Elton John Rock's Captain Fantastic

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Success has brought Elton the rock star's de rigueur lifestyle, which may be summed up as a frantic losing effort to spend his money faster than he makes it. But like his goofy glasses and flamboyant finery, his high-rolling existence may be one of the less important things about him. It has always contrasted with the strongest element in his music: a sweet, pensively expressed sense of sadness over human connections missed or lost.

If you ask how I am, then I'll just say inspired.

That line from Captain Fantastic is self-deprecating and ironic. Elton seems to make a deliberate effort to demystify, demythologize what he is doing. "I've always thought rock 'n' roll was people's music," Elton has said. "It's always been a thing everyone should enjoy." He has concentrated on simplifying his sound, especially in the past couple of years. "People buy for sound, melody and sing-along quality," he says.

The critics may dismiss it with the contemptuous catch phrase "Middle of the road." Elton counters by calling his stuff "ultramelodic pop" and goes right on churning it out at a profligate pace. As for Taupin, a Lincolnshire loner whose father was a chicken farmer and whose hobby is collecting American handguns, his way with words exactly matches Elton's prevailing musical mood. "We never want to write songs that tell an audience what to do," says Taupin. "We don't know enough about the world to preach to people. We take ourselves seriously, but the music has to be listenable."

Is that all there is to it? Remember all that fiddle about how rock is the great new art form of the era, about how it should be a potent force for political and social comment, if not outright change? Does it now turn out that its most significant current figure is just doing what Tin Pan Alley has always done—wedding simple musical ideas to quite ordinary lyrical notions about love, loss and longing? And, in the great tradition of the music business, avoiding any things that might be regarded as "difficult" or "controversial"? The answer is no.

Will the things we wrote today Sound as good tomorrow?

It seems Elton and Bernie, in their eagerness to sell themselves simple, are probably selling themselves short. Their ballads have often been far more original than their critics have cared to admit. Candle in the Wind, for example, is both a comment on the Marilyn Monroe cult and a tribute to the confused, touching woman who caused it. Rocket Man is a sweet conceit in which the writers conjure up for us what the real-life astronauts never seem to have: the feeling of anxious sadness that must attend exceedingly rapid passage from familiar earth into the dark, cold reaches of unknowable outer space. Then there is Daniel, a song about a wounded war veteran taking leave of his family in order to avoid their pity. These can scarcely be dismissed as moon-June moonings.

And all of their albums have some pure, hard rockers: Burn Down the Mission, Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting, The Bitch Is Back, Bennie and the Jets. Add the country-and-western and gospel variants the pair have worked through the years, and a picture of astonishing versatility begins to emerge.

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