I-95 meanders along America’s East Coast, bringing drivers from the Maine/Canada border to the Southern tip of mainland Florida. Although it follows the path of the Atlantic Ocean, I-95 offers few scenic views. These belong to US Route 1, which hugs the coastline more closely. Instead, I-95 is bedecked with the remains of burned out tires, the occasional “Welcome Home US Marine_______” banner, and overly complex construction projects.
I-95 and I are old friends. There is no road in the US that I know better. I know when to move lanes, how to avoid the potholes, and where to slow for waiting State Troopers. If ever I feel down, the battered highway restores my faith. Every Monday I drive north on I-95 for chorus practice, and in this hour with an open highway and a Honda Civic stereo, I am reminded of the possibilities of America.
My travel companions are numerous. I’ve shouted at Donald Trump during the Presidential Debates, celebrated with Big Papi as the Sox won the World Series. I’ve joined the cast of Jersey Boys, and climbed on the back of Springsteen’s motorbike. But the person who spends the most time on the road with me is not an American. It’s Elton.
I went to my first Elton John concert when I was six years old. I drew a picture of him, complete with his Diet Coke can in an ice bucket. My Dad was so impressed that he had a color photocopy made—it was the pinnacle of my young artistic career. I had a The One album poster on my bedroom wall, and dressed up in novelty pink sunglasses and my Dad’s giant red Converse to watch Top of the Pops. Understandably, neither of my parents ever corrected my version of The Bitch Is Back, and for years I happily sang, “I’m a Bisc, I’m a Bisc, I’m a Biscuit Bag”…
I’m lucky enough to have lost count of how many Elton shows I’ve been to. I’ve seen him play at Madison Square Garden for his 60th birthday, I’ve danced on stage at the Million Dollar Piano in Vegas, and I’ve heard Philadelphia Freedom in Philadelphia. In the week leading up to my wedding last year, my Mum and I danced arm in arm, wearing wellies and Niagara Falls ponchos at a rain-soaked concert in Bath, England. A Tiny Dancer Marryoke followed at my wedding a week later.While Elton is well known for his giant shoes, eclectic eye wear, and a penchant for both flowers and Donald Duck costumes, there is a depth and richness to the Taupin/John partnership than many underestimate. Although resolutely British, they both belong in the great American songbook.
Bernie Taupin and Elton John were among the many voices that inspired my love of America. As I began my life here, it was their words—“Boston at last, and the plane’s touching down,” that echoed through my thoughts. I still hear this lyric whenever I land at Logan. From 1971’s Holiday Inn, the Taupin/John love affair with America has grown from a passing motel room to a deep understanding of this land, its peoples, its strengths, and its foibles.
Their work touches all facets of American life—heroes and hidden stories, highways and back roads. In Empty Garden they stood outside the Dakota building contemplating the loss of John Lennon. With I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford) they used the death of Jesse James to explore the pain of break up. Equally adept at discussing celebrated figures as commonplace folk, the Taupin/John songbook gives plentiful attention to everyday Americans—from the Monalisas and Madhatters navigating daily life in Manhattan, to the unnamed Indian warrior hurling a tomahawk in 1971’s Indian Sunset.Having sat on the swing in Elvis’ Tupelo home, I can almost taste the Mississippi heat as I listen to Porch Swing in Tupelo. The lilting delay as Elton sings “Tennessee” and “Mississippi” in the second verse, perfectly captures the slow inaction of summer in the South. Delving further back into Southern history, the heavy percussive beat of Gone to Shiloh (2010) paints the reluctant dread of a Union soldier marching into battle. Their music moves across states and centuries, equally adept at bringing to life Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a seventeenth century savant, as the tragic Norma Jean.
Taupin’s knowledge of American culture and history is encyclopedic, and his lyrics find as much fascination in Roy Rogers cartoons as the war of 1812. With the dexterity of the best intellectual scholars, he blends high and low culture, attack and praise. On 2006’s Postcards from Richard Nixon, for example, he describes the wonders of “Brian Wilson’s promised land, where Disney’s God” and Steve McQueen drives down Sunset, while also criticizing Nixon’s Vietnam policy.
With time, the partnership moved from historical reflection to political action. Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes, on 2001’s critically acclaimed Songs From the West Coast, lambasted President Reagan, “the old man [who] wouldn’t listen,” and his refusal to fund research and fight AIDS. Fourteen years later, Sir Elton addressed the US Congress urging them to do more to fight the disease.This year, Bernie and Elton celebrate 50 years of musical collaboration. Two boys raised on Westerns in rural England grew to be the superheroes they always dreamed of being. Living in a dude ranch in California, Taupin, the brown dirt cowboy from Lincolnshire raises cutting horses. The young pianist from Pinner, now a Knight, has always been Captain Fantastic.
Travelling back from chorus, I-95 is empty. With years of practice on this stretch of open road, my ability to drive, sing, and dance at the same time is unmatched. In the dark I hit the hillside with Roy and Trigger, I sit with Elvis on that Tupelo porch swing, and I join George Michael in introducing, “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Elton John.” For the captain, the kid, and me, together on our stretch of I-95, all is well.