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da Parade del 21.02.2010

Parade - Elton John
After 40 years onstage—the last 19 of them sober—Elton John promises

'I Have So Much More To Do'

by Dotson Rader

‘When AIDS first surfaced in the 1980s, I sat on my little celebrity throne and did nothing about it,” Elton John says. “Oh, I did the odd charity thing, but I wasn’t in there getting my hands dirty. My friends were sick and dying, and I didn’t speak out.

“I certainly didn’t do enough back then, and I don’t know why,” he admits. “Then Ryan White, a boy I knew, died of AIDS. It took a child to die to get us serious. I decided to do something positive with my life and use my celebrity to help.”

Today Elton John is one of the heroes in the battle to defeat the disease. The Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF.org), established in 1992, is among the world’s leading AIDS advocacy and support organizations. He has raised more than $175 million for support and prevention programs in 55 countries and was knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth in part for his work. On March 7, he will host his annual star-studded Oscar bash, which raised more than $4 million last year.

It’s late afternoon, and the 62-year-old pop star is sitting in his Atlanta, Ga., apartment—an immense space that occupies multiple floors of a skyscraper. He returned here last night after doing a concert with Billy Joel on his current Face 2 Face tour with the Piano Man.

Elton John is the most successful solo singer/songwriter of his generation. Since 1970, he has sold more than a quarter-billion records and had nearly 60 Billboard Top 40 hits, among them the world’s biggest-selling single, “Candle in the Wind 1997,” his lament for his close friend Princess Diana. He has received an Oscar for The Lion King movie and a Tony for the Broadway musical Aida. His current Broadway smash, Billy Elliot: The Musical, begins its national tour in April. Elton has also signed on to co-produce the upcoming Broadway play Next Fall.

Elton’s Atlanta home is like a Surrealist explosion in a glass shop—hundreds of glass vases, bowls, platters, plinths, and columns are arranged on floors, tables, and ledges. Luxurious fabrics adorn chairs, sofas, beds. Amid this extravagance, Elton sits, dressed in a suit and tie, proper as a church elder, sipping tea. He has earned, spent, squandered, and given away hundreds of millions of dollars—much of it to charity.

But Elton John wasn’t always this way.

“As you can see, I’m not the kind of person who can have only one piece of glass,” he declares, laughing. “I’m a spendthrift by nature. Even as a kid with a paper route, I’d spend all my pocket money straight away. There was no saving it for the rest of the week.”

Elton grew up in public housing outside London as Reginald Dwight, the only child of strict, churchgoing parents. He was a chubby, lonely boy with extraordinary musical gifts. “I began playing the piano when I was 3,” he says. At 11, he won a fellowship to London’s Royal Academy of Music.

“At home my parents argued all the time—they hated each other—so I used to go into my bedroom and play with my gramophone records and listen to the radio,” he recalls. “I was surrounded by music. I created my own little world.”

He was unpopular and desperately shy. When he was 15, his parents divorced. Three years later, he dropped out of school to seek a career in music. He played piano in London pubs, started his own band, and changed his identity. Combining the names of blues singer Long John Baldry and a former bandmate, Elton Dean, he became someone new. “I hated my name,” he says. “When I became Elton John, everything fell into place. I could be who I wanted to be. I began writing songs.”

In 1970, Elton came  to america with his outrageous rock ’n’ roll act. “They had no idea what hit them!” he says with a smile. “I walked out wearing hot pants and flying boots. I was jumping on the piano, doing handstands. I was having the time of my life! Here was freedom that I hadn’t experienced before. There were no restraints. It was like coming out of a cocoon very late and suddenly becoming this butterfly. I loved America.” Within a year, he had two albums on Billboard’s Top 10. He was 23—famous, rich, developing a taste for alcohol and drugs, and desperate for attention.

