“And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home”
Elton John’s first hit was Your Song released in October of 1970. My wife, Abby, and I were living in St. Tropez then, and it was the only one of his songs we knew until a friend came to visit the following spring. Francois, a Pan Am friend from our San Francisco days, was on his way to Spain to open a summer bar on the Costa Blanca. He was traveling with a stereo system he bought in Tokyo, a pile of record albums from San Francisco that included Elton’s second album, Tumbleweed Connection, and plans to spin them in his new Spanish venture. I remember sitting on the quai at the exact location you see above as he was telling us his plan.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Francois’ plan was as simple as they get. He was going to rent a run-down boathouse in Calpe (above) where his friend, Paco, had an antique store. The doors of the boathouse opened onto a rocky beach 20’ from the Mediterranean. He would gut the interior, build a wooden bar, string some paper lanterns, stock the coolers with ice and alcohol (no refrigeration), and be ready for business. And, that’s what he did.
The first night he opened the doors at 9pm and closed around 4am. It was too busy. The second night he opened at 11pm, and it was packed again. It stayed that way all summer. At first, the crowd was young restaurant workers after their shifts, but word got around and soon it was the hottest bar in town. It was still too busy for Francois, so during week two he cut back to only one drink – rum and coke.
Every morning he took the receipts from the night before to the liquor store and restocked the coolers. It was, after all, a simple idea. One day at a time. Abby and I drove to Calpe to see him and loved the bar’s rough simplicity. Elton John, Santana, and the Beatles provided the soundtrack. The moon reflecting off the glassy Mediterranean was the backdrop, and a young international crowd provided the energy. It was summer in Spain. What Francois didn’t spend on re-stocking the bar he spent on lunch for his friends in the afternoon.
In the fall, he went back to work at Pan Am. It was rinse and repeat for three years. I don’t know what he was telling Pan Am, but after three years he quit the airline and opened a paella restaurant in the hills behind Calpe. But, this is not about Francois; it’s about Elton and me.
By 1975, I was back in New York, and Elton John was a superstar selling out stadiums world-wide. When you’re a pilot or flight attendant, flying is more about schedule than anything else, and that October I picked up a charter trip from London Heathrow to Los Angeles. In those days that was about as far as the 707 could fly without refueling, and I was assigned as the second co-pilot (required on very long flights).
When we arrived at the Heathrow dispatch office, we were told that Elton John had chartered the plane to take friends and staff to Los Angeles for one of his two sold out concerts at Dodger Stadium. Elton was not flying with us. He was already in LA, but he chartered the airplane for his friends and support staff. It was a mixed crowd of every description from bell-bottomed hipsters to aging pensioners – all along for a free ride and First Class food from London to Los Angeles.
It was one of the best flights I ever had. Things were relaxed in those days, and from take-off to landing we had the cockpit door open and the passengers came and went at will. Anyone who wanted to visit us did. I remember how well-mannered everyone was. It was not a wild rock and roll party. It was 170 of Elton’s friends and neighbors.
Our Pan Am crew didn’t go to the concert, but last weekend M and I saw the new Elton John biopic Rocketman. It included clips from Dodger Stadium that took my breath away. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend it. I always think it’s dangerous to make a movie about a living person, but this one is very good – sad and happy at the same time. Elton’s has not been a happy life and the movie doesn’t downplay that element. Today he seems fine. He’s been sober for 28 years, has a stable relationship with his partner, David Furnish, and is raising two young children. According to the film’s credits, he has raised $450 million in the last 25 years for AIDS research.
You probably have a favorite Elton John song. Mine is still Your Song, his first hit, but yours may be Candle in the Wind, Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting, Daniel, or Tiny Dancer. Whatever it is, see the movie and then listen to your song again. It will be different.