For the counterculture of the 1960s, the decade ended with a series of disasters: Altamont, the Tate murders, Kent State, the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, the breakup of the Beatles. All the Vietnam protests had accomplished was switching out Johnson for Nixon. Weathermen bombings had replaced nonviolent resistance. No wonder great numbers of long-haired youth wanted to withdraw from confrontation and mellow out. The hippies began evacuating the cities for the countryside. The ambition to change society was swapped for the goal of changing one’s own head.
On the minivan radio, the acid rock of the late 60s gave way to introspective singer-songwriters. Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cat Stevens, and Leonard Cohen were musicians who took their art seriously, lamenting the demands of what Joni Mitchell called “the star-maker machinery.” Mitchell, James Taylor, and Neil Young all struggled to reconcile the purity of their musical expression with the requirements of the marketplace. Taylor sang, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me up on the Jukebox.” Mitchell sang, “In some office sits a poet / and he trembles as he sings / and he asks some guy / to circulate his soul around.” These young talents set out to be artists only to find themselves working in … show business.
No such conflict troubled Elton John. Initially received, on the strength of his early hits “Your Song,” “Friends,” “Levon,” and “Tiny Dancer,” as another moody troubadour, Elton took the first opportunity to jump on the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis in hot pants and pound out rave-ups like “Crocodile Rock,” “Benny and the Jets,” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” It was as if John Denver had torn off his cowboy hat and turned into Little Richard.
The shock to fans of the early, mellow Elton may not have been quite on a par with the Newport folkies who freaked when Dylan went electric—but sulky teenagers who had identified with “Daniel” had to be amazed to see Elton dressed in a Donald Duck costume entertaining throngs while howling out “The Bitch Is Back.”
Elton took the first opportunity to jump on the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis in hot pants. It was as if John Denver had torn off his cowboy hat and turned into Little Richard.
Elton John never really fit in with the self-referencing folkies anyway. His songs were not introspective or confessional, because he did not write the lyrics. He was part of an old-fashioned songwriting partnership, like Goffin and King or Rodgers and Hart. Bernie Taupin supplied the words that Elton set to music with an efficiency that would have impressed Berry Gordy, father of the Motown assembly line. Elton and Bernie did not sit eye to eye like Lennon and McCartney. They never wrote a song in the same room. Bernie sent Elton packages of lyrics; Elton set them on the piano and let inspiration flow.
The wonder of Elton John’s new memoir, Me, is that one comes away from reading a first-person account of a half-century of global stardom, extravagant drug abuse, wild promiscuity, hundreds of millions of dollars earned and burned through, and palling around with the likes of John Lennon and Princess Di with this reaction: “Gee, Elton John is a lot like me.”
But Elton is not like us at all. He has the star’s gift for making ordinary people see themselves in him, even while he prances around a stadium stage dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
Ambitious as Napoleon
He grew up in the bland London suburb of Pinner, the sort of bespectacled kid who not only collected records but kept logs of chart positions. No doubt his 45s were alphabetized. There are lots of lonely young people like that, whose most likely career path is to end up sitting on a stool in the back of a used-record store, checking the vinyl for scratches.
But Elton—or Reg Dwight, as he was christened—was also a gifted musician with a great ear, ambitious as Napoleon, and so used to being dismissed, ignored, or mocked that he approached the stage with nothing to lose. Embarrassment did not deter him, because he had spent his whole life being embarrassed.
And he had a great voice. That is where good luck or a merciful God comes into the picture. Had he developed all his other gifts but been an ordinary singer, Elton might have had some success as a backing musician or writing songs for other performers. But Elton could sing his ass off, and when the London music publisher Dick James heard the demos Elton made of some of the songs he’d written with Taupin, he decided to finance an Elton John record.
The first album did not sell, and it might have ended there, but Elton and Bernie wrote a batch of new tunes (including “Your Song” and “Border Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot”) that inspired their backers to give them a second shot. “Your Song” was a big hit in the United States, and Elton John took that ball and ran it down the field, over the goalposts and into orbit. From the moment he got a song on the radio, he never let up.
In Me, Elton (it seems ridiculous to refer to him as “John”) chronicles his rise to riches and excess with hilarious self-knowledge. “I’ve got 1,000 candles in a closet in my home in Atlanta, and I suppose that is excessive,” he writes. “But I’ll tell you what: it’s the best smelling closet you’ve ever been in in your life.”
Or get a load of this:
“I don’t need a psychiatrist to tell me that material possessions aren’t a replacement for love or personal happiness. I’ve spent enough miserable, lonely nights in houses filled with beautiful things to have worked that out for myself a long time ago. And I really don’t recommend going shopping in the depressing aftermath of a three day cocaine binge, unless you want to wake up the next day confronted by bags and bags filled with absolute crap you don’t actually remember buying. Or in my case you wake up the next morning to a phone call informing you that you’ve bought a tram. Not a model tram. An actual tram. A Melbourne W2 class drop-centre combination tram, that the voice at the end of the phone is now informing you has to be shipped from Australia to Britain, where it can only be delivered to your house by hanging it from two Chinook helicopters.”
