Books

The old monster Elton John appears charmingly self-deprecating

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

I don’t care for Elton John. A cross between Violet Elizabeth Bott and Princess Margaret, his temper tantrums are legendary, whether asking fans on to the stage to dance and then screaming at them not to get so close, or demanding that an employee do something about the blustery weather keeping him awake. They say you get the face you deserve after 50, and he looks every inch the bitter old busybody who divides his time between twitching the curtains and gossiping over the fence about the behaviour of those younger and prettier than himself.

He has now become drearily bound into the liberal establishment — see his recent puffed-up pronouncement about Brexit: ‘I’m ashamed of my country… I am sick to death of Brexit. I am a European. I am not a stupid, colonial, imperialist English idiot.’ It thus makes perfect sense that he has become chief showbiz sucker-up to the Sussexes; like them, he demands alternating attention and privacy, with all the logic of a stripper complaining about those horrid men staring at her.

Uniquely of the glam rockers who shaped my adolescent fantasies, he never had any sex appeal — and if you’re not a sexy pop star you’d better be profound, which he also isn’t. Always unoriginal, he changed his name from Reg Dwight  (which actually suits him) and called himself after his early bandmates Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. He was probably the only musician ever to return from a residency on the Reeperbahn a virgin, as inept a lyricist as he was a lover — ‘We could be such a happy pair/And I promise to do my share’. So he was lucky to meet the imaginative teenage songwriter Bernie Taupin and find fame at the age of 23.


And what a level of fame it was, even more so in the US than Britain. American radio stations vied in boasting ‘We Play More Elton John Than Any Other’, and the mayor of Los Angeles proclaimed an actual ‘Elton John Week’, in which the star was ferried around the municipality having court paid to him. But, of course, he writes: ‘Fame is a hollow, shallow and dangerous thing… no substitute for true love or real friendship.’ Just for once I wish I could read someone gloating over how becoming rich and famous changed their life for the better — as it does, unless you’re seriously screwed up to start with.

The story fair romps along; worldwide success by chapter three; Stevie Wonder singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in chapter four; first ever album in history to go straight to the top of the American album chart in chapter six.

But halfway through, Elton hits rock bottom. Bulimic, with a cocaine habit which makes my former one look like a mere sniff of the barman’s apron, he loses his voice during a tour of Australia, and the Sun fits him up with a fake rent-boy story, in which he allegedly wears leather shorts to an orgy. (The story was evidently false, as surely the sight of Elton John in shorts would have acted on the most devoted orgiast in the manner of a bucket of cold water thrown over mating dogs.)

He takes so many drugs he hallucinates that the furniture is dancing with him. Back at his hotel, after making the I’m Still Standing video, he bumps into Duran Duran and tries vodka martinis for the first time; he returns to the set, demands that the cameras are all turned on, takes off his clothes and rolls naked on the floor, punches his manager and smashes up a hotel room. His reaction the morning after? He vows to drink more vodka martinis. He’s in such a state that even Freddie Mercury comments on it.

But he is generous, and not just with presents: ‘I didn’t really care what they thought of me — I loved punk.’ The Russians are ‘incredibly kind and generous… weirdly they reminded me of Americans, that same warmth and hospitality’. The long relationship between him (‘Sharon’) and Rod Stewart (‘Phyllis’) is amusing, as is his postcard to John and Yoko: ‘Imagine six apartments, it isn’t hard to do, one is full of fur coats, another’s full of shoes.’ I hooted when Gianni Versace kept telling him how brave he was to write the woefully inadequate ‘Song for Guy’ — it transpires that the designer believed it was called ‘Song for a Gay’.

The inevitable intervention takes place two thirds of the way through, and our hero begins the long haul back to sobriety, surrogacy and same-sex espousement. Never trust a narcissist to tell their own story. But thanks to the wit and skill of the ghostwriter, Alexis Petridis, the old monster comes across as charmingly self-deprecating — sometimes to the point of incredulity. Let’s just say that this is a fabulous book in both senses of the word and leave it at that.

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