Nick Catley has a night out with one of the family
Issue 4 of The Watford Book of Soccer carried an interview with early-90s Hornet Lee Bland, a player who, despite being fictional, arguably still contributed more to the cause than Andy Kennedy. Many of the answers echoed those in standard player features of the time (except perhaps the one about his worst injury – ‘One of my bollocks exploded in the game against Plymouth’), including the question about Bland’s favourite music. His response: ‘All music. I own every record ever made’.
Teenage me, knee-deep in indie guitar tunes, found it easy to laugh at the idea that a music fan could have such wide tastes. Surely liking a bit of everything meant being passionate about nothing? But the older I get, the more complicated it becomes.
By rights, I shouldn’t be a fan of Elton’s music. Even though my tastes have broadened over the years as I realise I can like absolutely anything I want to, rather than a narrow set of bands approved by a particular peer group, he doesn’t really fit with anything else in my collection.
But that’s not really the point. In the way colourful but inexpert kids’ paintings are stuck on the fridge, and the amount you laugh at a joke depends at least as much on how much you like the teller as how funny it is, sometimes we like things because they’re produced by someone we love, rather than liking people because they produce things that we love.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this position on the evening of Sunday July 3 at Vicarage Road. While there were no doubt plenty there who would have gone to see Elton wherever he was playing, I suspect many more wouldn’t have (particularly not at those prices – but let’s not spoil a glorious evening by reopening that maggoty tin). The number of Watford shirts was a clue, but it was shown in other ways too. While everyone stood up from the first chord – and if I knew more about music, I’d know why that chord is so utterly, instantly recognisable, in any context, as the beginning of Bennie and the Jets – those around me in the upper GT sat down when Elton introduced Have Mercy on the Criminal by saying that he hadn’t played it live for a long time, and from my lofty perch I could see large numbers on the pitch heading off to answer a call of nature. All it needed was Rod Stewart fans in the Vicarage Road end mockingly enquiring ‘Is there a fire drill?’ and the picture would have been complete.
But again, it didn’t matter. My sister-in-law noticed that my brother and I didn’t just know the choruses, we knew the verses too, and speculated that this must have meant we knew the songs as kids because you never really have that level of recall later in life. She was spot on. And that was the point. Your music collection represents your choices, the aural friends you make on life’s journey. But Elton and his songs are family. They’ve always been there, a soundtrack to life. As with family members, whether you like them or not by any normal judgement is irrelevant – they just are; even if they have flaws, you embrace them, and love them regardless.
The evening changed gear as Elton played Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me as, well, the sun went down, finishing with a tour de force of his biggest crowd pleasers. It was, of course, a hell of a performance. The voice hasn’t really been the same since his throat operation in 1987, but the sheer energy of a 75-year-old, still apparently walking gingerly after hip surgery, was incredible, and also slightly incongruous in a way best summed up by my wife – when Elton’s piano started travelling across the stage, she commented that it looked like the world’s biggest mobility scooter.
That energy qualified him to make the speech that brought the house down. Introducing the third shirt was a nice touch, but even more involving was Elton speaking from the heart. When he said he was looking forward to being around in the autumn, and hoping that the team would play with “a lot more fucking passion”, the roof came off. There were three years of frustration in that roar, dating back to the FA Cup semi-final, split roughly half and half between seeing the team perform limply, and not being able to attend games when we were playing well. Elton was right. Of course he was. He’s one of us.
The montage of his career during Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was moving, perhaps partly because he’d already affected us with his speech, and partly because we knew we wouldn’t see him perform at Vicarage Road again, but possibly as much as anything because they invoked memories of GT-era Elton, along with the knowledge that those of us who can remember that special time are getting on a little bit now.
So, a galvanising evening. When it was pushed to a Monday night for Sky, I’d decided not to go to the opener against Sheffield United, as it clashed with a Commonwealth Games session I had tickets for (I’m not telling you the sport, it’s too embarrassing). But in the optimistic aftermath of Elton’s performance, I had a word with myself, bought tickets to a different day of the lawn bowls (oh, alright then – I have no shame) and started to look forward to the new season.
While I’m not convinced that the concept of paying to watch events that you know, in advance, that you’re going to enjoy will ever really catch on, for now it was nice just to have a day at the old place which didn’t end in dismal failure. Indeed, as I wandered out, dah-dahing Take Me to the Pilot, my brother put an accurate full stop on the day: “Isn’t it nice to come to Vicarage Road and not see Watford lose?”