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dal Telegraph del 25 ottobre 2010

Elton John interview

Elton John goes back to his musical roots with his long-lost pop idol, Leon Russell

di Mick Brown

Elton John says that whatever the numerous tribulations he has undergone over the years – the multiple addictions, the broken relationships, the abortive suicide attempts – it is his love for music that has pulled him through.
And beneath the thickened jawline and the expensive Yohji Yamamoto suiting still lurks the obsessive teenage fan who would feel a palpable thrill gazing at the window display in his local record shop, and watching the new releases spin round on the turntable, and who could name every publisher, A-side and B-side of every record in his collection.
At his home in Windsor Elton’s archive of 70,000 CDs is stored in a room beside the gym, the 'newer stuff’ in the music room. (He sold his vinyl collection, including every 45 released in Britain since 1954 – acquired from a BBC producer – for £250,000 in 1992, when he set up his Elton John Aids Foundation.)
He does not own an iPod, nor a computer – nor even what he calls 'a portable phone’. He is the only person he knows, he says, who can remember telephone numbers. 'Everybody else puts them into their phone. I feel like a grumpy old man, but I’ve made the choice not to join in with all that.’
Each Monday morning he receives a list from HMV of that week’s new releases, ordering up the ones he wants in multiples, one for each of his four homes. 'I look forward to that.’ He makes it a point of principle never to accept a free CD. 'I don’t want the promotional sticker on it.’
He enjoys logging his new acquisitions in a book and filing them away in alphabetical order, just as he used to do in his bedroom in the family home in the north-west London suburb of Northwood, where he would keep his singles and LPs in protective brown-paper bags.
Each week, he also receives a printout of the new Billboard top 100, marking the records that are going up with a highlighter. He keeps a separate log of the chart positions of his own releases.
He has always been a fastidiousness man. When, in 1990, he and his partner of the time, Hugh Williams, who like Elton was suffering from drug and alcohol problems, underwent preliminary therapy, their first step along the road to total sobriety, each had to write a list of the other’s worst faults.
Williams wrote, 'Elton does drugs, he’s alcoholic, he’s bulimic, he has terrible fits of rage.’ Elton wrote, 'Hugh never puts his CDs away tidily.’
And when he talks now of what he calls 'the lost years’, you sense that one of the most distressing aspects of it all was just how much of a slob he allowed himself to become. 'I was,’ he says bluntly, 'a pig.’
Elton John has homes in Nice, Atlanta and Venice but his principal residence is in Windsor: a Queen Anne-style house with eight bedrooms, standing in 37 acres, that he bought in 1975 for £400,000. Through the 1970s and 80s this was furnished in a style that might be called 'High Rock’n’Roll Empire’: the obligatory jukeboxes and pinball machines; Tiffany lamps and art deco nymphs; red leather sofas; the odd Rembrandt etching; a disco; a replica of Tutankhamun’s state throne – booty acquired in what he once described as his 'looting expeditions’.
When, in 1988, he decided to refurbish the house and sell everything, the Sotheby’s staff who were called upon to catalogue its contents for auction expressed astonishment that anyone could have found the room to actually live there. The catalogue ran to four volumes, and the four-day sale raised almost £15 million. Now, the man who once asked his friend the actor and director Bryan Forbes, 'How do I acquire taste?’ seems finally to have found it.
Through the electronic gates, a gravelled drive lined with white rose bushes leads you to the front door, where a manservant is waiting to greet you. In the sitting-room there are capacious sofas – an aura of Aubusson, cut moquette, damask – and deep carpets. There are vases spilling with flowers, elaborately carved tables, every surface covered with exquisite porcelain – one of his obsessions. Outside, fountains play in the garden.
Elton John is 63, but feels, he says, 'like a 20-year-old’. The pacemaker that he had fitted a few years ago was replaced last year. 'I’m like turbo-bunny.’
The various battles he has waged over the years, with his weight, his appearance, his hair, appear to have been settled in a victory, or at least a truce. He is a short and heavily set man who looks as if he spends time in the gym. He is wearing rimless glasses, a black suit and a white T-shirt. His thick, dark-brown mop of hair falls in a cherubic fringe over his forehead. His mood is amiable and relaxed. He is an engagingly lively conversationalist, quick to make jokes, often at his own expense, only occasionally becoming heated at something that he finds particularly irksome: pop videos ('I f***ing hate them’); D-list celebrities ('I loathe celebrity. I can’t stand it’); and Fabio Capello ('I cannot believe – and I hope you print this – that we employ a manager who still cannot speak English’).
