BY KAREN REMPEL | My first memory of Elton John’s music is listening to “The Bitch Is Back” at my Aunty Lynne’s house in Penticton, BC. I was playing with my sister Kim and cousins Denise and Sherry, while my aunt and Uncle Dwayne were enjoying a few beers, listening to Elton John on a sunny summer afternoon in 1974. We kids were giggling like crazy because it had the bad word “bitch”! Then my dad came over, and was he mad! He insisted that my aunt stop playing this nasty song right away. Ah, the power of music.
This single from Elton’s 1974 album “Caribou” was his sixth to reach number one in Canada. Meanwhile some New York radio stations wouldn’t play it. They were on the same page as my dad.
While the lyrics of this song were not Elton’s most profound, it’s a catchy tune with a great opening line: “I was justified when I was 5. Raising Cain, I spit in your eye!” Yeah!! The idea came from Elton’s longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin’s wife, who said, “The bitch is back,” when Elton was in a bad mood. He owned the truth of it, saying, “It is kind of my theme song.”
To celebrate graduating from high school, after prom night partying, my best friend Esther’s older boyfriend Dave took a group of us in his Chrysler New Yorker (Yes, really! He bought it with his own money — earned at Tisol Pet Foods — but the police always pulled him over, thinking it was stolen) to a beach in Delta, BC, to watch the sunrise. He played “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” from Sir Elton’s brilliant album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It was a sobering moment with the wind echoing through the depths of space. Suddenly we were faced with the future of adulthood.
My favorite Elton happy song is “Bennie and the Jets.” That thumping combination of bass and piano makes my head move like a chicken every time. On the sad side, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” always twangs my heart and makes me break into my most heartfelt falsetto. (We just analyzed the latter in a songwriting class I’m taking at Gotham Writers, with the amazingly talented, prolific Jody Gray — both Elton’s version and the remarkable Sara Bareilles arrangement.)
I saw him live for the first time on the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, pre-pandemic, November 9, 2018, at Madison Square Garden (44 years after his legendary performance there with his friend John Lennon joining him on stage for what proved to be Lennon’s final concert performance.) What a show! Elton was on fire with nonstop songs that played the soundtrack to my life, beginning with “Bennie” and ending with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” with “Funeral” and “The Bitch Is Back” in between. We were so jazzed, afterwards my friend Nikki and I had too many Brandy Alexanders at the hotel bar across the street. Never again with the cream drinks!
Continuing post-pandemic, Elton John’s Farewell Tour (2018-2023) became the highest-grossing concert tour of all time. (But we’ll see if Taylor Swift beats that record.) This June 25, Elton John played his final U.K. performance at the Glastonbury Festival, followed by his final Farewell Tour concert in July 8 in Stockholm. The world is going to be little less shiny now that Elton has hung up his electric boots.
If we are lucky, some of us might get to see him do “the odd show,” perhaps even in New York some day.
My friend Betsy, a forward-thinking author and fashionista in favor of thrifting (I’m also a big fan, as you know) and making fabrics from mushrooms, saw a pair of boots at our local Crossroads Trading that called out to her. But they didn’t call “Betsy,” they murmured “Karen”!
She sent me a pic, and I had to have them. Size? 8. Check. Price? $40. Check! Minutes later, the boots and Betsy were at my door, and I was slipping into a slice of heaven that could have been made for Elton John. Perfect fit. Perfect comfort. Perfect height at 6 inches!!
So I decided to have my own Bennie and the Jets moment for this column, at the Fillmore East, reputedly the first NYC venue that Elton John ever played, on November 20-21, 1970, according to RR Auction. The story is recounted on Ultimate Classic Rock. By some miracle, you can listen to a soundboard recording of the full concert, with a very young Elton on vocals and piano, and his inspiration and mentor Leon Russell playing guitar on the sixth and final song of his set, followed by Russell’s headlining show.
But what to wear with the boots to pay homage to a long-gone venue and a favorite performer who had just left the stage forever? How could I honor the wackiest glam rocker with one of the longest careers and biggest song catalogues of all time? Not to mention the biggest glasses collection!
So I headed back over to Crossroads Trading on W. 13th Street and found this amazing sequined and feathered number. Total Elton circa Seventies and Eighties and, well, his whole career, really!
This was a good choice! I always know it’s a stellar outfit when other passersby take pictures as we’re doing the shoot. This happened as I posed in front of the Fillmore East’s commemorative plaque at 105 Second Ave. Afterward, I was trying to get a cab on Third Avenue and a number of photographers started taking pictures.
A cab pulled up. “Get me away from these paparazzi!” I cried. We both laughed as the driver whisked me away.
I’ve shared a few of my memories connected to Elton John’s astounding repertoire of songs from 31 studio albums to date. What’s your favorite song or memory? Please share!
- Turquoise blue sequined performance leotard with feathered skirt. Crossroads Trading, 47 W. 13th St.
- Current Mood sky-blue platform boots with clouds, sun, moon, stars and flowers. Crossroads Trading.
- Black felt 1960s-style hat by The Hat Box, Union Made, with black leather bow. Honeymoon Antiques, 208 E. Sixth St.
- Sparkly rhinestone sunglasses. Gift from a friend.