The Well-Tempered Songbook: #46 Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
Warm June applause explodes and sparkles on the brick cobblestone. We are drenched to the bone in liquid helium, but we have not yet floated out of the Columbia University in the City of New York Stadium.
*She’s got electric boobs, a Mohawk suit, You know I read it in a magazine…
Tony is making fun of me. He shows me Bennie’s picture in the album foldout. He tells me she likes to dress up like Pocahontas on stage. She wears platform heels and an Iroquois space suit made out of helium balloons. When Bennie and the Jets come out on stage it takes eight stagehands and a crane to tether them down with rope so they don’t float out of the stadium. They wear bras made out of pink neon tubing and the cones swirl around in circles and arrows like a casino. If I touched both breasts at the same time I’d explode from the electricity.
He has a picture he will show me if I tell him every word I know for breasts. I think of what I can. I know some words that are funny, and both of us laugh together when I say them. For a moment we are friends. His sister Marianne comes into the room and in front of her he asks me to repeat one of the words I called breasts, but he makes a new word up and says it in a strange voice pretending to be me. After Marianne leaves I ask him if he knows Raquel Welch to remind him about the picture, but he says he doesn’t know her, she doesn’t go to his school. She’s not his friend.
Tony’s not really a friend. He’s a teenager and he used to be nice when we were younger. He’s the son of my parents’ friends. He complained one time that my brother and I were always coming over and he had to babysit us the whole night. But sometimes he is nice. It depends. Marianne isn’t as old, but she’s in high school, too, and she’s kind of the same. She does what he says. When our parents are in the living room up late downstairs I have to hang out in one of their rooms until it is over.
Tony was telling me about drugs. He asked me what I thought drugs were like, and I said it is like when you see cartoon characters and there are colorful swirls in the air, and your legs and arms feel very long like Gumby’s. He made fun of that and said that was totally wrong. He wanted to know where I learned that, and I told him I saw a picture of it in MAD Magazine, and he said MAD Magazine doesn’t know what it is talking about. He shows me the front cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road where it shows Elton John stepping into a giant poster on a wall. He said THAT’s what it’s like. You go to another world. It’s not like this world at all. You step into it and it’s like the Wizard of Oz.
He said this regular world just sucks and the music in our world is fake just like the little wind-up piano in the album picture and there are ugly factory buildings, but when you go to the other world it is amazing. There is another completely different music there, and in that world our music is just like the normal sound of everybody talking. I asked him if he’d been and he wouldn’t say, but I don’t think so. He said his dad has already been a bunch of times and his mom has almost been.
He said Elton John loved the other world so much he hated being in this world and he’d stuck his head in an oven and tried to kill himself lots of times. That was a fact he said. There were magazine articles to prove it, and I said I didn’t believe him and he showed me, and he was right. And when the kids are “so spaced out” in Bennie and the Jets it is because they are on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. What did I think was the spotlight that could change the weather?
Tony has really good headphones his dad bought him with thick curly plug wire and a volume control on one of the ears. He played the opening part to Bennie and the Jets for me and told me to pull the plug out of his hi-fi when I couldn’t take the volume any more. He said he’d bet I wouldn’t even get to 5. He kept playing it from the beginning over and over and I did get all the way to 10 before I pulled the headphone plug out and then the speakers came on incredibly loud and I might have screamed a tiny bit. Then all our parents rushed up into his room holding their drinks and asking us what was going on. Tony was laughing and said in front of all the adults that he turned my head up to 10. His dad used a bad word, and then Tony was laughing right in front of his mom, and that made my parents look at each other.
I asked him later if he thought there was really something that made the world magical. He said that was stupid, there’s no such thing as magical, but if you can step into a poster it does sound magical, and he said I wouldn’t understand because I was too young. But I did understand: you don’t actually step into a poster. It’s Oz but it is a different kind of Oz and that’s just a way of describing it, but he didn’t care that I understood and he kept talking about MAD Magazine like that was the only thing he could say whenever I spoke.
There are times I’d like to be a baseball player for the Phillies. I don’t even need to play a lot, but I’d like to just be on the team and play backup second base and get to bat sometimes as a pinch hitter. And I think driving a race car on a track would be amazing even where they just time you going around in practice or getting to go to the moon someday, of course, or living underwater in a colony of scientists, but almost nobody gets to do jobs like that and everybody wants them and you have to go to special schools in Florida and there are only so many places for people who want to go. It’s probably not like that is going to happen and I’m one of the shorter boys in my class.
But when I’m grown up I want to feel what happens at the beginning of Bennie and the Jets. I want to go to a show with the crowd yelling like that. I want to be inside the room where you can actually see the music. It’s like the whole world is going on inside that room. It’s hard to imagine anything better or more exciting, and there probably isn’t anything better or you would have heard about it. It’s like a home run that lasts the whole night. Because when you’re a kid it is like the world hasn’t started, and you’re always waiting for it to get started all the time.
Tony laughed at me and then he wouldn’t talk about it anymore and he turned off the speakers on purpose. He put his headphones on and pretended not to listen and I sat in the beanbag chair and looked at the album cover until it was really late. I tried as hard as I could not to fall asleep because Tony complained to his mom that I always fell asleep in his room every time I came over. Then it was finally time to go and my parents came for me still holding their drinks and my coat and laughing about something from downstairs.
Hey, kids! It’s 3:45 in the morning. I was supposed to be studying in Columbia University in the City of New York’s Butler Library when Jim found me with some girls we met a few weeks before. As an extra security precaution each of the girls agree to put a different lipstick color spot on their foreheads so we’ll be able to find them if they get lost or we are separated. Red. Purple. Blue.
For hours now we have been darting and bobbing beneath aerial bass bombs, inverted boom box syncopation, twisted dishrag falsetto, backwards Dixieland tremolo piano rolls, and rewound Memorex tape melisma. I have taught myself to time the slap-back echo off the face of Columbia University in the City of New York’s Low Library with my upraised palm reverberation flipper.
It is 3:21 in the morning, and the five of us are holding our shoes and socks in our hands and walking barefoot conga-line across the university walkway pavers. Blue Dot has pulled the back of my button-down shirt out of my pants and she’s trailing behind me like a water skier, which she says is the only way we can red-light green-light our way past the security guard booth without being questioned.
Candy Red Dot tells me to stand still. She presses her forehead against mine and rolls her head back and forth. I can feel her body laughing and shaking its way into my chest cavity like wet, black soil thrown around my exposed root system. She inspects my head and tells me I now have her spot. Afterwards I open my jaw a certain way and my heart pumps in my ears like an orange bass drum. I show Red Dot the exact angle of how to do this, and she can feel the same thing. It’s because of the red spotlight, she says.
It starts to rain.
Goodbye, Blue Dot. Goodbye, Purple Dot. (Goodnight, Jim.) Red Dot takes my hand and asks me to walk her home. Eight stagehands and a crane guide our long, delicate legs along the university walkway on mental marionette strings. We head past Furnald and around the corner towards the dorm. Warm June applause explodes and sparkles on the brick cobblestone. We are drenched to the bone in liquid helium, but we have not yet floated out of the Columbia University in the City of New York Stadium. I remember suddenly that I am still holding the miniature socks and shoes of a child. For just a moment there I’d almost forgotten his b-b-b-bare feet, his hands, his smile.
It is 3.14159 in the morning, and I step into my album cover.