Elton has long transcended his role as mere pop star. He is the founder and chairman of one of the largest Aids charities in the world, and the head of his own artist-management, theatre- and film-production company, Rocket. While it is some years since he relinquished the chairmanship of his beloved Watford FC – the team that in the late 1970s and early 80s he steered from the fourth division to the first – he remains its life president.
Pondering his place in the nation’s affections, he likes to describe himself as 'the acceptable face of homosexuality, because I’m quite blokey. And I’m very happy with that. That’s why I love being in this country, because people are always very honest with me and very kind and have a great sense of humour, and you still get the wolf whistles walking along the street and stuff like that.’
Having sold more than a quarter of a billion records over the past 40 years, had more than 50 singles in the Billboard top 40 (nine of them number one), and recorded the biggest-selling single of all time, the 1997 remake of Candle in the Wind (which sold 37 million copies), Elton has achieved the trick of never quite falling out of fashion while not remaining fully in it either.
Having entered what he describes as his 'mature phase’, he acknowledges that the singles chart is not one he is going to be in much any more. But he continues to perform between 50 and 90 shows a year – a mixture of extravagant Las Vegas spectacles and concerts with symphony orchestras and his old band. Nowadays he tours only by private plane – 'It’s great for the carbon footprint,’ he acknowledges with a wry smile – always flying back to one of his homes when possible.
Elton is about to release his 30th studio album – and it is his best in more than 30 years. And therein lies an extraordinary story. The album, The Union, brings him together with one of his earliest and most enduring influences, the veteran American singer, songwriter and pianist Leon Russell. 
Russell, who is 68, is one of rock music’s legendary figures. In the 1960s, as a session musician in Los Angeles, he was a member of the so-called Wrecking Crew, playing on hits produced by Phil Spector, the Beach Boys and sundry others, before going on to record his own albums and compose such standards as Delta Lady, Superstar, A Song for You and This Masquerade. His distinctive piano style, his merging of gospel, rhythm and blues and country, and his strongly melodic songwriting, was a major influence on Elton John as a young musician: 'He was everything I adored.’
Russell was in the audience when in 1970, on his first visit to America, Elton played a series of shows at the Troubador club in Los Angeles that would make him an overnight star in the States.
'It was the second night,’ Elton says, 'and I saw this long, grey hair and the mirrored Ray-Ban glasses and I nearly s**t myself, because he was an incredible-looking, intimidating-looking man. I thought, if he sees me afterwards he’s going to tie me up and say, “This is how to play the fucking piano.”’
Russell invited Elton back to his home, and shared his special preparation for keeping the throat in good shape for singing (cider vinegar and honey; gargle for as long as you can). They went on to tour together once or twice, before going their separate ways and finally losing touch.
In 2008 Elton appeared on Elvis Costello’s television show Spectacle, and talked about his early musical influences, singling out Russell. Elton’s civil partner, David Furnish, had never heard of Leon Russell, but downloaded his music on to his iPod. Last year the couple were on safari in South Africa, and Furnish happened to be playing one of Russell’s albums as they were dressing for dinner. Elton, a man who is apparently easily moved to tears, says he 'just started to sob and sob’.
'David said, “What on earth is wrong?” I said, “This takes me back to such a wonderful time in my life when there was so much great music around and this man was so special.” It just touched a nerve, as music can do. And just out of the blue I said, “I’ve got to call this man.”’
On the spur of the moment, Elton instructed his office to find a telephone number for Russell, and called him at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. 'The first thing he said was, “Thanks so much for mentioning me on Spectacle. Bless your heart.”’
In recent years, Russell has been a largely forgotten figure, making ends meet, despite failing health and a hip transplant, by performing in clubs and roadhouses – 'Like Crazy Heart without the alcohol,’ Elton says. They arranged to meet when Elton was next in America.
'Then I thought, I want to make an album with him.’ Elton telephoned the producer T-Bone Burnett, who won a Grammy in 2007 for the Alison Krauss and Robert Plant album Raising Sand, and asked whether he would be interested in producing an album with Leon Russell and himself. Burnett immediately said yes.
'So then I phoned Leon back and said, “Would you like to make a record together?” He’s not heard from me in 38 years and suddenly he’s getting two phone calls in about half an hour. But I’m impulsive like that.’
