was assembled with an entertainer’s knowing sensibility. There were blockbusters for those who wanted them, an appropriate number of new tracks and some winners that didn’t appear on his myriad hits compilations. John has tackled the transition into his fifties with a similar bent to a man who has lost his sight. Whereas the latter will replace his vision with a sharper sense of hearing, John has been forced to approach his songs in a new manner after his falsetto bid him adieu. To his credit, that voice shift didn’t shoo him away from some high-pitched classics — he tackled both “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man” with gusto — but it also pushed some of his best melodies back to the frontline, after years of hiding behind said falsetto.
Even better served were other tracks from his Seventies output, which composed well more than half of the show, including two or more songs each from Elton John, Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. “Funeral for a Friend” (from Yellow Brick Road) was an appropriately dramatic, dynamic opener, while “Holiday Inn” and “Levon” (both from Madman) and Captain Fantastic‘s “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket” were standout workouts, with John pulverizing his keys and sounding nimble within the lower register.
Midway through the evening, John offered up “I Want Love,” a track from his new recording, Songs From the West Coast, accompanied by its video, a clip of actor Robert Downey Jr. lip-synching the words. Downey’s career offers a striking clarity in contrast with John’s. Both nearly managed to piss away their sizable talents. But Elton John has somehow happened upon the secret. Today’s Elton is unthinkably younger than the Eighties version. His cherubic face has taken on a youthfulness, close-ups show a mug more akin to the one that graced his dazzling Seventies run than the codger on the cover of Sleeping With the Past.
Likewise, John’s newest batch of songs are a return to form, re-packing some of the elements that made him a singular rock & roll phenom: a panoramic dirty blue-eyed soul that fused some Ray Charles grit with a Bacharach-ian sense of chamber pop grandeur. In concert, John’s return from a personal and career nosedive has afforded him the opportunity to reach into his past, when he was a fairly functional fuck-up (musically, at least), and pluck inspiration for updating. Hopefully his counterpart will find John’s regenerative secret, as Downey continues to be something more tragic, a man whose youth is long gone; reaching into his past only seems to pull him back to Less Than Zero.
On the subject of self-abuse, much is made of the excess and extravagance of Elton John: the costumes, the wardrobes, the comment about snorting enough blow to dust the Himalayas. But truth be told, when you strip away the starshine, John is truly one of our most human entertainers, right down to the iconic gap between his front teeth. If, as Sinatra said, youth is wasted on the young, wealth is rarely wasted on the rich, it’s only wasted by the rich. Many of us aspire to a comfort zone that allows for comfy slippers and robes, Cadillacs for mother and such. Beyond the comforts his lifestyle has afforded him, John remains that rare altruistic entertainer who actually puts his mouth where his money is. There are benefits, there are tribute songs, but the performer on stage is really the same Elton John who befriended the teenage AIDS victim, Ryan White. Photos of a red-eyed John at the funeral of Gianni Versace are a vibrant contrast to the more commonly chosen funereal shield of shades.
Musically and personally, John wears his heart on his sleeve and then slips into a coat, so as not to draw attention to it. It’s actually the former Reginald Dwight’s Elton John-ness that makes him among the least self-righteous of activist performers. Perhaps it’s the importance of not being earnest; it’s almost easier to take a guy’s cause seriously once you’ve seen him in a duck suit, a fashion dare that no golden god would take. For all the outcries over his onstage appearances with the likes of Axl Rose and Eminem, our jaded society seems to miss the naked human kindness within John’s acts of acceptance. Cynics cry opportunism. As Eminem fans seem unlikely purchasers of Elton John CDs, perhaps it’s something more like grace.
And while John still pulled out plenty of rocking corkers, on this night in this city, the need for that grace, for Elton John the shoulder-lender, was dire. And by repeatedly reminding a capacity audience of his reverence for New York, a city referenced frequently in his songs (particularly a beautiful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”), John again played the role of comforter. John’s own comeback was a fitting inspiration for a city trying to pull itself back to its feet. Among the evening’s most enthusiastic receptions was for “I’m Still Standing,” hardly one of his finest songs, and one of only two relics from the Eighties.
Part of the draw is John’s innate ability to entertain. At rock bottom, Elton John was still Elton. Even “Nikita” — mercifully left out of the evening’s set list — was still a Top Ten single. And much in the same way that Madonna, Cher, Dolly, Sinatra and others are afforded the opportunity to call it in, their chops as showmen make or break them during tough times. For Elton John those times are over, which lent his performance a sense of abandon. The physical gymnastics are all but gone, but Elton John still possesses the heart and paws of a rock & roll lion. A rejuvenated look back paired with the freshness ushered in by Songs From the West Coast, the best record he’s waxed since Too Low for Zero, make Elton John hipper than he’s been in years. At its best, Elton John’s music provides a sterling carrying case for Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. From melancholy (“Funeral for a Friend”) to tragic (“American Triangle,” a new song written for Matthew Shepard) to playful (“Crocodile Rock”) to raucous (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), John’s music has the ability to carry one away through melody, words, mood and a fallible star power. Indeed, the bitch is back.