What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?

alex atkins bookshelf musicRocket Man, released in 1972, is one of Elton John’s signature songs and certainly one of his most successful songs, which climbed the singles charts to number 6 in the U.S. and number 2 in the UK. The lyrics of Rocket Man were written by lyricist and poet Bernie Taupin, John’s talented collaborator since 1967. There were two key influences that helped to shape the song in Taupin’s imagination. First, the successful Apollo missions, particularly Apollo 11 that landed men on the moon in 1969, captured the imagination of the nation; every kid in America wanted to be an astronaut. In the span of a less than a decade, the concept of space travel made the giant leap from science fiction to reality. The second influence was the emergence of music from emerging artists that was redefining the sound of rock with innovative instrumentation and lyrics that explored man’s exploration of space, the final frontier. There were two songs, in particular, that made an impact on Taupin.

One year before man stepped foot on the moon, Americans had already been to the moon — via Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey — a film that continues to inspire filmmakers today. The screenplay was based on a short story, “The Sentinel,” written by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke and Kubrick collaborated on the screenplay and the novel (based on the screenplay) that was released after the movie’s premiere. Its depiction of space travel and thought-provoking scientific and philosophical themes mesmerized audiences around the globe. Moreover, in one film, Kubrick redefined the cinematic experience, raising special effects and brilliant story-telling to new heights.

One of the impressionable people sitting in a darkened theatre watching Kubrick’s film was a young man named David Bowie. In an interview, Bowie explained, “[Space Oddity] was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.” The song, featured on the album David Bowie (1969), was about an astronaut, Major Tom, who travels into space, loses communication with ground control, and is stranded in space “floating ’round my tin can/far above the moon… And there is nothing I can do.” Presumably, he runs out of oxygen and perishes.

A year later, the psychedelic folk band, Pearls Before Swine, released the album The Use of Ashes in 1970. Working in the same milieu as Bowie, songwriter Tom Rapp found his inspiration in the short story “The Rocket Man” in the collection of short stories titled The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury published in 1951. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy who, naturally, wants to be an astronaut like his father. For the past ten years, the father has visited his wife and son for a short stay (three days) in between three-month long space trips. The father is sad that his relationship to his wife has deteriorated. As any father would, he warns his son about his profession — don’t become a rocket man; you’ll never be happy — if you’re home, you yearn for space; if you are in space, you will yearn for home; it is a vicious circle. Rapp’s song tells a similar story about regret and loss: a young boy talks about his father who is an astronaut and how he and his mother worry about his father’s safety (“My father was a rocket man / He often went to Jupiter or Mercury, to Venus or to Mars / My mother and I would watch the sky / And wonder if a falling star / Was a ship becoming ashes with a rocket man inside.” The father was torn between visiting distant planets and the stars and spending time with his family. At some point, the father perishes: “One day they told us the sun had flared and taken him inside.” The song ends with the pain that the mother and son feel when they look up at the sky and are reminded of their loss: “My mother and I / Never went out / Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out / Or to escape the pain / We only went out when it rained.”

In several interviews, Taupin has revealed that the Pearls Before Swine version of Rocket Man was the inspiration for his version. All three space songs, Space Oddity, Pearls Before Swine’s Rocket Man, and Elton John’s Rocket Man share the same subject, an astronaut traveling in space, and share some of the same themes: isolation, dedication, self-reliance, ambivalence, regret, and mortality. And musically, Space Oddity and John’s Rocket Man both utilize the spacey sort of sounds of the slide guitar and synthesizer. Thematically, like Space Oddity, John’s Rocket Man is told from the perspective of the astronaut. Taupin’s astronaut is traveling to Mars as part of a scientific mission. The astronaut reflects on the lengthy journeys (“On such a timeless flight / And I think it’s gonna be a long long time / ‘Till touch down brings me round again”) and the impact it has on him: he misses his home and family (“I miss the earth so much I miss my wife / It’s lonely out in space.”) and the challenges he faces dealing with the monotony (“And all this science I don’t understand / It’s just my job five days a week”). The astronaut senses that the long journeys into space are changing him, impacting his psyche, his mental health: “I’m not the man they think I am at home / Oh no no no I’m a rocket man / Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.” Moreover, the narrator expresses his ambivalence, revealing a sense of triumph as well as defeat, by declaring several times, “I’m the Rocket Man.” The song ends by emphasizing the eternity of the flight, perhaps wondering if he will ever return home: “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time…”

In an insightful essay on the meaning of Rocket Man, the editors of Shmoop, describe the Rocket Man as an iconic American archetype, specifically that of the “cowboy”: “Elton John’s Rocket Man is a conflicted cowboy kind of character, torn between his love of the frontierlike realm of space and his home down on the range. When he’s at home on Earth, he yearns to be ‘high as a kite,’ soaring from Mars to Venus to Mercury. But when he’s in space, he misses the Earth: the blue sky, the warm sun, the salt wind, his wife. Space is both ‘lonely’ and ‘timeless.’ And yet while he never seems at ease with his lot in life, he is totally accepting of it for all of its flaws; it is his very identity: ‘I’m a rocket man.'” From there, they compare the rocket man to the idealized masculine man, as represented in the Western canon of literature (“the masculine man is defined by ‘courage’ (according to Cicero), self-reliance, and adherence to the law.”) But more appropriately, they compare the conflicted cowboy to Ulysses from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name (based, of course, on Homer’s epic The Odyssey) who is caught between the obligations of his duties as a Greek warrior and as a family man (husband and father). This is a brilliant insight: both Ulysses and the Rocket Man place duty before family, and are committed to completing their missions, willing to sacrifice time with their family (Ulysses asserts: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”) — and ultimately willing to sacrifice their own lives. The editors conclude: “these sacrifices somehow enrich the idea of being a rocket man, sticking it out alone in the name of essential masculine ideals.”

While we are on the topic of Tennyson’s poem, it is important to understand that the poem was written in 1833 as an elegy for a close college friend, Arthur Henry Hallam who died that year. In an interview, Tennyson explained that the poem expressed his own “need of going forward and braving the struggle of life” after the loss of his dear friend. And similarly, Elton John’s Rocket Man is also an elegy; both the poem and the song evoke a profound sense of sadness, knowing that in Ulysses’s words “death closes all.”

On a another level, Elton John’s Rocket Man underscores the paradox of the American Dream. The American Dream was first defined by James Adams in his book, The Epic of America, published in 1931. Adams wrote: “[The American Dream] is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement….  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Rooted in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence (equality, democracy, liberty, democracy, and opportunity), the American Dream is the promise of social mobility for men and women and their children; that is to say, America provides parents the opportunities to support their families through work, so that they and their children will have a better life than their parents. The paradox represented in John’s Rocket Man — as well as Bradbury’s short story and Rapp’s Rocket Man — is this: in order to support his family, the narrator must perform a job that pulls him away from his family; sadly he cannot raise his kids if he is not home. It is an age-old struggle: the choice between career (or work) work and family. The paradox of the American Dream is one of the most compelling themes of Elton John’s Rocket Man and why the song is as relevant today as it was almost half a century ago.

Read related posts: Who is Major Tom in the Bowie Songs?
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
Origin of the Beatles Name
How Rock Bands Got Their Names
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
Best Books for Music Lovers

For further reading: Tennyson (Everyman Library Pocket Poet Series) by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Captain Fantastic: Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the 70s by Tom Doyle
The American Dream: A Cultural History by Lawrence Samuel


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