Elton John's wonderful crazy life

By Neil McCormick

After half a century of hits and high living, Elton John has settled down. But, he tells Neil McCormick, he’s nowhere close to giving up.
British singer-songwriter and pianist Elton John. Photo / Getty Images
British singer-songwriter and pianist Elton John. Photo / Getty Images

The Beverly Hills home where Sir Elton John lives with his husband and their children is a sprawl of glass and gleaming surfaces. Inside, paintings by Keith Haring and Andy Warhol hang above a zebra-skin rug and a bright pink coffee table groaning with orchids and objets d'art. It looks like an art gallery designed by Austin Powers.

"That's exactly what I wanted," says Elton, laughing, "the LA 70s rock star look." The man himself has got this look down to a tee: he greets me like a cuddly, gap-toothed Elvis in stripy adidas tracksuit, rimless purple sunglasses and that oddly dyed mop of transplanted hair. "With all our houses, we choose the art first," he says, leading me into a circular alcove where his housekeeper serves us coffee in cups so elaborately designed it's not clear how to pick them up.

John and David Furnish have five other residences: in Atlanta, London, Windsor, Nice and Venice. "I've too many homes, probably, but I love them," he says. "It's a matter of creature comforts. It's nice to stay in your own place, and you just accumulate them. Anyway, I'm not as bad as Keith Richards.

He turned up in Paris once and he'd forgotten where he lived!"

John is one of pop's most enduring stars. Since his first hit, Your Song, in 1970, he has sold more than 200 million albums. His 1997 tribute to Princess Diana, Candle in the Wind, still holds the record for the biggest-selling single of all time and he has composed some of the most popular musicals of the modern era, including The Lion King and Aida with Tim Rice, and Billy Elliot with Lee Hall. Yet his flamboyant image and the vast scale of his success can distract from the real quality and substance that characterises his finest work.

It would be hard to think of someone with a comparable catalogue of richly melodic songs stretching from the intimate to the epic, drawing in pop, rock, disco, gospel, soul and jazz. His soulful hits combine the serious-minded lyrics of his lifelong writing partner, Bernie Taupin, with ingenious string arrangements, virtuoso piano playing and gorgeous harmonies, always sung with directness and passion.

In person, John has a ripe, chortling laugh and easily gets carried away recounting stories from the wilder days of his youth; days that now, at 68, feel far behind him. "To be honest, a normal night for me would be putting the kids to bed, reading them a story, and then having dinner with David at home," he says. He and Furnish have two sons, Zachary, 5, and Elijah, 3, born to a surrogate mother. "I don't really hang out or stay up late. I've got to get the kids to school for half past eight. That's my life, and I love it. I'm in a joyous place."

It is this upbeat attitude that John set out to capture on his new album, Wonderful Crazy Night, an up-tempo set of belters recorded with his live band in the same spirit as his 70s classics, and released last week. Working from a sheaf of Taupin's lyrics, the music was composed in the morning, songs rehearsed in the afternoon and recorded by evening. "No one's making this kind of record any more. There aren't the bands around to do it. But you can still rock and roll at 70, if you've got the means and the will. It was so much fun."

Does he worry whether it's going to be a hit or not? "Course it's not!" he laughs. "It's not my time any more. I had my time. Move over."

If recent, hostile press reports are to be believed, John's domestic bliss has come at a price. Furnish - a Canadian film-maker 16 years his junior whom he met in 1992 and married in 2014 - has been accused of taking over his life, assuming the role of chief executive of his record label, Rocket Entertainment, and effectively becoming John's manager. He recently presided over an 18-month cost-cutting regime that saw the departure of staff who had been with the singer for decades, including lawyers, managers, hairdressers, valets and publicists.

English pop/rock singer, composer, pianist, Elton John plays in concert at Auckland's Vector Arena. Photo / File
English pop/rock singer, composer, pianist, Elton John plays in concert at Auckland's Vector Arena. Photo / File

"I call him Yoko," jokes John, before launching into a vigorous defence of his husband. "People think he's on a power trip. He's not. My business is solvent since David took over, we have money put aside for tax. Being me is a bit like being king in a medieval court. People get infatuated with money and power. There's a jostling for position. David won't have it. He is taking care of business. He's doing it because he loves me, 'cos he wants our family to have a very secure future and he doesn't want me to be on the road for the rest of my life. He's getting rid of the dross, with a capital D. It's an unpopular place to be, but somebody has to be Cruella de Vil."

