Elton John -“ philanthropist, chronic shopaholic, drama queen, one-man celebrity trauma counsellor, AIDS activist, recovering substance abuser, poster boy for hair restoration, Versace fetishist and serial celebrity mourner. Oh yeah, and he’s written some songs.
If any aspect of Elton’s extraordinary life is neglected these days it’s his music. In some ways he’s only got himself to blame, having released largely terrible albums for the best part of two decades (his latest, Songs From The West Coast being an obvious exception). But where other artists of his stature are accorded some measure of respect for their past glories (when was the last time Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones released a good album?) Elton’s back catalogue is all but ignored by the serious music press. You just won’t find classics like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Madman Across the Water or Tumbleweed Connection on any Top 100 album lists.
Do we care? Does his music hold anything in particular for a queer audience? Elton was firmly in the closet when he released most of his great work. He never wrote his own lyrics. His discography also includes a whole raft of embarrassing I’m straight, really songs, (Kiss The Bride, Heartache All Over The World, Wrap Her Up and so on).
Still, if you look hard enough, there are a smattering of strikingly queer-themed classics scattered throughout his career. Strangely, such classics were all co-written by lyricist Bernie Taupin, who is heterosexual. Straightness never stopped a gay icon before, (hell, most of them are straight anyway), but the collaboration is both odd and noteworthy: it took a straight man to write the most compelling coded gay lyrics for a closeted gay man to sing.
So, here’s a queer Elton John top ten.
1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Topping the list is this story of a lover’s spat, written from the perspective of a piece of rough trade. The trade is plucked off the street and set up in a penthouse by a wealthy lover, but still longing for his home on the range. When are you going to come down? When are you going to land? cries Farm Boy. You know you can’t hold me forever/I didn’t sign up for you/I’m not a present for your friends to open/This boy’s too young to be singing the blues. Later Farm Boy gets downright bitchy: Maybe you’ll get a replacement. There’s plenty like me to be found/ Mongrels who ain’t got a penny, sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground. And how does he suggest Sugar Daddy will cope with his loss? It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics to set you on your feet again. Sure, Taupin never specifies that the lover is a man, but how many women do you know who pick up boys from the street, plant them in penthouses, share them with their friends, then get high and drown their sorrows in vodka and tonic? (Apart from the cast of Sex And The City -“ who are arguably gay proxies anyway). And surely the Yellow Brick Road reference is evidence enough.
2. One More Arrow (from Too Low For Zero, 1983)
One of Elton’s most heartbreaking and overlooked ballads. It could be a lament for a friend who has committed suicide, but its tenderness suggests a more intimate relationship. We argued once, he knocked me down/And he cried when he thought he’d hurt me. The closing stanza if one in ten would be that brave seems to refer to the Kinsey statistic.
3. All The Girls Love Alice (from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
Alice was a bad, bad sixteen-year-old. It’s no wonder all the women loved her when they could count on her to come over and please them when their husbands were away. In the end she comes a cropper, found dead in the subway. It’s interesting that Elton’s only pre-coming out song that unequivocally addresses a queer topic is so negative. Who could you call your friends down in Soho? One or two middle-aged dykes in a go-go?
4. Candle in the Wind (from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
A young man with a Marilyn Monroe obsession. How queer is that? Apparently he sees her as something more than sexual. No shit! How ironic that thirteen years later it should be dusted off and rewritten as a tribute to an even bigger dead gay icon.
5. The Last Song (from The One, 1992)
A young man dying of AIDS has a surprise visit from his estranged father. Elton has just come out and he’s written one of his most heart wrenching melodies for one of Bernie Taupin’s most moving lyrics. The final verse could just as well be Elton talking about himself: Things we never said come together/The hidden truth no longer haunting me/Tonight we touched on the things that were never spoken/That kind of understanding sets me free.
6. Nikita (from Ice On Fire, 1985)
This was a huge hit at a time when Elton was jammed most tightly in his closet. The video featured a glamorous female Red Army soldier in full uniform and full make-up, trading sultry glances with Elton. Only one problem -” Nikita is most famously a man’s name in Russia. Did they think we’d forgotten that Nikita Kruschev was a bloke? Was it a joke? The song conveniently never uses a personal pronoun, leaving the less astute listener to presume that Nikita was a she. But was she?
7. Daniel (from Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player, 1973)
At least in this one there’s no question he’s singing a love song to a man. I would love to hear Elton re-record this as Daniel, my lover. Apparently we’re supposed to think that Daniel’s his (at least fictional) brother. Are you sure he’s not your nephew, Elton? I mean really, how many men would describe their brother as a star in the face of the sky or the clouds in my eyes.
8. American Triangle (from Songs From The West Coast, 2001)
Redeeming himself with his first consistently good album since Britney was born, he includes this heartfelt analysis of the brutal gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard.
9. Island Girl (from Rock of the Westies, 1975)
She’s a big girl, she’s standing six foot three/Turning tricks for the dudes in the big city. And sometimes you can find her having a drink with Ricca and Carmen in the Stonewall cocktail bar.
10. Made In England (from Made In England, 1995)
If you’re made in England, you’re built to last/You can still say -˜homo’ and everybody laughs/But the joke’s on you, you never read the song/They all think they know but they all got it wrong.