Watch Elton John's Immensely Moving 9/11 Version of "Rocket Man"

Art mostly failed us after the 9/11 attacks, but Captain Fantastic and others bound our wounds with spectacular responses.



On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I published an essay in Reason titled "Why Art Failed Us After 9/11." My basic argument was the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were ultimately so senseless and pointless that they mostly escaped our capacity to come to terms with them. A number of prominent artists, musicians, and writers—I focus on Bruce Springsteen and Don DeLillo at length—tried to process the attacks and failed, largely because they refused to inhabit the actual scene of the crime. Ground Zero, it seemed, was the one place no one could figuratively stay near because the mound of flesh, bone, and rubble was just too much to bear.

At the same time, there were artists who I thought rose to the occasion, especially in terms of offering comfort in the aftermath of the attacks. From the essay:

Two consciously artistic gestures stand out, one of them ephemeral and the other highly praised. In December 2001, Elton John performed a "Live by Request" concert on the A&E cable channel, in which fans could call in and ask the one-time Captain Fantastic to perform their favorite tunes. Like McCartney, Young, and Springsteen, John has seen far better days, both as an artist and as a seller of merchandise. No act dominated the '70s charts like Sir Elton, that rare pop star whose commercial success was surpassed only by his interest in pushing the envelope musically. Since that long-ago heyday, he has survived a sham marriage, cut-out bins full of regrettable albums, hair plugs gone bad, multiple addictions and near-bankruptcies, the almost total loss of one of the most memorable voices in rock, and worse. He soldiers on, touring well past middle age, fat, bald, off-key, and generally happy.

A woman called in to John's concert and explained that her husband was a first responder who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. She said that his favorite song was John's 1972 hit "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long Long Time)." There John was at the piano looking uncomfortably from the side like Marlon Brando tickling the ivories in The Island of Dr. Moreau, wheezing his way through a song that all of us had heard a million times before, including unintentional and intentional parody versions by the likes of William Shatner, Chris Elliott, and Stewie from Family Guy. The song's scant lyrics can be charitably described as sub-literate ("Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids…and there's no one there to raise them if you did") yet in John's croaky reading they managed to capture a profound sense of isolation, fear, and loss eerily resonant with the moment: "I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife/It's lonely out in space/On such a timeless flight/…Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone." John was sweating profusely, his voice cracking on virtually every note, high and low. The song hushed the crowd, giving all who heard it four minutes of intense communion with the dead.

I've searched for that particular performance online but haven't been able to locate it. The other brilliant meditation on 9/11 suffered no such fate. The 2008 documentary Man on Wire is readily available for sale online and can be streamed at sites such as Netflix and Amazon. The deserving winner of an Academy Award, James Marsh's film retells the story of the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who in 1974 strung a cable between the Twin Towers and spent the better part of an hour performing 1,300 feet above a sparse but rapidly growing audience in lower Manhattan before being taken into custody. No moving footage of the actual performance remains, so the narrative is told through period stills, newsreels, interviews, and dramatic reconstructions. As with 9/11, we know how the story ends, yet the tension throughout the film is almost unbearable.

US Navy, Wikimedia

Time and again, Petit's grand, longplanned conspiracy almost fails to come together, and yet when he finally takes to the air, all those struggles melt away into a celebration of man's outer limits of possibility as Petit literally dances on thin air. The tight-rope walker and his confederates, along with everyone from the comically accented and mustachioed cop who arrests Petit after the act to newscasters from the '70s, meditate in real time and in retrospect on how they knew they were participating in something that would never happen again—that could never happen again. New, tighter security measures would see to that, but also because Petit had crossed over into international celebrity. The world of all those involved was irrevocably changed.

The brilliance of the movie is that it allows us to visit the World Trade Center and linger there for as long as we wish, while never pretending to forget the gaping hole that will always be there no matter what physically replaces the destroyed buildings. The film is no exercise in feel-good nostalgia; it doesn't allow us to escape the utter destruction of 9/11 so as much as it compels us to face a moment in time that can never be revised. It is what it is, to quote a phrase that became ubiquitous after 9/11. Throughout Man on Wire, all the people involved in Petit's plot—an immensely complicated and lucky conspiracy of joie de vivre that almost perfectly mirrors the dark-hearted death plot of 9/11—break down in tears as they recall the precise moment when the tightrope walker stepped out into the void between the North and South Towers. Decades later, they are rendered mute by memory, overwhelmed by the recollection of a moment when the unthinkable became reality, if only briefly.

