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articolo tratto da thisislondon.co.uk del 20/09/2001


Why I'm Still Standing

di Simon Mills

When Elton John first asked artist Sam Taylor-Wood to direct the video for his new single 'I Want Love', she had two ideas. Both of them predictably, deliciously, uncommercial.

One was to sideline the internationally recognisable superstar Elton altogether and employ an actor to lip-synch the words of the song. The other was even more subversive. Sam wanted to make the world's first silent pop video. No audible music at all. Just arty visuals. 'Can you imagine?' says Taylor-Wood, grinning broadly. 'People would have been banging on their TVs wondering where the sound had gone.'

Elton liked both ideas, apparently. But rather wisely, he thought the silent option might be a little too left-field for the average rock fan. Instead, he went for Taylor-Wood's thespian alternative. 'The concept of not being in the video thrilled me to bits,' says Elton.

Without any hesitation, he suggested Robert Downey Jr, the brilliant actor and serial recidivist, to play the 'Elton' role. This turned out to be a masterstroke because the song's powerful lyrics, especially the first few lines ('A man like me who's dead in places') could have been written for the troubled Downey Jr. 'The whole thing felt like kismet,' says Elton. 'I've always been very protective of him [Robert]. I'm older than him and I've been through what he's going through.'

So, Elton and Taylor-Wood got together, e-mailed Downey Jr in rehab, and did the deal. A week later they had the video. 'I was stunned when I saw it,' says Elton. 'I knew it would be beautiful but I wasn't prepared for just how beautiful it was ? so simple, so moving and so powerful. Just one shot... no dancing, no gold chains, I was floored. It was everything I wanted it to be.'

He is right to be pleased because the video, album (with its Taylor-Wood artwork - more about that later) and emotionally charged single represent something of a return to form for Elton who has, in recent years, become rather better known as a socialite than as a musician.

Elton's role as an ubiquitous canap? butterfly, popping up in Hello! and OK!, and his tireless work for charity - though entertaining and creditable in turns - have threatened to undermine his reputation as a singer/songwriter. It is alarming to think that there must exist a whole generation of teenagers who regard him as nothing more than that little friend of Liz Hurley's who wears funny suits and does the naff music for Walt Disney films.

But bizarrely, Elton has managed to stay credible. A Mary J Blige duet, Puffy telling the world that the piano riff from 'Benny and the Jets' is 'dope' and that pivotal scene in Almost Famous - where a busload of stoners sing Elton's classic 'Tiny Dancer' - have made him almost trendy. His new album (which is rather brilliant, by the way) is set to redress the balance further. 'He does have this incredible knack of hooking up with the right people,' says Taylor-Wood. Indeed, over the past four or five years Elton John has engineered a close-knit clique of immaculate, like-minded friends, a fashionable household of hifalutin People Like Us who follow him around the world.

Andy Warhol had The Factory, a tinfoil-lined warehouse of slumming, creative hedonists, elegantly emaciated rock'n'rollers, deliciously druggy It Girls, English toffs and transvestites, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Nico and Candy Darling among them. Elton, meanwhile, has created a similar scene, not so much a factory wallpapered with Alcan but more of a gilt-trimmed, Colefax & Fowlered salon, featuring Hurley, Tim Jefferies, Patrick Cox, Hugh Grant, Janet Street-Porter, Taylor-Wood and her husband Jay Jopling.

Now, the idea of flouncy, tantrum-prone Elton's unpredictable rococo logic dovetailing with the innovative, fin-haired scions of arty Hoxton might not immediately seem workable but, according to Taylor-Wood, Elton fits in a treat and is a regular visitor to the rapidly gentrifying area.

He is also a keen collector of Brit Art and owns work by Damien Hirst, Gary Hume and, of course, Taylor-Wood. 'Elton has an amazing photography collection,' she says. 'Everything from Man Ray to me... and everything in between.'

They first met three years ago when Elton saw some of Taylor-Wood's video work as part of a Pet Shop Boys concert at the Savoy Theatre. He was instantly impressed. 'I collect her art. She's a dear friend now,' he says. Last year, she asked him to be featured in XV Seconds, her vast, 900ft-long piece of 'scaffoldtising' art, an unforgettable photographic installation which wrapped itself around the exterior of Selfridges. He obliged, but what should have been a glamorous, momentous project proved to be a traumatic experience for Taylor-Wood.

