published Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Kennedy: Elton John, songtrack to my life

When I was a senior in high school, we had a jukebox in the school cafeteria. It was 1975, and “Sweet Home Alabama” played on a continuous loop. Turn it up!

For a few of us, popular music of the 1970s seemed like a wasteland, a choice between Motown and psychedelic rock. We considered ourselves classically trained musicians — OK, band nerds — and so the pickings for us were slim. My friends and I gravitated toward the lush horn breaks and intricate time signatures of Chicago and the supersonic stylings of jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.

I’m not saying we were right, I’m just saying we were strongly opinionated.

The only mainstream pop stars I bonded with in the 1970s were Elton John and Stevie Wonder who, I reasoned, both happened to be exceptional musicians. I collected their records and played them on my parents’ Magnavox cabinet stereo, which was stained green for no good reason.

Looking back, I consider my high-school musical tastes validated since Sir Elton John has gone on to sell more than 250 million records worldwide, and Stevie Wonder has won more Grammys (22) than any other male solo artist. (They teamed up on John’s 1983 hit, “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues.”)

Saturday night, my wife and I have tickets to see John at McKenzie Arena, and I’m stoked.

John, now 65, has more than 50 Top 40 hits to choose from when putting together his concert setlist. It’s hard to imagine many of the people on the radio today filling arenas for 40 years. Justin Bieber’s 2050 World Tour, anyone?

I read that John and his long-time partner David Funish recently announced the birth (by surrogate) of their second son, which makes me feel not so old. Our younger son was born when I was 48.

Still, I have mixed emotions about all of this baby boomer-fueled nostalgia for aging rock stars. Mick Jagger, bless his heart, looks like a dried apricot. I saw the Doobie Brothers on television the other day, and they could pass for a VFW hall house band. Paul McCartney is the only baby boomer rock star I can think of who maintains his regal visage — and probably always will.

Meanwhile, Elton John’s flamboyant 1970s garb — which, in the naive 1970s we chalked up to clever stagecraft not personal taste (ha!) — has given way to lightly embroidered dinner jackets. He looks like your great-uncle sliding under a $1 million Yamaha grand piano for Christmas carols — more up for a “Lion King” ballad and some eggnog, perhaps, than “Bennie and the Jets.”

But there’s still lightning in his fingers, lyricist Bernie Taupin’s striking poetry at his disposal and 34 dates left on his 2013 concert tour.

If the late James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, Sir Elton John gets my vote as a close second.

Hey, even a 65-year-old rock star has to feed his babies.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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