Love and Rockets

They can say I'm a fat old cunt, they can say I'm an untalented bastard, they can call me a poof, but they musn't tell lies about me.

--Elton John, discussing a libel suit

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago this week, Elton John's "Rocket Man" topped out at #6 on the American pop charts. The song is--lesser superlatives aside--a masterpiece. The piano knocks out chords that are intimate and confessional in their familiarity: This tune was destined for a thousand AM rock stations, for tiny treble speakers on the ceilings of sports bars. The bass walks hushedly over an octave. Elton warbles the first line--She packed my bags last night pre-flight--so as to skip any caesura between the last three words. He leaps into falsetto for the "timeless flight," and misses the note. Soon, the piano bounces with Caucasian syncopation. Elton's voice multiplies with multitracking. Steve Miller-ian sound effects signify solid-fuel booster rockets hurtling through the icy vacuum that is space. "I'm not the man they think I am at home," Elton sings, "Oh no no no... I'm a rocket man!"

I suspect that nearly everyone of a certain age understood exactly the way he was feeling.

But then how many of us can identify--I mean really identify--with the pressures of donning a Donald Duck suit before half a million screaming fans in New York's Central Park? Even among the lonely satellites of 1970s single life, Elton John was, in every sense, "higher than a kite." "I fucking loved cocaine," he told writer Ian Parker in a New Yorker profile last year. "It opened me up. But in the end all I was doing was sitting in my room doing it on my own and watching pornographic videos for two weeks at a time." Later in the piece, Elton John attributes his HIV-negative status to a sexual predilection toward voyeurism.

What we have here, it would seem, is a failure to reach out and touch someone--which brings us to AT&T and its outgoing CEO Robert E. Allen. Allen is perhaps best known for having "touched" 40,000 employees in 1996 ("touched" being as good a euphemism as "downsized") while earning $5.2 million in salary and approximately $16 million in total compensation. "There used to be a lifelong commitment on our employee's part and on our part," he told Time magazine last January. "But our people now realize that the contract does not exist anymore."

It's lonely out in space Elton John sang; and AT&T has taken that notion to heart. In a new spot, AT&T has appropriated "Rocket Man" to describe the Flying Dutchman of the new job market--the free agent compelled to travel the globe in search of the love of a good corporation. Here is "Rocket Man" recontextualized (and heterosexualized) into a 30-second soap opera of love and faxes in the age of missing information.

Let's set the scene. A handsome man pads across his bedroom; in the background, his wife slumbers, glowing, as pale as her bleached sheets. We watch the nameless husband through the plexiglas window of an airport, boarding a DC-9 to parts unknown. The airborne commuter discovers an amethyst-colored barrette in his briefcase; she clasps its twin to the bottom of their daughter's braid. He plugs his laptop into the onboard phone jack and sends a one line fax: Meet me on the porch at 9:00.Back on earth, the sheet drops from the fax machine to the floor like the paper from Steven J. Cannell's typewriter at the end-credits of Miami Vice. One notices an almost imperceptible lift in her carriage as she retrieves the page--a flexion of the calves that connotes "girlishness." This is the nuclear family before the fission kicked in: back to the future, fully realized.

Night falls in the flight cabin and a crepuscular burnish settles across the foyer of the house. His plane speeds across a computer-enhanced rendering of the luminous arch of our Milky Way; she stands backlit by the same, portable phone in hand, eyes half-shut in nuptial rapture. They talk. Cut to: the striped wafer of the AT&T logo orbited by bright discs of light--a computer-generated lens flare. White lettering on a black screen reads It's all within your reach.

What this "all" means is a different thing for Robert E. Allen, Elton John and the fictional Romeo of the fax machine... and for the rest of us fat old cunts as well. This Disneyland is no ordinary house of cards, but a mansion of vapor and contradiction: celluloid for brick; fiber-optic cable for mortar. This is where we sit on the couch, riding the remote control. Our reach always exceeding our grasp.

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