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da INTERVIEW novenbre 2006

intervista di Cameron Crowe

Elton: ever wonder what happened to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy? They're back

In 1975, at the height of their early success, Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a risky, singular masterpiece of a concept album about their own struggles with failure on the rise to fame that blew all expectations out of the water. Thirty-one years later, with its sequel, The Captain & the Kid, they've done it again, putting their lives--both personally and creatively--on the line. Here, the Rocket Man opens up about the return of Captain Fantastic, the secret magic of his 36-year collaboration with Taupin, and how music not only saved his life on more than one occasion but gave him one he no longer takes for granted.

CAMERON CROWE: Your new album, The Captain & the Kid [Interscope], is the sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which you made more than 30 years ago. I listened to the albums back-to-back last night, and it was just such a powerful journey. First of all, going back to the white heat of the moment when you made Captain Fantastic: Where does that album fit into your body of work?

ELTON JOHN: I've always thought that Captain Fantastic was probably my finest album because it wasn't commercial in any way. We did have songs like "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," which is one of the best songs that Bernie and I have ever written together. But whether a song like that could be a single these days, since it's practically six minutes long, is questionable. Captain Fantastic was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure--or trying desperately not to be one. lived that story. Now, the new album, The Captain & the Kid, is all about coming to terms with success. I never delve into my past at all, but I think when you make an album that is a follow-up to something you did 30 years ago, you have to go back and revisit. That whole album, Captain Fantastic, sounds so damn good when I hear it now. Gus Dudgeon was a great producer, and we as a band were at our peak. Momentum is everything in music, and we were really getting our own--our adrenaline was flowing. At the time, I thought it was a completely commercial-free album. It didn't have any deliberate pop songs on it like "Crocodile Rock." It wasn't about that anyway--it was about our experience, so it was like a mini-operetta in a way.

CC: And boldly emotional, but clear-eyed about it--really groundbreaking. What was your own high standard for making a sequel to an album like Captain Fantastic?

EJ: Well, I didn't come up with the idea, which was the best part of it. I hadn't been carrying it around in my head for 30 years. It was my manager Merck Mercuriadis's idea. He said, "Come on, you've always said that you've turned into the Captain Fantastic character and Bernie has become the Brown Dirt Cowboy," which is true. [Taupin now lives on a ranch in California.] So I said, "I think it's a great idea, but you better ask Bernie first." And Bernie liked the idea, so he toiled to make it happen. He had to really pay attention to what he was doing with the lyrics on this album, and I think he wrote them pretty quickly. It all just kind of rolled out. We went in and did the first track, "Postcards from Richard Nixon"--which was the perfect song to start with, because it was the one that took us to America--and recorded the rest in running order. Once we got that first one in the can, and did a couple more, we knew we were onto something special. The whole thing was written and recorded in just 20 days. We recorded the album the way we did Honky Chateau [1972], where the band was set up around me on a stage. It was just very free and easy. But I could not have followed up Captain Fantastic with a bad album. If things hadn't started going well in the studio then I would not have put the album out.

CC: Because of this run you've had lately with Songs from the West Coast [2001], Peachtree Road [2004], and now The Captain & the Kid, I wonder, was there a time around 2001 when you had another eureka moment as an artist, when your love of music was renewed?

EJ: Well, the song "Old 67," on the new album, talks about that. Bernie and I don't often get to spend time together, but before we made Songs from the West Coast, he came to my house in England and we hung out on the balcony and reassessed what we'd been doing. We said, "Listen, our day in the sun as radio artists is gone, and I don't want to have the pressure anymore of record companies telling me I've got to have a single or I'm not going to get radio exposure. Let's go back to writing lyrical and melodic albums like we did in the beginning and not even worry about commercial singles." I just think we drew our line in the sand and said, "No more half-heartedness. No more laziness. Let's be creative and stick to our guns as much as we possibly can." It's weird, because it's given me a new lease on life. I don't have to worry about radio play--just the quality of the songs and whether we like them and whether they're good enough. There were some very patchy records made during the '80s and '90s. There were some great songs on them, but not enough attention was paid to detail. That's what Bernie and I had that meeting about on the balcony: We wanted to pay attention again.

CC: Was there ever a period that was the opposite of that time on the balcony, where you and Bernie weren't being emotionally honest with one another?

EJ: I don't think there has been one. There have been times where there has been a lot of space between us, but I think that space is what kept us together. There are things Bernie doesn't like about my career, which I can see--when I took the costume thing too far, and the behavior during some of the drug periods and stuff like that. But Bernie and I have never had a stand-up row, ever, in our lives. I can sense his disapproval from 5,000 miles away--it's just in the air. And I don't have to comment. I don't have to call him up and say, "What's your fucking problem?" because I respect his disapproval. It's just not worth arguing about. It's more like, "Point taken."

