Elton Hercules John by Raven Smith
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Raven Smith lives in London and writes about culture. Through irreverent essays and Instagram posts he examines the minutiae of modern living. Formerly Commissioning Director at Nowness, he currently pens a weekly column for British Vogue about Friday Nights.
If you’ve been in a coma since the 70s you won’t have heard of Elton John. His avant garde music has kept audiences enthralled for decades. You’ll have missed his platformed 70s glam, his pumped up 80s romps, and his 90s minimalism. You’ll have also missed his marriages to two women, his coming out in Rolling Stone magazine, and a more recent settled family life with David Furnish. You’ll have missed his tantrums, his tiaras, his charitable work setting up his HIV foundation, and his close relationship with the patron saint of gayness Princess Diana. Most alarmingly, you’ll have missed Circle of Life from Disney’s The Lion King, the greatest song ever written. Ever.
It’s impossible to talk about Elton without referencing his gregarious stage presence, as he sits atop a pyramid of performative flamboyance most contemporary pop stars could only dream of. He has a sublime set of stagewear, highlighted over the decades by outlandish, unforgettable costumes—think a full sequin baseball jersey, every type of tartan, a foam-sculpted Donald Duck costume, electric boots, a mohair suit. His commitment to visual excess never wains—for Elton there’s no such thing as too much.
Elton shines on stage. As a pianist he’s managed to turn the sedentary reality of a guy sitting on a chair into one of the most rock n roll performance offerings in history. If it’s possible, Elton swaggers while sitting down. In earlier years he was inflated and godlike on stage, commanding the gigantic raucous crowds he’s still know to pull, but a bit like the Hulk he shrinks back to human size between arena appearances. By his own admission he’s “never thought of myself as being handsome or good-looking or whatever” but he’s magnetic and moreish. He is extraordinary in his everydayness, which he’s wrapped in giant furs and feather boas. It’s partially the quality of looking like you and me—the normal guy-ness—that has kept us focused on his music, his songwriting and lyricism. He’s still electric and avant garde but you also can’t deny his mainstream-ism. If you work in an office and Sonos Elton’s greatest hits, nobody complains. He makes music for cool people, music for you mum, music for that office temp.
Nobody does a love song like Elton John. His career-long collaborative relationship with lyricist Bernie Taupin has given us amoure in its many guises. Love Songs™ are tough to write—too elevated and you lose people, too simple and saccharine and only giddy teenageers care. A great Love Song song is always an elegant dance between deep emotional complexity and easy access and Elton waltzes these steps time and time again. His melodies are as flamboyant as his stage costumes—at times glisteinsy audio sequins of joy, at others little sour grapes of regret. No New Years party is complete without I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues at 2am. No breakup is complete without Your Song. If you’ve ever been in love, there’s an Elton song for you. Ditto if you’ve ever felt sad, or ready to party, or as if you’re all partied out. His song are full of love, longing, rapture and rage. They are party anthems and anxiety polemics, at once poetic and philosophical. Elton writes songs that aim for the jugular, sending emotion coursing round your body, and straight to the heart.
Unlike traditional pop stars who broadcast their daily lives, Elton is intensity private—he doesn’t even like doing music videos and he notoriously hates the intrusion of the paparazzi. Recent years have seen him traversing the Med on a super-yacht with his husband and kids. The last picture I had taken down by the Instagram sentinels was Elton moonying the shipmates of a passing boat. This action alone speaks volumes about his frisky disobedience, his spontaneity, and his way of never dulling his sharper impulses. He has a palpable sense of mischief. He’s as soft and he is spiky.
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight and knighted Sir Elton Hercules John, his journey to stardom was somewhat potholed. He was, by his own admission a complex child: “I was fat, about 200 pounds, and I had a terrible inferiority complex. That's why I'm so outrageous onstage, I think, and why wear ridiculous clothes —I'm catching up for all the games that I missed as a child, I'm releasing myself.”
Elton’s life is a sort of hit list of heavy experiences. He’s spoken at length about his cocaine abuse and eventual sobriety, his disordered eating, the loss of close friends like Gianni Versace. He’s as at home admonishing emerging pop stars—he once threatened to snort Lily Allen under the table—as he is penning an emotional tribute to a Princess DIana—Goodbye England’s Rose.
He came out as bisexual in 1976 and said he was comfortable being gay after his second divorce in 1988. In retrospect Elton’s persona never wholly straight or gay. He always been ambiguous—hyper masculine to the point of brutishness, and yet so deeply in touch with his bubbling emotions. He’s a metronome ticking back and forth, ready to slap you or kiss you. As a flamboyantly masc man in the public eye he has come to represent a mainstream gayness that doesn’t just assimilate heterosexuality.
In a way, every member of the gay community is that chubby, unseen young Elton John. Coming out—to others or just to yourself—is a transformative act where part of you morph from dormant and unseen to incredibly visible. It’s a turning point, whether you either completely shed the chrysalis of your previous life, or just pivot slightly down the same track. So in our own way, we all carry Elton’s Cinderella experience with us: his puppy fat introversion, transformed into a self-authored expression. Reginald Kenneth Dwight, you shall go to the ball.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.