Sunday, January 01, 2012

On Such a Timeless Flight

"I'm not the man they think I am at home.
Oh, no, no, no
I'm a rocket man.
Rocket man
Burning out his fuse up here alone."

Forty years ago this month, Elton John recorded "Rocket Man."

A few months later, it was released as a single — and it has gone on to be possibly John's most recognizable recording. Oh, sure, you could mention others. "Honky Chateau," the album on which "Rocket Man" appeared, was his first album to reach #1 in America — but it was his fifth studio album.

And, within a few years of recording "Rocket Man," Sir Elton had released many others that people may be more inclined to recognize — although there is no doubt that lots of people recognize "Rocket Man."

They just don't always know the words.

That isn't an uncommon thing with popular songs, as Volkswagen cleverly demonstrated with its recent commercial featuring "Rocket Man."

The point of the commercial, of course, was to show how clear the Passat's sound system is — and it did so by showing just how many different ways a single line from a popular song can be misinterpreted.

That's really nothing new. Seems like people have been misquoting songs all my life. Doesn't really matter, I guess. Maybe that is what is magical about popular music, kind of like those write–your–own–caption contests where the cartoon is already drawn and all you have to do is supply the punch line.

In that regard, I've heard people attach such mondegreens to tunes, filing in things that were relevant to their experiences — kind of like the waitress who sings about "burnin' up the room with cheap cologne."

I certainly get the feeling, from that very brief moment in that commercial, that the waitress sings from personal experience on that one, even if it isn't the line that was originally written and recorded. The music provides the framework. The personal line gives it powerful meaning.

I knew a girl in college who equated "Rocket Man" to her own life. I don't think she misquoted the lines when she sang the song, but the song nevertheless had a personal meaning for her.

Her father drove one of those big rigs you see on the highway, hauling freight from one place to the next, and he would be away from home for long periods, trying to support a family he seldom saw and probably didn't really know.

My friend thought of her father as a rocket man.

I don't know what he hauled, and that isn't relevant, anyway. My understanding is that most truckers are contractors. They transport cargo. Doesn't matter what the cargo is. It could be food or clothing or cars — or perhaps even a hazardous cargo.

The nature of the cargo might require special handling procedures, but the objective is always the same. The cargo has to be transported from Point A to Point B. As long as the grocery store has the cookies you like to eat while you watch TV or the clothing store has the jeans you like to wear (and in your size, too), most consumers give little thought to the logistics involved.

My friend's father was one of the faceless people in America, I suppose — the ones who only get our attention when something goes wrong.

And that was the point of "Rocket Man," that a job that could be fraught with risks could be regarded by so many as routine. These days, driving a big rig may not seem terribly risky to most people — unless they watch Ice Road Truckers — and 40 years ago, many people had come to think of space travel as routine — even though they had witnessed a deadly fire during a pre–launch test five years earlier and the aborted moon mission of Apollo 13 less than two years before.

Now, of course, the space shuttle, which didn't even exist when John recorded "Rocket Man," has been retired. In spite of two disasters with space shuttle missions, it was seen as ordinary, predictable, routine.

There's nothing routine about space travel. For that matter, there's nothing predictable about life. It's different for everyone.

Kind of like interpretations of song lyrics.