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articolo tratto da Rolling Stone n 881 dell'8 novembre 2001


The Unusual Habits of Elton John

Wigs, Glasses, Outlandish Costumes and a Bundle of Hit Songs - The Strange and Wonderful World of One of Music's Greatest Entertainers.

Elton John has a habit that is unusual among world-renowned rock stars of thirty-one years standing. He picks up the telephone and dials it himself - "This is Elton. How was your flight? . . . Mmm, bloody Delta. Well, we'll be giving you lunch tomorrow, and I wanted to ask if there's anything you don't eat," for one example.

For another, when alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams was touring in Europe in support of his first solo disc, Heartbreaker, he got a call - not from Elton, whom he had not yet met, but from his own manager, saying that there was a fax for him, a letter from Elton John.

"And I was like, 'What the fuck?' " says Adams, whose ear-catching, soul-baring Seventies-styled new album, Gold, was released just a week before Elton's ear-catching, soul-baring, Seventies-styled new record, Songs From the West Coast. "My initial thought was that I had done something wrong. And the letter said that he had gotten my record in a purchase of many CDs and that it had stuck out, and that it touched him and moved him. And I never in my life - I had tears in my eyes, I was overwhelmed. And less really for the fact that I was an Elton John fan, but . . . no one like that has really ever come up to me and been so gracious and shit, you know? He's a superstar. And I'm a guy who lives around the corner and just got out of the shower. I mean, just for that letter, he probably had to make five or six phone calls to: (1) find out who I was; (2) find someone I worked with; (3) find out where I was - and I was in Europe, traveling from Scandinavia to London; (4) find out what hotel I was in; and then (5) fucking get me that letter. And that's badass. Even if he was the most, like, heinous, overrated, crappy politician in the entire world, just that intention right there, to go, 'You really connected with me, man, and I wanted to let you know that.' That's really cool."

This is not, of course, the kind of habit for which Elton John is known. If you closed your eyes and thought the words Elton John, what might come to mind would probably be an image of excess - Elton costumed in eighteenth-century splendor for his fiftieth birthday party, wearing a large silver wig with a ship in it. It is a memorable image. ("And the wig was so heavy, and the driver went the wrong way, so we were stuck in the van for an hour and a half before we got there, by which point I was having a majortantrum: 'I'm not going!' 'But it's your fiftieth birthday.' 'I don't care! I'm not going!'")

Elton enjoys buying a thing or two or two hundred, almost to the point where his material possessions have possessions - after he got clean and sober in 1990, he developed an interest in photography, as a consequence of which his 2,200-square-foot apartment in Atlanta had to be expanded, through the acquisition and renovation of neighboring apartments, into an 18,500-square-foot space to provide enough walls on which to display the pictures. Not long ago, he went to see a Nan Goldin installation and bought not just a photograph, or ten photographs, but the entire installation.

"I collect anything; I'm just a nightmare," he says, sitting in the tranquil shade of a perfect southern-France day. He is on the terrace of his house in the hills outside of Nice, casually resplendent in rectangular, comparatively sedate blue-tinted glasses; a black short-sleeved button-down shirt with a small tag reading kulte and a smattering of large red safety pins printed on it; black shorts; and black-and-red running shoes. "Mick Jagger came to my house, and he said" - he switches from his own, slightly Americanized, standard-issue English accent to Jagger's more-than-slightly Americanized mock Cockney drawl - " 'You've got so much fucking porcelain, I've never seen so much fucking porcelain.' It made me laugh, and . . ."

Porcelain? What kind of porcelain?

"Oh, Meissen. I collect Meissen porcelain, and Staffordshire and stuff. It's in my house in England. But ever since I was a kid, if I had a Saturday afternoon job working in a wine store, putting bottles away, or a paper route, I would still spend it all, I would never save. I'm not a saver. To quote from my recent trial" - Elton is appealing a negligence suit against his longtime accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers - "I'm not a rainy-day person. I don't have a family with children to provide for. I'm me, and I don't have any reason to save for a rainy day. Gianni Versace taught me that there are things to be seen and things to do, and life is now. And . . . look at Gianni, what happened to him. You never know what's going to happen."

