Poor Elton John had to leave the stage during his show in New Zealand this week because he has walking pneumonia. We tend to forget that he is 72 years old and has been in the music business since 1962! Well, if you read his autobiography, simply entitled Me, you’ll soon understand the sheer weight and impact of all that experience. Reading it made me haul out his 1984 Breaking Hearts album from my collection of vinyl LPs and power up the old turntable – and it just about blew me away.
I did not remember it being that good. Strong melodies, powerful and toe-tapping compositions, a bass that drills right through your spine and a smooth match with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. It was so old and yet, sounded so fresh and, dare I say it, accomplished. And that, in a nutshell, is what Me is about – a lifetime, decades of making really excellent music, through all the fads and phases of the industry, and the weird, wonderful (and many dead) people.
The stories behind the lyrics
John describes how some of his most famous songs were created, and in most cases, what you think the lyrics mean is probably not what he and his lyrics-writing partner, Taupin, were thinking of. And then of course I had to go listen to those songs again. Taupin is a sort of “ghost in the machine” in this story. I wonder what he thinks of John’s autobiography, in which he is depicted as both a friend and collaborator. John criticizes some people, including his mother and father, thankfully now deceased (you can’t slander the dead). But he only has good things to say about Taupin. He says that without Taupin, Reginald Dwight would not have become Elton John, the pianist, composer, singer and performer.
It has been a spectacularly successful partnership: On Feb. 9, 2020, John and Taupin won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Original Song for (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again, from the film about John’s life, Rocketman. Not bad for old codgers, hey?
In the early 1960s, after failing to convince an executive at Liberty Records, Ray Williams, that he was worth signing on, Williams handed him an envelope full of lyrics written by a guy called Bernard Taupin from a strangely named place in Lincolnshire called Owmby-by-Spital. They met, they hit it off, and that was it. From that day on, Taupin would write lyrics wherever he was living at the time, send them to John, and John, wherever he was, would put them to music. How’s that for an unusual work method?
“I’m not a musician who walks around with melodies in his head all the time. I don’t rush to the piano in the middle of the night when inspiration strikes. I don’t even think about songwriting when I’m not actually doing it. Bernie writes the words, gives them to me, I read them, play a chord and something else takes over, something comes through my fingers. The muse, God, luck: you can give it a name if you want, but I’ve no idea what it is. I just know straight away where the melody’s going to go.” (p. 93)
That kind of instinctual creativity comes from hard work. John has worked at it, worked at it, worked at it, and then worked at it some more. He was doggedly determined to make it in the music business and made many sacrifices on his way to superstardom. Reading about the famous artists, singers and musicians he has worked with and known personally, and where he has performed and the many tours he has done, reinforces the idea that to get that that level of skill requires practice, study and devotion. From the time he was a child prodigy who studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, aged eleven (did you know that?), John was occupied by only two things: music and the Watford football club.
His almost demented focus on music (collecting, it, being involved with it, writing it, recording it, performing it, collaborating on it, touring with it…) only lessened when he became a father to Zachary and Elijah. The turning point was the moment that his husband, David Furnish, presented him with a list of milestone dates for both boys.
‘’’How much of this do you want to be around for?’, he asked. ‘You can work your tour schedules around it.’ I looked at the sheet of paper. It effectively mapped out their lives. By the time they reached the final dates on it, they wouldn’t be children anymore, they would be teenagers, young men. And I would be in my eighties. ‘All of it,’ I said finally. ‘I want to be there for all of it.’ David raised his eyebrows. ‘In which case,’ he said, you need to think about changing your life. You need to think about retiring from touring.’” (p. 342)
This episode is one of many in which John paints a loving and admiring portrait of Furnish. They met in 1993, became civil partners in 2005, and got married in 2014, and it seems that it took the stable relationship with Furnish to make John slow down and take better care of himself, and to “simmer down” as the expression goes.
A man of extremes
Furnish’s gesture caused John to pull on the brakes, because, ultimately, he is a man of extremes – extreme talent, skill, ambition, wealth, drug use, sobriety, possessiveness, generosity, passion, reticence – he has seldom done anything in moderation.
The first person narrator of the book is clearly John, reminiscing, philosophizing or shouting, (though he had help from his publisher, since he is, by his own admission, a music man, not a word man) and if you think some of the stuff he describes is just too weird and hilarious to be true, bear in mind that he writes about his sex life in the same way.
Reading the book, I was amazed that he was around to have written it, and not dead from cancer, AIDS, heart disease, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, suicide or sheer exhaustion. Like the early life of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, described in his memoir Life (2010), John seems to have lived dangerously and filled his body with all manner of bad substances – and yet, survives and has had a fantastically successful career. Is some guardian angel sitting on his shoulder? More likely his rehab and sobriety happened in the nick of time.
Life as a superstar
Both John and Furnish went through rehab and John has been cold stone sober since 1990. When you see him giving those high-voltage performances on stage, remember that there are no performance enhancing drugs in him. (He has learned not to mess with the health of his vocal cords.) If there is something nasty in him, it would be the flip-side of his personality – when he goes from Bruce Banner to the Hulk.
“I wasn’t afraid about people seeing the monstrous, unreasonable side of me. I’m perfectly aware how ridiculous my life is, and perfectly aware of what an arsehole I look like when I lose my temper over nothing – I go from nought to nuclear in seconds and then calm down just as quickly. My temper was obviously inherited from my mum and dad, but I honestly think that, somewhere within them, every creative artist, whether they’re a painter, a theatre director, an actor or a musician, has the ability to behave in a completely unreasonable way. It’s like the dark side of being creative. Certainly, virtually every other artist I had become friends with seemed to have that aspect to their character too.” (p. 263)
It may be anecdotal, but I think that statement rings true. John has many personas, all of which he candidly writes about, from the shy, plump, bespectacled, music-obsessed boy called Reg, to the off-his-head diva, to the man who acknowledges that he has been tremendously fortunate and has had the kind of life many aspire to but few ever attain.
And that is certainly true – most people would know the superlatives and record-breaking statistics of John’s career and his private life. (Though reading the juicy details of his encounters with royals, celebrities and magnates is certainly eyebrow-raising.) But there will always be something of that little kid from Pinner, Middlesex, in him, and wonderment that he could’ve turned out so famous and so loved.
While waiting in a queue the other day, reading Me to pass the time, a middle-aged woman who I didn’t know from a bar of soap came up to me and asked me how I liked the book. I said, it is very enjoyable, and quite funny in places. She said, “Oh, good” and explained that she had just bought it and that she is a super-fan who has gone to every live concert that John has given in Canada, and once received a gift basket of goodies from him. “I love him!” she said, “I’m going to start reading the minute I get home!”
I get it, I really do. You go read it too, it’s so good for the soul to read about the redeeming power of love.
About Elton John (as if you didn’t know it)
Sir Elton John, CBE, is a multi-award winning solo artist who has achieved 38 gold and 31 platinum or multi-platinum albums, has sold more than 300 million records worldwide, and holds the record for the biggest-selling single of all time, ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’. In August 2018 Elton was named the most successful male solo artist in the Billboard Hot 100 chart history, having logged 67 entries, including nine Number 1s and 27 Top 10s. Elton launched his first tour in 1970 and since then has performed over 4,000 times in more than 80 countries. When not recording or touring, Elton devotes his time to a number of charities, including his own Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised over $300 million and funded programmes across four continents in the twenty-four years it has existed. He is married to David Furnish, and they have two sons. Me is his first and only official autobiography.