Elton flew to Los Angeles to discuss the project with Russell, Burnett and Elton’s long-standing lyricist, Bernie Taupin, and to begin writing songs, and in January this year he and Russell went into the studio together. Recording was temporarily delayed when Russell was rushed to hospital with a serious illness, but a week later he was back.
'He’s just as beautiful now as he ever was,’ Elton says. 'He looks like Moses, or God. Ringo came to say hello. Paul McCartney sent his love and said, “Give him a hug for me.” So what happened with this record was not only did he come back to life as a musician, he came back to life as a person.’
The Union is made up of 16 songs composed in varying combinations by Elton, Russell and Taupin. Eschewing the current trend for recording using digital computer software, it was recorded 'live’ in the studio. 'Once I’d heard Modern Times by Bob Dylan it really changed the way I wanted to make records,’ Elton says. 'That was such a beautiful record. It could have been made in 1950, it could have been made now – it’s timeless, just simple, beautiful music played so brilliantly.
'I wanted the music to be a cross between an early Elton album and an early Leon album. To go forward I had to go back.’ In its combination of rolling pianos and earthy rhythms, punctuated by the use of a New Orleans brass section and a wailing gospel choir, and its stately, melancholic ballads, the record is a stirring reprise of the mood, and the quality, of classic Elton John albums such as Tumblewood Connection and Honky Château.
The most moving track of all is a Russell composition, The Hands of Angels, sung in the manner of a backwoods gospel song, in which Russell celebrates his rebirth – 'Well I could have been sick, I could have died’ – and gives thanks to Elton, 'the governor’, for 'a brand new start’.
'When he first played that song we were all moved to tears,’ Elton says. 'Then he said, “Thank you for saving my life”, and I lost it completely. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.’
A few days before our interview, there was a playback of The Union at the Electric Cinema in London. Record company employees and a handful of journalists – people considered 'taste-makers’ – sat in the half-darkness, drinking wine and wolfing down canapes as the record played at full volume. Afterwards, Elton himself appeared on stage to take questions. His presence – rare at such an event – could be taken as an indication of his enthusiasm for the project.
'What would you consider your greatest achievement?’ somebody asked. It was a question that might have been designed to invite reflection on his sundry awards and accolades, but which prompted an immediate, and crisp, response. 'Getting sober.’
Elton once estimated that in his first few years of sobriety, in the early 1990s, he attended a total of 1,500 meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, finally stopping when he realised that the meetings were threatening to become an addiction in themselves.
He no longer has therapy or goes to meetings, although he remains close friends with his AA sponsor in Chicago – a former garbage-truck driver who now works as a counsellor – and is godfather to his son. Yet Elton, whose candour once prompted someone to remark that he was a man who threatened to invade his own privacy, still seems compelled to talk of his problems and his recovery – the touchstone that all conversation circles around and eventually returns to. 'You have to be honest,’ he says. 'And talking about it helps me, actually; it reminds me of what a mess I was.’
It is perhaps the years of rigorous self-scrutiny that therapy affords that have enabled him to locate the root of all his problems in a lack of self-esteem in childhood. The only child of a mother who doted on him and a disciplinarian father who disapproved of everything he did, to the point of forbidding him even to wear Hush Puppies, Elton was a pudgy boy, unhappy in his own skin.
'I never thought of myself as being handsome or good-looking or whatever,’ he says. 'I always felt like an outsider. And I think that’s why I started doing drugs, to be one of the gang.’
He first took cocaine, he says, in 1974, when he was recording his album Caribou, in Colorado.
'I walked into one of the back rooms in the studio, and there was my manager and a couple of other people with this white powder in a line, and I said, “What on earth is that?” They said, “Cocaine”, and I thought, “Hmmm. Can I try some?”’ He shakes his head. 'Listen, I was so naive I didn’t even know my band smoked joints and they were the biggest pot-heads in the world. And I thought, I’m one of the boys now.’
By then he had already recorded seven albums in five years, all but the first of which had turned gold or platinum, effecting the transformation of Reg Dwight, pub pianist and session musician, into Elton John, superstar. He was also buckling under the pressures of fame.
In November 1975, in what had been officially designated Elton John Week in Los Angeles, he played a series of concerts at the Dodger Stadium and inaugurated his own star on Hollywood Boulevard; he also attempted suicide at his Bel Air mansion by swallowing 60 Valium and jumping into the swimming-pool in front of his mother and grandmother, screaming, 'I’m going to die!’
