How Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” said a lot without specifying anything

How Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” said a lot without specifying anything

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“The Four-Eyed Bitch Is Back,” declared Rolling Stone in November of 1974. The headline referred to Elton John, whose most recent hit “The Bitch Is Back” was getting plenty of radio play in the U.S.—even if, thanks to cagey DJs, it might as well have been titled “The Bleep Is Back.” As newsworthy as the song’s censorship was, though, the article lingered on something else entirely: John’s sexuality.

In what many later saw as an attempt to out John as a gay man—which, granted, he is—writer Ben Fong-Torres recounts meeting the singer in his Beverly Hills house for their interview. Among John’s entourage—which Fong-Torres describes as exclusively men, all dressed in robes—was his manager John Reid, who also happened to be John’s lover at the time. “He’s just my manager,” John explains in the article. “I have a close circle of friends… sort of like Elvis and his… motorbike people… It’s very much a family. That’s why it’s so incestuous sometimes.” In case that was just a little too subtle, Fong-Torres then flatly states, “[John] had something to hide. Just like all of us.”

Theorizing when, where, and with whom musicians share their genitals is a time-honored journalistic pursuit, one that stretches at least as far back as William “Cassandra” Connor’s lawsuit-inciting article on Liberace in The Daily Mirror in 1956. By the ’70s, the practice was peaking. The sexual revolution was in full swing. Glam blurred gender. Thanks to the likes of David Bowie, androgyny was fashionable, if not always bankable. 

John had no problem borrowing ideas from Bowie, as if they were castoff feather boas he surely wouldn’t miss. “Rocket Man” owes a considerable debt to “Space Oddity.” Ditto “Bennie And The Jets” and “Ziggy Stardust.” But John had a problem with androgyny—at least on a technical level. Throw a boa on Bowie, and he looks gorgeous. Put one on John, and he looks like your Aunt Bertha.

John’s campy, avuncular vision of glam may be the reason he sparked little speculation regarding his sexuality, even as Bowie openly courted such curiosity. “Despite the feathers, the bugle beads, and the punch-bowl hats, Elton was not perceived as threatening, and few seemed to imagine that he might not date women,” says Elizabeth J. Rosenthal in her book His Song: The Musical Journey Of Elton John. In the mid-’70s—with the Stonewall riots a recent memory and a homophobic, anti-disco/pro-rock mindset beginning to take hold—being openly gay was not the best way to gain or maintain popularity. Especially not in America, where the warm, goofy, amiable John had recently become one of rock’s most cuddly underdogs.

And then he had to go and call himself a bitch.

“The Bitch Is Back” appears on John’s 1974 album Caribou, the follow-up to his best (and bestselling) album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Unlike Goodbye, Caribou produced only two hits: “Bitch” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” The latter song is an epic, elegiac, emotional farewell. “Bitch” announces John’s return by kicking down the door.

The boot behind that kick belongs to Davey Johnstone. John’s stalwart guitarist and secret weapon, he opens “Bitch” with a bee-sting riff that sounds as sharp and striking today as it must have then. Few guitarists at the time, especially in the pop world, played with that kind of surgical savagery, and most of them played funk. Johnstone seems to be drawing inspiration from Phil Manzanera’s sculpted strumming in Roxy Music and, particularly, on Brian Eno’s early solo work. Only here, that arty angularity is boiled down to a fist-pumping, pub-friendly hook. Again, Bowie is being invoked; in addition to the similarity in names, Johnstone’s jittery guitar of “Bitch” recalls Mick Ronson’s knifelike attack in Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”—not to mention Ronson’s broken-glass work on Lou Reed’s “Vicious,” another song from which “Bitch” unapologetically cribs.

As a vocalist and performer, John has never shied from meandering dynamics or outright histrionics. On “Bitch,” though, he locks his jaws and doesn’t let go. “I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch, oh, the bitch is back / Stone-cold sober, as a matter of fact,” he sneers in the chorus, his voice dripping honey and venom in equal measure. Then he contradicts himself by confessing, “I get high in the evening sniffing pots of glue”—which makes him the only singer besides Joey Ramone who was extolling the virtues of that particular pastime in 1974.

Punk hadn’t quite congealed in ’74, not that anyone could ever accuse John of being an influence on it. Still, “Bitch” oozes the same snotty, bratty swagger that Johnny Rotten was mere months away from distilling. “I was justified when I was five
/ Raising Cain, I spit in your eye,” John sings with a mad laugh in his voice. Buoyed by a brash horn section—courtesy of R&B legend Tower Of Power—that might have made Van Morrison envious, he then goes on to boast, “I entertain by picking brains / Sell my soul by dropping names.” And for your information, he’s earned the right to be a bitch because, to put it as nicely as possible, he’s “better than you.” In a deliciously perverse twist, England’s queen of soul, Dusty Springfield, sings backup, lending her grace and eminence to John’s schoolyard taunts.

Elton John didn’t write the lyrics to “Bitch.” Like the vast majority of the words he sings, they were penned by his inseparable songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. Many such partnerships have existed in popular music, but John and Taupin’s is unique. One bounces and pounds the piano while wearing giant sunglasses and/or a chicken costume; the other toils away quietly in the shadows, meticulously balancing the dictates of his own soul against the demands of his star-spangled surrogate. There’s a reason that John’s album immediately after Caribou, the autobiographical Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, casts John as Captain Fantastic and Taupin as that other guy.