CC: I was doing some reading recently about Marvin Gaye. Early in his career, he didn't write many of his own songs, but sometimes he would tell people who were writing with him, "I don't know the situation you've written about. It's a great song, but I can't sing it because I didn't live it." I wondered if you are ever like that with Bernie's lyrics. Have you ever said to him, "Those are great words, Bernie, but I didn't live that?"

EJ: Listen, I can't sing about falling in love with a girl--everyone knows I'm gay, so that would be ridiculous. Those clays are gone. But Bernie is a genius at writing lyrics that could apply to both of us. That has especially been the case on the last few albums, particularly The Captain & the Kid, because it's so personal. Let me cherrypick this one for you: "You couldn't tell me I was wrong/You couldn't tell me anything/And if you did then I guess I must have lost it on the wind" [from "I Must Have Lost it On the Wind"]. That's just how I used to be and how he used to be--that's the drugs and the alcohol and everything. Everyone told us, "You're making a mistake. Don't do this, don't do this." But we just wouldn't listen. Those three lines brought it home for me. I could've used them back in the day--I might have gotten sober and my life together sooner.

CC: Does it ever feel like these are all beautiful bonus years because you did push yourself so hard during those periods? As you sing about on "The Bridge," so many artists don't make it all the way past those kinds of crossroads. Do you ever look at yourself and feel lucky that you did?

EJ: Yes, I do. Even though there were unhappy periods in my life and lots of heavy drug use, I didn't stop working and shut myself away. I still wrote songs. I still bought records. I still loved music. Even though I wasn't in the best physical condition, and my performances weren't always the best, and all of my records weren't always the greatest, the fact that I still went out and made records and still cared kept me alive. I used to sit in my room and listen to Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel singing "Don't Give Up," or Bruce Hornsby singing "Lost Soul" with Shawn Colvin, and I used to cry. I was so miserable--but I would still play records. And the next day I would have to drag my carcass out of bed and go out and play live. It was the music that saved me, just like it did when I was a kid and my parents were arguing. Music has saved me all my life--it has given me everything in my life.

CC: When you recorded the song "Sixty Years On" in 1970, did your mind travel forward-like, "One day I'm going to be 60 years old-what's the world going to be like then?"

EJ: I was so young when I wrote that song that I didn't really think about what would happen. But subsequently when I've performed it, yes, I have thought about it. I'm going to be 60 next year, and I have the most incredible life. It has been an amazing ride. The world is not in a happy place right now, but I have to say that--as a person and as a human being--I am. Plus, I'm still writing with Bernie, this friend who came down from Lincolnshire with a tiny suitcase and changed my life. That makes me proud.

CC: Here are a bunch of quick things just to bounce off you. True or false: During the first week you came to America and were playing at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, you turned down the lead in Harold and Maude [1972]?

EJ: It happened after that, in early 1970 or 1971. Hal Ashby must have seen me play. I was given the script, which Bernie and I both read on the plane. It was brilliant--we were crying with laughter. But I had to turn it down because I was only just starting out and it would have broken all the momentum we were building. Bud Cort did such a great job anyway--Harold and Maude is one of my favorite movies. I was very flattered to have been asked.

CC: Is there a hidden hero in your career--someone who doesn't get name-checked in interviews?

EJ: A woman named Winifred Atwell. She was from Trinidad and played two pianos, which so impressed me as a kid. She would play some classical piece of music on a grand piano, and then she'd go over to her upright and play pub songs and ragtime. She had the most infectious smile. She moved to Australia, and when I first went there, I managed to meet with her. It was one of the greatest moments in my life. She was one of the first people who inspired me, and I got to say thank you for it.

CC: Whenever we've used your music in the movies I've done, you have always been so kind to supply us with the raw, original tracks of your songs, and when we're in the mixing stage, we always end up taking time out to listen to them. One of the great moments I'll always remember is listening to "Tiny Dancer" when we were mixing Almost Famous [2000]. You say this great thing in the studio chatter right before you start playing the song: You say, "Adam Dick--what a name." [laughs] It's obviously the end of a conversation you were having, but I must ask you, on behalf of all the makers of Almost Famous, who is Adam Dick?

EJ: [laughs] I have not a fucking clue. God, the outtakes of my albums could make a fool of anyone's album, I would think. But I don't know who Adam Dick was. I'll have to ask.

CC: I went online and tried to find him. I even spelled it A-T-O-M. But he must have disappeared into the mists of time. "Postcards from Richard Nixon" has this great image of you rolling up next to Steve McQueen who's driving a red Porsche, Was that a real sighting that you and Bernie had together?

EJ: Absolutely. When we first came to Los Angeles, we stayed at the Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard, and during our first few visits we saw a lot of people driving around who we couldn't believe we were seeing--Lucille Ball nearly ran me over at MCA records once. But, yeah, we did see Steve McQueen driving a red Porsche down Sunset Boulevard. I was so star-struck. Here I was, an English boy, and that actually happened.

CC: Did he look over at you guys?

EJ: No. He was way too cool to do that.