Along the way, he surprises Iggy Pop in the middle of a performance by running onstage in a gorilla suit—only to understand too late that Iggy is high on LSD and believes he is being menaced by a real gorilla. He also has to kick Sylvester Stallone out of a dinner party for trying to start a fistfight with Richard Gere over the attentions of Princess Diana.
He surprises Iggy Pop during a performance by running onstage in a gorilla suit—only Iggy is high on LSD and believes he is being menaced by a real gorilla.
It’s all great fun until cocaine and alcohol, anonymous sex, and room-wrecking temper tantrums kill the joke. Elton writes about being dragged kicking and screaming into rehab with compelling honesty. At age 43 he had no idea how to operate a washing machine or how much it cost to buy a stick of gum. He writes about the hard work of shedding a raft of addictions and compulsions before facing up to the insecurities that had first sent him into a race away from being pudgy little Reg.
Sobriety and A.A. meetings bring the comprehension that other people often have bigger problems than rock stardom, and in the last quarter of the story, a chastened Elton, his conscience awakened, throws himself into helping AIDS victims, financially, emotionally, and politically.
The saddest part of the book is the vivid portrait of Elton’s mother. Sheila Dwight Farebrother is described as a woman so consumed with anger and venality that she might have jumped into this memoir from a Dickens novel. Reg Dwight’s mum devoted all her energies to spoiling anything good that came into his life. When she deploys an arsenal of insults in an attempt to ruin Elton’s wedding day, he finally cuts ties with her, although he continues to pay her bills and she continues to try to find long-distance ways to hurt him. In the narrative of Elton’s life, his mother might as well be named “Rosebud.”
Elton’s mother is described as a woman so consumed with anger and venality that she might have jumped into this memoir from a Dickens novel.
Elton John is currently in the middle of a farewell tour that will last longer than the entire public careers of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. He has recently been the subject of a big-budget Hollywood biopic. He does not do anything halfway. His memoir is cringingly honest, daring the reader to turn away from descriptions of doing lines of coke while watching porn, masturbating, and vomiting on himself. Such candor suggests the ruthless honesty of a self-made man who has refused the temptation to disappear into the mythical Elton John.
Since I first saw him perform in 1971, I have crossed paths with Elton John 10 or 12 times, usually in my capacity as a music-TV producer. I worked for two years on Elvis Costello’s talk show, Spectacle, of which Elton and his husband, David Furnish, were executive producers. Before that, I did several shows with Elton for VH1. Just before a live broadcast from the House of Blues in New Orleans, he asked how long each segment of the program would be (we had five commercial breaks). I told him that segment one had to be between 11 and 13 minutes, segment two between 5 and 7 minutes, and so on. I offered to cue him. He said he would not need that, and he was right. He managed to tell stories, answer audience questions, introduce Bernie Taupin, and play his songs while landing exactly on every commercial break without a clock. It was a talent one might expect of an astronaut, not a rock star.
He saved the day a few years later when Country Music Television had the formal launch of its new series Crossroads in New York City. It was a coming-out party for C.M.T., with contest winners, advertisers, and cable operators flying in from all over the country to witness an hour of duets between Elton John and the young singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, whom Elton had championed. C.M.T.’s new owners, MTV Networks, rolled out the red carpet. I was the executive producer. When I went into Elton’s bus before the show I found him trying to coax Ryan out of a defensive crouch. Ryan explained that he was unwell, unprepared, and unwilling to go onstage. The show would have to be canceled.
I asked Elton if he would walk out and wave to the audience and say a few words to thank them for coming. I explained that many fans had traveled hundreds of miles to be there and they might be a little less disappointed if they got to see Elton in the flesh. Elton said, “Why don’t I go out and play a show just for them?”
That’s what he did. He played Elton John hits as well as Ryan Adams songs for a thrilled crowd. The new president of C.M.T. said, “That guy just saved my job!” I knew for sure then that Elton was a mensch.
Elton John is also gifted, conflicted, high-strung, generous, and—one suspects—brighter than many entertainers. He is smart enough to know when he is behaving badly. That objectivity has probably saved his life. It has surely allowed him to settle into comfortable maturity with his husband, his two sons, and longtime professional alliances intact. Along the way he made millions of dollars, released dozens of songs that everyone knows, and changed the public perception of what a rock star could be. He changed the public’s idea of what a gay man could be, too. Me sets out promising to be a racy, funny celebrity memoir. What a surprise that it turns out to be a hero’s journey.
Bill Flanagan, an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL, contributes essays to CBS Sunday Morning and hosts Flanagan’s Wake and Northern Songs on SiriusXM Radio