The Meaning of Elton John’s “Rocket Man”

Elton John’s 1972 hit “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time)” has spawned many debates over the years about its meaning. Some fans consider it to be a song about drugs, while others associate it with the rush and the isolation that comes with fame. However, the truth about the song’s meaning is much more straightforward.

Penned by Elton John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, “Rocket Man” appeared on John’s fifth album Honky Château and has since become one of the most iconic songs in the Elton John discography. Produced by Gus Dudgeon, who also produced David Bowie’s 1969 intergalactic hit “Space Oddity”, the two songs have often been compared, with many considering “Rocket Man” to be inspired by the former.

Bernie Taupin spoke on this as well as the actual inspiration behind “Rocket Man” in an interview posted on Youtube in 2016:

It was inspired by a story by Ray Bradbury, from his book of science fiction short stories called The Illustrated Man. In that book there’s a story called ‘The Rocket Man,’ which was about how astronauts in the future would become sort of an everyday job. So I kind of took that idea and ran with it.

Bernie Taupin on the inspiration behind “Rocket Man”.

Watch that full video, which also includes thoughts from Elton John himself, below.

While Bernie Taupin may not have considered “Rocket Man” to be about anything other than the experience of an actual astronaut floating around in space, it’s easy to see how the song could have been given other interpretations. This is especially true given the context of the time period during which the track was released, as the early 70s were known for rampant drug use, especially among rock stars.

Elton John himself is widely known to have partook in his fair share of drug use during the 70s as well. This was documented in the excellent 2019 biopic from Paramount Pictures, which was not coincidentally called Rocketman.

This lends itself to the theory that this song is about Elton John’s struggle with drug addiction, although it is important to note that the artist has stated that he did not try cocaine until 1974, which was well after “Rocket Man” sent him barreling toward international fame.

With all of this in mind, it’s time to dive into the lyrics and see what they’re all about, starting with the first verse:

She packed my bags last night, pre-flight
Zero hour, 9 a.m.​​
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

First verse to “Rocket Man” by Elton John.

The song opens with spacious piano as Elton sings from the perspective of an astronaut preparing for his journey into outer space, with takeoff, or “zero hour” scheduled for 9am. His wife helps him pack his bags prior to leaving, and not long after he finds himself in orbit he already finds himself missing her. Calling it a “timeless flight” is a reference to the experience of being in space, where everything seems to look the same and the concept of time seems to become meaningless.

The lyric about being “high as a kite” by 9am certainly invites the drug-fueled interpretation of “Rocket Man”, as this verse can easily be read as being about the disconnect from reality experienced by an addict. Also present is the longing to get back home, down to Earth, or, in the case of an addict, off the drugs.

Next up, we roll into the famous chorus, repeated twice in a row for maximum impact:

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no, no, no
I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burnin’ out his fuse up here alone

Chorus to “Rocket Man” by Elton John.

Here we see more of the astronaut’s experience, with the long journeys into outer space while the people at home fantasize about the astronauts and paint them as heroes. The reality, however, is more likely that the astronauts are up there feeling lonely, and when they return home they will still be the same regular, flawed individuals they were before they left.

The final lyric in the chorus, about how he’s “burnin’ out his fuse up here alone,” speaks to the impact felt by many astronauts upon leaving Earth. This particular astronaut feels the weight of solitude, and perhaps has come to accept that he will never live a normal life.

In the second verse, Taupin’s lyrics have our astronaut sharing a sense of bitterness about his profession:

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact, it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did
And all the science, I don’t understand
It’s just my job five days a week
A rocket man
A rocket man

Second verse to “Rocket Man” by Elton John.

What comes through here is the classic grumblings of an employee who is dissatisfied with their job, especially if it is a job that some people may romanticize (such as being an astronaut). He may get to see Mars, but he can’t enjoy it with anybody else, much less raise a family.

It would help if he knew about the science behind what he did, so he could maybe get excited about it, but he doesn’t understand it enough to care. He simply clocks in and works five days a week as a rocket man, missing home.

Following the second verse is another chorus, repeated twice yet again, and then an outro that repeats “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time” as the lonely astronaut floats through the galaxy, daydreaming about his wife and family at home.

Watch the music video for “Rocket Man” by Elton John below.

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