'It was stress,’ he says now. 'I’d been working non-stop for five years. But it was typical me. There was no way I was going to kill myself doing that. And, of course, my grandmother came out with the perfect line: “I suppose we’ve all got to go home now.”
'And then two days later I was playing Dodger Stadium, and Cary Grant was there, and it was one of the best days of my professional life and I pulled it off. I’ve got that resilient thing inside me. But I wasn’t a happy bunny.’
The problem, he now says, is that he would come off stage, discard the increasingly fanciful performing costumes – the Captain Fantastic outfits, the Eiffel Tower hats, the feather boas and artificial banana stoles – and have no idea who or what he was supposed to be. 'I would only know how to be “Elton”. I wouldn’t know how to live off stage. There was no balance in my life.’ This seems to be an understatement.
'I know people who can do a line of coke once a month,’ he says. 'Well, I can’t.’ His consumption of the drug and of alcohol quickly assumed gargantuan proportions. There is a period in his life – quite a long period – which he now remembers only as 'a complete and utter blur’.
'The self-loathing I had…’ He sighs. 'Walking around the house, not bathing for three or four days, staying up watching pornography all the time, drinking a bottle of scotch a day. And I was bulimic as well, so I wouldn’t eat for three days, then gorge on six bacon sandwiches and a pint of ice cream and throw it up. And then have a shower and start the whole procedure all over again. There was no self-respect there whatsoever. It was just f***ing horrible. You look back and think, how on earth could I have done that? But I did.’
There were moments, he says, when he was convinced that he was about to die. 'I would have massive seizures where it felt like my head was spinning round like Linda Blair in The Exorcist and I would collapse. I remember once collapsing in my bedroom and they found me – and it’s a wonder they did – and I was blue. They put me back on the bed and revived me, and they went out, and 30 minutes later I was back doing blow. Can you imagine?’
Friends who tried to intervene were largely shunned. His mother, Sheila, left the country and moved to Spain. 'It speaks volumes,’ Elton says with a sigh. What kept him alive, he now believes, was his ferocious work ethic. 'Most people, when they do drugs they stop touring and they disappear for two or three years. I still had my love of music, still wanted to tour. If I hadn’t, I probably would have sat at home, had a mountain of coke, and had a heart attack.’
When he finally became sober, in 1990, one of the biggest shocks was the realisation that he had no idea how to do anything for himself. While his Windsor home was being remodelled, he took a rented house in Holland Park, London. He acquired a dog from Battersea dogs home, and would get up at six every morning to walk it before going to his AA meeting at 7.30. It was the first time in his life, he says, that he had been truly independent.
'I’d always lived with people – my family, or had people living with me, because I’d never liked being on my own. I thought being on my own was a sign of being… not unsuccessful, exactly, but I had to have people around me. And suddenly I didn’t have to have people around me, and I had to fend for myself and do my own shopping, and I felt really good about that.’
When he is at home in Atlanta he does his own shopping; it is the only place where he drives himself. 'Because everyone’s used to seeing me and nobody makes a big deal of it. It’s my own area of freedom to be as normal as I can possibly be.’
A 'cleanliness freak’, he says he is very good at scrubbing the floor and cleaning the sink. 'Good on the dishwasher and washing-machine…’ He pauses. 'But I hate ironing.’
Elton says that one of the most important turning points in his recovery was meeting Ryan White, a haemophiliac who in the late-1980s became a cause célèbre in America after becoming infected at the age of 13 with HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion. Ryan’s family were obliged to wage a lengthy legal battle in the face of a campaign by teachers and parents to ban him from school. His ordeal made Ryan, who died in 1990 at the age of 18, a figurehead for Aids education and research. Elton became a close friend and supporter of Ryan and his family. He spent the last week of Ryan’s life at the family home, 'making the coffee and fielding telephone calls’, and he was a pall-bearer at his funeral.
'And what I learnt from them in that one week was that my life was so out of kilter,’ he says. 'These people gave me an incredible example of how to lead one’s life as a Christian – forgiving, wonderful, not bitter; handling tragedy with such dignity, humility and generosity of spirit. And here I was complaining about the wallpaper in a hotel suite. What? What an absolute c*** you are. It made me think, you’ve got to make a change here, son.’
Ryan White’s death became the catalyst for the Elton John Aids Foundation, which has raised more than £150 million since it was set up in 1992, and for Elton’s increasingly active role as a spokesman on gay issues.
