Cover of the Week 48 Rocket Man

[Updated and reposted September 19 in response to this insanity.]


I used to play “Rocket Man” during some solo acoustic sets in the early/mid-’90s. The only places I recall playing it are in the U.K. Specifically, I remember a set in Wales. I think this is because there might have been a recording of it. I was actually already starting the recording when it was requested in the below thread/post by one Billy Peregoy. So those of you who also requested Elton John might feel somewhat compelled to make a donation to charity as well, since I am unlikely to do another Elton song. But if I do, it would be “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” and my guess is that few of you want that to happen.

When Buffalo Tom was starting to really crank along, I relished the opportunity to play some completely solo shows on the side for die-hard fans. Playing solo is a completely different challenge from playing with the full rock trio. Musically, the advantages are that I get to mess with arrangements on the fly, without wondering if other players are with me. And I really get to change dynamics and use my voice more. But the disadvantages are that I can’t hide behind walls of distortion and other players covering up possible warts. And while going out on a limb with arrangements usually yields rewarding and often surprising results, it can also result in awkward or tragic musical missteps. And while the dynamics allow for a more intimate listening experience, the range is much flatter than the dynamic peaks and dips of a band, so listeners can more easily get bored.

When I did strings of such shows, I became a lonesome troubadour — Lonesome Billy. I loved the freedom of traveling alone, hopping on trains across the U.K. and Europe, mainly, or getting in my car to go play a show in Toronto (I played with Neko Case and Her Boyfriends up at the Horseshoe there), or down to the Fez in N.Y. Even better was when my wife traveled with me for a mini vacation, as I get morosely lonely quite easily. While that was usually inspirational for songwriting, it did not do me well in the short term.

When I played “Rocket Man,” it was just a guy on stage with only a guitar accompanying. That was going to be the idea here, but I fear I might have ended up bringing it pretty close to the ideas on Sir Elton’s original recording. I always thought of it as a more melancholy version of “Space Oddity,” which I was always more scared by (my old review of the song here). I like Bernie Taupin’s lyric here. It is fairly straightforward for the oblique lyricist. I guess being out there playing those shows on my own allowed me to identify with the rocket man burning out his fuse out there alone. Damn, it’s lonely out in space!

15 thoughts on “Cover of the Week 48 Rocket Man”

  1. hi bill! i remember this cover from a show at the brattle, you on lap steel (maybe not for this song, though) and telling a GREAT story about the search for a cheap guitar… thanks for the memories!

  2. Man, talk about instant gratification! Thanks! I just donated some dough to Farm Sanctuary In Watkins Glen, NY as an additional thank you.

  3. wow, funny that you chose to single out the Toronto show with Neko. I was at that show and still recount it to friends as one of my favourite shows I've seen at the 'shoe. Saw several great BT shows over the years in T.O. but that show stands out in my memory as the best…something about just you and a guitar – took those songs to a different place in that setting.
    Glad to hear you remember it too, and thanks – for that show, for this Cotw blog, and for just choosing over the years to put your music out there for us – thanks

    come back to T.O. anytime…

  4. Interesting that you make the Space Oddity/Rocket Man connection. U2 are using Space Oddity as their intro music and Rocket Man as the outro on their current tour.

  5. Funny to hear about the U2 thing. I would have to be called out for taking their mojo, except that I have not been to any of those shows and had no idea. However, since I wrote that review making the connection in about 2001, I would say Bono et. al. owe me — money would be nice, but a shout-out from the stage would likely suffice.

    Thanks for the positive vibes, as always, buds.

  6. Hey Bill…very cool version. The last third of the song is where you put your signiture on it and that makes the song, in my opinion.

  7. I've got a dusty tape of BT doing Rocket Man on the 1991 tour supporting The Wedding Present…

  8. Out of a veritable shoe closet of annoying Elton John Tunes, this is a nice song, classic as it is, still improved by your version/Its nice to here some mainstream classics with the Bill Janovitz/BT slant on guitar throughout-

  9. Ah, that is so, Lawrence! I was wondering why I would be solo in Wales. Now I recall, there had been bass technical trouble, so I improvised a little snippet of this and it was taped. I definitely played it during some solo acoustic sets as well. I don't think BT ever tried it as a full band.

    The memories all flow together and the mind plays tricks.

  10. Yeah, it's just a snippet.You can hear the crowd getting restless and wondering why you're playing Elton.All is well a minute later when the bass is fixed and you launch into `Directive'.Those Wedding Present fans are hard to please….

  11. I was really into Elton John in the 70s, and count Tumbleweed Connection as my favorite album. But I also loved this song quite a bit, so thanks for this CotW choice. The choice of echo and/or reverb contributes to feeling of being lonely in space, as if you're singing inside a large steel spaceship. (House of Freezing Steel by Cat Stevens is in reference to spacecraft, the houses of freezing steel, as it were…)

    The two-minute extro/fadeout is soothing and peaceful. What other instruments were you playing? What is the instrument that seems to be sustaining the notes? Really nice mix.

    Thanks Bill.

  12. Good choice and another stirring performance – thanks!

    BTW, you might want to look into using FLAC instead of WAV – exact same quality (lossless compression) but about half the file size, and you can embed Artist Name, Track Name, copyright, etc. into it just like an mp3.

    Thanks again!

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