A star is reborn
Forget 'Candle In the Wind' and showbiz ubiquity ... Elton John has found his very best form again. 'I was a victim of my own excess,' he tells Amy Raphael
Sunday September 19, 2004
Through the imposing electronic gates, up the pristine gravel drive, past a small lake glittering in the midday sun and, finally, the big red brick house. A small dog appears from nowhere, yelping and wagging: Arthur. A man appears at the door. Tall, lean, bronzed. He wears pale blue crisp cotton shorts. He smiles, extends a hand: George. He opens the front door, lets the dog bounce in first.
The hallway to this mansion on the outskirts of Windsor is bare, functional. Through a heavy wooden door a glimpse of a living room with Old Masters hung on the walls, two heavy sofas - covered in tapestry - endless china vases overflowing with huge exotic flowers. Another figure emerges at the far end of the living room. He walks slowly, with purpose. He is in no hurry; perhaps he is tired. He wears a black tracksuit zipped right up, shiny black shoes with a wedge to give him height, both by Yohji Yamamoto, and small red sunglasses.
Arthur is ecstatic. He jumps as high as he can to attract his master's attention; his master absently pats his head and stands in the middle of the living room. An uncertain smile crosses his face. He extends a hand, gives a dry, firm handshake and flops on to a sofa, legs apart. He asks George to bring him a drink and offers water, every imaginable type of tea, coffee. His skin is pale. He takes off his sunglasses and rubs his bloodshot eyes. He pushes a hand through his reddish hair, makes it stick up a little.
The talk is, initially, of football. Elton John is tired, he did a gig last night, but his energy rises as he chats about his interest in the game. His voice is surprisingly deep and sometimes he sounds American but rarely camp. He discusses his years as chairman of Watford FC from 1973 to 2002, when he used to travel to matches home and away. 'I never had any real aggro, just a lot of embarrassing chants.'
He smiles, displaying the familiar gap between his teeth, and takes a Versace glass of Diet Coke and ice from a tray. 'Thanks. Nice shorts, George. Saucy. Anyway ... You've just got to learn to take it: "Don't sit round while Elton's around or you'll get a penis up your arse."'
Elton John says that two things saved his life. Football and music. Music and football. He likes to see himself as a team player - he loved being chairman of the team he supported as a boy and hanging out with manager Graham Taylor and general manager Bertie Mee, and it gave him a reality check in his most decadent years.
He sips his Coke. 'I'd turn up at the ground and be told, "Cor, Elton, what a fucking awful suit that is!" Or Graham Taylor would sit me down and say, "You're drinking too much." I was doing drugs but I never took my habit to the football ground. Never. If I hadn't had Watford, I really don't know what would have happened to me ...'
While Watford provided a distraction at weekends, music was always there. When he was taking so many drugs that he can barely remember some of the gigs he performed or the albums he recorded - he reached a peak of taking cocaine on average every four minutes - Elton John never lost sight of his first love. 'At heart I've always been a music fan. That part of me has never changed since I was a little kid, sitting in a room watching a record go round, looking at the colour of the labels. It kept me going through the drugs; the fact that I always wanted to hear what was going on.'
He sighs. 'I didn't just isolate myself ... well, towards the end, before I got clean in 1990, I isolated, but I was still working, still making music.' A wry smile. 'God knows what I was doing, but I was working.'
Elton has never stopped working. At 57 he still tours the world and is still adding to his back catalogue. In 2001 he released Songs From the West Coast, his best studio album in years, and in November he brings out Peachtree Road, which is more impressive yet. It is also the first time he has produced his own work. He is at his best when he goes back to his bluesy, piano and vocals roots (the glad-to-be-alive 'The Weight of the World' and the soul-searching 'Answer in the Sky'), but he is also pretty good at country too ('They Call Her The Cat'; 'Porch Swing in Tupelo'). That last track references Elvis - 'That truck drivin' boy, with the grease monkey look and the rock'n'roll voice' - who also seems to be the inspiration for the new look he sports when photographed by his friend Sam Taylor-Wood for this interview.
Elton says the new album was 'really easy to produce', and he actually enjoyed being in the Peachtree Road studio in Atlanta rather than finding it a chore. 'As always I wrote the music pretty quickly; the bulk of it was done within two weeks. I'm quite thrilled with the way it sounds.'
