articolo tratto dal Daily Telegraph
del marzo 2004
Elton John tells Neil McCormick
that, while he still loves performing, there's a part of him that would
rather be out of the spotlight
Sir Elton in Vegas. It just
seems so ridiculously apposite! For the next three years, this flashing
neon city, blazing like an artificial star in the Nevada desert night,
plays host to one of the most extravagantly talented showmen of our times,
a 57-year-old pop colossus who bestrides the musical decades in gargantuan
platform boots and flashing LED spectacles.
Elton John and Arthur the
spaniel: 'I just love making music'
Here, in the vast cod-Roman
sprawl of Caesar's Palace, amid the casino cacophony of roulette, craps,
poker and blackjack tables, where big-haired women feed dollars into hungry
one-armed bandits, and musclebound gladiators lubricate the gamblers' relentless
drive to poverty with cocktails before breakfast, here he is, ladies and
gentlemen, where he always belonged. For surely, if Vegas is truly the
dark heart of the American dream, then Elton, the last of the big spenders,
would find in its elaborate malls and designer shopping emporiums a kind
of spiritual home.
Only that is not quite the
way Elton sees it. 'Before this week, I never stayed overnight in Vegas,'
Elton says, lounging on an elegant white sofa backstage at the Colosseum
before the opening night of a show he will perform 75 times over three
years, for $750,000 a show (plus extras). 'It's not really my scene.'
I am bound to report that
when Elton makes this statement, his face is thick with make-up in preparation
for the performance, giving him a rather plastic, waxy sheen. And (prior
to changing into his stage gear) he's relaxing in a shiny white-and-blue
sweatsuit of the kind favoured by late-period Elvis. His dressing-room,
so garlanded with gorgeous flowers that he jokes it 'smells like a funeral
home', is done out in black and red, with an array of kitschy lighting
effects casting coloured glows on the gleaming surfaces. A large metal
display case is crowded with Elton's colourful collection of celebrity
figurines, which travel everywhere with him. It features at least 100 six-inch
models, including the Osbourne family, a whole range of Arnold Schwarzeneggers,
the Beatles, the Monkees, George Michael, Billy Joel and even an Elton,
which, he points out, is smaller than all the others, giving him the appearance
of a kind of Elton troll. Yet, despite the cheerfully vulgar ambience of
Elton's surroundings, the man himself comes across as solid and substantial.
He has an easy, relaxed manner, with no obvious airs and graces.
'People compare me to Liberace
but I'm not really a camp sort of guy in normal life,' he states matter-of-factly.
'I don't think you could ever describe me as fey, even when I was at the
Troubadour club in hot pants and flying boots, leaping through the air
on a piano! That was just something I had to get out of my system, but
the music was never shallow or silly. There were a lot of beautiful songs,
with great lyrics by Bernie Taupin, full of heavy meaning.'
Ever since fat Elvis debased
himself for the gambling buck, Vegas has been synonymous with a kind of
creative death, a place where once shining talents were put out to pasture
in the name of nostalgia. 'I used to say if I end up playing piano in Vegas,
you can shoot me,' laughs Elton. 'But then I don't know if I ever imagined
I'd still be playing at 57.'
So what, you might wonder,
is Elton actually doing in Vegas? The answer is prosaic. 'I'm working.'
And that is what Elton does these days. He works. It just so happens that
his work is music and music is his life. Sure, there is also time for love,
art, sport: all things that engage Elton. But mostly it is, in his own
words, 'music, music, music'. The moment I arrive backstage, just an hour
before he is due to perform one of the most elaborate shows of his career,
all he wants to talk to me about is what new albums I have been listening
to, what artists I rate, what do I think of this songwriter and that band.
'Music is the most joyous thing in the world for me,' he tells me. 'I can't
imagine what my life would be without it. It cleanses the soul. It nourishes
me. It's just necessary.'
Over the course of the last
year, he has written, by his reckoning, some 60 songs: two musicals (Billy
Elliot, with lyrics by screenwriter Lee Hall, which will premiere at the
Old Vic in London this year, and The Vampire Lestat, with lyrics by Bernie
Taupin, set to open on Broadway in 2005), a handful of songs for film soundtracks
and a new album, which he is in the process of recording. 'This has been
the most prolific period of my life,' he asserts. He has also been touring
regularly, sometimes with his band, sometimes on a double bill with Billy
Joel, sometimes with an orchestra and sometimes completely solo. And now
he has the Vegas show to add to his workload, filling in for Celine Dion
during breaks from her ongoing residency at the Colosseum.
