Once again I refused to write a Cycling Week last week. My rides were too erratic, too inattentive, too spaced-out on codeine due to the persistent injury business (I don’t recommend this recipe). Now, if I were a serious cycling blogger, I would record every single one of those bad rides, and subject my readers, all four of you, to them. But I couldn’t do it. And I was going to let this post slide altogether, but then I felt bad about it. And I also miss Cycling Week. I rode home today, and it was a terrible ride, and I thought, ‘I miss complaining about my rides.’
What I am preparing for next time, though, along with a proper Cycling Week, is an in-depth discussion of various sports massage tools, as I have been using so many in the last week and have developed new opinions about some of them. We’re talking trigger point ball, spiky ball, foam rollers of various densities; we’re talking peanut-shaped thing, shakti mat, plain old tennis ball; we’re talking inflatable stomach ball thing, something called THE CLAW (which actually hasn’t yet arrived yet but which I’m excited about), and battery-powered percussive gun with various heads.
For now, before usual service resumes, I thought I’d travel back – again – to 2019. This column was for Canvas magazine. and I actually did start writing it in a bar in Toronto, hunkered over a beer. Once again, James Brown features here (apologies, James, for always putting you in these blogs), but so does Elton John.
COLUMN FOR ELTON
I’m in a bar in Toronto, jetlagged and sorry for myself, when Elton John’s ‘The Bitch Is Back’ starts playing. It is a truly demented song – that hectic guitar riff, the dorky trumpets and, worst of all, the saxophone solo, which to me sounds like a loud man yabbering away on a long-haul flight. But somehow ‘The Bitch Is Back’ makes me feel a bit better.
I am in Toronto for the writers’ festival, and although I’m grateful to have the opportunity to come to a big city and maybe sell a copy of my book, for the past couple of days I have been full of nerves because I hate travelling by myself. At airports you have to carry all your stuff into the loo because if you leave it behind it will look like a bomb. As a solo traveller you get selected for random scanning all the time. On the plane you have no one to fall asleep on. Everything is more annoying and confusing.
In the bar I am reading James Brown’s book of poems Favourite Monsters. One of my favourite poems in Favourite Monsters is ‘Loneliness’. It describes a scene in which, one autumn afternoon, mid-period Elvis turns up on a university campus and walks across the quad, whistling. ‘There was a palpable happiness, for once you have seen Elvis, you are never alone.’
The song changes to ‘The One’. It has a lot of synth, and the lyrics have wild horses running around and people with fire flying from their hands. I remember leaping around the living room to this song, as a child, and I feel even better. I thought I’d left Elton John behind long ago, but he’s still here.
On the final leg of my journey here to Toronto, from Houston, the man sitting next to me pulled out a big stack of magazines. He shook each one open with an almighty crack and turned the pages vigorously. Snap, snap, snap. He gulped his wine and then his tray table got stuck and he could not manoeuvre it back into place. An attendant came to help and he barked, ‘You gotta really wrestle with that thing!’ Snap, snap, snap. I put on my headphones and listened to the latest Fresh Air podcast. The person being interviewed was Elton John, and like a lamb to the teat I was immediately soothed. He was promoting his new autobiography. He talked about his miserable childhood, his love of Elvis, and his cocaine addiction. ‘I would have seizures in the middle of the night, and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed,’ he told Terry Gross. ‘Twenty minutes later, I’d be up doing cocaine again.’ I thought of Elton John going through all of that while kids like me were choreographing special dances to ‘Crocodile Rock’ in their bedrooms, and I felt a retrospective concern and tenderness for him.
‘Song for Guy’, an instrumental, is playing in the bar now. My heart soars, and I have a sudden memory. As a kid, I tried to convince my best friend that, in fact, it was me playing the piano on ‘Song for Guy’, not Elton John. My friend was suspicious. ‘What are those drumming noises then?’ she asked. ‘That’s just the metronome,’ I said, pointing to my metronome on top of the piano. I later told this friend that I planned to marry Elton John when I was old enough. ‘My brother told me that Elton John is gay,’ she said, ‘so he probably won’t want to marry you.’ ‘He is not gay! Shut up! Shut up!’ I said.
I finish my beer and leave the bar. Toronto has gone bananas. Traffic is gridlocked and people seem to be queueing randomly. I can’t figure out this city. All the businesspeople look like they’ve been photoshopped in. There are cranes digging up footpaths and plastic tubes between buildings. Homeless people lie on pieces of cardboard. ‘Aw, you just do what you gotta do, buddy!’ says a man when a dog comes up to him. Then, I hear the unmistakable frenzy of ‘The Bitch Is Back’ spilling from the doorway of another bar. Just how many bitches are there in this city?
Elton John played ‘The Bitch Is Back’ in 1993 on The One Tour. I know because my family and I went to see him in Auckland. It was my first concert. Elton John was lowered down into the stadium from a helicopter and he strode across the stage with arms held wide. Through binoculars I could make him out in his sparkly suit and thick-rimmed glasses. His piano glowed coral pink. I felt electrified with joy.
Toronto. What will I do with myself here? As I try to navigate through the glacial crowd, I hear a man yell into his phone, ‘I’m goin’ to Elton John with Mitch.’
I stop. The seething traffic and crowds – it’s all for Elton. Once I have gathered myself, I continue up the road, and then I see him plastered on the whole side of a building, standing angelically beside a big golden piano in some kind of magic garden. THE FAREWELL TOUR. Once you have seen Elton, you are never alone.
Satisfied at last, I head back to my hotel.
A dazzling tour-de-force.
A bravura performance.