When you’re young, the mark of a great song is its ability to rile your parents. That’s been the measuring bar for rock ‘n’ rollers from AC/DC to ZZ Top — once your parents find them acceptable, they’re finished in your eyes.
My first encounter with an artist who had the ability to do what I didn’t — openly defy my father’s conventions — was Elton John. It wasn’t Elton’s outrageous public persona that got to my dad, nor his (then fairly private) homosexuality. I doubt he followed pop music closely enough to know who Elton John was. But one word got the singer on Dad’s radar. It burst unmistakeably forth as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” blared from the living room radio I typically parked myself in front of, eliciting an immediate, admonishing “hey!” from Dad as he passed by:
“It’s four o’clock in the morning
Dammit, listen to me good
I’m sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time
Thank God my music’s still alive
“Dammit.” In front of the most powerful man in my life, Elton defiantly spit it out in a way I never could have. And the reaction it got gave me a thrilling glimpse of the possibilities of rebellion I could never own. Elton was cool. Dad was the rule. I was stuck somewhere in between.
When I was older I came to understand the sentiment expressed in that song as that of a man so desperately opposed to the prospect of marriage that he was willing to commit suicide. Had my dad understood, or had I been able to explain it to him as a 6-year-old, he might not have found one word so objectionable in light of the pathos the song evinces. Then again, had he understood popular music of the time better, he might have taken greater issue with songs like “Slow Ride” and “Afternoon Delight,” songs with decidedly more base subject matter that, had I any comprehension of what I was singing along to, would’ve opened a messier can of worms than a flashy cuss word.