Elton John fans are a passionate, devoted bunch.
I found this out the hard way when, following my less than favorable review of John's performance last Sunday on a bill he shared with Billy Joel in HSBC Arena, literally hundreds of letters flooded my e-mail and dozens of phone calls jammed my voice mail.
Only a few readers who attended the concert agreed with my assessment of John's performance. The lion's share of the mail and messages were angry ones, vicious even. Invariably, they started with "I wonder if we were even at the same concert . . ."
Well, we were.
I'm writing this column not to back-pedal on anything I said in my review, but rather to clarify a few points raised by the letters.
I feel strongly that John offered a performance that seemed to be "phoned in." He didn't seem particularly engaged with his own material. Perhaps it was merely a bad night.
For the money being charged for tickets - the cheap seats were $45, the better ones as high as $175 - it seems reasonable to have expected a first-rate performance from both performers.
John has been coasting on the strength of his early work for several decades. As a revered artist - in the same league, famewise, as, say, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, both of whom recently toured the world to rave reviews - John has a lot to live up to. It was my opinion that he failed to do so Sunday night, and that despite the adoration heaped on him by a fan base perhaps blinded by their love for the man's music and the life memories it conjures up, the emperor had no clothes.
Take the classic "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" as an example; John altered the song's phrasing, sacrificed the melody and seemed to be slurring his way through it. The performance lacked focus and clarity. Only "Rocket Man" packed the punch of John's early records.
Readers seemed to feel betrayed by my review, as if I had let Buffalo down. Many believe that John will never return to our city, and that I will be to blame.
They give me far too much credit. John played to a sold-out crowd. He was showered with applause. He made a lot of money. He'll be back. An artist who has been around as long as he has is surely able to take criticism.
Many felt that I just flat out hated John before I even went to the show, that I had an ax to grind. These folks accused me of "knowing absolutely nothing about music." One suggested I "stick to the kind of music (I) love, like Avril and Britney." This person has obviously never read my work before.
I grew up listening to Elton John. His "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" were part of the soundtrack to my adolescence. On both of these albums, John and lyricist Bernie Taupin managed to create rock that was broad by definition.
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is held by many to be John's masterpiece, and it's true that he never made another record of such startling breadth and diversity - great ballads (the title tune), glam-based rock ("Saturday Night's") and pretentious fluff that bordered progressive rock excess ("Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding") shared space on one LP side. It didn't always work, but it was exciting stuff nonetheless.
The music wasn't particularly deep, but it had magic, melodicism and a refined tunefulness that stood in seeming contrast to John's flamboyant stage image. Compare it to later efforts such as the '80s affair "Reg Strikes Back," which features the hit "I Don't Wanna Go on With You Like That," and it's easy to see how far John has slipped. Overproduced, innocuous fodder has replaced the elegant substance of the early work.
Prior to his HSBC appearance, I'd seen John in concert six times, beginning in the '80s. One late-'80s show at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center found John fiery, in fine voice and clearly enjoying revisiting his older material.
I believe John peaked in the mid-'70s. This is not a particularly radical notion - his records became increasingly "easy listening," a sort of watered-down, overtly popish version of the best work he and Taupin did on their early records.
A healthy portion of the letters found it "ridiculous" that I would compare Elton John to Billy Joel. But I found doing so unavoidable - they were playing together, after all. It's true that Joel's strengths as a singer and songwriter made John's seem lesser in contrast. No, it wasn't a contest. But one notices these things.
The most disturbing notion raised by a number of the letters I received was the suggestion that I dislike John because I'm homophobic. My critique was solely of John's music, not his sexual orientation. Period.
What has been impressive is the passion that the fans of John's work have for the man. The music that touches us most deeply, that we relate to, that we turn to as we would a friend, matters to us no matter what the opinions of a critic might be. That's as it should be.
My job is to say what I think and back it up. It would have been easy for me to cut John some slack.
Easy. But disingenuous.
Note: A selection of letters from readers about the Elton John-Billy Joel review will be published in the March 23 Arts & Books section of The Buffalo News.
[Ed: These are of course JEFF MIERS' words, not ours...]