'I've so many options; it
keeps it interesting. The last few years I have really been enjoying playing
live. Which is also a problem, because I'm on the road a lot and when you're
in a relationship with someone, and a very close relationship, that can
lead to hardships.' He is referring to his partner of 11 years, David Furnish.
'David works, he's a film producer, he has a life in London, so one of
these days I'm going to have to say, enough. But that's going to be hard,
because I'm kind of addicted to playing.'
It is a revealing choice
of words. As we sit backstage, talking about songwriters he rates (for
the record, Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright, John Mayer, Damien Rice, Tom
McRae and Beth Orton. 'It's not my peers who inspire me. I mean, the Springsteens
and Stings are great musicians and I love what they do, but it's young
people that inspire me. I love discovering things and there's so much wonderful
stuff out there'), a waiter elegantly attired in a white tuxedo brings
me a glass of champagne but mistakenly offers it to Elton. 'Oh, don't give
that to me, for God's sake!' Elton says, smiling. 'You'll get me started
And we both laugh. But this
is a serious business. Elton John, after all, is perhaps the world's best-known
recovered addict. He came through decades of cocaine and alcohol abuse
to emerge, proudly clean and sober, at the age of 43. 'I don't find it
difficult not to drink or take cocaine but there are times when I think,
"God, I'd love to have a glass of red wine," ' he confesses. 'That's the
only thing I really miss. Most of my friends drink. David drinks. And I
love it. I can have a non-alcoholic beer, which I am a connoisseur of -
and the good ones taste really good - but there are times when only a glass
of red wine will really do. And maybe, before I die, I will have that glass.
But life's been so great since I stopped, why tempt fate? I know what I'm
like. I can't have one of anything.'
Elton is an extremely candid
individual. Ask him a question and he will give you a straight answer.
Not necessarily a very deep answer. Despite a lifetime of fame, years of
therapy and the psychological discipline of Alcoholics Anonymous, Elton
does not seem to be a particularly self-absorbed, self-analysing individual.
'I'm very happy in my own skin,' he says, and I have no reason to doubt
it. Talking about his homosexuality, he remarks, 'Although I didn't come
out publicly until a Rolling Stone interview in 1976, that was because
nobody asked the question before. I assumed people knew. My family were
comfortable with it. It was such a relief when I told them. And I remember
that day very, very vividly. It was a huge ordeal for me; I was extremely
upset, but they knew anyway. It's such a relief for me to be out when I
see other people in my business, actors especially, who don't dare come
out because they think it's going to ruin their career. That choice is
either to live a lie and cover your tracks, which is behaving like a drug
addict, or just live your life openly, and that's one of the greatest gifts
I've ever had. My life is open.'
Yet despite this openness,
or perhaps because of it, it is curiously difficult to get beneath the
surface of Elton, to find out what makes him tick. What is the engine that
has driven him on through more than three decades of popular success? Evidently,
Elton had problems with his emotionally distant father (when he refers
to his parents, he clarifies the remark to indicate he means his mother
and stepfather, both of whom are attending the Vegas opening), which may
have inspired that first drive towards the stage. It is common knowledge
that Elton did not attend his father's funeral. Yet his calm disinterest
in inquiries about this relationship suggests that it is not a festering
emotional sore. 'They say that when you get sober you've got to fill a
hole up,' Elton says. 'But I think my hole was already filled with music.
The miracle is that even when I was completely fucked up on drugs, I still
managed to tour and make records. I just love making music.'
Elton's Vegas debut is a
spectacular triumph, a multi-media extravaganza; even Vegas veterans confess
to never having seen anything like it before. The stage is littered with
apparently discarded junk neon (the word cock lights up intermittently
on an apparently faulty cocktails sign), while huge, risqué inflatables
make intermittent appearance, including a truly mammoth set of mammaries
which descend to accompany Pamela Anderson's filmed appearance as a pole
dancer, projected on to a vast 130x30ft screen during a spirited rendition
of The Bitch is Back. It is one in a series of sensational short films
providing colourful, witty and (most unexpectedly) emotional counterpoint
to a set featuring Elton's strongest, most substantial songs (there are
no Kiki Dee duets here) performed by Elton and his four-piece band.
