SAN DIEGO -- When the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus (SDGMC) presents "Rocket Man – The Music of Elton John" on April 13 and 14, they will be singing not just songs made famous by an enormously gifted gay artist, but more importantly, music that defined life for generations of people in the gay community.
Even before coming out as a gay man, Elton John touched on themes that spoke to many people in the 1970s as gay consciousness, communities and struggles for rights began to emerge. The first of these hits, the 1971 ballad “Your Song,” featured an opening line many gays could have written themselves when falling in love: “It's a little bit funny this feeling inside / I'm not one of those who can easily hide …”
“I understand ‘Your Song’ was written for another man long before he was out publicly,” said North Park resident Don Palmer, a first tenor with the chorus. “The touching lyrics are universal and timeless.”
“Rocket Man,” John’s 1972 song and the title for the SDGMC concert at Birch North Park Theater serves up a good amount of gay double entendres starting with the euphemistic name of the song. But on a deeper subtext, the lyrics speak to many gay men who can identify with the notion that: “I’m not the man they think I am at home/Oh no, no, no, I’m a rocket man.”
“We chose 'Rocket Man' because it speaks to us. The music tells the loneliness, confusion and ultimately the empowerment of people coming to terms with being gay,” said SDGMC Artistic Director Gary Holt of Coronado. “You come to realize that you aren’t what other people think you are—particularly those closest to you. But you ultimately learn that you can soar and reach great heights.”
John’s next two big hits in 1973 were equally emblematic of gay culture including a nod to “Friends of Dorothy’s” everywhere with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And in “Daniel,” John’s other chart topper that year, the namesake of his song is another man in whom he lauds with affection and emotion, “Lord I miss Daniel/Oh I miss him so much.”
A tribute to two icons
Soon after, in 1974, Marilyn Monroe’s status as a gay icon became further solidified with John’s tortured tribute song “Candle in the Wind.”
The song captured the price Monroe paid for discarding her true “Norma Jean” self in exchange for the invented Marilyn façade. Nearly 25 years later, the same music was used, this time with new lyrics to honor modern-day gay icon Princess Diana following her untimely death with “Goodbye England’s Rose.”
“Elton John used this same piece of music to honor two of the most iconic women of the 20th Century,” said SDGMC first tenor Rick Simon of City Heights. “His performance at Diana’s funeral is burned into my memory.”
Normal Heights resident Michael Gangitano, another first tenor, agreed: “Elton John helped facilitate my grief. Princess Diana was my first ‘contemporary’ to die while in the midst of changing the world and John’s revised lyrics allowed me to express what felt like a very personal loss.”
On a more celebratory note in 1975, Elton John’s music helped “shine a light” on another legendary woman, this time lesbian sports superstar Billie Jean King and her tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. John and King’s decades-long friendship exemplified the powerful connection that exists between gays and lesbians, a bond further cemented during the impending AIDS crises.
John’s long-time lyricist, Bernie Taupin, may not agree with some or all of these interpretations. For example, he said he refused to write a song about tennis when asked to pen the words to “Philadelphia Freedom.” However, in 1975, his lyrics for “Someone Saved my Life Tonight” told the story of John’s suicide attempt as a cry for help to escape a looming marriage.
This experience set the stage for a major turning point in John’s life — during a 1976 Rolling Stone magazine interview John declared he was bisexual. As the first major star to acknowledge being anything other than heterosexual, the damage to his career was swift and harsh and the effects lasted for years.
Chorus members (from left): Tony Hammond, Michael Gangitano, Artistic Director Gary Holt, Jason Schildhaus, Rick Simon and Don Palmer.
Elton John reborn
But just as many gays have experienced after coming out, John did survive. And in 1983, he released his anthem “I’m Still Standing” declaring that he was back with a vengeance.
“This song represents my life. I’ve been knocked down a lot in my life, literally and figuratively. I’ve faced more than my fair share of disappointment,” said SDGMC’s baritone Tony Hammond of Playas de Tijuana. “Now, though, when I look around, I’m still standing, better than I ever did.”
Thus began John’s transformation into a world treasure. He has sold more than 250 million records with 50 Top 40 hits and a trio of Broadway smashes. He has emerged as a gay activist forming the Elton John AIDS Foundation with the resulting knighthood bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II for his service. And in 2005, he entered into a civil partnership with long-time partner David Furnish and has begun a family.
Of all his music, however, it is one of John’s more recent songs that resonate deeply with anyone who has lived through the decades alongside him, “The Last Song,” written for his friend Ryan White, who died of AIDS at age 18.
“It’s the story of a man struggling with his feelings as he nears death presumably from AIDS. As he does so, he finds resolution in the relationship with his father, coming to understand that he is truly loved by this man,” said Serra Mesa resident Jason Schildhaus, a chorus bass singer. “It is a beautiful and haunting melody that deals with real life issues—ones that many of us as gay men have had to contend.”
Tickets to "Rocket Man — The Music of Elton John" are available HERE or by calling 877-296-7664. Discounted seats are available for seniors, students, military and groups of 10 or more.
A $5 discount is available for readers of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News who enter code SDGLN at check-out.
The Birch North Park Theatre is located at 2891 University Ave. in North Park.
The San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus has entertained San Diego audiences for nearly 30 years. With more than 150 members, it is one of the largest choruses of its type in the world. The group's official mission is to create a positive musical experience through exciting performances that engage audiences, build community support and provide a dynamic force for social change.