While he had already sold 80 million records by the time he was 29 - including Tumbleweed Connection, Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player, the widely acclaimed Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the epic Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy - Elton recently said he worries that he won't be remembered for his music. He is famous for his ostrich feather body suits, insect sunglasses, bespoke platform boots and hair weaves, for being a gay man who was once married, the original big spender (he readily admits to splashing out over £1m a year on clothes). He has numerous houses in several countries and embraces a coterie of celebrity friends. He is responsible for the bestselling single ever - the re-recorded version of his 1974 hit 'Candle in the Wind' - but raises an eyebrow when asked if it became something of a career albatross.
'In a way.' He sighs. 'Rightfully people say, "Fucking 'Candle in the Wind'." Even I wouldn't sing it for two years. It was too painful.' He pauses then says, without prompting: 'I am a victim of my own excess, I admit that. It's been my own doing and I can't blame anyone else.'
It is easy to wonder if Elton John wishes he were hip or cool, that his excesses weren't judged, that people remembered great songs such as 'Rocket Man', 'Daniel', 'Good bye Yellow Brick Road', 'Bennie and the Jets' or 'Tiny Dancer' rather than a slushy, sentimental paean to Princess Diana. 'Well, in the beginning I was cool. But I'm not interested in being cool now; I just want to be me. The music has fluctuated: it's been great, it's been ordinary and sometimes it's been downright bad. That's going to happen over a 34-year career.'
He ruffles the dog's head. 'I'm not everybody's cup of tea. But sometimes criticism can be hurtful. Be respectful; I'm a good piano player, I can sing well, I write good songs. If you don't like it, fair enough. But give me a break. I know I'm dismissed sometimes as "Elton the MOR rocker" but it's hard to be anything else on piano. It's not an instrument you can throw into an amp or into the audience.'
He points out - rightly - that there is too much snobbery in music. He says that if he were starting out now and in his twenties, he might be Chris Martin. 'I don't see the point in criticising Coldplay,' he says, pushing his hand through his hair. 'They are fucking great. They write really fabulous songs. Because they went to university they are somehow less credible? Hello?'
He sits forward on the edge of the sofa. 'What a lot of bands don't realise these days is how important it is to have a work ethic. In the old days - the old days! - you had to tour forever in a Transit van and then maybe you'd get a record contract. Now bands get signed too quickly. Look at Oasis: instead of dedicating themselves to breaking America by touring, they spent all their time fighting and ligging. In the end they self-combusted. They became Spinal Tap. You've done 12 shows in the US? Fuck off! If you really want it you have to work hard. Which is exactly what Coldplay have done.'
Elton John may worry about not being remembered for his music, but he doesn't know if he would like to be more influential; he claims to have not really thought about it. But recently, more and more artists have cited his work, including the Scissor Sisters, Michael Stipe, Courtney Love and Mary J Blige (who borrowed the piano break from 'Bennie and the Jets' for her Grammy-winning 'Deep Inside'). He tips the last of the Coke back and lets his body sink into the sofa. 'It's not hip to say you're a big fan of Elton John, but a lot of people I respect like my work.' He smiles. 'I'm happy with that.'
The key to Elton John's music is, of course, his relationship with Bernie Taupin. By 1963, when he was 16, Reginald Kenneth Dwight had left school and had begun his evolution into Elton Hercules John. By day the self-conscious, shy boy from Pinner, Middlesex worked as a messenger for a music publishing company; by night he either performed with Bluesology, a semi-professional backing act for visiting soul musicians, or earned £1 a night playing old piano favourites at a local hotel bar.
In the late Sixties, he saw an advert in the NME placed by a record company looking for new talent. He ended up taking away some of Bernie Taupin's lyrics and by the time they met in person six months later, Elton had written the music to some 20 songs. They secured a three-year songwriting contract, with Taupin and John earning £10 and £15 a week respectively. It was an intense but strange period; Elton recalls a particularly peculiar project where he had to try to make Nick Drake songs more commercial. 'An impossible task, really,' he says, smiling. 'I needed the money, so I did it.'
John and Taupin were obsessed with music. 'We spent all our money on records. We used to go to Music Land in Berwick Street and listen to Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Dylan, the Beatles. Both of us with headphones on, lying on the floor looking at the gatefold sleeves. It's a lovely, sweet image ...'
During this period, Bernie lived with Elton at the family flat in Frome Court, Pinner. In the decades that have followed, the lyricist moved to America to live on a ranch ('he became the Brown Dirt Cowboy') and the two have mainly communicated by chatting on the phone every couple of weeks. It is astonishing that Bernie has continuously succeeded in writing lyrics which Elton sings as though they were his own. They have both worked with other people, but they're back as a songwriting duo on Peachtree Road.