To be fair, Elton is equally openhanded with his money when it comes to other people: He bought Mary J. Blige a piano as a housewarming present. ("When it came to the house, I was like, 'Oh, my God!' " says Blige.) He bought Billy Joel - with whom he has toured five times as a dual piano-superstar act - a Franck Muller watch. ("Which kind of stunned me. I mean, it was this big, gigantic expensive watch, out of the blue," says Joel.) He bought Eminem, with whom he performed the song "Stan" at the 2001 Grammys, a pair of Chrome Hearts sunglasses that say fuck off across the top.

This very partial list of spending does not even include his philanthropic activities, which are extensive and always have been, going back to the Seventies, before it was chic to be a rock star with a cause. The Elton John AIDS Foundation alone has raised $30 million since 1992.

"Elton is what I would refer to as kind of an old-fashioned aristocracy English rock star," says Billy Joel. "When you walk into Elton's dressing room, it's like the Taj Mahal - there are layers of glory, like the glory that was Rome. He's got 10 million shoes and a hundred pairs of glasses and beautifully multicolored outfits, and when he comes and visits me it's like he's going slumming. My dressing room looks like the back of a deli. We have some beer and some cold cuts. And then he looks in my wardrobe case and he says, 'Let's see, what have we got? Black, black, black, black, black, charcoal, charcoal - Oooh, navy blue! How risque?! - black, black, black, black.' And then he leaves. He actually cut up one of his ties - he has all these wild ties - and stuck it in the breast pocket of my jacket, and he says, 'Could you please just stick some color on you somewhere?' So I went out and got some scarves."

Elton John has another habit, when discussing issues pertaining to himself, of speaking as both person, and then, overtaken by self-consciousness, from the perspective of someone else, commenting on his persona. "Starting with this album," he says of his new, rock-solid record, Songs From the West Coast, "I will never make a sloppy album again. This is my line in the sand." He pauses, then adds, slipping into the mock-dramatic accents of a Behind the Music narrator, "And then, in ten years' time, he was led away to prison for making three orfour sloppy albums in the 2001 to 2010 period."

This habit, of speaking both as person and persona, has its roots in the 1970 to 2001 period. Elton John, born Reginald Dwight and raised in the London suburb of Pinner, created a stage name for himself by pasting together the first names of two members of Bluesology, the band he was playing with at the time. Almost immediately, he proved to have a talent for singing and songwriting that made him a star of such magnitude, a persona was required. Thus was born "Elton John," the platform-boot-wearing character with a knack for making headlines extraneous to his music.

Now, thirty-one years, thirty-plus albums, six Grammys (one of them a Legend Award), a Tony (for Aida), an Academy Award (for The Lion King), a knighthood and fifty-eight Top Forty hits later, at fifty-four years old, Elton John is finally ready to once again be simply Elton John, without quotation marks.

"I wanted to make a record that sounded like Elton John again," he says of Songs From the West Coas. "And I thought, 'What do I do best? I play the piano and I sing and I write songs with Bernie [Taupin]. And if the songs are good, then the album is going to be good, so let's just get back to basics and make a record without too many frills.' And I think this is the first Elton John record, really, since Blue Moves. I feel that this album is the best album I can do at this point in my life, and I'm proud of that. And if it doesn't sell, I'll be disappointed. But I can actually say, 'You know what? I couldn't have done any better.' "

There are not exactly layers of glory on the terrace where he sits, except in the view: a pool and a sloping lawn with purple and white flower beds in the foreground, the creamy, pink-yellow rooftops of Nice and the ocean in the distance. There are certainly layers of glory in the house behind him - art and furniture by Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel, among many others, including two highly memorable glass-topped coffee tables by Allen Jones, the bases of which are formed by life-size sculptures of two women with Marvel-Comic-Superhero proportions on hands and knees, one in a skimpy green outfit and one in a black bondage-and-discipline outfit, the latter of whom is looking down into a small hand mirror that has been neatly placed on the area rug upon which she crouches. These coffee tables go by the names "Nice Janet" (the one in green) and "Nasty Janet" (the one in black).

