Dad, showman, activist: Sir Elton John, folks
BY MELENA RYZIK
The New York Times
After 47 years in the spotlight, more than 250 million albums sold, six Grammys, a Tony, an Oscar and a knighthood, Elton John still gets the jitters when he steps onstage. Striding to his piano at the Wiltern here in a blue, rhinestone-dusted suit to play songs from his new album, “Wonderful Crazy Night,” for the first time, he surveyed the crowd of die-hard fans and music-industry insiders fretfully.
“When you’re playing new things,” he said afterward, “you’re thinking: Are they going to the toilet? Are they liking it? It’s impossible for them to like it right away, because compared to the other stuff, it’s not going to sound as good.”
He filled his 2 1/2-hour set at the club, an art deco theater that’s a tenth the size of the arenas he normally plays, with that “other stuff”: hits like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” standing and strutting around the piano, the consummate showman. “Nobody rocks out anymore,” he said, exhorting the audience. “They’re all bed wetters. I wanted to make a proper rock ‘n’ roll album for all the bed wetters!”
A few days later, at his ‘60s-modernist Beverly Hills home, he said he enjoyed the concert, “but I wasn’t relaxed.” He shrugged amiably. “If you don’t have any fear anymore, then you have to give up.”
Fading out is not the Elton John way. “Wonderful Crazy Night” is his 33rd studio album. He’ll be 69 in March, and next year will celebrate 50 years with his songwriting partner and lyricist, Bernie Taupin, a near-singular act of rock ‘n’ roll endurance. He could be forgiven for a little late-career coasting on his greatest hits, especially as he’s relishing family life with his husband, film producer David Furnish, and their sons Zachary, 5, and Elijah, 3.
Instead, John has injected
“Let’s make the album jingly-jangly and as happy as we can.”
But jingly-jangly does not come easily. “It’s not in my nature,” Taupin, 65, said. “I had to put my happy cap on.” John, too: “As a piano player, I find it very hard to write up-tempo songs. You can write ballads coming out of your wazoo. This was a challenge for me.” The album has love songs both languorous and “jovial,” as John put it, and one, “Good Heart,” lyrically inspired by the musicians’ children.
Taupin, who composes on guitar, sometimes gives his partner a song’s back story, but just as often John prefers to leave it a mystery and creates a different melody. “Tiny Dancer”? “Rocket Man”? “I find out what they mean about 30 years later,” John said.
Their songwriting process is idiosyncratic. Taupin lives with his wife and young daughters on a ranch near Santa Barbara, California; John, he said by phone, had been there “once in 25 years.” They email mostly about music. For “Wonderful Crazy Night,” Taupin wrote lyrics for 24 songs, which John first saw when they got in the studio together, with his band. He
writes and records, analog, in days — “I don’t pore over things,” he said.
Their relationship is one of the great flukes in songwriting history: They were matched at random by a record label in London in the 1960s. It took five years, John said, “to become Elton John,” and then a string of seven No. 1 albums followed. Two of his bandmates from that era remain with him.
Although they took breaks, the John-Taupin partnership is equally ingrained. “He was my first-ever friend,” John said.
“It’s not soppy or silly to say this,” John said. “Because we haven’t lived in each other’s back pockets, we still love each other. To me, he’s like a brother.”
John’s obsession, besides music, is art: On his album cover, he’s grinning in front of a photo by Brooklyn artist Mariah Robertson; his video for “Blue Wonderful” was inspired by a Gregory Crewdson image. He was fist-pumpingly excited about his vinyl collection, now numbering about 3,000 records, from Nina Simone to country star Chris Stapleton. And he pays close attention to new artists, inviting songwriters like Sam Smith and James Blake to lunch.
“He’s a huge influence,” said Tom Odell, another young British musician whom John counsels. They discussed career moves and his coming second album. “We can talk about records for hours,” Odell said. “I don’t think he ever stops. He’s got more passion than some of my friends who are 23 who are making music.”
I know I have the ability to bring people together, so I have to try...
SIR ELTON JOHN
Performer and LGBT activist
In an email, Adam Lambert said, “When I was in the final stages of ‘American Idol,’ Elton handwrote me a note wishing me luck and praising my run on the show.” Lambert, who came out after his “Idol” season ended, added that as a kid, when he first heard John’s music in “The Lion King,” “I remember the label ‘gay’ being used, but it never sounded like a negative thing. It was just a matter of fact. The focus was on his music.”
After a year in which he lost both Ingrid Sischy, the cultural critic and a close friend who was writing his biography, and his compatriot David Bowie, John understandably has legacy on his mind. The gay community is still stigmatized in Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he said. “I’m going to try to help see if I can change those things. I probably won’t, in my lifetime, but I’m going to try … I might get laughed at — I’m prepared for that. But I know I have the ability to bring people together, so I have to try.”
First, he hopes to parlay his phone conversation with Putin — a call the Russian president made after pranksters impersonating him conned John into a plaintive conversation about Russia’s dismal record on gay rights — into a face-to-face meeting. “I’m not going to go in there and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Putin you’ve got to do this,’” he said. “I’m going to have a cup of tea and I’m going to talk to him, and schmooze. It’s all about schmoozing.”