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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 again!'

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 is gone.

'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 minutes max.'

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 couple.'

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 floor alive.'

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 over it.'

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.'