There are also photographs by Horst, Norman Parkinson, Lucas Samaras, Duane Michaels, Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bill Jacobson and, really, just about any photographer of quality you care to name. Despite the coffee tables, and the reputation for excess, and the sheer quantity of art and objets, the overall feeling of the house is of light and space and tranquility. Elton is a neatness freak. He can go to sleep if the channel changer is not on top of the television if he has to. But he prefers not to have to.

Back out in the light, space and tranquility of the terrace, we are at a table with an aesthetically pleasing green and gold tablecloth, from which the remnants of an aesthetically pleasing lunch - salmon, avocado salad, peach pastry, cappuccino - have recently been cleared. Elton's boyfriend of eight years, filmmaker David Furnish, has just departed to pack for a quick trip to England, where he and Elton are hosting a benefit for the AIDS foundation. "We had proper white tie made for us this year," says Elton, when asked what he will wear to this white-tie-and-tiara event. "But I'm very tempted to wear both."

He is playing absent-mindedly with a napkin ring. ("I am crrrazy about napkin rings," he says later, passing through the kitchen during a tour of his house. "And that screams the word" - he cups his hands and silently mouths: "Gay!") He himself is aesthetically pleasing. Although he collects photography, he does not like to have his picture taken, one of the persistent disconnects between person and persona. But if one were taken now, on this terrace, it would show a man at ease in the world. It would show a happy man. It would show a man who knows himself and can therefore know others. It would not show the beauty of perfection. But it would show the beauty of progress.

And, given that it would show a man whose reputation for excess, both emotional and material, is so well-known that the 1996 British television documentary made by David Furnish is titled Tantrums and Tiaras, it would show a surprisingly tranquil man. There are two reasons for this. One is recovery. And the other is love itself. "I know it sounds very clich?d," says Elton. "But for me it's been amazing the last ten years, with David coming into my life, after thinking that I would not have a relationship again, because of who I was."

Because of who he is - a person with the habit of speaking both for himself and, self-consciously, for his persona - it's hard to know what he means when he says because of who I was - I would not have a relationship again because of who I was. He might mean because he was "Elton John," the entity with the power to encompass and obliterate all that it encountered. "I'd done that so often, you know, said, 'Come on, come around the world with me, I want to be with you, cloy, cloy, cloy, here's the instant Versace shirt, the Cartier watch, the sports car' - and then six months later the resentment and hatred, because you've taken their whole life away from them and they feel worthless."

He might mean because he himself was among the things that that persona encompassed and obliterated. "I went into therapy after treatment. My therapist is a woman. I wanted to go to a woman because I thought a woman is much more plain-speaking, and she said, 'Your anger comes not from your father; your anger comes not from the fact that you were an only child; you've dealt with that. Your anger comes from the fact that your career is all-encompassing, and there's never any time for you.' And I went, 'My God! How brilliant is that? How did you figure this out?' And she said, 'It was pretty easy.' "

Or he might mean because he was, in his view, inherently unlovable. "When I was in treatment, one of the greatest things was that they had you write ten bad things about yourself and ten good things about yourself on a blackboard. And I could always think of ten bad things, like, 'Yes! Yes! That's true!' And then, when it came to ten good things . . . "

