I feel like it’s OK to call you by your real name since I feel like I know you. You’ve been a part of my life since I was a very little girl and first heard about sitting on a roof and kicking off some moss and wondered just what the hell that meant. I am the youngest of six kids. And while that birth order and the perceived invisibility of my existence created a lot of the swirling dysfunction that I lovingly call my “life” now – it also meant one thing: my life from my earliest conscious thought had an accompanying soundtrack – and it was badass. My older brothers and sisters – while they beat and teased and gas-lighted me endlessly – they also provided my indoctrination into the glorious timeless world of rock and roll. There was always loud music playing somewhere in our small house and with it, the perpetual timeless struggle between parent and child involving “them” screaming some version of “turn that crap DOWN” and “us” negotiating volume and record player time. If my childhood were a movie – it would have a John Williams-esque score including the greats: the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Stones and – of course – the Boss. But it is your music that has stayed with me over the years. Your music that has had a lasting influence on me. As it turns out, your music and your concerts have provided a marker for my life and the surprising twists and turns only life can bring.
Recently a colleague asked me if I had to choose a theme song for my life what would it be? Without hesitation and without giving it any thought I immediately answered “I’m Still Standing”. When Too Low for Zero was released, I played and played that stupid cassette tape so much – it snapped, requiring a second purchase.
I saw you live for the first time in the fall of 1984. You played at the Marriott Center on BYU’s campus. I’ll never forget the weirdness of an opening prayer at a rock concert (“Please bless Mr. John that he will perform to the best of his ability”) – followed by you blasting “The Bitch is Back” not too far into your set list. The memory now makes me smile. I was 18 and staring across the chasm of a lifetime yet unknown to me. I was full of love and hope and optimism and plans. I stood next to a boy who had already started the clock on breaking my heart – unbeknownst to me. When he told me mine were the sweetest eyes…. he’d ever seen – I believed him (I’m sure you know the type). But it was you that took my breath away that night. You were and are so damn talented. You sang Too Low for Zero live. I rocked back and forth, making the appropriate finger gestures that would indicate that, yes, in fact, I WAS too low for zero. As a fledgling piano player myself, watching your hands speed so elegantly and frantically across those keys lit a fire of such awe in me, it still burns today. I leapt to my feet when you kicked out the piano bench during Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, landed on your knees and impeccably finished the impossible piano solo without missing a beat.
I was riveted to my TV in 1997 and sobbed uncontrollably as you stepped onto the world stage on that awful day in September. I had been searching but could not find any understanding or comfort. Somehow, with unfamiliar words to a very familiar melody, you managed to soothe my aching soul. Somehow we managed to honor our beloved Princess and say Goodbye to England’s Rose that day with help from your amazing gift and your beautiful voice.
I saw you in Salt Lake City in the winter of 2001 when you played with Billy Joel. What a fun night that was. I danced with the carefree nature of a 35 year old professional career woman at the top of her game. I stood and sang next to a different boy and – again – I was full of love and hope and optimism and plans. When Billy’s harmonica showed up and Piano Man was imminent, we all looked at each other knowingly and swayed in harmony. That night was warmth and comfort and joy.
I’m not proud of our next meeting. The Captain and the Kid tour came to the Portland Rose Garden in the fall of 2006. I hadn’t seen you in a few years and I was super excited. I spent a lot of money on floor seats. I picked out a special outfit. I’ll admit, the previous years had been pretty rough. I had made some questionable decisions, followed by some bad decisions, followed by more super bad decisions and to put it bluntly – I was a fucking mess.
I don’t remember much about that night. You see, we have another thing in common: an incessant unquenchable thirst for alcohol. Having been raised a devout Mormon, I didn’t discover this surprising, unrelenting addiction until my mid-30’s – when it started becoming the only tolerable solution for what can only be described as a constant crushing disappointment in myself. And, as with anything else, I gave being a drunk 110% of my effort. The last thing I remember that night is standing on my chair screaming at the top of my lungs while the poor unsuspecting friend I had invited gaped at me – trying to figure out just what in the bloody hell was wrong with me. Security came to fetch the blonde spectacle and I spent the entire evening in what was apparently Rose Garden Jail (a concrete windowless room) muttering nonsense and missing the entire concert. So, yeah, that wasn’t my best moment. But – hey – who can relate to blackout drinking better than you? Who can understand the painful incomprehensible reality of your outside self and your inside self being utterly and completely at war better than you? I know you understand trying to drown all your pain in a bottle and then just having to drink more because somehow the fucking pain always learns how to swim. I never spoke of that night until many years later.
I flew to Las Vegas in the spring of 2014 to see your Million Dollar Piano Show. I brought with me my most valuable and prized possession – my very own sobriety date. Your epiphany was in 1990. Mine was in 2008. I brought with me 6 years of good decisions and then better decisions and the peace that comes with truly matching your insides to your outsides. I brought with me a calmness and a serenity that I hadn’t known before. I shed so many tears of joy that night. Your encore was “Circle of Life” and as I watched the video images play out behind you on that enormous screen, I marveled at your journey. I marveled at how far you had come. I giggled at the pictures of you and David and your adorable children and I remembered your 1984 wedding and I stood in awe at how your life truly had changed. It didn’t occur to me at that time just how much mine had as well.
I drove north to Tacoma yesterday to see your last concert. I brought with me a current drivers license and Emmy – my sweet little Mazda (Ok, so I have a crush on my car, whatever, no big deal). I also brought with me a fever of 100.8 and the worst cold ever since the last worst cold ever. But obviously nothing was going to stop me. I played your music on the drive up, reminiscing about 50 years of connecting with you through nothing more than simple words and notes. I thought about the way your gift reached me in times of deep sorrow. I thought about how many times I scream-sang the words to “I’m Still Standing” while vowing to “show them all”. I thought about all the times I cry-sang the words to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” when I was sad for no reason. The energy in the Tacoma Dome was incredible. You came on stage dazzling – in pink – and I immediately started crying (pink runs deep with me as well). I kept on bawling during Candle in the Wind as I thought about Marilyn and Diana and my Mom and the constant pain and grief brought on by loss. I stood next to my beautiful brave sister who had to use the cold cement floor of the Tacoma Dome on her bare feet to ease the crippling nerve pain in her feet and legs. I again thought about pain and joy and love and life. I marveled at how grateful and HAPPY you seem. And then I realized – so was I. Despite everything. Despite the worst head cold ever. Despite the current state of my employment (which is none). Despite the choices and decisions I’ve made over the last fifty three years. Despite the incredibly divisive, unloving nature of the world today – I stood with 23,000 other humans last night and we came together for shared love and joy and comfort and light. What are the odds of that? Pretty damn slim. You did that. When you walked up that Yellow Brick Road and waved goodbye for the final time, I clutched my already soggy tissue even tighter. I cried tears of joy and gratitude for the life you’ve led and, as it turns out, also for the life I have. And both of us are still standing. Thank you, Reggie. Thank you, Elton. Thank you, God’s grace.
Now please forgive me as I end this love letter with the only words that seem remotely appropriate…
I hope you don’t mind
that I put down in words
how wonderful life is
while you’re in the world.
My most heartfelt love and admiration,