'Most Vegas shows are about
escaping: let's pretend we're on Broadway or in Paris,' notes the photographer
and video director David LaChappelle, whom Elton entrusted with designing
the show. 'But I just love the idea of Elton John in Vegas. So we put a
red piano on stage symbolising love, and it's surrounded by symbols of
Vegas excess; every obsession is represented in neon: sex, drugs, alcohol,
self-absorption, shopping, all these compulsions that fill a void, substitutes
for love. And they come on for the first time when Elton sings I Want Love.
It's such a powerful song. Elton is not a one-note performer. He can be
completely glitzy and surface, The Bitch is Back, in your face, over the
top; and at the same time he can do Daniel and Don't Let the Sun Go Down
on Me, really profound, unironic songs.'
Indeed, it is Elton's songs
that provide the beating heart to the spectacle. He has been around so
long, it is easy to take him for granted. With more than 60 million albums
sold and a top-40 hit every year since 1970, as well as the biggest-selling
single ever - 33 million copies of his Diana tribute, Candle in the Wind
1997 - he has come to be viewed as King of the Middle of the Road. But,
at his best (as on his debut album, Elton John, and his most recent offering,
Songs from the West Coast) Elton is considerably more than that, a genuinely
idiosyncratic and original singer-songwriter, capable of crafting expansive
songs that stretch from the intimate to the epic, often incorporating unusual
string arrangements, frequently underpinned by tub-thumping honky-tonk
piano and adorned with rousing gospel harmonies. What a canon of work he
has to draw on. Tiny Dancer, Philadelphia Freedom, Your Song, I Believe.
And, as he points out, 'There are so many songs, we could have done two
or three different shows.'
Elton's band (some of whom
have backed him since the 1970s) play with a rehearsed looseness that comes
from familiarity, spinning out the ethereal dislocation of Rocket Man into
a space-age epic, showcasing an Elton vocal on which the record's lonely
falsetto has been replaced with a bluesy wail. 'Whenever I read live reviews,
they say, "Well, he can't hit the high notes any more," ' Elton archly
points out. 'I had an operation in Australia in 1987 and it lowered the
timbre of my voice and I lost my falsetto. When I listen to the old records
I sound like a castrato. I actually prefer my voice now; it's much deeper,
it's got more resonance and I'm a much better singer than I used to be.'
The aftershow party proves
suitably lavish, a champagne and caviar affair with an A-list turnout.
Pamela Anderson, in the flesh (and showing lots of it), as shiny and pneumatic
as the stage inflatables, has her picture taken with, well, just about
anyone who is anyone. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones look a little
uncomfortable as Pammie mixes trailer-trash glamour with their Hollywood
tinsel. Sharon Osbourne, gaunt and fierce, escorts son Jack, overweight
and grumpy. Christina Aguilera, hair set in black curls, dress clinging
to all her curves, grips the hand of a scrawny young man sporting a faint
moustache that has obviously been cultivated since adolescence.
David LaChappelle, displaying
a somewhat more elegant arrangement of facial hair, holds court at a table
of pretty boys, one of whom, answering to the name of Frog, had mounted
a (prearranged) stage invasion during Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting
and been pounced upon by bouncers for his troubles. 'I tried to tell them
I was, like, part of the show but it's hard to talk with a hand clamped
over your face,' Frog reports. 'I kinda thought Elton started out with
that Lion King picture but, like, he really goes back a long way!'
There is a stir as the star
of the show arrives. David Furnish is on his arm, brightly smiling and
debonair, but Elton looks distinctly ill at ease as his guests swirl noisily
around him, clinking glasses and offering congratulations. His smile is
tight and his eyes constantly shift towards the exits. Then suddenly he
'Parties like that are difficult
for me,' he subsequently tells me. 'People are drinking and having a good
time and I feel like the odd man out. I have to go and schmooze but I got
out of there as quickly as I could. David and I just went back to our suite
and ordered sandwiches.'