But whatever he means, Songs From the West Coast makes it sound like he did mean what he was, not what he is, because the man who sings on this record doesn't sound like a man who feels that, because of who he is, he will never have love - although he does, especially on the record's first single, "I Want Love," sound like a man who knows what it's like to have felt that he never would. " 'I Want Love' is not how I feel at the moment," says Elton. "But it is maybe attached to what I want out of this album and also how I felt eight or nine years ago before I met David." The video for this song, directed by Elton's friend, photographer Sam Taylor-Wood, shows Robert Downey Jr. in an empty mansion, not so much lip-syncing the lyrics as speaking them; it is a devastating accompaniment to a heartbroken lyric. And it is also an extremely creative way of not having to have your picture taken, of retaining the personal and obviating the persona. Nevertheless, as Elton's longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin says when asked about the record's themes, "My feeling is that you should always let the songs speak for themselves. But the thing I think is so convincing about a lot of these songs is Elton's vocals. Really - and I don't want this to sound like I'm being rude to him - but for the first time, I really believe what he's singing. Maybe the songs weren't strong enough before, or maybe the subject matter didn't affect him as much. But the fact is, I think he just was really invigorated and ready to do it. And so these songs are real."

Songs From the West Coast is Elton's closest collaboration with Taupin in more than a decade. And in some ways it sounds like classic Elton John. The Elton John of whom Moby - whose record PlayElton championed early on and with whom he has since performed and recorded - says, "There are certain musical institutions, like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Elton John, where it almost goes beyond asking are you a fan or not. It's almost like saying, are you a fan of breakfast? The music he's made is so remarkable, you'd have to go out of your way not to be a fan."

Songs From the West Coast is in some ways better than an Elton John record. It has the songs, and the songs are good - about youth, adulthood, loss and acceptance, both personal and, on "American Triangle," a contemplation of the Matthew Shepard murder with guest vocals from Rufus Wainwright, universal. But it also has the sound of a man who, metaphorically speaking, is not afraid to have his picture taken. It has the sound of a person, not a persona, not Captain Fantastic, or the Rocket Man, or "Elton John," but of Elton John. "I've met a lot of people in my life who say they're real," says Mary J. Blige. "But Elton is real. Elton is himself all the time. And I've got to give him props for that."

Elton John has yet another habit, in conversation, of interrupting himself in discussion of his own music to discuss the music of others - Shea Seger, Air, Basement Jaxx, Anastasia, Ron Sexsmith, Aimee Mann, Macy Gray, Craig David. "I don't sit here listening to Otis Redding," he says. "I don't sit here listening to Tamla Motown, I don't sit here listening to John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Because they're already in there" - he taps his forehead. "I played those things for years, I sang them in my terribly cheesy Bluesology band. I want to hear what other people are doing. I want to hear what young people are doing."

He says that Songs From the West Coast started because he fell in love with Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, heard it was recorded in eleven or twelve days in Nashville, on analog tape, and thought to himself: Well, God, I used to do things like that. "So when Bernie came down here last year, I said, 'You know, the thing that pisses me off is that whenever anyone talks about me, generally it's either my sexuality, my hair, my AIDS foundation, The Lion King, my spending habits, the amount of flowers I buy, but it's never about an Elton John album.' "

He does understand, however, that Elton John the persona is an Elton John that everyone, including Elton John, enjoys. "The documentary that David did is practically the only thing I can look at about myself," he says. "Because there's some very bad behavior in it, but it makes me laugh, it's just me, that's how I am. I mean, I have tried to improve since then. A little bit. But at least it wasn't - we were watching the biography channel the other night, and who did we see a biography on? . . . Elizabeth Taylor. And it was like, sooo reverential, you wanted to throw up."

Therefore, when the question of recent giant tantrums comes up, he is willing, with the participation of David, who has rejoined the colloquy, to try to come up with some: "Oh, I had a great one, didn't I have a great one in a hotel in New York?" he asks David. "That was quite a long time ago, though."

"That was before the Madison Square Garden gig," says David. "I wasn't there. I was in a mud hut in Africa. I missed that one."

"No," says Elton. "The one where I threw the Plax at you. A full bottle. The thing that I've learned is that it's always better to throw something, and get it out. And I learned this from Dusty Springfield, because she had great tantrums. She once threw Martha Reeves' wig out the window. . . ."

"That's very Valley of the Dolls, isn't it?" says David.

"It's a classic," agrees Elton. "But what I learned from her is: Always throw something cheap."