It is in those unstoppable, unabsorbable tears that art honors the dead of 9/11, because it allows us to remember a day we all wish to forget. Here art offers not a refuge from reality but an entry back into it. "Two years, ten years," writes Sandburg, "and the passengers ask the conductor, What place is this? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work." The most powerful art of 9/11 refuses to let that happen by refusing to insist that we must make sense out of a senseless act.

Read "Why Art Failed Us After 9/11."

As it happens, Twitter user RModiz sent me a link to Elton John's post-9/11 concert and I'm happy to share his live version of "Rocket Man" from December 2001. It should be cued up to that moment, but if not, it begins at the 22-minute mark:

And here's the trailer for Man on Wire, which is available on various streaming services:

NEXT: 15 Years After 9/11, Will the West Shut Itself Down To Freedom Like the Arab World Has?

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  1. I enjoyed The Walk, which Gillespie seems to be purposefully leaving out of his ode. I wonder what he has against JGL.

    1. I’m making over $15k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. Read more on this web site… http://www.14earnpath.com

    2. Because Man on Wire tells the story well enough as is, without resorting to CGI?

  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/th…..-campaign/

    The same Post hack who last week said it was ridiculous to even talk about Hillary’s health today admits it might be a big deal. Think about how badly the media fucked Democratic voters. They lied and covered up the truth about Hillary’s health, keeping an issue out of the public’s eye that could have flipped the nomination to Sanders or someone else. Now they are stuck with a nominee whose health may lose her the election regardless of other issues. How angry must your typical Bernie supporter be if it turns out that there is something seriously wrong with Hillary?

    1. That article spends 80% of its effort in “clarifying” how it wasn’t wrong to dismiss the ‘conspiracies’ before. And uses the word “conspiracy” like 5 times, ensuring that everyone is super clear that those *other* people who raised questions about her health? Are STILL wrong and awful. Just now that there’s ‘new information’, and as honest and responsible media, they must look into this now.

      1. It is one big CYA. The problem for hacks like Chizilla is that unlike other issues involving Hillary, the problem isn’t Republicans. It is Democrats. I don’t think Democrats who supported Sanders or HIlarry but would not have had they known the truth about her healthy are going to buy the “until now there was no way to know” bullshit.

        1. I eagerly await tonight’s news reports to see if this incident is even mentioned – and if it is, how they will spin it.

          My God, the woman was obviously out on her feet.

        2. It’s just hilarious that Cillizza had to write this today. Earlier this week, he was in full Frank Drebbin “Nothing to see here!” mode. Despite having himself raised questions about McCain’s health in 2008.

          As someone said, emergency rooms should be prepared to treat mobs of Democrats who have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to explain this away.

          1. You would think that an issue that has gotten so much commentary on these boards would elicit some sort of post. I really don’t need 5,000 words of navel gazing diarrhea from Nick to accompany a simple copy – paste of the video showing the Democratic presidential nominee being dragged to her limo.

            Probably too many cosmopolitans were imbibed by the Reason editors last night – that’s why none of them are awake.

          2. The entire internet reeks of Democratic flop sweat.

          3. The twittersphere has gone full prog apeshit. I’ve already seen linked to, and a reason for, single-payer and climate change action NOW!

    2. The very same Post hack was singing a different tune in 2013, before he switched to the full protection formation in the election year.

      “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to be on the road to recovery from a blood clot near her brain caused by a concussion she suffered several weeks ago in a fall at her house. . . . But, even if Clinton has no long-term effects from this health scare, it will, without question, influence how she is covered if she decides to run for president in 2016. Here’s why: 1. Clinton would be 69 years old if she runs in 2016. . . . 2. This is the second time in the past 15 years that Clinton has had a blood clot issue. . . . Add those two factors up and it’s clear that Clinton will have to answer lots?and lots?of questions about her health if she decides to get into the next race for president. Answering health questions is nothing new for those who want to be president of the United States.”?Chris Cilizza, “The Fix,” Washington Post website, Jan. 2, 2013

      1. Another(!) coverup by the DNC, provided you believe it’s pneumonia, and not Parkinson’s, which is a better fit to her months of issues.

