Last May, Bill and I went to see Elton John in concert. It was our first and probably last chance to see him, since he’s currently on his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road farewell tour. Of course, as my rock star friend Meryl pointed out when I bought the tickets, Elton has announced his retirement from live performances before. In fact, he recently added a few more shows to the tour that will bring him back to Germany. We saw him play in Stuttgart, even though he did a show in Wiesbaden in June, because when I purchased the tickets in February 2018, we were still living in the Stuttgart area and had no plans to move. But, as we all know, life can throw curveballs, and it turned out we did have to move. Fortunately, Wiesbaden is just a few hours’ drive from Stuttgart, and going there for the show meant we could see our dentist and hit the spring fest, which happened to be going on at the same time.
2018 and 2019 have been my years for concerts. I was never much of a concertgoer before recently, mainly because I didn’t have the money to go to concerts, nor have I ever been one with a pack of friends or boyfriends with whom I could attend shows. Bill and I spent the first years of our marriage rather financially strapped, so the few shows we did see before moving back to Europe, were mostly in nosebleed seats. Don’t get me wrong– it can be perfectly feasible to enjoy a show way up in the rafters. We discovered Robert Randolph and the Family Band in 2004, when they opened for Eric Clapton in Washington, DC. We had a great time, even though Clapton looked like an ant on the stage. But I’m a short person, and I don’t like crowds or being around inconsiderate people, all of which would preclude my attending many big shows.
As for Elton John– well… he put on a pretty good show. It wasn’t the best concert I have ever been to, mainly because he used a lot of videos which I found distracting. Instead of watching him play the piano so masterfully, I was watching videos as if it were 1985. Still, I did enjoy the concert, and ended up downloading a bunch of his albums that I didn’t already own. I didn’t get Leather Jackets, which was an album he made in the 1980s while extremely strung out on cocaine and alcohol. Elton John repeatedly brings that up in his new autobiography, Me, which I just finished reading this morning. I’ve also downloaded the movie about his life, Rocket Man, which came out just after we saw him in concert. I haven’t watched it yet, because our TV room lacks proper seating and I’d rather watch that film on our big, new TV than the one in our bedroom.
All of this is sort of my meandering way of saying that Elton John has been on my mind a lot this year. I was born in 1972, when Elton was becoming a huge star. His music has always been a big part of my life. He was one of the few artists my late father could agree upon when we were riding in the car together. I have always been in awe of Elton John’s musical gifts, even if there are other singer-songwriters who enchant me more. But honestly, having seen Elton play live and read his book, I think I just find him a very entertaining person to whom I can relate. I admire him, not just because he’s a brilliant performer, but because he seems very human to me. He seems even more human to me, especially since I read his sensational, yet often poignant life story.
Elton John, originally named Reginald Dwight, was born to two parents who didn’t love each other. They were of modest means, and lived in a small town. Elton, who in those days was called Reg, did not have a strong kinship with his father, who was often away for work purposes. When Elton’s father was around, they didn’t seem to mesh. Elton describes his dad as emotionally absent and more of a “man’s man”, while Elton was sensitive, awkward, and lonely. His parents split when he was still very young and married other people. Elton got along better with his stepfather, Fred, whom he called “Derf”. He was less involved with his father, who’d had children with his next wife.
Early on, it became clear that Elton John was gifted musically. As a boy, he attended the Royal Academy of Music, where he was forced to play classical pieces. Although Elton didn’t enjoy the classical scene so much, he did write that he’s grateful for the experience of attending such a prestigious school and that the training he received played a big part in his songwriting. It was obvious that Elton was destined for a career in music and, based on his book, he’s never done anything else, even though there were times when he thought he’d never get his break. One time, his mother even suggested that he take a job at a launderette.
Elton John’s story of how he and Bernie Taupin came together is another sign that he was destined to be a musician. He’d just played and failed an audition at a record label when a receptionist decided to pass him some lyrics that had been sent by a man who had also failed the audition. That man turned out to be seventeen year old Taupin, who has written so many of Elton John’s most beloved songs. I enjoyed how Elton explained their unique partnership. Bernie would write poignant lyrics and Elton would compose music. They never worked together in the same room. I have written some lyrics myself, mainly for fun. I think if I were a songwriter, I’d probably want to work the same way. I do better when I’m working alone.
Beyond the obvious components of a life story, Elton John adds some hilarious and sometimes horrifying anecdotes about life as a world renowned entertainer. For instance, he wrote a story about how he’d auditioned a guitar player whom he’d declined to hire, not just because he didn’t mesh with him musically, but because the guitar player had confessed to enjoying fucking chickens up the ass and then decapitating them for a sexual charge. Elton adds wryly that he didn’t know if the guitar player had a very strange sense of humor or if the guy’s sex life was extremely disturbing. Either way, he couldn’t picture himself or his bandmates feeling comfortable sharing a hotel room with a guy who got his jollies in that way.
