Elton John: My Life in 20 Songs

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Posted by Greg on January 22, 2014 at 7:52 am
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Courtesy of Terry O’Neill – Getty Images

Cameron explores 20 songs with Elton John that encapsulate his legendary career in this Rolling Stone article from this past October.

Elton John: My Life in 20 Songs

Cameron Crowe explores Elton’s journey from Reginald Dwight to technicolored pop sensation to rehab and back

“You don’t mind if I play it loud, do you?”

It’s morning in Las Vegas, and sunlight fills the condo that serves as Elton John’s home during his latest run of shows at Caesars Palace, part of the residency known as “The Million Dollar Piano.” Wearing a white terry-cloth robe, he moves to the stereo system like an athlete, arms swinging crisply at his sides. Soon, he’s locked and loaded his latest album, The Diving Board. Many who’ve just spent the past year and a half working on arecording might then leave the room, allowing the listener his own experience. Not Elton John. He sits down on a small sofa in front of the speakers, closes his eyes and listens along with you. And yes, it’s loud.

The album is a game-changer for him. It’s spare, sophisticated and deeply personal. Call it Elton John’s Sketches of Spain, after Miles Davis’ own deep­career discovery of a worldly new creative voice. Spread around the stereo are other CDs – from new artists as well as Nina Simone at Town Hall. Elton is a fan who refuses to download his music. Music is a tactile experience for him – he wants to read liner notes, look at the pictures and take the journey.

He closes his eyes as he listens to The Diving Board, his leg bouncing and head catching the rhythms. You might even forget he’s made a few records before this one: This is his 30th. This one began as a trio recording, produced by T Bone Burnett. The first run of songs was relaxed and promising. A second session, fueled by an inspired new set of lyrics from longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, pushed the album into deeper waters. The feeling taking hold was reminiscent of Elton’s earliest recordings, when his band was a blazing trio, peaking with the live album 11-17-70. But Elton’s voice is more resonant now; the songs ring with experience and a life filled with epic highs, lows and plateaus. Now in his sixties, he is finally a father of two children, a family man and a working artist.

In the spirit of the intimate nature of his album, we reconvened a few months later to put together a fan’s playlist of his own most personally affecting songs. It was the perfect late-summer afternoon to reflect and kill some time before a doctor’s appointment to remove the stitches from a recent appendix operation. Going over all of his recordings, Elton chose the songs – not necessarily the hits – that still mean the most to him.

“Empty Sky” Empty Sky (1969)

A great rock & roll track. I love it to death. I remember doing the vocal in the stairwell to get that echo, in a very small studio in London. [Caleb Quaye’s] guitar solo was done in the stairwell as well. Another song on that first record, “Skyline Pigeon,” was the first good song that Bernie and I wrote. But “Empty Sky” has something magical about it. It came together so brilliantly, and still sounds so good. It’s hard for a piano player to write a rock & roll song. It sounded like a Stones song. I thought, “I can do this.

“Your Song” Elton John (1970)

What can I say, it’s a perfect song. It gets better every time I sing it. I remember writing it at my parents’ apartment in North London, and Bernie giving me the lyrics, sitting down at the piano and looking at it and going, “Oh, my God, this is such a great lyric, I can’t fuck this one up.” It came out in about 20 minutes, and when I was done, I called him in and we both knew. I was 22, and he was 19, and it gave us so much confidence. “Empty Sky” was lovely, but it was very naive. We went on to do more esoteric stuff like “Take Me to the Pilot,” of course, but musically, this was a big step forward. And the older I get, the more I sing these lyrics, and the more they resonate with me.

“Come Down in Time” Tumbleweed Connection (1971)

I love the melancholic, and I love the sadness. I love writing sad songs. Not that I’m sad as a person – because I’m not – but they get to me. Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young have written so many of them. Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up.” They’re the ones that stay with me for life, and when you write one of those songs, oh, does it feel good! If it were down to me, I’d write that sort of shit all the time! I love “Come Down in Time.” It was only our third album, and it’s kind of something that a jazz singer would record. Chordwise, it was like nothing I’d ever written before. Essential for this list? Absolutely.

“Burn Down the Mission (including My Baby Left Me/Get Back)” 11-17-70 (1971)

The first FM radio broadcast live from a studio, with 300 invited guests, including Mary Travers. We were all in the studio wearing headphones as if we were recording an album, but we were playing live. We could all hear each other extremely well. We just jammed, and the 18-minute jam session is some of the finest drum and bass and piano playing I’ve ever done. We were a bloody good band.

