Maybe it was the glasses. On my twelfth birthday in 1969, I got a note from school indicating I was nearsighted and needed glasses. Daddy would not be very happy, as he did not like spending money. Glasses would be expensive. I was not very happy either, since wearing glasses would just be one more limitation to any chance of a happy adolescence. I was already left-handed, skinny and awkward; I didn’t need anything else. I started looking for glasses-wearing role models, but there weren’t any. Steve Wonder and Ray Charles didn’t count. My first pair of glasses had dark brown cat-eye frames, which made my wide nose look even wider and big eyes even bigger. I hated them.
But a few years later, I became aware of a singer/musician who unapologetically wore glasses. His name was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, better known as Elton John. I had found the perfect role model. After reading about his life, I realized we had several similarities. Even though Elton was ten years older and English, I could relate to him. As a child, he was a piano prodigy, but didn’t fit in with other children. Music became his refuge. I knew all about not fitting in. The other black kids made fun of me because I was smart and clumsy. I also had a piano, but I couldn’t play. Elton wasn’t the typical rock star. He was short and pudgy with thinning hair in an era of tall, skinny, longhaired musicians. But he had soul.
Soon after Elton’s initial triumph at LA’s Troubadour, he was the new darling of the music press. 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat started to feature him, even though he wasn’t “Teen Dream” material. As he became more famous, he got more glasses, each pair crazier than the next. Instead of being ashamed of his “four-eyed” status, he embraced it, and even made fun of it. Elton was so crazy and unconventional; he made it cool.
I started taking piano lessons at fourteen, hoping to channel my Inner Elton. I soon discovered I had no sense of rhythm. Unlike Elton and my neighbor Ronnie, I couldn’t play by memory. I could read music, but somewhere between my eyes and my hands there was a missed connection. I could find the keys, but not the tempo. No matter how many scales I practiced, I could not play anything in the proper time signature. At the music store, I bought the sheet music to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” But if I couldn’t play the songs in my John Sullivan piano books, how would I ever be able to play “Funeral for a Friend?” I didn’t give up trying, even after I stopped taking lessons a year later.
My first Elton album was “11-17-70,” a live album from his early performances in Los Angeles. I loved the live, mostly acoustic pieces. Elton was a new kind of rock star. His voice was funky, but with a British twist. With each new album, he explored wide spectrum of ideas and sounds. Each song was a little different, from “Your Song,” to “Honky Chateau,” to “Crocodile Rock” to “Madman Across the Water.” Even Aretha Franklin covered “Border Song.” Elton’s music, when combined with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, was magic. With the release of “Bennie and the Jets,” from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” even my black friends were mesmerized by the white guy from Pinner, England. After he appeared on “Soul Train” on May 24, 1975, I put a picture on my bedroom wall of him with host Don Cornelius. Elton was probably the second performer on Black America’s premier dance party after Gino Vannelli and I loved him for doing it.
In 1975, I spent a good portion of my allowance on Elton albums. I was attending the University of Pittsburgh and there was a fabulous record store near Pitt’s Oakland campus. When I wasn’t in class or at Hillman Library, I lived at Flo’s. Flo’s Records was my favorite place in the world. All single albums were $3.99, leaving me with money for lunch and school supplies. I would spend hours browsing the record racks. But almost every time I bought a record, I would get the same question: “Are these for you?” For some reason, no one believed I actually listened to the Elton John and Led Zeppelin albums I got on a weekly basis. My father got used to seeing me arrive home each evening laden not only with books, but also with the orange, white and black plastic bags from Flo’s.
As his popularity soared, Elton was everywhere. I bought “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” on June 2, 1975, and a month later, Elton was the cover story in Time. The first two pages of the five-page article featured eight pictures of some of the most outrageous Elton eyewear. The September 29, 1975 issue of “Soul: America’s Most Soulful Newspaper” described Elton as “a rather unique combination of the frankness and conceit of Muhammad Ali, mixed with the adolescent charm of Joe Namath, tossled with the clownish antics of a Richard Pryor, and topped with a little sprinkle of David Bowie glitter.” In the article, Elton gushed about how proud he was to be on the soul and R&B charts. I got a 64-page magazine on Elton for $1.95. I carried that magazine with me everywhere in 1975, especially after my father died in December. A year later, I spent $2.00 on a 100-page magazine. I bought a poster made up of multiple pictures of Elton in his finest, feathered fashions, wildest rhinestone wardrobes and shiniest lame looks. I saw Elton as the Pinball Wizard in “Tommy” and had that image screen-printed onto a green t-shirt. I admired his bravado. I lived for his television appearances. And even after forty-five years, I still have my Elton magazines. I also have a poster of Elton that I ordered from an ad in Tiger Beatwhen I was fourteen. It is rolled up in a cardboard tube, a relic from my painful adolescence. On the poster, Elton, with his hands on his hips, has on a denim jumpsuit, a denim jacket with fur sleeves, and large sunglasses. It wasn’t one of his flashiest outfits, but I liked the confident look in his stance. It was as if he were daring the world with his uniqueness.
I was in college when Elton came out. My cousin Darrell said he couldn’t listen to Elton anymore because he was gay. I defended Elton’s right to be happy, to be whatever he wanted to be. Elton’s sexual orientation had nothing to do with his musicianship and ability to write great songs. My love for Elton had never been about physical attraction. He was a kindred spirit, an outsider, someone who could articulate musically what I had felt all of my life. He was my first major love, a role model who dared to live his dreams. Sex had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t some pretty boy in tight jeans and open shirt; he was Elton. He was beyond sex. He was a fantasy. He was Cinderella; only he could throw his own damn ball. I was so happy for him when he finally married his Prince Charming.
During the spring of 2008, when I went to get a new pair of classes, I once again channeled my Inner Elton. For the last two years, I had been wearing purple rectangular frames, but I didn’t like them. Other than the subtle color, they looked like everyone else’s glasses. When I went to get new glasses, I picked a big, funky tan/orange tortoiseshell Dolce and Gabbana frame reminiscent of eighties-era Elton. I loved them, even though my thick lens made them heavy. I thought about those cat eye frames I wore almost forty years earlier. It was like I had come full circle. My eyes may have been worse than ever, but now I wanted to emphasize my four-eyedness. I felt that Elton, for all of his prissy badness, would be proud.
For some reason, I never saw him in concert. Always there was some obstacle — money, transportation, or lack of companionship — that held me back. August 2008, a few months after selecting my Eltonish frames, I went to Las Vegas, where Elton had been performing “The Red Piano” show at Caesar’s Palace. Elton was not in town the week I was there, but even if he had been, I could not have afforded the tickets, which started at around $95. But I could get a tee shirt. There was an Elton John gift shop in Caesar’s. I immediately saw the perfect shirt: a sleeveless muscle tee with the words, “Elton John – The Bitch is Back.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t a shirt in my size and no other shirt would do, even though I spent an hour trying on all of them.
Since Elton wasn’t in town, his actual red grand piano was in the shop. I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. It would have been sacrilegious, like writing graffiti on the Great Pyramid at Giza. But I stood next to it for a few minutes looking at the keys, imagining the Great Spectacled One pounding those eighty-eights. I tipped my big orange/tan glasses in a silent salute to the Ultimate Bitch. One day, I will see him, I vowed, if for no other reason than to thank him for making glasses cool. And to thank him for letting his freak flag fly fiercely in the face of convention. “I can bitch, I can bitch, ‘cause I’m better than you; it’s the way that I move, the things that I do, oh, oh, oh…”