She was in hospital undergoing treatment for breast cancer while the work was in progress and construction, and only emerged from her bed the day it was unveiled. 'I was so feeble and weak,' she says. 'If you look at pictures of me on that day, you can see that Elton is actually holding me up. I look back now and think, "Where the f**k did I get the balls to do that?" I was feeling so meek, vulnerable and humbled by the whole experience.'

Humbled? 'Yeah,' she says. 'You go brazenly through life with a lot of arrogance. Especially if you're an artist, you have to have a certain amount of belief and arrogance to make anything happen, so something like that just knocks you, it brings you back to a very serious central position again. You start readdressing your life. I think very differently now.'

She's had cancer twice - colon cancer in 1997 and breast cancer in 2000. Her final course of chemotherapy finished in October last year, and while she appears to be in rude health - positively glowing, in fact - she remains cautious. 'They never say you're better. I'm OK at the moment, but I'm coming up for a three-month check-up, which makes me feel nervous just thinking about it. You're living on a three-monthly cycle for the first couple of years.'

It appears that going through such a torturous adventure together sealed Elton and Taylor-Wood's friendship, inspiring them both onwards and upwards. A few months after the Selfridges project, Elton asked her to use the same photographic technique she'd employed for the artwork on his new CD, Songs From The West Coast. 'The one stipulation was that we should shoot it on the West Coast of America,' says Taylor-Wood. 'So I shunned beach and palm trees and went for a seedy LA diner. I always try to bring in low life somewhere.'

Sam has cleverly worked the album's song titles into the picture, so there are white doves representing the song 'Birds' and a lad in scarlet Converse sneakers for 'The Boy in the Red Shoes'. David Furnish appears in a cowboy outfit, Elton's valet Michael Hewitson plays a bag lady, a felon being arrested outside is Elton's PA while his bodyguards play the LAPD. 'And you see the old man and the waitress?' says Sam. 'Well, they only met on the day of the shoot but they went home holding hands.'

The project went off without even a hint of an Elton tantrum, too. In fact, the only time Elton came close to flouncing was when Sam's camera, a rare, complex apparatus originally intended for RAF reconnaissance work, got jammed.

'I panicked,' she said. 'I thought, "This is the only camera like this in LA. What the f**k am I going to do?" I looked up and Elton, who had noticed I was in a bit of a state, said, "Is everything all right?" So, I did this really bizarre thing. I blew on the camera. And do you know what? It worked.'

The working relationship was, eventually, similarly magical when the pair hooked up for the groundbreaking video clip, too, but Taylor-Wood wasn't immediately convinced that the pop-video oeuvre was the right thing for her. 'I was uneasy because I thought it was a world I didn't know,' she says. 'When I watch MTV I'm either irritated or impressed. You get sick of seeing people jumping around. 'I had a long, hard think and finally decided that it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.'

So, why did she have to think about it? Was she worried that working in such a commercial medium might compromise the gravity of her other work? 'Nah,' she says immediately. 'Not at all. Warhol did it, didn't he? If you're creative you should be able to turn your hand to any medium.'

Sam Taylor-Wood is back on familiar ground with an, as yet untitled, exhibition of new work at White Cube2, which opens on 23 November, and if her vague but visceral description of the compositions is anything to go by, it will be quite a display.

She's never made a conscious decision to allow her illness to influence her work but it has, nevertheless, been inevitable and unavoidable. 'It has come through naturally, without me realising it,' she says. Cancer has undoubtedly changed her, her work and put a strain on some of her relationships. 'I had a very great friend who couldn't handle it, which was horrible,' she says. 'And my aunty couldn't say the word "cancer" at all so she'd say "C" instead, and I would say, "What? C**t?"'

Now, it would be trite and clich?d to say that Taylor-Wood is being 'very brave' in the face of something so formidable, but it has to be said that she does have an almost disarmingly frank way of discussing her struggle with cancer. 'The other day I was talking to someone about it and they said, "God, you've had cancer twice - that's really terrible." And I said, "Yeah, I decided to do it when I was young, while I was healthy and strong enough to cope with it. I'm never doing it again."'

And now? 'I find I don't put up with the same shit that I used to. I'm much more careful with my time. I'm still frivolous, but there are elements of my new work that are morbid,' she says. 'I was looking at it all this morning and there's a dark side. It's definitely by someone who's stared into the abyss and come out. And who's staying out.'