Lyrically speaking, "Rocket Man" is not an especially original composition. The song, written by Elton John's longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, was inspired by both Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451
and by Bradbury's sci fi short story, "The Rocket Man." Bradbury's "The Rocket Man" is the simple tale of an astronaut father who comes home to his wife and son for only three days at a time between his three-month-long space trips. For ten years he has been living this way, and it has strained his relationship with his wife to the point that he's essentially dead to her. During his visit home in the story, the astronaut speaks to his son, telling him never to become a rocket man: "When you're out there you want to be here, and when you're here you want to be out there. Don't start that. Don't let it get hold of you."
Elton John's Rocket Man is a conflicted cowboy kind of character, torn between his love of the frontierlike realm of space and his home down on the range. When he's at home on Earth, he yearns to be "high as a kite," soaring from Mars to Venus to Mercury. But when he's in space, he misses the Earth: the blue sky, the warm sun, the salt wind, his wife. Space is both "lonely" and "timeless." And yet while he never seems at ease with his lot in life, he is totally accepting of it for all of its flaws; it is his very identity: "I'm a rocket man."
What is with that repeated declaration, though? It seems a little ridiculous in a way. Sure, space is probably really cool, but this guy is resigned to spending the rest of his life as a space cowboy, "burning out his fuse up here alone." In the literary canon of the Western world, the Rocket Man fits the archetype of the idealized masculine man. Perhaps best represented by the cliché, "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," the masculine man is defined by "courage" (according to Cicero), self-reliance, and adherence to the law. You might find another similar example of a man caught between worlds in Tennyson's "Ulysses."
In that poem, Ulysses (a.k.a. Odysseus) has returned home from a ten-year adventure (think The Odyssey
) only to find himself wanting to keep on moving. He makes a very macho speech at the end of the poem, vowing "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Ulysses, as an adventurer, defines the macho man of the ancient world.
The Rocket Man—like many other iconic characters of the atomic age—embodies this courageous, lonely explorer type of character. Like Ulysses, he puts his duties before his family. He simply justifies his career as an astronaut by describing space as "timeless" and by implying that he does it because it his "his job five days a week." That is, he is a Rocket Man because it's his job, and he (like other men) does his job whether or not it really brings any satisfaction. Like Ulysses (as Tennyson wrote him), the Rocket Man explores only "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"… and that's it. He might die, sure, but that's part of the grandeur of "being a man." In the same way, the rocket man, while he has his reservations about his job, revels in the fact that "it's gonna be a long, long time" before he touches down again; these sacrifices somehow enrich the idea of being a rocket man
, sticking it out alone in the name of essential masculine ideals.