As part of the tidy-up, John says he is trying to curb his wayward tongue. "Madonna was my last 'coup de grace'," he chuckles, referring to a decade's worth of insults he has hurled in the American singer's direction ("anyone who lip-syncs in public on stage when you pay £75 to see them should be shot" was one of his more polite broadsides, launched in response to Madonna being awarded the 2004 Q Award for Best Live Act). But when he found himself dining in the same restaurant as Madonna in Nice in 2013, he took the opportunity to bury the hatchet.

"She came in and I thought 'Oh God!' So I wrote a note to ask for her forgiveness and we paid for her meal. She was very gracious about it. When you say someone looks like a fairground stripper [as he did, of Madonna, in 2012], it's not exactly courteous. I don't want to be negative any more, I don't want to slag anybody off. I let Noel Gallagher do all that now. He makes me laugh - such a sweet man," he says, before adding, wickedly, "All mouth and no trousers."

While John may be a long way from his physical prime - his face is jowly and sagging, his body bulky and movements stiff - his manner remains boyish rather than statesmanlike. He claims not to fret about his own mortality ("what is the point of worrying?") but in some respects he obviously does. As he shows me around the house, he limps and complains about his arthritic knees and is keen to clarify that recent pictures of him in a wheelchair were simply down to a twisted ankle.

"It went all round the world, 'poor sod, he can't walk any more'. But I'm pretty damn okay for 68. I play a lot of tennis. Of course, bits of me don't work as well as they used to, but I've always had good energy. I'm still like a big kid. I think music keeps you that way."

As one concession to age, he admits that he is planning to reduce his touring schedule.

"I really don't want to do this forever. I did 107 shows last year. That can't go on. There will be no more touring after another two or three years. I'll always play but I don't want to be schlepping around the world for it."

Everything now is planned around the children. "I don't want to die on the road. I want to die at home, and I want to spend a lot of time with my kids before I do."

However, this does not mean he's contemplating retirement. "Lionel Richie didn't make an album or play a show for 10 years," he says, referring to Richie's absence from the recording studio between 1986 and 1996.

"I said to him once, 'What have you been doing?' He said 'I've been playing golf.' Christ! That's a lot of f***ing golf!"

John, by contrast, is a firm believer in keeping busy. "I've always had an insatiable appetite. If it's not music, it's theatre or film, collecting photography, helping with the Aids Foundation. I throw myself into everything 150 per cent. It keeps me young, it keeps me interested."

The Elton John Aids Foundation, formed in 1992, has raised more than $200 million, thrusting its founder into the role of international spokesman for homosexual issues. This led to Russian pranksters calling him in September last year pretending to be President Vladimir Putin, eager to discuss gay rights.

"That was funny. But it all worked out, because then Putin actually did call when I was in the kitchen in my house in Windsor. He spoke to me in English, and said, 'So sorry, I apologise, I'd like to talk to you face to face, whenever we can find a date in our diaries.' Which was pretty damn amazing. I'm in touch with the Russian ambassador, we're trying to work something out, because without dialogue things will never change.

"I'm not saying I'm going to save the world but I feel I have an obligation to people who are less fortunate than myself. So I'm going to chip away at it."

John describes himself as "an acceptable face of homosexuality. I don't know why. I'm a good schmoozer and people aren't afraid of my sexuality." He came out to the press as bisexual in 1976 and was married to German woman Renate Blauel for four years from 1984, but insists he was never in the closet. "I thought everybody knew. I was living in Wentworth in a bungalow with my manager John Reid and having gay parties and the National Youth Theatre coming down for the weekend. I used to go to gay clubs all the time."

He recalls visiting the notorious Kensington underground gay disco Yours or Mine with David Bowie and Marc Bolan in the 70s. "I wasn't living a secret life."

His early career was a blur of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. "Cocaine made me horny - that's what I liked about it - but I had fun for five years and did it for 16," he says. "It brought out the darkest, most horrible parts of me. I suppose I had to go there to come back and find out who I was, so I can have no regrets. But when I think about the times I sat up all night doing drugs and talking bullshit, it's a waste, a terrible waste."

After the extravagant brilliance of his 70s hot streak, the quality of his music fell in the 80s. His albums became more overtly poppy and gained a harder production edge, yet they were nevertheless peppered with monster hits such as I'm Still Standing, I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues and Sacrifice.

He sobered up in 1990 and has attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings ever since. "Sobriety is about acceptance," he says. "I think that tied in with how I felt about my career. It's kind of fun not to be in the race any more."

