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.