CC: Did you and Bernie arrive in America at the same time?

EJ: Yeah, on the same plane--on Pan Am, or whatever it was. We were met at the gate by a big red bus. I remember that we were so pissed off. We wanted an American car with air conditioning and there was this old fucking London transport bus which took forever to take us to the Sunset Strip. And, you know, it was a good idea. But we were very disappointed at the time.

CC: Is it still Brian Wilson's California to you?

EJ: Well, Brian Wilson's music is California. You listen to Brian Wilson's music, even his new work, and it still sounds like it comes from California. It always will do. Brian Wilson should be the fucking governor of California.

CC: I'm ready to vote. [laughs] I think it's so great that you made the "The Bridge" the first single off The Captain & the Kid. It's a simple solo piano track, a letter from your heart to fellow artists--there will come a time when you cannot bluff, when the bullshit will not work. That's the moment you'll be remembered for--or forgotten over. It's an interesting song because so many people say, "Ah, success is so much about luck and being in the right place." And I always think, "Well, let's be honest, it's about more than that, isn't it?"

EJ: It's about quality. You look at the people who have crossed that bridge that I'm singing about--the Bob Dylans, the Brian Wilsons, the Neil Youngs, the Tom Pettys, the Oscar Petersons, the Tony Bennetts. And the reason they've been able to do that is that their love of music is so great. It's not about having the number--one record. It's about having that passion-for your art, for your life, and for being a survivor--and being sensible enough to know that success is only transient sometimes, and that the real jewel in the crown is having the talent to go out there and play music and still enjoy it. U2 and the Rolling Stones both do that. I saw Jimmy Scott play on his 80th birthday and it was incredible. I did a track with B.B. King for his last record--we recorded it onstage in Las Vegas, two takes and that was it--and he still plays with that passion. Some people can't hack it because they don't have the talent or the wherewithal to handle failure. But you've got be able to handle failure if you're going to cross that bridge.

CC: Did you feel broadsided at all by arriving at that crossroads so early in your life?

EJ: I was prepared. We were so excited when Captain Fantastic came in at number one on the Billboard Pop charts--it was the first album ever to do so. It was a time when we could do no wrong. But I was sensible enough to know that somebody else was going to have their day in the sun. I loved records and studied them and was totally engrossed in music, so I knew that would happen. I was prepared for when "I Feel like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford)," off the Rock of the Westies [1975] album, didn't make the Top 10. But it was a relief in a way. It's impossible to sustain that kind of success. You look at people like Michael Jackson, who always wanted to sell more records than Thriller [1982]--how can you expect to sell more than that? You've got to realize that those things come along once in a lifetime, and afterwards, you've got to find your feet.

CC: "Blues Never Fade Away" is another song that takes a tough look at fame. It's a powerful piece of antinostalgia. There's that line--"l miss John Lennon's laugh," You sing it as a simple truth.

EJ: That's the only song on The Captain & the Kid that isn't specifically about us. It's about coping with loss. I sit on the balcony sometimes and listen to "Cavalleria Rusticana," a classical piece of music, or "Goin' Back" by Carole King, sung by Dusty Springfield, and it reminds me of Gianni Versace--I listen and I cry. I miss John Lennon's laugh, and, God, could we do with a John Lennon in the world today. So you celebrate these people who were close to you in other ways, but the pain of losing them doesn't go away. "Blues Never Fade Away" is just a reflection on that. It's a beautiful lyric and I think probably my best vocal on a record ever--I really believe that. I'm happy with the vocals on the whole album, but that one I sing with a special intensity. It's a very angry song as well: "Targets on the rifle range/Who makes the call and who gets to choose?/Who gets to win and who gets to lose?" It's heart wrenching when I think about what has happened. I've had two of my best friends shot on their front doorsteps in America--Gianni Versace and John Lennon. And God knows how many friends of mine died of AIDS before the government started to do anything about it. You have to feel something when you're singing those lyrics.

CC: I love the famous stories about you cheering on new artists, calling them with their first album barely out. And suddenly, here's Elton John on the phone, wishing them well, fluent in their songs--you even know the hidden tracks! And I guess the great unspoken theme is: You take none of your success for granted. You're still pressing to do work that matters, and not kicking up your feet and saying, "I've done it--put out another greatest hits."

EJ: Oh, God, no. I'm so full of energy and creativity now. I don't just have my record career to deal with--I have other things that I love to do as well, and that keeps me on the ball. But I think the most important thing as an artist myself, or like a Dylan or a Neil Young or a Joni Mitchell, is that we write our own songs, and we're still trying to write the best songs we can. That drives us on--that hunger to find the perfect song and that commitment to comment on things that are happening in the world. My love of melody and recording and playing and music in general just keeps me going. I'm so happy that I'm still working with Bernie and that I still have that drive to want to do a better album. With the last three, we're on a roll, and I can't wait to do the next one. I've crossed that bridge that we were talking about. Now there are other bridges to cross.