From a shy piano prodigy to the flamboyant Rocketman
- Scandalously racy, astonishingly honest and wildly funny, Elton John’s autobiography has got it all
It’s probably around 1974. Elton John is holed up in his hotel suite in New York with John Lennon. The two are “determinedly" making their way through a pile of cocaine when there’s a knock on the door. John’s first thought, like anyone who has snorted a lot of cocaine, is that it’s the police. But looking through the spyhole, he sees that it’s artist Andy Warhol. “John, it’s Andy Warhol," he whispers to Lennon. “No fucking way. Don’t answer it," hisses Lennon. John is aghast at the response, but Lennon reminds him that Warhol always has his Polaroid camera with him. “Do you want him coming in here taking photos when you’ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?" There was more knocking on the door for a while, but the two ignored it and went about the business at hand.
In the autobiographies of rock stars, particularly those whose heydays were in the 1960s and 1970s, anecdotes such as these are not uncommon. But in Me Elton John, hilarious anecdotes crowd almost every page. Rocketman, the musical biopic on John which released earlier this year, may have been a glamorous, near-fantasy depiction of the man, with more imaginative tweaks and flights of fancy than actual facts. But the book, written with Alexis Petridis,The Guardian’s head pop and rock critic, is an astonishingly honest account of his life.
John, who turned 72 this year, began his career in 1962; he became a superstar quickly—by the early 1970s, when he had his first recorded hits and then burst upon stages in the US with his gigs. His fairy-tale-like transformation from a shy piano prodigy in Pinner, a small town in Greater London, to a flamboyant international rock celebrity is a story that needs little embellishment to make it fascinating. Knighted in 1998, he is now Sir Elton Hercules John, married (to long-time partner David Furnish), with two sons. He dresses staidly, devotes much of his time and resources to charities that are mainly devoted to fighting AIDS, and is, well, almost elder statesman-like.
But it has been a wild journey. And Me Elton John bares it all. Unafraid to reveal the most shocking (and, often, lurid) details about his life and that of his peers, his autobiography is a racy, riveting read, with outrageous descriptions of stories that can evoke belly-splitting laughs. Where other celebrities adopt tact, John opts for full-on indiscretion. His friendship—more a love-hate relationship—with Rod Stewart is an example. In the 1970s, the two gave each other drag names, just for a lark. Stewart was Phyllis and John was Sharon (Freddie Mercury, incidentally, was Melina; and, for the record, the Queen’s frontman nicknamed Michael Jackson Mahalia, which the latter never liked).
Stewart and John were arch-rivals too. In the early 1980s, when Stewart had a promotional blimp hoisted above London to promote a gig, John had his people shoot it down. Stewart retaliated by getting John’s promotional hoardings dismantled before his show. Oh, and both still call each other by their drag names.
Such tales abound in the book. We learn about how one wild night in Europe, a stoned Ringo Starr wanted to join Elton John’s band. And of how Neil Young landed up at John and his then lover and manager John Reid’s home in Surrey at 2am and performed the entire track list of his forthcoming album Harvest, while the neighbours complained. Or the bewildering encounter that John had with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson where the latter insisted on singing the chorus (I hope you don’t mind; I hope you don’t mind) of one of John’s hit numbers, Your Song, repeatedly, all through the night.
Yet, there is much else for those interested in more serious details of his career and talent. John’s career would probably not have taken off had he not been rejected at an audition for a record label. To soften the blow, an executive handed him an envelope with lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. And thus began a lifelong collaboration and the road to success. John also reveals that it takes him very little time to set Taupin’s lyrics to music—sometimes as little as the time it takes to sing them. He wrote the entire album Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) during a journey on a ship from Southampton to New York in the SS France’s music room. Incidentally, he and Taupin were chaperoning Lennon’s ex-wife, Cynthia, and son Julian on their trip to visit the ex-Beatle.
Always candid about his sexuality, John describes how he was a late bloomer, losing his virginity only at 23, and about his theory of why he didn’t get AIDS during the epidemic of the 1980s—because he was more of a voyeur than a participant in gay sex during those years. His relationships with celebrities such as Liberace, Princess Diana and Gianni Versace are described in detail. And he’s honest about how star-struck he was when he first met idols such as the keyboardist Leon Russell, Elvis Presley, and members of The Band.
Me Elton John is a fun book, but it has its darker moments. During his childhood, John’s parents, especially his mother, were unimaginably harsh on him. Both had wild tempers and young John bore the brunt of beatings and severe reprimands, sometimes quite irrationally.
Of course, the book is also self-indulgent and often so self-obsessed that it borders on narcissism. But then what did you expect from the Rocketman, who, at his first gig in the US, wore yellow dungarees, a star-spangled shirt, and yellow work boots with platforms and blue wings attached to them—and then did handstands on his piano’s keyboard?
Sanjoy Narayan is a journalist and columnist.
FIRST PUBLISHED15.11.2019 | 10:01 AM IST