Listen to this track by million-selling piano man and singular ’70s rock clothes horse Elton John. It’s “Rocket Man (I think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”, a hit single in the spring of 1972, and a key track as taken from his Honky Chateau album that year.
In line with the times when space missions were more common perhaps than they are today, or simply more celebrated, this song stormed the charts with top ten showings all over the world. It also marked a change in approach for Elton John who used his road band on the entirety of the recording instead of sessioners; Dee Murray on bass, Davey Johnstone on guitars and other assorted stringed instruments, and Nigel Olssen behind the kit.
Addtionally on this track, he worked with studio whiz, composer, and keyboardist David Hentschel who added the distinctive ARP synthesizer lines to this track, which gave it an appropriately futurist feel. This is not to minimize John’s own contribution, in particular his singing which is some of the finest of his career, completely selling this tale of space travel and emotional disconnectedness.
The result of all these elements would be one of Elton John’s best known and best loved songs. But, how does it perhaps apply to the touring rock star as much as it does to the story of the Rocket Man?
By the time of Honky Chateau came out, Elton John and Bernie Taupin were riding a wave of creativity, producing an incredible output of songs and albums that appealed to critics and to the radio charts, too. They also were stretching out musically, taking the rootsy singer-songwriter vibe they’d established on earlier releases, and adding Louisiana funk textures, and spacey synths too. A big part of their success was their ability to put words and music together to create compelling stories, and to speak through the characters found in their songs.
The story found in this song is actually inspired by one of my favourite short stories by one of my heroes, Ray Bradbury. “The Rocket Man” appeared in the 1951 The Illustrated Man collection of stories. In that story, a man comes back to earth to see his family after spending months in space. In taking his son aside one night, he advises “don’t ever become a rocket man”. That fate is to condemn oneself for yearning to be in the stars while at home, and yearning for home when one is in space; trapped between worlds and not really belonging to either.
It’s not hard to apply this to the life of the professional musician on the road, and apart from family. While gone, children grow up, since raising them on the road isn’t exactly the path of least resistance. All of this can be found in this song, although you don’t have to live the life of a rock star to know what it’s like to be stuck between worlds, and to find oneself disconnected from those we love, and to be consumed by careers and professional obligations instead.
Maybe too, this song foresees a future when going into outer space is routine, and the wonder of the universe has been lost to humanity when imagination itself is no longer valued. This angle certainly makes this tale less of a science fiction story than is altogether comfortable. But, maybe the biggest takeaway found in this song is the idea of being sure of what’s important in your life, and making that your center. Maybe that’s the best way of never sharing the fate of the Rocket Man.
Elton John is an active musician and songwriter today. Catch up to him at Eltonjohn.com.