The morning after, I take
a vertigo-inducing ride in the lift to Elton's penthouse suite, on the
29th floor of the Palace Tower. Sunlight streams in through windows that
offer breathtaking views of the Nevada mountains. In what appears to be
one of several extremely large and beautifully laid-out living-rooms, the
acclaimed art photographer Sam Taylor-Wood is engrossed in smiling conversation
with Furnish. Elton has one of the world's finest collections of photography
and has spent a small fortune acquiring her work. (Taylor-Wood has subsequently
become a part of his inner circle, shooting his album covers and videos.)
Furnish breaks off to direct me down a lengthy corridor, from a room at
the end of which a small black-and-white spaniel suddenly appears, bounding
towards us with a sock clamped in its jaws. And then an oddly shaped figure
(sort of broad and oval) appears at the door, comically waving an imperious
arm in the air, yelling, 'Stop that dog!'
Elton is disgustingly bright-eyed
and energetic this morning. 'There are certain advantages to not drinking,'
he smiles. 'I don't feel like shit, I have a full day and I can remember
what I did the night before.' Having just fallen out of bed for our noon
interview, I try not to take this as a personal rebuke. Elton escorts me
gently into a spacious study dominated by a stereo with quite enormous
speakers and asks his assistant (a cheerful fellow called Bob Halley, who
does everything from retrieving the sock from the dog to applying Elton's
make-up for photo shoots) to bring me some water, which I clearly need.
Elton, it turns out, has been up since 7am, and has already fitted in a
game of tennis.
'Do you play David?' I inquire.
'God no!' Elton snorts. 'That
would be a sure way to ruin a relationship. I have my own tennis pro.'
Of course he does.
As our conversation unfolds,
it becomes apparent that Elton fits an almost unfeasible amount into his
daily existence. He conducts regular meetings with the curator of his photography
collection, of which he is extremely proud ('There isn't a week goes by
when I don't buy a photograph, especially by someone new. I've a great
vintage collection, but I love to go into a gallery and find something
undiscovered'); he has major collections of art, including works by many
of the greatest painters in history ('I have a thirst for beauty. It's
just something I've become mesmerised by. I never noticed it before, I
was too busy making music and taking drugs'), and (more unusually) porcelain
('At 11 o'clock at night you'll usually find me poring over a porcelain
catalogue from Sotheby's or Christie's').
'It was Gianni Versace who
got me to do this,' he says, launching into an affectionate impersonation
of his late, great friend: ' "You're sitting in your hotel room all day
watching TV. Come with me; I'll show you a great mosaic, just a mosaic,
but it's beautiful, you must see!" I'd never go to an art gallery or a
museum; my life was a sort of artistic abyss apart from the music. Now
David and I have an apartment in Venice, and we go out at 11 o'clock, go
to all the churches we love and just sit and look at the most incredible
things.' His partner, he admits, is not entirely supportive of his relentless
acquisitiveness. 'David sometimes goes on at me about the lavish lifestyle
we lead. He'll say, "Do you actually need another vase?" And I probably
don't. That's something I probably have to look at. But I love collecting
new pieces of art by new glass artists. It's as if there was part of me
missing before I got sober, so I'm kind of making up for lost time.'
Elton also likes to take
in a movie at a local multiplex, sometimes catching two in an afternoon.
And he is fanatical about sport. 'I'm at my most peaceful watching a football
game. If I'm in England, going home and seeing three matches on a Sunday
is my idea of heaven. If I'm in America, I can watch a baseball game for
three and a half hours. Or read a book. Or wander round and look at the
photography in the apartment. Or just sit still. There was a time when
I always had to have someone with me. There was a great loneliness there,
I think. But being sober and doing therapy, I have learnt to be able to
be with myself.'
And we haven't even got to
music. Every Tuesday Elton starts his day by visiting Tower Records (if
he is in his apartment in Atlanta) or Virgin Records (if he is in London)
where he buys all the new releases. He listens to at least three hours
of music every day. 'You have to wade through the crap to find the gems,'
he says. 'I'm the consummate fan. The greatest thing is to lie down with
an album and listen and look at the lyrics and be carried away. Let me
show you my CD book!' And he jumps up excitedly to collect a bumper lined
pad in which he handwrites the names of all new releases (American in blue,
British in black) and then scores them out with a marker as he gets hold
of them. 'If it all went away tomorrow, I could work in Tower Records and
be very happy, because it just fascinates me what people buy!' he declares
enthusiastically. Then he looks at me with a boyish smile on his face.