        And another bad judgment demo by Hildog if she has pneumonia what the hell was she doing with hectic schedules?

        Parkinson’s!! I’d bet.

        1. “And another bad judgment demo by Hildog if she has pneumonia what the hell was she doing with hectic schedules?”

          Trying to out-Harrison old William Henry?

        2. I’m not seeing much commentary on it, but did you notice the odd blue lens sunglasses Clinton was wearing on an overcast day? They look a lot like the kind of lenses people who have photosensitive epilepsy might wear to prevent a seizure from unexpected flashes of light, like camera flashes. Epileptic seizures can also be a symptom of Parkinson’s, apparently.

          Of course they might just be stylish sunglasses…from a candidate not known for bold fashion choices.

  3. Whoa, John sure has reached a Shatner level of puffiness in that video. It’s appropriate he’s in that phyiscal state when he takes “Rocket Man” back from the Shat.

    1. It is easy to forget how great John was back in the day. There was not a bad song on any of his first seven albums. Between 1969 and 1973 he did the following seven records.

      Empty Sky (1969)
      Elton John (1970)
      Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
      Madman Across the Water (1971)
      Honky Ch?teau (1972)
      Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
      Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

      Short of the Beatles, that is as good of a run to start a career as anyone has ever had.

      1. That is so gay.

        Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay.

        1. If every act could make music like that, I wouldn’t care if the entire music industry went queer.

          1. Elton John fuckin’ rocked during the 70s. He paired with Bernie Taupin was classic.

      2. He was born a pauper
        To a pawn on a Christmas day
        When the New York Times
        Said God is dead and the war’s begun

      3. Elton John was between 21 and 26 years old when he recorded those albums? the prime ages of creativity.

  4. “At the same time, there were artists who I thought rose to the occasion, especially in terms of offering comfort in the aftermath of the attacks.”

    I thought one of the best at this was the first issue of The Onion after the attacks:


    Look at each and every headline and story on that front page!

    The Onion was a bigger part of the whole internet experience back then, and when no one else knew what to print, whether it was safe to be funny again, or what was okay to talk about, etc., America really did look to “America’s Finest News Source” to take the lead.

    And they nailed it.

    A lot of things became okay to say after that.

    1. And to think now you can’t tell Onion news from the real thing…

    2. When I saw the “art failed us” line, I immediately wanted to post something about The Onion. Their response was absolutely brilliant. Here’s the “Hijackers surprised to find selves in hell” article.

      And the equally brilliant “God Angrily Clarifies Don’t Kill Rule”.

    1. Conscripted by the Nazis, captured by the Soviets, and later drafted by the Americans and stationed in Germany!

      1. His father was conscripted by the Nazis and captured by the Soviets.

        He was conscripted by the Nazis to dig trenches at 15 and then conscripted by the Americans to fight in Korea and then station in Germany.

  5. Since the Reason writers always take forever to bring you the latest news … I’ll just leave this here:

    Hillary Clinton had a “medical episode” that required her to leave a 9/11 commemoration ceremony early on Sunday

    She literally collapsed at the memorial service and had to be carted away.

    1. Never mind those 26 other coughing episodes – now even that hack Chris Cillizza thinks it’s an issue:


      1. Like I say above, Cillliza screwed liberals and Democratic voters. Mabye lying isn’t always a good idea.

        1. Sorry … I missed your 1:06 post

          You would think that an issue that has gotten so much commentary on these boards would elicit some sort of post. I really don’t need 5,000 words of navel gazing diarrhea from Nick to accompany a simple copy – paste of the video showing the Democratic presidential nominee being dragged to her limo.

          Probably too many cosmopolitans were imbibed by the Reason editors last night – that’s why none of them are awake.

          1. Navel gazing is Nick’s move. It is what he does.

    2. Reason doesn’t give us the latest news? Are you telling us that Elton John’s moving rendition of Rocket Man isn’t a top story?

      I doubt Reason ever covers the Hillary episode outside maybe an AM link.

    3. I hate the old hag, but seriously, would be pretty easy for her to turn this around. I was overcome by emotion remembering that horrible day would be all it would take. Would make any critism of her look like nasty politics. If I were her PR guy I would be hoping for attacks againat her stemming from a 9/11 memorial. They’ll be other, better opportunities to bring her health into the equation. Opportunities that won’t end up helping her.

