I’m a Rocket Man

One day Gabriel Marcel, not wishing to appear erudite, nevertheless said this erudite thing:

Through a phrase from Brahms…which ran through my head for an afternoon, I have suddenly come to see that there is a universality which is not of the conceptual order, that is the key to the idea of music. But how hard it is to understand! The idea can only be the fruit of a kind of spiritual gestation.

For three months, somewhere in the early 70’s, I worked the midnight shift at the APD MacMillan Bloedel sawmill in Port Alberni, BC. Along with friends, I had been living on the beaches of Hornby Island, and as cheap as that could be, money still ebbed and was no more. We picked up the quickest employment possible, and Port Alberni always answered the call.

I gathered up flayed tree flesh from underneath the sharp-toothed grinding wheels of the debarker, swept up the sawdust from under the huge circular bucking saw and from under the headrig saw that opened up and partitioned each log like an orange. Most of my collection I would shovel down a shoot back out into the Alberni Inlet where the sidewinder boats nosed logs toward the jackladder which lifted them into the mill. I worked alone.

Every morning after my shift I would stop for breakfast on 10th Avenue at a café I no longer recall the name of except that it was something generic, like Alberni Cafe; and while waiting for my eggs, bacon and toast, I would walk to the jukebox and hit E11. I was almost always alone in the restaurant and the cook didn’t mind if I sometimes reached around back and turn it up.

In seven or so seconds the 45 dropped to the turntable which whirled to life and the arm fell and bounced and the needle found the groove and the speaker cracked and I’d hear the B-flat piano chord and wait for the base run that started high and tumbled, and I’d hear Elton John sing, “I packed my bags last night, preflight, zero hour, nine a.m." And the coffee shimmered in my cup and beyond the grease-gauzy windows the sky lifted and I would think of home, three years away, and I’d think of being alone, and think of everyone at the Bird house, on Burde Street—friends, some waking up and going to the mill, others sleeping in the living room, and I would feel the pull of solitude and space and feel the equally strong longing of being with friends that were like family, and I’d sing low, “I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh no, no, no, I’m a Rocket man…Rocket man burnin’ out his fuse up here alone.” And I was…a Rocket Man…floating free above the Arborite table and cracked linoleum and above Port Alberni, and high over Cathedral Grove and up over the gulf islands where magic happened and boats bobbed off shore at night and the stars shot the lights out of each other in late summer, and they’d streak and fall into the Pacific sending phosphorescent waves to shore.

It’s a song that has marked a place inside me, and whenever I hear it, it sets me to long moments of wondering. But all that time ago, working alone through those graveyard shifts, the song kept me hinged and lucid—more than an escape, it gave the nod to my experience and kept me somehow integrated, connected to a long and larger view.

The best version is still on Honky Chateau (1972), but here’s an extended live version, for old Elton John fans: Take with headphones and a glass of Merlot.


  1. I love the sentiment and scope of this blog, I however disagree with the wine imbibing. There are a number of great books that expound on this topic, this article mentions two of my favourites: Jack Van Impe’s “Alcohol the Beloved Enemy” and William Patton’s classic book “Bible Wines or Laws of Fermentation and Wines of the Ancients.” I have both if you ever want to read them. I also think we are called to a very high standard and should model abstinence for the men in Breakout and the women in Wellspring. I love you Steve but I have no room in my life for alcoholic beverages.
    Norman Weatherly

  2. I think I’d like to weigh in with an observation on the preceding comment. I’m assuming (and forgive me if I’m wrong) that the programs mentioned (Breakout and Wellspring) might be some form of alcohol addiction programs. If so I thought as someone who has worked with addictions of various forms for a number of years that I’d like to make an observation. Loneliness, childhood trauma, pain of various kinds are all precipitators of humans falling into addictions of one kind or another. As Gabor Mate points out there are many ‘acceptable’ addictions which are no less harmful – case in point: his addiction to classical music. If we see the object that addicts as the problem then I think we can easily miss the essentials; the important. Therefore it is not the alcohol drinking that is the real issue but instead it is the underlying emotion that will continue to keep a person addicted long after they quit drinking.

    May I also be curious Steve if you may have forestalled some form of addiction in your own life by allowing Elton John to infuse your loneliness?

    For what it’s worth….

  3. Thank you for weighing in Lucy. Yes, the Breakout and Wellspring programs are in fact alcohol and drug recovery programs at Hope Mission. And I do like your take on the idea of the underlying emotion being key to any form of addiction.

    And yes, Elton John’s song was a kind of catharsis…although I hadn’t thought of this in terms of addiction. Of course this little post was supposed to be about the song and it’s effects…but I appreciate most any thoughts:)

  4. Hay Steve
    I never heard this version before but I love it. I got to say I think I will sit down with a glass of beer, after all I do have a little German in me.
    That was a great trip down memory lane.

  5. It was 105 F. We had ridden our motorcycles all day on the red talcum ruts that were called ‘roads’ in the jungles of NE Thailand. We had staked out new development projects – transit, chains, stakes. And then we ran out of water. Stopped at a shack called a store in a place that barely passed for a villge. The only thing cold…the only liquid you could trust…was beer. And me, at the time a tea-totaler in a denomination of tea-totaler…and out of my mind with thirst. My white tee-shirt and blue jeans were red with dust, and you could only tell the colour of my skin when I removed my goggles. But I never tasted anything as refreshing in my life.

    Not for; not against.

    But still dancing in the waters of the serendipity and irony of God. It was a transformative experience. And I cannot wait until the next surprise!!!

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