Elton thinks that living apart has kept them close. 'We've always had a great love affair from a distance, and I think that's why we've stayed together. He knows who I am. We've always had that sixth sense. I don't know ... when we were both writing with other people we weren't jealous, although we were probably hurt. But we had to do that for the relationship to survive.'
He smiles. 'Bernie is one of the loves of my life. He's the best friend I never had at school. It was never a carnal relationship; it was all about collecting records, going to gigs. We've never had a real fight. But I do remember him telling me so many times when I was doing drugs that I was an asshole ...' He pauses for a moment. 'I can't explain how we work so well together. It just works. It's lucky. It's fate.'
Elton knows he was not only lucky enough to meet Bernie early on in his career, but also that he was around at the best possible time. His contemporaries included Bowie, Jagger, Freddie Mercury and Rod Stewart. He could buy 10 albums a week that were brilliant (Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Hendrix, Laura Nyro, Buffalo Springfield: he mentions a dozen more in a single breath).
He sits forward on the sofa and his eyes shine. 'I grew up out of that British variety, music hall, pantomime era; we were all larger than life. The first one was Marc Bolan, who was a dear friend; he was completely from another planet. I do like my rock stars to be a little larger than life. I don't mind the earnest ones at all, but I do like a bit of individuality.'
Elton's saving grace has, perhaps, been his recent patronage of young artists. When he talks with such childlike enthusiasm about new bands, it is easy to forget 'I'm Still Standing' or 'Nikita'. He still buys dozens of records once a week, whether it's in King's Road, Chelsea or America or Japan.
Of course he's smart enough to realise that it looks good for him to hang out with hip young artists, but when Elton John talks about music he seems entirely genuine. So he namechecks bands throughout the conversation: Nirvana's Nevermind is probably the best album of the Nineties (and he once shared a bill with the band but didn't have the courage to say hello to Kurt Cobain); Franz Ferdinand help to wake him up in the morning; he's just discovered Jet ('a brilliant pastiche'); he appreciates the fun the Darkness are having; he loved the Scissor Sisters the minute he heard them.
His two current favourites, however, are Rufus Wainwright and Ryan Adams. He eulogises about Rufus for a good 10 minutes while barely pausing for breath. 'He's astonishing. He gets up every day and writes; I don't do that. I don't even play the piano unless I have to rehearse. Rufus plays it every day.'
He feels protective towards Ryan. The young American's self-destructive streak reminds him of himself. He rings Ryan up from time to time to see how he is. He thinks it's good to offer support; he remembers the Band coming to see him in Philadelphia when he was starting out and, as a fan, he was thrilled. But he also knows how hard it can be to ask for help.
He fidgets on the sofa. 'It took me 16 years of stubbornness ... and craziness ... to ask for help. Because I thought it was a sign of weakness. I didn't get sober till 1990 because I struggled to ask for help. So if anybody picks up the phone and asks for a bit of my time, I'll be there for them.'
Perhaps it's because he's been through drug and alcohol addiction, because he outed himself before it was really acceptable or fashionable to be gay, because he's been through years and years of therapy, Elton John finds a lot of people come to him for advice. He grins. 'Let's phone up Uncle Elt!'
He is proud of his new role as agony uncle to a new generation of artists. But it would be easy to think of him as envying young bands, as craving the thrill of the first taste of fame. Not so; in fact, he can think of nothing worse. 'At the start of my career, I did everything, went everywhere, met everyone. I didn't mind having my photo taken. In fact, I enjoyed it.' He looks terribly serious for the first time. 'Now I'm 57 I loathe it. I find it very difficult to go out without attracting attention ... so I'd rather stay home.'
He scowls. 'There is no charisma any more. We know everything about everyone. If I see one more photo of Britney or J-Lo or Ben Affleck, I'm going to spit. I want mystery! That's why Morrissey has had some success again; he's a bit of an enigma. I know I've cultivated this image of myself having tantrums and spending all this money and having nice weekends in my big house in the south of France ... but I really don't think I court publicity like I used to. And I don't want it.'
A clock chimes in the background. He glances at his simple but probably incredibly expensive black and white watch. Time is marching on. 'I'll leave all that celebrity stuff to the young guys.'
Elton John has lived his life in two parts. The first he spent under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He talks of concerts barely remembered, of hopeless relationships, of spending his money badly ('I collected a lot of appalling art when I was on drugs; your judgment is impaired when you're out of your mind'). He remembers one occasion, when he was staying at an American hotel and he'd been up all night, he rang his London management company and screamed: 'It's too fucking windy here - can you do something about it?'