From 2001, with the fantastic Songs from the West Coast, you can hear a new maturity in John's work, connecting with his 70s classics yet trying different styles and approaches, following the interior logic of the song where once he might have piled up pop hooks.

There is a classic Elton John ballad on the new album, A Good Heart, in which he sings movingly about enduring love. "For me it's about David," he says. "But it could be about me and Bernie, because we've been together nearly 50 years."

Working together since 1967, Taupin and Elton have become one of the longest-lasting songwriting partnerships in pop history. "We never talk about work, ever," says John. "He has a sixth sense about what I want, and I have a sixth sense about him. We're always on the same page." Yet he still finds something essentially inexplicable about the process by which a song emerges. "It seems impossible that anybody can still write a great song because so many have already been written," he says. "It's a leap of faith every time."

Despite his loquacity, John does not come across as particularly deep, which is perhaps why he has never wanted to be a lyricist. He seems to skate across the surface of life, and it is this instinctive quality that powers his creativity. He never composes unless he has a set of lyrics in front of him, and then the music miraculously flows forth. "A little movie starts in my head, and it all starts coming very quickly. It's as exciting now as when I first met Bernie."

He claims not to know whether a song is good until it has stood the test of time, the only exception being Your Song. "It was the first big hit I ever had and it's probably still the best song I've ever written. It's a hard song to live up to but once we wrote that, we couldn't stop." His kids sing Rocket Man in the car. "They know what I do," he says, "but they're more interested in Lego."

For all the talk of winding down, it is clear John remains very driven. He is in no doubt about the source of his motivation. "I'm still trying to prove things to my father, and he's been dead for 15 years." His parents divorced when John (born Reg Dwight in Pinner, Middlesex, in 1947) was a teenager. His father, Stanley Dwight, a trumpet player and RAF officer, never approved of his son's music. "I wanted him to be proud of me so much, but he never came to see me live. He said rock 'n' roll was a disgrace. It was worse than the gay thing to him. And even when I became ultra-ultra-successful it was never enough."

His eyes glisten as he speaks. "It still gets me," he admits. "I wanted affirmation from my dad. He never told me that he loved me. I just wanted him to hold me, but men weren't like that."

John's style of parenting could hardly be more different. "I have a ball with my kids. I try to tell them I love them as much as possible. A lot of shit happened last year, we had to get rid of a lot of people, and sometimes it got very depressing, but one second with my kids, and everything's changed. I can't tell you how much love I've got for those children. Having them is the best thing I have ever done in my life."

He pauses. "I never thought I'd be able to be a good father, because this is a selfish business, I'm used to having things my own way. But you can always change. Always," he says, insistently.

"I want to be involved in life. I don't want to give up. You never know, they might find something in 10 years' time that means I can live till I'm 350! Life is full of great surprises."

Wonderful Crazy Night is out now.

Essential Elton: 10 songs that define his career

1. Your Song (1970)
Colloquial and direct, with a beautiful melody, this song about songwriting remains one of the greatest ever written.

2. Tiny Dancer (1972)
A free-flowing, time-shifting, country-and-gospel-flavoured paean to love on the road.

3. Rocket Man (1972)
Elton's strung-out melody and yearning vocals carry Bernie Taupin's lyric of a lonely working astronaut into deep, emotional spaces.

4. Someone Saved My Life Tonight (1975)
Singing about his own recent suicide attempt, with Queen-style multilayered harmonies, Elton transforms his darkest hour into a life-affirming anthem.

5. Don't Go Breaking My Heart (1976)
Cheerfully banal, yet irresistible in its soaring melodic uplift, this is the only hit for which Elton wrote the music first and Taupin added lyrics later.

6. Blue Eyes (1982)
A pure Elton ballad that sounds like a song that has always existed, his voice gliding on a breeze of piano and strings.

7. I'm Still Standing (1983)
A definitive anthem of survival, delivered with exuberant joy over a pounding piano rhythm.

8. Candle In The Wind (1997)
Elton remade his elegiac 1973 classic to commemorate the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. With more than 33 million sales, it became the biggest-selling single of all time.

9. This Train Don't Stop There Anymore (2002)
Mining the rootsy Americana of his 70s pomp, this is a magnificent, stately parade through Elton's career, bidding farewell to the excesses of his past.

10. Home Again (2013)
A deep anthem of memory and longing. Elton's piano is fluid and expressive, his baritone rich and emotional.

- Canvas

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