da thisislondon.co.uk del 20/09/2001
Why I'm Still Standing
di Simon Mills
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.'
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
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
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
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
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.'
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.'
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,
'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.'
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.'
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.'
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."'
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.'