Earlier this year he caused outcry among the gay community when he performed, for a reported fee of $1 million, at the wedding of the splenetic right-wing American commentator Rush Limbaugh, a man who has been accused of being a homophobe, and who has described Aids as a 'hyped’ disease and claimed 'there was never any evidence’ that it could be transmitted heterosexually.
'When he asked me to play at his wedding, my agent said, “Well, of course you won’t be doing it,” ’ Elton says. 'But I said, “Well, let me think about that first.”’
Limbaugh, he says, is against gay marriage – 'But then so is President Obama. But Limbaugh’s not anti-civil partnerships, so maybe I can have a dialogue about that. I’ve put my foot in the water and so has he. I got on with him very well, got on very well with his wife. I don’t have the same politics, but that doesn’t really matter. And I think this year I can start to put things in motion by trying to get him on my side.’
The tide can change, he says. He faced similar criticism in 2001 when he joined Eminem on stage at the Grammy awards, ignoring the controversy about the rap singer’s allegedly homophobic lyrics. Eminem has now come out in support of gay marriage. 'For our civil partnership present he gave David and me two diamond-encrusted cock-rings.’
Elton first met David Furnish in 1993. He had recently returned from America and was anxious to break out of his AA circle. 'Rattling around’ in the house on his own, he telephoned a friend and asked if he would like to bring some people to dinner. 'I just wanted to meet some new people,’ Elton says. 'I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but the moment David came through the door I thought he was really, really nice.’
Furnish, who had a successful career in advertising, was a man of independent mind and means – something of a novelty in Elton’s life. 'I used to take hostages,’ Elton says. 'I would pluck someone from their job, take them around the world with me, and they hated my guts within six months. David didn’t move in with me for six months. He hadn’t come out to his parents. I went to Atlanta and he went back to Toronto to tell them a) he was gay, and b) he was living with me.’
They married in 2005 at Windsor Guildhall, on the first day that civil partnerships could be performed in England. Furnish, Elton says, 'plays a huge part in everything I do’, both personally and professionally. He is the executive producer of Billy Elliot, the musical that Elton composed, and supervises every new production, and they are co-producers of the play New Fall, about the gay relationship between a Christian and a non-believer, which opened to enthusiastic reviews in New York in March.
'David brought me a balance,’ Elton says. 'He was willing to confront me when I misbehaved or when I was feeling bad about myself. When I was overweight and couldn’t get into a suit he’d say, “It doesn’t matter; just put a bigger suit on. I love you just the way you are.” He helped me through those very tough times when you’re down on yourself.’
One of the most striking effects that Furnish had was on Elton’s temper. He was once notoriously prone to sulks and tantrums. (It was Dusty Springfield, herself a formidable hurler of crockery, who advised him, 'Always throw something cheap’.) In 1995 Furnish directed the documentary Tantrums and Tiaras, an unvarnished account of Elton’s life, chronicling his prodigious work-rate, his mind-bogglingly extensive travelling wardrobe and, most memorably, his hissy fits. Elton says that none of his advisers wanted him to make the film. But, paradoxically, holding up a mirror to the less endearing aspects of his character seems to have been one of the best presents that Furnish could have given him.
'I hate watching things about myself,’ Elton says. 'But that I could watch all the time because it’s so honest. I look like Bet Lynch stomping around. I did laugh. But having looked at it and learnt from it, I thought, I can’t continue to behave like that. It’s just not worth the aggravation to everyone else, or to me.’
What he has not curbed, he admits, is his extravagance. His biggest indulgence now is porcelain, art and photography. He began collecting photography 20 years ago, initially fashion photography by Horst P Horst, Irving Penn and Herb Ritts, moving on to early-20th-century and the Surrealists. As with everything, you sense, it quickly became an obsession. In 1992 he paid £120,000 for a gelatin silver print of the Man Ray photograph Tears – the highest price ever paid at auction for a photograph. 'I thought I’d lost my mind,’ he says.
More recently he purchased another Man Ray photograph, of Marcel Duchamp’s neck. 'It looks a bit like a penis. I bought it for cash from someone who desperately needed the money. I got that, a Dorothea Lange and two other Man Rays for $900,000, and believe me, it was a bargain.’
Nowadays, he says, there is not a week goes by when he doesn’t buy a photograph. He has probably the largest private collection of photography in the world, most of it housed in Atlanta, where he has employed a full-time curator.
'People say to me, “What do you like to do – do you like to go out at night?” No, I’d rather be at home looking at my photography books, or a porcelain catalogue.’
