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He hasn't had a decent song in years, but Elton John now has a great book

By Vir Sanghvi
November 27, 2019 16:30 IST

'This is a book written by a man who has seen it all and done it all and can now laugh about it,' says Vir Sanghvi.

IMAGE: Elton John performs at his concert at Rome's ancient Colosseum. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters
 

It has been years since Elton John has written a great song.

Like, say, Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones, John's later output reminds us that rock music is a young man's game.

Unlike McCartney or the Stones, however, he hasn't even kept up a great concert presence.

I saw him live in the eighties and he was pretty damned good.

But the one show I have seen in this century was dismal.

His voice is not what it used to be and you had the distinct sense that if he did not pause between songs, you would think that the entire show consisted of one very long song.

IMAGE: Elton John and Tina Turner perform together at the close of the first annual VH1 Fashion and Music Awards ceremony in New York. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

On the other hand, over the last two decades, Elton has revealed himself to be one of the best-hearted of all rock stars.

He has spent millions of his own money on good causes, has done more than any other showbiz performer to raise awareness about the battle against AIDS and whenever there is a cause that needs a little help, Elton is always the first person to be called -- and he almost never says no.

You feel that, at some level, Elton John recognises this.

So much of this wonderfully readable autobiography (co-written with the music journalist Alexis Petridis) is about the glorious early years, about the Elton who thrilled concert audiences and wrote Daniel, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Candle in the Wind and Sacrifice.

In fact, Sacrifice may have been his last great song, though, as he says in the book, it was the one song on the album that he was not sure about releasing.

Elton has never been very good at judging his own output!

IMAGE: Elton John and his partner David Furnish. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

We know the outlines of the Elton John story: Shy, repressed boy from suburban middle-class life in Pinner meets up with a lyricist called Bernie Taupin.

Bernie writes the lyrics.

Elton writes the music.

The songs are such hits that by the 1970s and early 1980s, Elton John is the biggest rock star in America (and therefore the world).

He has come to terms with his own homosexuality and lives with his lover-manager, but it still causes a splash when he comes out to the world in a Rolling Stone interview.

That admission is accompanied by extravagant excesses including orgies and copious drug-taking.

He turns into a tantrum-throwing diva and is pulled back from the brink of self-destruction by his friends.

Eventually he marries a nice Canadian boy called David Furnish and settles down.

What we didn't know was that nearly all of the mad-sounding rumours about his starry excesses were true.

He did call up his manager from a room at a London hotel to complain that the wind outside was too strong.

Could they get it to stop?

He did go on two - to three-day-long benders fuelled by cocaine and alcohol over the course of which he assaulted people, trashed rooms and destroyed furniture before passing out.

When he woke up, he would have no idea of what he had done.

And yes, he did storm out of meetings, sack people arbitrarily and find many of his fellow rock stars strange (Michael Jackson), obnoxious (Tina Turner) or worthy of dissing (Keith Richards, David Bowie, etc.)

IMAGE: Diana, princess of Wales, and Elton John. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

What makes the book so enjoyable is that Elton spares no one, including himself.

When he falls out with Princess Diana, it is because she has lied -- and he says so to her and the rest of the world.

When his love affairs end in disaster, it is because he falls for straight men who, eventually, go back to women.

There have been times in his life, he readily concedes, when he has behaved like a total jerk.

And others when he has wanted to kill himself.

IMAGE: Elton John sings a rewritten version of his song Candle in the Wind as a tribute to Diana, princess of Wales, at her funeral. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters

What the book lacks, perhaps, is a little bit more about the music.

For nearly all of his life, Elton has played down his song-writing process.

His style of working is so casual that it actually seems strange.

He rarely has any songs ready when he goes into the studio.

Bernie sends in lyrics.

Elton tries putting them to music.

After 15 minutes of trying to find a tune on the piano, he moves on.

Any lyric that has not turned into a song in those 15 minutes is forgotten about.

It sounds simple, but it offers some indication of how great John's melodic gifts must be that songs like Daniel and Rocket Man can take shape in a matter of minutes.

Most other songwriters spend weeks working on their songs.

In Elton's case, it is 15 minutes of composing followed almost immediately by recording.

(He is not wild about endless takes either.)

I would have liked to have read a bit more about the songs themselves, but I guess that it would have sounded too much like showing off and would have clashed with the generally self-deprecating tone of this book.

IMAGE: Elton John performs at a concert on the 40th anniversary of the Rocket Man tour in Brasilia. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

There is sadness too.

His mother, who he dotes on and spoils rotten, turns on him when he marries Furnish.

She has been tolerant of his homosexuality till then, but seems to draw the line at gay marriage.

Then there is the vicious campaign run against him by The Sun newspaper, accusing him of using rent boys.

Against everyone's advice, Elton sues and wins a front-page apology.

This is a book written by a man who has seen it all and done it all and can now laugh about it.

And even if he can't write great tunes any longer, he sure as hell can write a great book!

 


When Vir Sanghvi, then 23, became editor of the now defunct Bombay magazine in 1979, he was the youngest magazine editor in India. Present day readers know Vir as a commentator on food and politics, but he has always been interested in music.


Vir Sanghvi
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