Several weeks ago, I was waiting to enjoy the Featured Attraction at the movie theater. Instead, a parade of the usual trailers ambled by, barely pulling my attention away from my popcorn.
Then one particular trailer made me sit up and take notice. At first, it looked like any other biopic, just your typical look back at the life of a notable artist. But then Elton John began levitating across the screen, and the images became more and more surreal. Rocketman isn’t your standard biopic, which is perfectly fitting since it portrays the life of a man who isn’t your ordinary rock star.
Elton John has been defying expectations and delighting audiences since he stormed the stage at LA’s famed Troubadour nightclub back in August of 1970. But, of course, it takes moxie to command the stage from a seat at a baby grand, and John has it.
Moxie gets your attention.
That August night in 1970 concertgoers at the Troubadour were expecting someone like Randy Newman to show up. They were expecting someone engaging in a mild, cerebral sort of way, sitting serenely at the piano, occasionally turning to regale the audience with witty patter.
They did not expect a Brit clad in hotpants and combat boots to strut onto the stage and take command, kicking over the piano bench and doing handstands over the keyboard.
Elton John must have appeared for all the world like the love child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace, and his performances were electrifying. Audiences and critics ate it up, and his career rocketed into the stratosphere. Then, finally, John gave the performance of a lifetime in a clutch moment.
John’s stage presence is over the top – especially from the “shy kid” who attended London’s Royal Academy of Music – and entirely necessary. After all, it’s one thing for a lead singer to strut the stage or a guitarist to leap into the spotlight in the midst of a red hot riff. But how is a pianist supposed to get and keep the audience’s attention?
“[I]f you’re stuck at a piano, and you’re not a lead guitarist or lead vocalist, you’re kind of at a nine-foot plank, and you have to do something about it. So my thing was to leap on the piano, do handstands and wear clothes that would attract attention to me because that’s the focus for 2 1/2 hours or two hours,” John explained in a 2013 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
It takes moxie to break away from expectations and take a performance to a whole new level. John drew inspiration from other performers who had gone before him and made something entirely new and exciting.
Moxie is a team sport.
John’s courage extends far beyond his fantastical costumes and on-stage antics. Perhaps his first and most important leap of faith answered a classified ad.
It was an ad to audition for Liberty Records. John’s vocals didn’t impress execs, but he could write music. So they handed John an envelope stuffed with lyrics written by Bernie Taupin and asked him to look and see if he was inspired.
It was inspired, indeed. That moment sparked a partnership that endures to this day, after five decades, more than thirty albums and hundreds of songs.
“[It]’s just one of the most incredible things that have ever happened to me,” recalled John in the interview. “When I look back now, I can’t understand how I dared to do it, knowing how timid I was at that point … It changed my life.”
John had the moxie to take a risk and audition. The audition didn’t turn out the way he’d initially hoped, but John was willing to take a chance and see what might come next. He ended up as half of one of the most incredible songwriting partnerships of all time. That takes moxie.
Moxie transforms trauma into triumph.
Time has given John perspective and appreciation for the childhood experiences that shaped him and his career.
John showed early promise as a pianist and earned a spot in the Royal Academy of Music. The academy was strict (we’ve all heard Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” by now, haven’t we?) and dedicated to training up competent musicians who would appreciate and carry on the tradition of classical music. John wasn’t necessarily keen on classical music, but he devoted himself to his studies anyway. Decades later, he appreciates the discipline and fundamentals he mastered.
“Looking back on it now, those five years spent there were invaluable to me because I learned so much. It had a huge effect on the way I wrote, the way I constructed chord sequences, and it’s just a wonderful place to be. And after all that time of being so fearful of being and afraid of going on a Saturday morning because if you got something wrong, you were told and rapped over the knuckles, that now, 40-odd years, 50 years later, it’s the most wonderful place to be, and I have a wonderful relationship with it,” said John in the interview with Gross.
Maturity and moxie both have a way of helping reframe challenges into learning experiences. John learned to appreciate and even celebrate his rigorous education.
What part of Elton John’s moxie do you admire the most?