The paintings on the wall in his Windsor home are predominantly 18th- and 19th-century. Hanging in the sitting-room is work by the Cornish painter Henry Scott Tuke, whose images of boats and naked boys were largely ignored by polite society in Tuke’s lifetime, but which have become highly collectable in recent years. 'I have a large collection of both boats and boys,’ Elton says, and laughs.
There are Edward Lear watercolours, portraits by Gainsborough and Arthur Devis, and a 19th-century picture of a horseman, purchased at the sale of Jackie Kennedy’s belongings in New York. 'I can’t remember who it’s by.’ He no longer trusts himself to go to auctions, he says. 'I’d just put my hand up all the time. I have someone go for me and I tell them, “Don’t go above that.”’
His modern art is housed in a separate gallery, a former garage block at the rear of the house, which has been converted to museum standards. He leads the way out through the kitchen, a gaggle of spaniels lapping at our ankles, and across a courtyard. He walks with a rolling, nautical gait, bottom sticking out, like Norman Wisdom.
At the door, an aide punches in the security code. It is like stepping into an adjunct of Tate Modern. There are works by Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers, Gilbert and George, Antony Gormley, Louise Bourgeois, a huge tapestry of Elton by the American artist Chuck Close that Close gave him for his 60th birthday. Each work is appended with a plaque listing title, artist, material.
Through the window, parked on a manicured lawn, one can see the Melbourne tram that Elton acquired on an Australian tour some time in the 1980s. 'One of my drug-induced moments,’ he says. 'Ten thousand to buy it. And a million to ship it over.’ He leads the way back into the kitchen, sits down at the table and offers tea and biscuits. 'I’ve got good dunking ones,’ he laughs. 'Specially flown in from France.’
The house, he says, 'only works when it’s shared. I love sharing things.’ And he is a generous host. Elizabeth Hurley stayed here for two months when she gave birth to her son, Damian, 'to get away from the publicity’, and Lady Gaga recently stayed for a couple of days after Elton’s annual White Tie and Tiara Ball. 'It was brilliant.’
He likes to keep in touch. He has become a sort of elder statesman to younger artists, a confidant and mother hen to troubled ones, as determined in his efforts at helping in the rehabilitation of others – Eminem and Robbie Williams among them – as he has been in rehabilitating himself.
In the week that I interviewed him, the footballer Paul Gascoigne gave an interview to OK! magazine talking about how Elton and Furnish had invited him to stay at their home, and helped with his struggle with alcoholism. Elton, it transpires, has known 'Gazza’ since he was a youth player for Newcastle, and played against Watford in an FA Cup Youth Final. 'I’ve always had an interest in people who have special talents like that, and it’s such a fine line between preservation and self-destruction,’ Elton says.
Michael Jackson is another case in point. Elton had known him since Jackson was 13. 'He used to come to my shows with Elizabeth Taylor.’ In 1993, having cancelled a tour in the Far East, Jackson was in London undergoing treatment for his addiction to the painkiller Demerol. Elton had only recently met Furnish.
'David was coming down to meet my mother, and he was frightened about that,’ Elton says. 'He arrived at 10 in the morning, and there was a message on my answerphone from my counsellor of the time saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m bringing Michael Jackson down to lunch.” And David was saying, “I can’t meet your mother and fucking Michael Jackson in one day.” ’
Jackson, Elton says, was 'charming, sweet, lovely – but damaged. He came down here and we closed all the curtains and had lunch. He said it was the first time he’d sat down and had a meal with people for 10 years. He would always eat on his own.’ Fame, Elton says, infantilises people. 'You don’t ever grow up. But thank God, I did.’
There was a time, he says, when he would judge himself by his chart positions. 'But I’m intelligent enough to have got over that now. I remember talking to Michael once when he did Thriller and I said, “How are you going to top that?” He said, “Oh, the next one’s going to do twice as much”, and I thought, Michael, it’s not. You can’t. You put so much pressure on yourself.
'It’s very clear to me now. I don’t have to compete in the charts. I can just be myself as a musician, a songwriter and play with the musicians that I really love. I just feel comfortable in my own skin as an artist – maybe for the first time in my life. That’s weird isn’t it?’
The refreshments are brought to the table. He reaches for a biscuit and dunks it in his tea. He is right, the consistency is perfect.
'My life as I get older is such a great experience,’ he says. 'The demons that I had inside me, the fear of confrontation, the shyness, the self-loathing, because of David and my recovery, it’s really so much better. I’m quite at peace with myself now.’