I only heard “Bennie and the Jets” about a year ago when it came on the radio and my college friends began singing along, and I said, this is sick, what is it? And they said what anyone else would say, which is: what the fuck? It’s Elton John.
For the record, beyond not knowing that song, I’m a normal, socially adjusted person, other than the fact that I don’t own any pairs of jeans, and I think Steve Buscemi is attractive. And I’m a recently recovering alcoholic at twenty-one. But I’ve never been to a bar karaoke night, and obviously I would’ve learned the song earlier if I had. Anyways, I decided that I would only endure a further roasting from my friends if I continued to play my new-not-new favorite song, and I forgot about Elton John as instantly as I’d learned of Candy, and Ronnie, and Bennie, Bennie, Bennie, Bennie, Bennie and the Jets.
June of this year, my mother asked me if I wanted to see the Rocketman biopic, and I said yes, “but only because the glittery stage outfits are appealing.” I hadn’t seen the recent Queen one because that’s another cultural touchstone that I’ve never gotten around to educating myself on, and because watching a biopic on a musician you have no investment in seems like a waste of an afternoon, those precious hours when I’d tell myself it was early enough (which was always earlier than last time) to start drinking alone in my bed.
We walked into a Regal Cinemas in rural Illinois, and beneath swirling neon teal and purple lights I was asked if I wanted a Rocketman poster from the teen tasked with selling us tickets, and I said no. It is very likely that I was hungover on this day, despite claiming I’d been sober to my loved ones for months. I was not sober, and I was not planning on getting sober anytime soon, in defiance of my full awareness that alcoholism, 1) wasn’t actually absolving me of any of the reasons I needed to drink a pint of liquor to fall asleep; and 2) making me severely dysfunctional, dishonest and depressed.
When the movie opened with Elton John, in his flaming, horned, phoenix-like costume, sulking at a meeting for addiction recovery, my cheeks filled with the heat of paranoia. Is my mom thinking about me right now? She’s probably watching this and thinking about me. Is this why she wanted to see this movie with me? That’s bullshit.
Elton John: How long is this going to take?
Counsellor: That’s really up to you.
Elton John: Alright, then. I know how this bit goes. My name is Elton Hercules John. And I’m an alcoholic. And a cocaine addict. And a sex addict. And a bulimic. Mostly shopaholic who has problems with weed, prescription drugs, and anger management.
In my head I ran over my own credentials. My name is Isabel Rae McKenzie. And I may be an alcoholic. I may be a sex addict, but I think I’m just slutty. Sometimes I take Oxycodone, but it doesn’t do much for me, and I’ve never sought it out to buy. I had a prescription for Ritalin for a while that I probably didn’t need, but I didn’t abuse it. I rarely smoke weed. I regularly smoke cigarettes. I can be bitchy, but I’m not an angry person.
Counsellor: Why are you here now?
Elton John: Well, my dealer was out of town, I thought this seemed like a good alternative.
Elton John: I’m here because I want to get better.
Do I want to get better?
If you aren’t me before seeing Rocketman, you know that Elton John struggled with addiction throughout those iconic seventies and eighties rockstar years that my parents associate with him. The official trailer, an upbeat haze of glitter and glory, doesn’t really reveal that the driving narrative of the film is Elton John’s battle with addiction, showing pivotal scenes like his cocaine overdose as quick cutaways.
One of the first lines in the trailer is said by a fellow musician, Wilson, to Elton John. You gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you wanna be. I was born, in terms of my genetic predisposition, to be an alcoholic.
I got sober on June 27, 2019. I’m not going to say that seeing Rocketman is what made me stop drinking, go to Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time, get back into therapy, begin reading women’s memoirs about alcoholism and sobriety, and start writing openly about my own affair with addiction. But watching the credits, which reveal that Elton John has been sober for twenty-seven years (again, public knowledge to anyone who isn’t me at this point) made me realize that A) getting sober is possible, and B) sobriety doesn’t strip someone of their creativity or magnetism. In fact, not experiencing the world through a mind-numbing veil of liquor, and whatever other vices, only strengthens your ability to create art and connect with others. (That’s probably also public knowledge to most people.)
When I listen to Elton John’s most famous songs now, I hear the pain, isolation, and exhaustion of an addict. I hear my own experience. You don’t want everyone to, so to speak, let the sun go down on you. And it really is lonely out in space.
Elton John credits his decision and ability to get sober with meeting Ryan White, an American teenage boy who contracted HIV through a contaminated blood transfusion. The singer got sober six months after White’s death, calling himself “the luckiest man in the world” for coming out of the AIDS epidemic, despite his drug use, HIV-negative. Ryan White was Elton John’s wake-up call that he was walking on an ever-thinning tightrope.
My catalyst was less epiphanic than Elton John’s enlightenment through Ryan White. I credit my sobriety to my resolute, unwavering support network of family and friends, who all waited until I was ready to start telling the truth, experiencing the world, and feeling again.
[Bernie visits Elton in rehab]
Elton John: Some days are tougher than others, but I feel good.
Bernie Taupin: They got a piano here? You’ve been playing?
Elton John: Hmm. No.
Bernie Taupin: No?
Elton John: Not in the right place for that just now. I’m scared, Bernie. What if I’m not as good? Without the drink and drugs?
Bernie Taupin: [chuckles] You know that’s not true. You’re not scared you’re not good without it. You’re scared to feel again.
Isabel Rae McKenzie is a Chicagoan and recent graduate of Lake Forest College. Isabel has work published in Womanly Magazine, Lake Forest Press, and forthcoming Entropy. Isabel can be found on Twitter at @birdpoems.
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer. Image: Rocketman, Paramount Pictures, 2019