I had already read some excerpts of Elton John’s book through the Daily Mail, which has been sharing bits and pieces of the book for weeks now. A lot of the snippets from the Daily Mail were pretty salacious, but I was still surprised by a few of the stories Elton includes. What really struck me about Me, though, is how entertaining and personal the writing is. It was as if I were sitting in a room, listening to Elton tell his stories in the most hilarious way. I like the fact that he owns up to his shortcomings and is brutally candid about some things. I can be pretty candid myself, and I’m a pretty straight shooter. So is Elton. We have both found that being too straightforward can be detrimental in many ways, particularly if you’re dealing with people who are shady. But, I think in the long run, it’s best to be authentic. I feel like Elton’s book is very authentic and candid. I liked that he owned up to being an asshole at times– er, arsehole– Britishisms are another prominent feature in his book. Elton is a drug addict. Cocaine was his drug of choice. He is an alcoholic. He also suffers from an addiction to food and was bulimic for awhile. He sought treatment for all three conditions about thirty years ago. I appreciated his honesty about his experiences with addiction, especially how alcohol and drugs turned him into an asshole. I also respect that he’s tried so hard to help others overcome their addictions, including many people who didn’t want to be helped.
I was curious about what people had to say about Elton’s book. I usually start with the negative reviews on Amazon, some of which were pretty laughable. One person complained that the book had a ripped cover. Another complained about Elton’s comments about Michael Jackson, which I will admit, might have seemed kind of tacky (although frankly, I think he was being straight up about his experiences). Some people wrote that Elton included too much about songwriting and not enough about his personal life. Other people complained about the opposite; Elton was too open about his sex life and drug use, and not forthcoming enough about his musical skills. From what I gathered, Elton doesn’t have to think much about creating. It all just comes out. He even wrote that he doesn’t even think about songwriting when he’s not actually doing it. If that’s really his experience, I respect it, although it’s kind of mind boggling.
I found Elton’s comments about trying to work with Tina Turner kind of surprising. Apparently, she was a huge diva and behaved like a bitch to Elton and his band, even though she used to sing his song, “The Bitch Is Back” all the time back in the day. It turned out that their work styles were simply incompatible. Elton likes to improvise and not necessarily do everything perfectly rehearsed, while Tina likes to have the band playing exactly the same way every time. I respected that after Elton basically called Tina a bitch, he acknowledged that she might be that way due to the way she’d been treated by Ike Turner and others in the music industry who ripped her off and abused her. I can give him credit for realizing that about Tina Turner, even as he also kind of throws her under the bus.
One person wrote that Elton John had a book written about him by a ghostwriter that was mostly the same stuff. If I had read that book, I might have agreed with the reviewer that Me is superfluous. But since I hadn’t read the other book, this one was interesting, and often laugh out loud funny. I especially laughed when Elton wrote about writing music for a play in which there was a song called “Only Poofs Do Ballet”. I had never heard of the British slang term for a homosexual “Poof” until I married Bill, who uses it a lot. And there were a few stories that mad me feel a little sad… or even a bit in solidarity with Elton. I can relate to feeling ugly, misunderstood, and anxious. I can relate to having a short temper and difficult family relationships. I can even relate to some of his stories about addiction, depression, and eating disorders, as these are things have touched my life, too. I don’t know if Elton and I would get along if we were to meet, since he seems to be eccentric and temperamental, and I’m kind of like that, too. But deep down, he seems like a kind, introspective man who isn’t afraid to be a bit tacky and over the top. I’m glad he’s finally found love, gotten his life on track, and has the family he’s always dreamt of having. He’s a very lucky man, and he seems to know it. I respect him for that.
Anyway, I liked Me, and would recommend it. Some people might be offended by some of the stories, and some have accused Elton of name dropping and bragging, although I can’t imagine how someone as famous as Elton John is could be guilty of “name dropping”, when he literally keeps company with the likes of Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Freddie Mercury, and members of The Rolling Stones. Those folks are his peers, although I was kind of charmed when Elton described what an honor it was to sing with Ray Charles. I also enjoyed his comments about Ryan White and his family, and how much they did to help people with AIDS at a time when people were so frightened and ignorant.
So… if you are inclined to read about Elton John’s life and haven’t read the previous book, I think you should check out Me. But be prepared for some sensational stories that might blow your mind.
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