The reason that David was in a mud hut in Africa was that he was on a trip in connection with the AIDS foundation. "I was lying in bed, thinking, 'This is Elton's first night at Madison Square Garden, and I know he's really unhappy.' And I kept thinking, 'There's no phone in here, but I know it's going to ring anyway. I was convinced.' "

David and Elton met, a couple of years after Elton got clean and sober, when he had been spending a lot of time in Atlanta. "I was just rattling around my house in Windsor one day, and it was a Saturday afternoon around one o'clock, and I thought, 'Hell, I don't know anybody here anymore.' I mean, the only people I knew were from meetings, and I didn't know anybody homosexual, gay, whatever. So I phoned a friend in London and said, 'Listen, is there any chance, I know it's short notice, of inviting some people down tonight, not as a kind of lecherous request, but just because I don't fucking know anybody here; I spend all my time in Atlanta.' To cut a long story short, David was one of the people invited. And as soon as he came through the door, he was the shyest and the most handsome and the sweetest, and he was intelligent and he had a great career. So the next morning, I thought, 'It's a Sunday morning, he's been to a party, what is the earliest time I can call him?' And I called him at eleven, and said, 'Would you like to have dinner tonight?' And . . . it's been eight years."

Both David and Elton attribute the strength of their connection, in part, to the fact that David is not merely a rock wife but a successful man in his own right. When he and Elton met, he was working in advertising and chasing money to make independent films. He now runs a small production company, Rocket Pictures, whose first release, Women Talking Dirty, starring Helena Bonham Carter, came out in England last month. But if two successful careers could keep a couple together, there would never be divorces in Manhattan.

David and Elton also have romance. In a way, the passion on Songs From the West Coast started not when Elton fell in love with Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, but when he fell in love with David Furnish. "The stuff that I heard from this record," says Adams, "it's like I know the difference between singing and telling. And when you're telling, you're not thinking. The tracks that I heard just sounded so guttural and so bottomless, and I loved it. Because he has a beautiful voice, but more than that, he has a pretty miraculous soul. The sweetest thing that Elton ever said to me was when I was leaving his house in Atlanta to go back to my hotel, have a couple of pops with a friend and then get back on a plane the next morning. And I was pretty much of a shambles, and he said, 'You take care of that broken heart of yours.' And it was really corny, but I knew he wasn't just talking about what was happening at that moment. He was talking about me in general, and it was just really sweet."

David and Elton met on a Saturday, so every Saturday, whether they are together or apart, they write each other letters or cards about what's happened in the week and how they feel, to stay connected. "Even if he's in a different time zone and I'm at home," Elton says, "I'm like, 'If you need to wake me up in the middle of the night, and it's important, wake me up, don't wait for the morning and let it sit.' And there will be times when he'll phone and I'll wake up five minutes before the phone rings.

"Or I'll be on the phone to him, and he'll be on the phone to me trying to get through, so we're both engaged, busy. He's the first person I call in the morning and the last person I call at night. I'm away so much and it's hard, because David likes to be with me and I like to be with David. So it's important how you communicate and how often you communicate."

Elton John has another habit, a habit he has had since he was an adolescent. Every new-release day, he goes shopping for records. If in England, he does this on Mondays at an HMV in London. In the United States, it's on Tuesdays and usually at a Tower Records in Atlanta. He buys not just every new release but, if he thinks it will be a record he'll like, a copy for every house.

He has had this habit so long that he has a recurring dream about it. In his dream, he is on a bicycle in the suburbs of his boyhood, going to a record store that was never there in reality, because the one in South Harrow (which really existed) is closed. And the one in Pinner (which really existed) is closed. But the one in North Harrow (which exists only in Elton's imagination, where music also lives) is open. And it's got everything.

Asked what interpretation he would put on this dream, he says, sitting on his terrace, layers of natural glory in the world in front of him, layers of accumulated glory in the house behind him, "I have no idea. In the dream, I'm in the present and in the past. But I get there before it's closed. And it's always open on Sunday. So there's a happy ending."