These days, it's hard to recall the boundary-pushing artist behind the eyeglasses. When Elton John plays the USF Sun Dome Friday — a grand reopening of the gussied venue — he'll be an efficient human jukebox, unloading all the hits you paid handsomely to hear: Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Bennie and the Jets.
If we're lucky, however, the 65-year-old icon will reach deep into his underrated back catalog and dust off some long-lost gems, winking gifts for the loyalists who remember when he was so much more than The Lion King, when he and lyricist Bernie Taupin took wild weird chances, when your mom frowned at the album art for Captain Fantastic.
Sir Elton is now known more for his bitter battles with Madonna and his altruistic work with AIDS organizations than the shimmering gifts that got him here. That's part of the reason why his announcement as the Sun Dome's kickoff act was greeted with pleased nods rather than dropped jaws. Elton is safe, he is money in the bank. Your mom loves him, and rightly so.
Is he exciting? Not really.
But he could be.
The Brit born Reginald Dwight was my first musical obsession. I didn't have brothers or sisters, but I had cousins whose Elton adoration was thrust upon me. I had no choice, but there was a lot to love. Sure, I dig the hits; corner me at a party and I'll tell you why Rocket Man is the perfect pop song. But my "Best of Elton John" playlist looks a little different than most people's. Here's hoping, praying, begging he plays one of the following goodies on Friday. If he does, safe could very well be sensational.
MONA LISAS AND MAD HATTERS (from 1972's Honky Chateau): Everyone remembers the Tiny Dancer bus scene from Cameron Crowe's autobiographical rock flick Almost Famous. But later in the movie, the writer-director uses another Elton cut to much more subtle effect: this near-gospel rumination about New York City that matches the loneliness of overdosing groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
WE ALL FALL IN LOVE SOMETIMES/CURTAINS (from 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy): Nothing subtle about this one-two punch, the grand finale to Elton's masterwork. These interwoven songs are downright operatic in bombast, 10 minutes and 30 seconds of heartache and harmonies. And those closing lines: "You must have had / A once upon a time . . ."
GREY SEAL (from 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): I still have zero idea what this song means — "On the big screen they showed us a sun / But not as bright in life as the real one" — but the furious piano playing, the prog-rock bridge and the mystical wisdom (or total hogwash) remain seductive. Sneaky track.
BREAKING HEARTS (AIN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE) (from 1984's Breaking Hearts): In the mid '80s, I started cheating on Elton. Milquetoast hits Nikita and I Don't Wanna Go on With You Like That weren't doing it for me at all. But the title track from his '84 effort packs the same midnight swoon of his early '70s ballads, complete with high-holy background vocals and a dipping lyrical hook by Taupin.
BURN DOWN THE MISSION (from 1970's Tumbleweed Connection): There are four key changes in this epic pseudo-western story song, yet another nod to cowboy culture by the puckish Brit. Another good cowboy song? Roy Rogers off the Goodbye album.
EMPTY GARDEN (HEY, HEY JOHNNY) (from 1982's Jump Up!): "I've been knocking but no one answers . . ." This tribute to close friend John Lennon reached No. 13 on the charts, so I guess it qualifies as a "hit." But he rarely plays the song live, giving it a true mystique. The "garden" in the title is Madison Square Garden, so he's been known to perform the song in that NYC venue. But to hear it elsewhere is a rarity, a somber treat. Fingers crossed.
SWEET PAINTED LADY (from 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road): I spent great chunks of my preteen youth sprawled on the rug in front of my parents Buick-sized hi-fi, memorizing the liner notes to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I had no clue what Sweet Painted Lady was about, either. John and Mary Daly never said a word! "So she lays down beside me again / My sweet painted lady, the one with no name."
TEACHER I NEED YOU (from 1972's Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player): This jaunty ode to schoolboy lust is silly and slightly ripe, but man, it's so fun. An instant mood-improver.
I FEEL LIKE A BULLET (IN THE GUN OF ROBERT FORD) (from 1975's Rock of the Westies): Times movie critic Steve Persall blurted this one out when I asked for an "unsung Elton John classic." Killer cut, but it'd be tough for EJ to uncork this breakup ballad in a live setting nowadays: The vocal notes are helium high.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC AND THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY (from 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy): My favorite Elton John song on my favorite Elton John album. "Captain Fantastic, raised and regimented . . ." Again, he's in the twisted Wild West of his (and Taupin's) mind, the Captain and the Kid, heading into fame and fortune, "a long and lonely climb." That acoustic intro by guitarist Davey Johnstone never fails to sedate me. He plays this in the Sun Dome, and I'm one giant puddle.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.