When Elton John performs in Dubai on December 8, one dedicated fan will be sitting in a front-row seat, singing along to every song – for he knows more than 50 songs off by heart.
Mark Underwood, a 56-year-old who works for an international bank in Dubai, has seen the star perform live 90 times in the past 40 years. He spends tens of thousands of dirhams on VIP tickets for shows across the world, from Brussels to Tokyo. "It's just grown into a musical passion over the years – it's an obsession actually, to be honest," says Underwood, from near Oxford, UK. "My colleagues and my wife think I'm mad. But it's not something I'm going to give up. My target is to make it to 100 concerts, before Elton retires."
This week's concert will be a poignant one for Underwood and other fans in the Middle East. Reports have claimed the rock star, now 70, is planning on retiring, so this could be the last time he performs live in the region. John's world tour ends on March 23.
Underwood says: “It’s my mission to try to catch Elton as many times as I can over the next few months. I know I have to make the most of every show.”
It's not just concert tickets he has been splashing his cash on. Since Underwood bought his first John album (Madman Across the Water) at the age of 12, after being introduced to John's music by his sister, he's bought up "anything and everything to do with Elton". His flat in Al Barsha is crammed full of memorabilia.
Among treasured items is his collection of concert programmes and framed ticket stubs – "many are autographed by Elton, and one is even signed by his mother, Sheila," he says (sadly, Sheila passed away this week). Underwood also owns four cherished guitar picks given to him by John's long-time band member Davey Johnstone. He has 30 posters, many autographed, including several promotional cardboard ones for albums. Underwood owns 40 T-shirts, including one owned and worn by John himself, and several baseball caps.
There are also nine John-themed coffee mugs (although no one is allowed to use them) in his collection, countless badges, scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings, and more than 100 books. Underwood also owns all the vinyl records and CDs John has released, as well as many DVDs. "The most valuable album is a signed copy of A Single Man, which I won in a newspaper competition back in 1978," he says. "You see such things on eBay for Dh1,500, but Elton does give a lot of autographs so it's difficult to estimate the value."
Underwood's favourite John song is not one of the star's greatest hits, but the lesser known six-minute, 45-second-long Someone Saved My Life Tonight, from album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. "That's just an epic song," says Underwood. "He's playing it on this set as well, so hopefully we'll hear it live in Dubai."
The singer-songwriter is as well-known for his ever-changing sense of style as for his music, which is evident in Underwood's five ceramic bobblehead dolls that take pride of place in his living room cabinet. His priciest items are 52 backstage passes that used to belong to John (including one from the Live Aid concert), which Underwood and a friend bought for £800 (Dh3,945) in 1988 at a Sotheby's auction in London. "Elton used these passes to get in and out of venues," he explains.
“We bought them at a time when Elton had a big clear-out and sold off virtually everything in his house.”
Underwood has framed a prized signed picture of John, which the star personally sent him. "Elton always sends his fans a signed picture back each time you write to him, he's very good like that," he says. "He comes across as being very down to earth."
Underwood realises that the value of his memorabilia will shoot up upon John's death, as is the case with any superstar. "But obviously I don't want him to pass away anytime soon," he says. Underwood's wife has accompanied him to a few concerts. "But she's not as mad on Elton as I am, of course," he says. And it's not entirely coincidental that Underwood's eldest son Daniel, 27, has the same name as one of John's songs. "There was certainly an influence there, yes," he admits. "And Daniel's also a huge Elton John fan."
Underwood has met his idol on two occasions – in 1976, "by chance at a UK motorway service station," and in 2000, "backstage at his Woburn Abbey concert." But his dream is still to be able to speak to the star one-on-one, so he can give him a personal 'thank you'.
“My Elton musical journey has been amazing – Elton has been a massive part of my life and continues to be,” he says. “So I’d thank him for that, if I got a chance to meet him. I’d also love to get that one great photo with my idol.”
Underwood wants to write a book, or a diary, to record his life's journey following John's career. "I can then include a photographic history of my collection, and concert memories built up over the last five decades," he says.
Underwood believes he is the "biggest Elton John fan in the Middle East," but says some fans he has met around the world have attended up to 150 shows.