Opinion | I Remember When Rock Was Young

Linda Ronstadt remembers that night: “He came onstage and the place just exploded. He was so dynamic and he was so charismatic and he was so good. And he just ripped the hell out of that piano and sang his ass off.”

It was Aug. 25, 1970, the night Elton John became a star, at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. In the audience were Brian Love, Mike Wilson, Randy Newman, Don Henley, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

And Linda Ronstadt. “We were all hanging out in the balcony,” Ms. Ronstadt told me in an interview last week. “He came on and it was like a flash of explosives. And we were hanging over the balcony screaming our guts out.”

That night at the Troubadour was captured — with a few surreal embellishments — in the recent bio pic “Rocket Man.” But if you want to hear what Elton John was actually like in those young days, you might listen to the album “11-17-70,” which turned 50 years old last Tuesday. He played that night with the same trio he’d performed with during the Troubadour gig — Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass.

A live recording originally broadcast from the studios of WABC-FM (later WPLJ) in New York City, the album captures a character whom it is now sometimes hard to remember: Young Elton, in the first months of fame.

Young Elton has since been eclipsed by the other Eltons: the one who’s owned a quarter of a million pairs of glasses; the one who performed live in Central Park wearing a Donald Duck suit; the one who, fueled by vodka martinis and cocaine, took off all his clothes on a video set, punched his manager and wrapped things up by smashing his hotel room into pieces.

But if you listen to “11-17-70” (known as “17-11-70” outside of the United States), you’ll encounter a 23-year-old prodigy so new to his own stardom that he signed a number of autographs that year still using his birth name, Reginald Dwight.

Fifty years on, the most surprising thing about Young Elton is his vulnerability.

The original LP started with “Take Me to the Pilot,” an inscrutable clutch of Bernie Taupin lyrics set to Elton’s rock ’n’ roll piano. That’s the tune Linda Ronstadt remembers best, all these years later. “It really excited me,” she said. “It was just sheer exuberance. I remember him pounding on the piano with his feet.”

Ms. Ronstadt remembers his voice, too: “There are three elements of singing — story, voice and musicianship. And Elton checked all three.” But there was a tension there, too, between the exuberance of the music and the singer himself, who seemed shy, diffident, almost embarrassed to be there.

Mr. Taupin’s lyrics amplify that uncertainty; in “Your Song,” Elton’s first big hit, you can feel it in the line “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean .…”

That tension between shyness and flamboyance was the thing that most struck me, too, when I first heard Elton’s music. As a closeted queer teenager in 1970, I found something in that voice that gave me hope. It told me I was not alone, that the fear of my secret self need not paralyze me forever.

You could be a shy person, this music said, and still make a very big noise.

As a piano player, I found the music liberating for me, too. One of Elton’s particular strokes of genius was the use of unusual voicings — playing one chord with the right hand and an unexpected octave with the left. Right after the line “Count the headlights on the highway” in “Tiny Dancer,” for instance, you hear a G chord on the right hand paired with an A octave on the left. Elton didn’t invent these kinds of voicings, obviously, but he was one of the first pianists to bring this kind of tonal complexity to rock ’n’ roll.

The combination is weird, joyful and gorgeous.

If Young Elton was eventually eclipsed by Glam Elton, that Elton, in turn, has been superseded by Sir Elton — an elder statesman of rock ’n’ roll who has landed happily, in his 70s, in fatherhood and philanthropy. (His AIDS Foundation has raised $450 million worldwide and saved an estimated five million lives.)

He’s still making great music, too. The album “Wonderful Crazy Night” came out in 2016. And just last week he released “Jewel Box,” a career-spanning anthology of rarities, B-sides and deep cuts.

But Linda Ronstadt says Young Elton is not that far away. “Recently he called me up just out of the clear blue sky,” she said. “I hadn’t heard from him in probably 30 years. He wanted to say he liked my singing and how much he’s listened to my records over the years. It was during Covid — a lot of people reached out during Covid to tell people things they hadn’t told them before.”

To Ms. Ronstadt — now retired from singing in the wake of progressive supranuclear palsy, a form of Parkinson’s disease — this small act of generosity meant a great deal. She was reminded that the person she spoke to this summer is, in the ways that matter most, the same reticent fireball she saw that night at the Troubadour. “He’s really a shy boy inside,” she said. “And quite humble.”

Fifty years ago this summer, the rock critic Robert Hilburn of The Los Angeles Times did a write-up of Elton’s debut. “Rejoice,” the review began.

It’s good advice. Maybe your spirits will be lifted, as mine were this week, by the album “11-17-70” and the sound of “Take Me to the Pilot.” It’s still a mysterious, inscrutable tune, still full of cussedness and ebullience and hope.

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean, it made me feel young.

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