“I’d never had sex until then,” he says, rolling his brown eyes in amazement at his tardiness. “I made up for it. I’d walk into a club, fall in love with someone on the spot, and have us living together. I did this repeatedly. My life was out of whack.” His serial romances, wild spending, alcoholism, and cocaine addiction went on for years, all underwritten by a seemingly endless string of hit albums and sold-out shows. “Offstage, I was still that insecure, tubby, very shy little boy,” he says, “I had no respect for myself. Doing drugs made me confident. I thought, ‘Taking drugs is making me a better person!’ It’s the worst decision I ever made.”

In 1984, he unaccountably wed sound engineer Renate Blauel. Never much of a marriage, it ended amicably in 1988. By then, though, Elton’s bad habits were taking a toll on his health. “I was too proud to ask for help,” he says. “I thought, ‘I can solve this by myself.’ It was crazy. Every time I stopped taking drugs, after a period of time I’d go back. It got worse and worse. I pushed away my friends. I was surrounded by drug addicts. What finally opened my eyes was Ryan White.”

White was a 12-year-old hemophiliac in Indiana who had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. Subjected to death threats, the boy and his family were hounded from their small town. “I read in a magazine that Ryan was not allowed to go to school because he had AIDS. Firebombs were being put in his family’s letter box,” Elton says. “I was enraged. I helped the White family move. I spent the last week of Ryan’s life in 1990 with him in an Indianapolis hospital. He’d endured all this hatred. He was never bitter. I never heard him complain. There was something wonderful in this family—they were losing their son, yet they were still able to forgive the hatred of others.

“I thought, ‘Look at me. I have everything I want, and I complain about a hotel room because I don’t like the wallpaper?’ What happened to me? I was a nice, decent boy, and now I’m a self-obsessed drug addict.

“So I got sober.”

During drug treatment, he was advised to live on his own, so in 1991 he purchased the Atlanta apartment. He had grown to like Atlanta through a former relationship and found it an easy place to live. It’s one of his two principal homes, along with Windsor, England.

“I got a dog,” he recalls. “I had to learn the rules of life again.”

In 1993, Elton met David Furnish, a young Canadian advertising executive. “I was attracted to David immediately,” he says. “He had a real job, his own apartment, a car. He was independent. I didn’t need to take care of him. I thought, ‘God, this is new territory for me—someone wants to be with me just because he likes me.’ I knew he was the one, because he is not afraid of me.” Elton laughs happily. “He always tells me exactly what he thinks.”

In 2005, David and Elton were joined in a civil partnership in England, the legal equivalent of marriage. “Every Saturday for 16 years, we’ve sent each other a card, no matter where we are in the world, to say how much we love each other,” Elton confesses, bashfully, as if embarrassed by love. Furnish, now 47, is a successful film and TV producer. He is actively involved in raising funds for Elton’s foundation.

This September, David and Elton went to Eastern Europe to visit hospitals and orphanages caring for HIV-infected children. In Makeevka, Ukraine, they met Lev,  a 14-month-old orphan who is sick with AIDS. “He stole our hearts,” Elton says. He and Furnish wanted to adopt the boy. However, the current Ukrainian government will not allow the adoption, saying Elton is too old and not legally married in Ukrainian eyes.

Whatever happens with Elton’s hope for adoption, he has already helped thousands of other sick children, and he says he will never stop.

“I set up my foundation because I wanted to make amends for the years I was a drug addict,” he explains. “People with HIV are still stigmatized. The infection rates are going up. People are dying. The political response is appalling.” He shakes his head. “The sadness of it,” he says, “the waste.”

Elton stands up. He suddenly seems weary and small. The years show. We go into the kitchen. He gets us more tea. He leans against the kitchen counter. He cocks his head to the side and smiles at me. His mood revives.

“I still want to do new things,” he tells me. “I want to write more musicals, raise more money for AIDS. I just marked 19 years of my being sober. I don’t want to stop. I have so much more to do, and I am having such a ball doing it. I can’t ask for more than that.”