Which is not to say he didn't have a great time too, meeting his heroes. He met Brian Wilson when the Beach Boy had taken to playing his piano in a sandpit in the dining room and listened to 'Good Vibrations' until 4am ('I was simultaneously terrified and in awe of this brilliant man, who is probably the biggest influence on my songwriting'); he got an autograph from Elvis, though he feels cheated as the king was bloated and 'too gone'; he met an 'eccentric' Bob Dylan.
In 1973, he spent a lot of time with John Lennon. 'I remember being in a room at the Sherry Netherlands hotel with John and we were both on coke. At 3am there was a knock on the door and we looked through the peephole; it was Andy Warhol. We both stood there, paranoid, whispering: don't let him in!'
On 29 July 1990, at the age of 43, Elton John got clean. After months in rehab and therapy, he stopped relying on the drugs and alcohol. By way of distraction, he started to collect photography. Not just the odd photo, naturally, but enough to fill a gallery. In the early Nineties he paid £120,000 for Man Ray's Tears, then a world record for a photo. He bought an apartment in Atlanta - the only city in the world, he says, where he can live a relatively normal life - and filled it with pieces by contemporary photographers.
He didn't lose his sense of fun - he tells some funny stories about his relationship with Rod Stewart, one that has endured since the early Seventies and that has been defined by practical jokes and wind-ups. 'I bought him a Zimmer frame for his 50th birthday and he sent me one of those old-fashioned ladies' hairdryers you sit underneath with the message: "The only thing I forgot to buy was the hair to go with it." It's like a Joan Crawford/Bette Davis relationship. Rod's never lost his vicious British humour, and that's why I adore him.'
On 30 October 1993, Elton John fell in love. He'd been on the road for a long time and wanted to meet new people; he had a dinner party at Woodside, the house in Windsor, and David Furnish was one of the guests. Furnish had been a fan - Caribou was the first album he ever bought - and was shy but nonetheless gave Elton his number. 'I knew he was going off to a Halloween party and I always get up very early ... I was trying to work out the earliest I could ring on a Sunday morning.'
He laughs. 'At 11am I plucked up the courage to make the call. We had dinner in London that night and talked some more. David was the first person I'd been with who had his own apartment, his own job at Ogilvy and Mather, his own circle of friends. He also wasn't afraid to tell me what he thought.'
Elton liked being told he was wrong. He liked being chastised for spending too much money; it was refreshing for him after so many one-sided relationships in which he'd taken control.'I was so relieved that David was willing to challenge me when I lost it. He knew how to handle me and it wasn't with kid gloves.'
There is a song for David on Peachtree Road. 'My Elusive Drug' is a touching, bluesy tribute to Elton's lover, written by Bernie Taupin but sung with aching tenderness. Once again, it seems as though Taupin has been telepathic. Elton laughs. 'I might be wrong because Bernie never tells me but that song screams of the fact that I've been through everything, I've tried everything and finally I've found my elusive drug - David. It's a very special song; the Nina Simone song on the album.'
Elton John grins. 'It's been 14 years since I got sober. I've got a new album, a great private life, and at 57 I feel excited by life.'
As it's such a gorgeous afternoon, we take a walk around Elton's extensive gardens. The dog is over-excited, darting around the Italian garden Elton's late friend Gianni Versace encouraged him to create. He says the past 12 months have been the most creative of his life; not just a new album, but Billy Elliot the Musical (he has written the music to the stage production of the Stephen Daldry film, which premieres this autumn in Newcastle), a Broadway production of The Vampire Lestat (based on the first two Anne Rice novels) and the soundtrack to an animated Disney film called Gnomeo and Juliet.
Then there are the concerts. Alongside his never-ending world tours, Elton is in residency in Las Vegas for the next three years, playing a total of 75 shows, in a lavish production designed by David LaChapelle. But he never forsakes the serious for the superficial; his commitment as chairman of the Elton John Aids Foundation is as great as ever, while he also supports breast cancer charities. 'I go out and raise the money; I am the whore,' he says. 'But I don't scream about it all the time.'
Elton becomes serious for a moment as he contemplates his 60th birthday. 'There will come a time when my lifestyle has to change. Why I'm still trying to prove something to myself, I don't know. I have a lovely private life with David but we don't spend enough time together.'
He pauses, squinting. 'I'm not going to be like the Who and do a farewell tour for the next 15 years, but I am finding it harder, emotionally, to stay on the road.'
