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 Anatomy Of A Song:  Rocket Man

In the height of America's manned missions to the moon in 1971, Bernie Taupin and Elton John (below in his
earlier days) wrote a song about the imagined drudgery and loneliness of space travel.

After "Rocket Man" was released in April 1972, the single reached No. 6 on
Billboard's pop chart.  Here is Bernie Taupin's story about how this song came to be:

Bernie Taupin:  In mid 1971, I was in England driving south to visit my parents in
Lincolnshire.  I had moved to the States a year earlier and hadn't been home in a while.
After exiting the M-1 motorway, I had to take back roads to my parents' village.  By then,
the sun had set and it was pitch black.  

 I had recently re-read Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man," his 1951 collection of
science fiction short stories.  My favorite was "The Rocket Man."  The story is about an
astronaut who spends three months at a time in his rocket away from his wife and son.
He's torn.  He wants to be home with his family but he also wants to be up among the
stars.  Eventually, his rocket falls into the sun.  During my drive, I thought about the
Bradbury story.  I also thought about the 1970 song "Rocket Man" that Tom Rapp had
written and recorded with his band, Pearls Before Swine.  It was a literal retelling of the
Bradbury story.

 What appealed to me most about the Bradbury story wasn't the character's yearning
or his tragic outcome but the drudgery of being an astronaut.  Driving the back roads, I
began writing a song in my head about that.  As I thought about how to start the song, the first verse came to me at once:  "She packed my bags last
night pre-flight/Zero out at 9 am/And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then."  But I didn't have a pad or a pen in the car.  I also couldn't dictate the words or
call someone to take them down.  That technology didn't exist then.

 So  I repeated the lyrics over and over.  I was trying not to lose my train of thought as I raced to my parents' house.  When I arrived, I rushed in without
saying hello.  I was looking for a pen and paper.  I had never written that way before.  Usually I'd come up with a line and build from there.  In this case,
words to an entire verse came out of my mind and onto the page.  The words had such a rhythmic cadence.  I can't recall exactly where I wrote the
remaining verses or the chorus:  "And I think it's gonna be a long, long time/Till touch down brings round to find/I'm not the man they think I am at
home/Oh no, I'm a rocket man."  

 I do know I finished the lyrics before I presented them to Elton in late '71.  That's how we worked.  My lyrics always came before Elton's music.

The" Rocket Man" Takes Shape

I probably completed the lyrics to "Rocket Man" in late '71 at the Chateau d' Heronville, Elton's studio outside Paris.  He never questioned the meaning
of any of my lyrics.  He might say, " I don't understand this and I don't know if I could work with it." But he never challenged my interpretation or the art of
what I do.

In some respects, "Rocket Man" is a song of fragments.  It's a short song with four short verses and lots of air to give an ambient fell of space.  But it's
not poetry.  I'd rather not be regarded as a poet.  Unfortunately, I've borne that cross for years.  I'm a lyricist and there's a big difference.  My words are
meant to be set to music.

During the recording of "Rocket Man" I sat in the control booth and just observed.  I felt very inadequate in the studio.  I was a little intimidated by
producer Gus Dudgeon.  He was so technically advanced.  I was afraid if I said something I would be laughed at.  When I heard Elton's recording of
"Rocket Man" played back for the first time on the monitor speakers, I was thrilled.  It was an amazing feeling to hear my lyrics turned into something
special.  The music gave my words a living, beating heart.  That feeling comes from the magic of music and melody - arrangements and great

 Looking back, the only line on "Rocket Man" that still bothers me a little is"  "Mars  ain't the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact, it's cold as hell."   
Mars temperature is about as far from hell as you can get.

 There's also a good chance that Elton  stretched out my opening chorus line.  I believe I wrote, "And I think it's gonna be a long, long time" so it would
sing better. It's the same on "Bennie and the Jets."  I didn't write "Buh buh buh Bennie."  Those are Elton's tweaks that make our songs hits.

 When I learned that President Trump had used "Rocket Man" to taunt North Korea's Kim Jong Un the context bothered me.  The thought that World
War III could start over the use of my song was title was disturbing.  I was also uncomfortable that something of mine that was culturally iconic could be
used in such a way.  But what could I do?  Sue him for cultural appropriation?  As a songwriter, you're powerless to stop something like that.

 However, if the use of "Rocket Man" results in peace, I will be very happy to take full credit for it.

Go back an take a journey in space with the one and only "Rocket Man"  click the pic below . . .

Excerpted: Marc Myers, The Wall Street Journal