Understandably, some bitterness might have seeped through. There are varying accounts about the origin of “The Bitch Is Back”—most of them focused on who, exactly, is the titular bitch. Some sources claim the song is about Taupin’s wife at the time, Maxine Feibelman, whom he divorced in 1976. In His Song, Rosenthal has a different take: “[Taupin] later revealed that his then wife Maxine coined the song’s recurring phrase in response to one of Elton’s notoriously bad moods. ‘Oh God, the bitch is back!’ she exclaimed. The song, in essence, was born. All Bernie had to do was flesh it out.”

Rosenthal, though, doesn’t believe there was any animosity. More likely, it was a simple case of an inside joke translated into song. “‘The Bitch Is Back’ is a testament to Elton’s ability to poke fun at himself,” she writes. “He understood that he was the ‘bitch’ and reveled in this role during live performances.” The empirical evidence supports this. In a recording of a 1974 concert, he prefaces a gleeful romp through “Bitch” with the grinning disclaimer, “This is a song not referring to anyone in the audience, but mainly to me.”

There’s another undercurrent to “Bitch,” however, that has nothing to do with John’s tension (or lack thereof) with Taupin. Two decades after the song’s release, music journalist Adam Block asserted in Ten Percent that “‘The Bitch Is Back’ […] functioned during the 1970s as a wink in the direction of gay listeners.” Rosenthal agrees: “Some segments of the gay community have taken the song as a signal of [John’s] sexuality.” Another possible signal: While touring in 1974, John would sing “Bitch” while riding around on the meaty shoulders of his bodyguard Jim Morris, a famed bodybuilder and the recently crowned Mr. America.

Was it that simple, though? Is “Bitch” similar to, say, Judas Priest’s unmistakably homoerotic “Hell Bent For Leather,” written when singer Rob Halford was still in the closet? Was “Bitch” John’s first step toward publically revealing he was gay? History makes it muddy. Many in the music industry at the time—Fong-Torres included—seemed to assume that John was indeed rock’s Liberace, a massively successful entertainer who, perhaps unconsciously, capitalized on his ambiguous sexuality. The way John preens and struts in “Bitch,” it’s hard to believe he didn’t at least know how to act the part.

But John was never sexy in the conventional sense. Pudgy and balding at 27—his age when “Bitch” was released—he never exuded even a Liberace level of allure. The notion that he was somehow trying to telegraph his orientation to the gay world seems like another journalistic overreach. In any case, divining whatever impact it may have originally had is harder in hindsight. “Bitch” has been repurposed relentlessly over the years. Tina Turner—John’s costar in the 1975 film adaption of The Who’s Tommy—soon adopted the song and made it her own. In 2008, right-wing pundit Jim Quinn introduced a segment about Hillary Clinton by playing a clip of the chorus. And John himself has sung “Bitch” with artists as disparate as Rihanna, Billy Joel, and the unlikely choir of Cher and Joan Rivers. And thanks in part to the song’s title becoming part of the pop-culture lexicon—not to mention some extra mileage from Alien 3, whose trailer used “The bitch is back” as its tag line—the word “bitch” doesn’t have quite the shock value that it once did.

John himself is no longer shocking. “Some radio stations in America are more puritanical than others. I used to get bleeped quite a lot,” he once quipped, looking back on the time when a handful of DJs censored or banned “Bitch”—a minor controversy that quickly faded. Anyway, he had a bigger bomb to drop: He came out, fully and publicly, in 1976. In doing so, he helped alter the landscape for gay entertainers, and for the better. His hits never diminished, and he eventually became a Knight Commander Of The Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire. Ironically, John revealed his bisexuality within the pages of Rolling Stone (although not to Fong-Torres). The article’s predictably lurid title: “Elton’s Frank Talk… The Lonely Love Life Of A Superstar.”

On his blog two years ago, Fong-Torres reprinted an email he’d gotten from his former RS colleague, journalist-turned-director Cameron Crowe. Crowe had recently met with John concerning a film project. During the course of the conversation, John told Crowe, “I like Rolling Stone […] but it’s just not the same. When I read Rolling Stone, I want to read Ben Fong-Torres!”

“Wow,” Fong-Torres responded on his blog: 

Who woulda thunk? Certainly not me. I last spoke with Sir Elton when we sat, stood, and ran around for a cover article in 1974. That’s ages ago, and I didn’t think he much liked the piece, which, for starters, was headlined “The Four-Eyed Bitch Is Back.” In 1974, John was still in the closet. He would soon dance out, but when we met, he was still being discreet, in his own fashion. I witnessed and heard enough that my profile was studded with insinuations.

Barring the fact that Fong-Torres couldn’t resist one last saucy insinuation (“studded,” ha-ha), he seems somewhat regretful about his old article. Not enough to keep it from appearing in his 1999 book Not Fade Away, but still. Apparently he spent 36 years thinking John hated him. But even if John had hated him all that time—and even if he still held a grudge—it would have been more than justified.

After all, no one likes being called four-eyed.

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