He looks across the stunning gardens to the house he bought in 1975 in a drugs haze. 'This is home for me. It's where David and I first met. But we don't need the stuff; I'd be happy living in a Winnebago with David because I love him so much.' His eyes are watering. Maybe it's the sun.
'I always wanted to buy a big fucking retirement home and live in it with all my friends. An old department store in the King's Road would be perfect. I could run the CD shop, Neil Tennant the bookshop and Sam Taylor-Wood the art shop.' He rubs the dog's head. 'Either that or buy a big chateau in France and just walk around in kaftans eating donuts all day.'
The fan club
What's your favourite song of his?
What makes Elton a living legend?
The way he never sits still and endlessly pushes his limits to become what he is.
How do you think he will be remembered?
Aside from all his amazing achievements ... flowers.
What's it like having him as a friend?
He's more than a friend; he's my gay husband.
Elton on Sam Taylor-Wood:
If I wasn't with David, I would love to be with Sam. She's become such an inspiration for me. There isn't a day I don't call her. I love her and Jay [Jopling, Sam's husband] so much. And their daughter, Angelica. I trust her for advice but I also just love her as a person: she's one of the greatest people I've ever met. I would do anything for her. And creatively, she's amazing. She's so full of ideas.
OMM: What's your favourite Elton song?
How will he be remembered?
Not only for his music, but his great charity work and also his tremendous sense of humour. He should have been a stand-up comic. He is the funniest man I have ever met.
What is he like as a friend?
He's more like a sister.
You've known each other for decades now: what is so special about him? We have our ups and downs and we don't see each other like we used to in the Seventies. But he is so special, probably because of his unique talent. It's the same reason he's a legend. He is a great singer too, but not quite as good as me.
How would you characterise your relationship?
Deep mutual respect. Although we can be a little bitchy towards each other, especially me because he has sold more records than I have. But I love him. I almost wish I was gay.
How has he changed over the years, musically and personally? He hasn't changed that much, musically. He is still as excellent as always, but he has broadened his horizons.
Is he more talented than you?
Yes, always has been and always will be. [smirks]
OMM: What makes Elton a living legend?
His ability to maintain an incredible amount of energy and not become disillusioned with the whole showbusiness thing. Couple that with his incredible chameleon-like talent.
What's your favourite song of his? '
Yellow Brick Road', because I've been on both ends of that equation.
How will he be remembered?
As a devilish saint who basically sleeps, wakes, eats and shits music.
What's it like having him as a friend It's wonderful, and I wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China.
OMM: What makes Elton special?
His joy, his knowledge of the musical past, and an impressive curiosity for new music; he knows much more about new releases than many more self-consciously hip artists.
What's your favourite song of his?
It changes all the time. One of the more well-known titles would be 'Sorry ...' I heard Ray Charles do it two years ago and it knocked everyone out and made me want to sing it myself. 'Tiny Dancer' has an amazing stucture, too, and a great lift to the chorus. These songs are hard! There are a couple of melodies on the new record which are up there with his best, particularly 'My Elusive Drug' and 'Turn the Lights Out'. Full of unexpected changes. I also love some of those delicate songs from way back, such as 'Come Down in Time' or 'Sixty Years On'...
What is he like as a friend?
Elton (and David) have been very loving friends to my wife in the past few years; we have no words to describe their kindness to us as a couple. It is amazing that anyone who works so hard could find time to check in on friends not doing so well or simply to be so gracious, courteous and wickedly humoured. This life often makes people much more selfish.
What makes Elton a living legend?
The man is so talented as a professional musician - forget the pop star stuff. You don't stay at the top of that profession without working at it. He applies his talent to his job better than anyone I have met.
What's your favourite song of his?
'Candle in the Wind' is my favourite - it has been ever since it first came out - but 'I'm Still Standing' is strangely appropriate for both Elton and myself!
How will he be remembered?
As a great musical talent and a wonderful showman
What is he like as a friend?
I count myself as very fortunate to have been a part of Elton's life.
To raise funds for the Elton John Aids Foundation, Elton and Sam Taylor-Wood have given The Observer a signed print of our cover photograph to auction.
If you would like to bid for the photograph simply send them a letter stating how much you would be willing to pay, with full contacts details including your phone number. The reader who offers the highest amount will receive the photograph and we will forward the proceeds to the Elton John Aids Foundation. Bids needs to with The Oserver by 4 October and should be sent to
Observer/Elton John Freepost
KE7536, 119 Farringdon Road
London EC1B 1FL.
They will contact the successful bidder within 14 days of the closing date. For full terms and conditions go to guardian.co.uk/eventsandoffers