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
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
"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
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
"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
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."