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
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
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 , 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
CC: Because of this run you've had lately with Songs from the West
Coast , Peachtree Road , and now The Captain & the
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
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
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.
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
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
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 . 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
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
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.
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
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
 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 --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
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.