      1. Her PR guy should have pepper sprayed her. At least it would look like she was crying.

        She’s fucked. She probably should have stayed home, but it would look bad to not attend the memorial.

        1. I wish I were as optimistic as y’all are. I thought she was fucked 100x over already and yet there she is.

          1. Like I said in an earlier post: The medical issue is probably minor. But she is going to lie about it for a few weeks, until she can’t lie anymore. Her first instinct is to always lie, and it always makes things worse in the long run.

            This election was hers to lose, and she’s doing a great job.

            1. I think you’re wrong. There are too many serious issues that they have already admitted to. There must be more going on.

            2. The democrats will vote for Hillary’s corpse. You watch.

    4. I don’t understand why the Clinton campaign is fighting this. She would probably get more votes if she promised to pull a William Henry Harrison and die shortly after inauguration.

  6. My niece has informed me that somebody on Facebook (presumably with access to a “This Day In History” calendar or something) has posted the odd coincidence that 9/11 is also the anniversary of something called the Battle of Vienna where the Muslim tide began to turn in Europe. Yes, “odd coincidence”. Not that they chose that exact date as a statement to the effect that there had only been a few-hundred year lull in the fighting between Islam and the West and it was back on again.

    1. Yep. I heard it mentioned once or twice right after the attack and then…poof! We don’t want to stir up that islamophobia by pointing out that the islamic world never thought the war ended and consider us their mortal enemies.

      1. I heard it mentioned once or twice right after the attack and then…poof!

        You heard it mentioned by who? Western rightists who are advancing the “battle of civilizations” narrative, or… the attackers themselves?

        Usually, when the terrorists want something to have symbolic significance they can’t shut up about it. If this idea is something other than a convenient narrative for Western rightists, surely you can provide at least one citation where an actual terrorist or terrorist sympathizer refers to the idea?

        1. who


          (my Ottoman kingdom for an “edit” feature…)

        2. I don’t consider Christopher Hitchens a western rightist.

          I also remember an Egyptian writer explaining the difference in eastern and western thought, a difference that came about primarily because of the enlightenment that had occurred in the west. The west seeing things mostly in terms of current events and the east seeing things mostly in terms of history going back a thousand years.

          I don’t hold a grudge against Germans living today even though their grandfathers were shooting at Americans with their K98s less than a hundred years ago. On the other hand I hear many voices coming from the ME with quite a different sentiment.

          1. I don’t consider Christopher Hitchens a western rightist.

            Meh, almost went with “Western Anti-Islamists” but (excepting the single hardcore-lefty-gadfly-that- Western-rightists-agree-with-on-Islam) really I only hear this idea from Western Rightists.

            You seem to be making my point, though. If the terrorists did it on this day for that reason, there’d be at least one actual terrorist or terrorist sympathizer coming out with it, no? And not just Western students of history who are opposed to Islam?

    2. Not that they chose that exact date as a statement to the effect that there had only been a few-hundred year lull in the fighting between Islam and the West and it was back on again.

      Has there ever been any indication from their side that they meant this?

      Perhaps September 11th was the first day they could all get tickets for, or any of many, many other less “just so” reasons?

      In the absence of any indication whatsoever that they meant this, it feels like reaching to me. YMMV.

      1. I’ve never seen anything from Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed attributing any historical significance to the date, which you’d think they’d have mentioned if the date was chosen for that reason. Furthermore, if Islamic terrorists were to choose a date for a terrorist attack, they would surely choose the date based on it being an anniversary on the Islamic calendar, wouldn’t they? The Islamic calendar continually drifts from the Gregorian calendar, so it’s quite rare for something to be an anniversary on both calendars. In this specific instance, September 11, 2001 was the 22nd day of Jumada II, the sixth month of the Islamic calendar, year 1422, while September 11, 1683 was the 19th day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, year 1094. And then of course there’s the fact that should always be pointed out to anyone trying to find significance in the dates of different historic events — there are only 365 days in a year on the Gregorian calendar, but there are tens of thousands or more historic events, thus you can pretty much always find a “relevant” historic event for any given date.

  7. Why Art Failed Us After 9/11

    It’s kinda hard to follow…

    …the greatest possible work of art in the entire cosmos.

    9/11 produced the greatest moment in art criticism

  8. Toby Keith’s 9/11 song a bit too manly for you, Gillespie?

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