Music: Elton John
Lyrics: Bernie Taupin
Vocals: Page (lead)
Original Artist: Elton John
Original Album: Honky Château (1972)
Historian: Josh Wenger
Last Update: 2011-08-22
“Rocket Man (I Think It's Gonna Be A Long Time)” is the fifth track on the 1972 Elton John album Honky Château. Recorded in January 1972 and released in May of 1972, Honky Château climbed to #1 on the U.S. Billboard Pop Album Chart. The “Rocket Man” single was released in April 1972 (before the album was released) and reached #6 on the U.S. Billboard Pop Singles Chart. "Rocket Man" was also ranked #245 in the 2004 list of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
The music to “Rocket Man” was written by Elton John and the lyrics were penned by longtime friend and collaborator, Bernie Taupin. Several different accounts exist on the origins and inspiration for the lyrics to Rocket Man. Bernie Taupin has acknowledged that the 1951 book The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury – a collection of 18 short stories – was a direct influence for the song. One of these short stories is titled "Rocket Man," which tells a story of an astronaut and his family who tries to cope without him while he is traveling through space. Originally thought of as a hero, the life of an astronaut becomes more of a "job" and The Rocket Man realizes that he cannot help raise his family while traveling in space. Yet every time he returns home to earth the draw of the sky and the stars pulls him back towards space, creating a dual life between home and space. Many fans can relate to a parallel between home and tour in their own lives.
Elton John, “Rocket Man” – Edinburgh, Scotland, 1976
Other possible influences for Bernie Taupin's lyrics may include David Bowie's 1969 song "Space Oddity." The title and subject matter of “Space Oddity” were inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduced the character of Major Tom. Due to some similarities between Bowie's "Space Oddity" and Elton John's "Rocket Man," some presume that Taupin's lyrics might also be an allusion to David Bowie's character Major Tom. Some commentators have also seen the song as a metaphor for heroin use, citing the opening countdown as analogous to the drug's passage down the needle prior to the euphoric 'hit'. (Phish teased “Space Oddity” during the intro to “David Bowie” on 10/26/89).
Taupin has also mentioned another song titled "Rocket Man" – recorded by the band Pearls Before Swine on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes – as being a direct influence for his lyrics. Since Elton John's 1972 release of "Rocket Man," countless cover versions have surfaced from all over the musical landscape as well as numerous uses of the song in television and movies. Among these covers, a cult favorite was a spoken-word performance by William Shatner at the 1978 Saturn Awards ceremony.
William Shatner, “Rocket Man” – 1978 Saturn Awards
Phish soundchecked “Rocket Man” back on 11/2/91 and 11/22/91 (the 11/2/91 version circulates), but Phish's first public performance of an Elton John song came on 8/13/97 when they opened the Star Lake show with a cover of "Amoreena," which worked very well for Page and his piano. “Amoreena” has since been heard as post-show exit music at several Phish gigs.
Among the band members Page has the strongest connection to Elton John, as he has also played "Amoreena" while touring with his band Vida Blue, as well as other Elton John songs "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon." On 10/10/07 Page was given the honor of playing "Amoreena" solo on piano as part of a tribute concert to Elton John & Bernie Taupin at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
”Rocket Man” banner, 8/9/11, Stateline, NV
In 2009, when Phish released their "99 possible Halloween albums list" preceding Festival 8, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road appeared as one of the 99 possible albums, although ironically that album does not contain any of the songs that Page had played previously.
Given some of these earlier connections between Phish and Elton John – as well as the science fiction connection to William Shatner that many fans have – a growing number of fans thought it would be funny if Phish would play “Rocket Man” (again). Some thought it would be even funnier if they did a version closer to William Shatner's spoken-word version (possibly as a Fishman tune). So a “Rocket Man” sign was made out of bright yellow paper, cut out in the shape of a rocket and on the back was a running count of "Days Since Last Rocket Man," which when the sign debuted at the 11/21/09 Cincinnati show read “6,580 Days Since Last Rocket Man” (almost 18 years to the day).
”Rocket Man” mini-signs, 8/9/11, Stateline, NV
Since that Cincinnati show, the Rocket Man sign traveled almost as far as the band, if not further, attending some 50+ phish shows and other music events. Finally, on 8/9/11 at Harvey's Casino in Lake Tahoe, a larger, grass-roots push was made to get the song played. In addition to the original sign, a gigantic Rocket Man banner was hung from the bleachers and over 1,200 small "rockets on a stick" were made and distributed to fans to hold up during the show. Cosmic forces finally aligned and Phish debuted their version of Elton John's "Rocket Man" in the second set following “Free.” Phish's cover is much like the original Elton John version, with piano used as the main instrument and Page singing lead vocals. At 4:24, Phish's version is about the same length as Elton's 4:41 original Honky Château version.
What started out as a joke and a simple suggestion for the band to "Play Rocket Man" turned into a dream come true for many fans. One fan in particular had been wearing a green "Play Rocket Man" shirt since Knickerbocker '09. Not sure if he needs to wear that shirt anymore...