'I'm weird, I know.'
He does not, oddly enough,
play the piano at home on his own. And he never writes a song unless he
has a set of lyrics laid out before him. 'I don't have melodies going round
in my head,' he says, which really surprises me. 'I've never woken up in
the middle of the night and said, "Oh, I must put that in a tape recorder."
I don't get inspired until I see the written page. Then I fiddle around
with a chord sequence and it just happens. Very strange. I think it's fate.
It's divine intervention. I don't know what it is. I just know I can do
it. It comes very, very quickly. It's not even painful. Half an hour, 40
He wants to know if he can
play me some songs from his new album, which for the first time he has
been producing by himself ('After 40 albums, I should know how to make
a record'). These are rough mixes, which his record company has not even
heard yet, and Elton can barely contain his excitement. As a countryish
rhythm comes booming out of the speakers at bone-rattling volume, Elton
does a comical little jig of delight. 'It's very soulful, very Southern,'
he says, raising his voice to be heard. 'I think it's a step on from the
last album. It's uplifting.'
Elton sits, eyes closed,
smiling and singing along with himself, lost in his world of music. Arthur,
the spaniel, joins him on the sofa, and Elton plays with the dog's ears,
crooning a song called Freaks in Love to his canine companion. 'This one
is autobiographical,' he says, introducing a song called My Elusive Drug.
I am intrigued by the idea that Elton can describe lyrics by his songwriting
partner as autobiographical. 'Bernie knows me so well,' Elton says. 'We've
worked together for 36 years. It's the partnership that isn't really a
partnership because we've never been in the same room when we've written
a song. But he's the catalyst for everything. Without the words there would
be no song, so in a sense there would be no Elton John.'
The song is an intense love
ballad in which the singer describes the one addiction he could never give
up. 'It's about me and David,' Elton says sweetly.
Right on cue, Furnish pokes
his head in to tell Elton he is popping out. There is an easy warmth between
them. With his ever-present smile, Furnish radiates a kind of bright positivity
and Elton clearly basks in his company. 'We don't particularly want to
get married,' Elton says. 'I've never gotten why homosexual people want
to be like heterosexuals. I've been to so many fucking disastrous weddings,
I think, No thank you! But if this civil rights thing comes in in England
next year, David and I will sign up, because if I don't he's not protected
in law. I've seen so many people who have died of Aids and their partner
gets nothing, because the family comes in and takes everything, and it's
fucking sad and totally wrong. You live with someone who you love and you
share everything with them, you should have the same rights as any married
Furnish has been enjoying
his short stay in Vegas. 'Interesting city!' he says, with more than a
hint of irony, when I bump into him on the arm of Sam Taylor-Wood on the
casino floor of Caesar's Palace. 'Have you seen the Elton store?' It would
be hard to miss it: an emporium dedicated to Elton memorabilia, featuring
such delights as The Bitch is Back T-shirts and a range of glass balls
displaying tiny replicas of Elton's piano in a snow storm. Elton himself
has not been perusing its racks, however.
'I can't go out in Vegas,'
he says, as if this is self-evident. 'I'm not a recluse. When I'm in London
or Atlanta or New York or LA, I'll be at the cinema, restaurants, whatever.
But here, with the show going on, I don't think I'd make it off the casino
I ask how he feels about
fame and he sounds what may be the first sour note of our encounter. 'I'm
bored with it,' he confesses. 'I've had enough of it in my life. I love
my life, and I'm very grateful for what I've got, but I don't go chasing
publicity any more. Going to live sporting events is an ordeal: sign this,
do that, meet this person. I just want to see the game. The paparazzi thing
is ridiculous. Why are they following me around when they could be following
Christina Aguilera in her mini-dress? That does piss me off. I've been
known to scream at photographers. It's just not what I want. At 57, I'm
So here, then, is the unexpected
reality of Elton in Vegas: working the town, but not part of it. 'It's
easy to overplay the lifestyle,' he says. 'I'm grateful for it all but
my life is not the objects I own. If David said, "Would you come and live
with me in a caravan?", I would. And I would work at Tower Records, and
I'd probably be just as happy.'