“I can’t stand books or movies about rock stars that give you some whitewashed version of reality...” - hmv.com talks to Sir Elton John
There aren't too many people in this world who could justifiably be described as a 'living legend', but Elton John is surely one of them. In a career that has spanned six decades and witnessed record sales somewhere in the region of a staggering 300 million units, there is very little he hasn't achieved.
From humble beginnings as a pub pianist to selling out arenas the world over, Sir Elton's career has been a long and varied one that has taken in multiple chart-topping albums and singles, half a dozen Grammys, a Tony award, an Oscar, and more Ivor Novello awards than most artists could hope to win in several lifetimes. That's before we even begin to talk about the knighthood he was given in 1998 for 'services to music and charitable services', in recognition of both his music and his extensive charity work, including the establishment of the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992.
In January last year, Sir Elton announced his final world tour, Farewell Yellow Brick Road, which will take in more than 300 shows around the globe and finally bring down the curtain on a career as a live performer that has endured for half a century.
Over that time he has been the subject of numerous biographies, films and documentaries, most recently seeing himself portrayed on the big screen by Taron Egerton in Dexter Fletcher's biopic Rocketman, but up until now perhaps the only thing he hasn't done is tell his life story in his own words.
That changes this week as Sir Elton's brand new autobiography, titled simply Me, makes its arrival in stores. Written with the help of Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis, Me finds Sir Elton reflecting on a colourful life in his own inimitable way for the first time ever. And what a life it has been.
With his new book available in hmv stores now, we caught up with the man himself to ask him a few questions about why he decided the time was right for an autobiography, his thoughts on some of the films about his life, and the key to a long and successful relationship with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin...
What made you want to write an autobiography in the first place?
“I never wanted to write an autobiography. Or at least, for years, I thought I didn’t. I’ve never been terribly interested in looking back at my career. I didn’t think about actually writing a book until David and I had kids. I was sixty-three when our first son, Zachary, was born, sixty-five when Elijah came along, and it made me think about them in forty years’ time, being able to access my version of my life. I wanted something Zachary and Elijah could read and something they could see and think 'well, that was our dad, that was what he did, that was what he was really like.'”
There have already been several biographies written about you, did you feel that they missed the mark?
“I can’t stand books or movies about rock stars that give you some whitewashed version of reality, that are intent on telling you what a wonderful, perfect person they are. It’s boring, because it’s a lie: no one is perfect, and certainly no rock star is perfect. The only version of my life I like is Tantrums and Tiaras. People said I was crazy to allow that film to be released, but it’s one of the few films about me I actually like, because it’s real.”
The book was first announced in 2016, and obviously you've been busy with your farewell tour over the last year or two – how did you go about putting the book together in the middle of all that? What was the process like?
“When I started work on Me, I found, unexpectedly, that I really enjoyed it. I realised how lucky I was to have had a career that didn’t just deal with music, but that touched on film and art and fashion as well.
“I became fascinated with the way that so much of my life depended on fate, odd little moments that seemed completely insignificant at the time, but that changed everything. But most of all, I found it was funny. Looking back at my career made me realise how ridiculous it was. It took off in a ridiculous way.”
Before your solo career began, your band Bluesology played backing for the likes of Patti LaBelle and the Isley Brothers – that must have been quite an experience, what lessons did you learn during that time?
“I tried writing lyrics when I was the organist in Bluesology, at the very start of my career. I was the only member of the band who wrote songs at all, so it was up to me. The memory of the lyrics I wrote for Bluesology can still wake me up at night in a cold sweat: 'We could be such a happy pair, and I promise to do my share'.
“Since then, I’ve restricted myself to coming up with the occasional line: the opening of 'Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word' – 'What have I got to do to make you love me? What have I got to do to make you care?' – is mine, inspired by a straight guy I’d fallen desperately and pointlessly in love with. But I didn’t need to write lyrics. I had Bernie Taupin to do that.”
Was there a specific moment after meeting Bernie Taupin where you realised were onto a winning partnership?
“It all happened in the space of a month. One minute, I was a jobbing musician in London, doing session work, playing for anyone who’d have me, trying to sell the songs me and Bernie had written to a largely disinterested world. The great John/Taupin songwriting partnership was so broke, we were still sleeping in bunk beds in my mum’s spare room. I came back from the States a month later with American critics literally calling me the 'Saviour of Rock ’n’ Roll.'
“Artists that were just mythic names on the back of album sleeves to me, people I absolutely worshipped, were suddenly turning up in the dressing room to tell me and Bernie they loved what we were doing: Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, The Band, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. It was mad. I hadn’t even wanted to be a rock star in the first place. I just wanted to be a successful songwriter. And now this.”
You've said before that you and Bernie have never had an argument about your work – what's the key to keeping that relationship working for so many years?
“I always talk about how completely different we are, how we were thrown together more or less by accident and how I’m not sure why our song-writing partnership works. Neither of us can write if the other is in the room. But from the moment I opened the first envelope with Bernie’s lyrics in it, on the train home from central London to Pinner, I felt an instant connection. And the connection works both ways. There are times when Bernie’s written lyrics from my point of view, and he’s expressed how I felt better than I could."
Me is available in hmv stores now – find you local hmv here.