One year ago I bought my parents tickets to see Elton John in Las Vegas. Modesty and humble frugality stood in the way of allowing them such an extravagant expenditure, but my mom’s hopeful, dejected way of yearning made it clear that it was something she wanted to experience.
It kind of went like this:
Me: Mom, you know, Elton John will be playing in Las Vegas while you’re there. Is that something you’d like to see?
Mom (exasperated): Ohh, Elton! (She paused to collect herself.) How much is it?
Me: It doesn’t matter how much it costs. Is it something you might want to see?
Mom: Let me ask your dad. (She held the phone away.) Your dad asks how much it is.
My mom isn’t the type of woman who treats herself. With the exception of double portions of dessert, which she indulges in with devilish delight, she’s not the type of person who thinks she’s worth it. She needs permission.
I bought the tickets.
Though I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to shoot video at a Las Vegas stage show, my mom just couldn’t help herself. Over the course of Elton’s three-hour career-spanning set, she sent multiple videos of the show via SMS.
Each one maintained that shaky shot from the hip aesthetic that only moms can get away with. A series of videos that, for all intents and purposes, turned out pretty good.
The next time we spoke, she was beaming. She said it was the best concert she’d ever seen (and she’s seen Engelbert Humperdinck multiple times). For some reason, the only thing I could chime in with was to ask if he played ‘Crocodile Rock’. She confirmed that he had.
I’ve never been that big of an Elton John fan. I’ve always found myself on the Billy Joel spectrum of piano rock and roll.
Regardless, I’m sure it was amazing: Elton, in his element, dressed in full Elton garb.
But in a recent random YouTube encounter, I discovered a different Elton, pre-wig, closeted and un-bedazzled on a 1971 episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test.
The video I came across isn’t obscure by any means. At the time of this piece, it was toeing 50 million hits. But it reveals a decidedly different image of Elton, a man tense and subdued, and it plays more like an audition than a performance from a legend. It’s a perfect window into his raw talent.
This stark performance is a far cry from the downright vaudevillian persona that follows in the years to come. His sequined jacket and rectangular sunglasses are tame by comparison to the grandiose image we have of him today.
It’s just Elton, a piano, and a stripped-down version of Tiny Dancer, the song that rocketed him to superstardom.
Gone are the gentle percussive snare hits and upper octave bass plucks that build up the second verse. The bridge stands alone without the quarter note cello strikes, ethereal lap steel and ascending lead guitar progression.
It’s just Elton driving the pace and building the tension of the song for six riveting minutes. He splits his trademark baritone across the bridge, finessing the second verse through to the chorus. It’s gritty, pained, imperfect, and vulnerable.
With it, he gives us a glimpse into the enormous talent that inspired “Rocket Man” and, yes, that much-beloved nostalgic rock and roll anthem “Crocodile Rock”.
Check it out for yourself.