Personally, I was just evolving, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. Musically, Reg Dwight was gone. As soon as I changed my name to Elton John, I became Elton. Reg was still there as a person, and that caused a lot of problems later on, because my personal life didn’t catch up with my professional life. I was still the shy, retiring boy offstage. But onstage, I was so much more confident. I’d just come to America, meeting people that I loved, being introduced by Neil Diamond, meeting the Band, meeting Dylan, meeting Leon Russell. People like George Harrison giving me telegrams, saying, “What you’re doing is great.” That gave me such confidence. It kick-started what I already had in my tank, which was, “I’m having a ball here, I can compete with these guys.” That’s what I try to do for young bands nowadays. If I hear something that’s really fantastic, I have to ring them up to say, “This is absolutely brilliant.” I think I tracked down Fountains of Wayne in Scandinavia. The guy from the Shins didn’t believe it was me [laughs].

“Madman Across the Water” Madman Across the Water (1971)

The Madman Across the Water album was the end of an era, the last record I made with session musicians. It was not commercial at all. I always think that we got shortchanged in my career. We took a chance on every album. We were making and writing serious fucking songs. “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” were the singles from the album – they didn’t do very well chartwise. “Tiny Dancer” is a complex song – it’s not easy to sing – but the album did brilliantly. This was the end of the three-piece era on the road, because we’d reached as far as we could go, and I decided to get a guitarist into the band. Davey Johnstone brought a new essence. The three of those voices were so symbolic of my records from that point onward. I was personally most connected to the title song.

“Rocket Man” Honky Château (1972)

The first huge single that I had. “Your Song” was a hit; “Rocket Man” was a big hit. It had an acoustic guitar on it, it was a different song for me – it was a simpler sound. I’d moved into a house, I was becoming successful, I was so confident, musically. Everything was to do with the music – touring, recording, radio interviews, photo shoots and “What are we going to do next?”

“Crocodile Rock” Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player was my first U.K. Number One album. It had “Daniel,” which was pure pop, but there were also songs like “Elderberry Wine” and “Teacher I Need You.” And of course it spawned “Crocodile Rock,” which was the song that probably changed the critics’ opinion of me. It was a really blatant homage to Speedy Gonzales and all the great Fifties and Sixties records that we used to love, like Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop.” My career wasn’t about “Crocodile Rock” – it was just a one-off thing – but it became a huge hit record, and in the long run, it became a negative for me, because people said, “Oh, fucking ‘Crocodile Rock.’ ” I’d never started off as a hit writer, and I didn’t know what a hit was, and it’s evidenced on my first four albums. Rolling Stone reviewed it and gave it two stars, and I said, “Oh, fuck off.” It was a great fucking pop record. Shut the fuck up.

“We All Fall in Love Sometimes” Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)

Another creative shift. Every lyric on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was about Bernie and me, about our experiences of being able to make songs and make it big. I cry when I sing this song, because I was in love with Bernie, not in a sexual way, but because he was the person I was looking for my entire life, my little soulmate. We’d come so far, and we were still very naive. I was gay by that time and he was married, but he was a person that, more than anything, I loved, and the relationship we had was so odd, because it was not tied at the hip. Thank God it wasn’t tied at the hip, because we wouldn’t have lasted. That relationship is the most important relationship of my entire life. In a way, years later, I ended up being Captain Fantastic and he ended up the Brown Dirt Cowboy: Here, I’m living my fabulous lifestyle, collecting paintings, and Bernie is interested in horses and bull riding and shit like that. We became those characters. Who was to know?

I wrote a lot of the songs on the SS France going from Southampton to New York. I took the band – Nigel and Davie came with me – and I wrote the songs on the lunch hour because the piano room was booked by an opera singer for most of the day.

“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is an obvious choice, because it was about me, but I wouldn’t necessarily pick that one. I like this one, and “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket” [from the record] too. The album was written in running order – from start to finish, it was a story – and at that point, the bravest album I’d made.

“Song for Guy” A Single Man (1978)

The first one I made without Taupin. Bernie and I never split up. But we were doing a lot of drugs and drinking heavily, and he was beginning to write with other people, which made me a little jealous, but I decided I’d write with some other people. We never discussed it, we just let it go, and it hurt. It hurt him and it hurt me, but we both had the resilience and the intelligence to know that if we didn’t let each other write with other people, it would be the end of our relationship.

My favorite track from A Single Man is “Song for Guy” – it was different, it was an instrumental, it was just me doing everything. It meant so much to me, that track. It was a huge record in England and everywhere else in the world, but it was my first single that didn’t make the Top 100 in the U.S. That was the reason I got bloody-minded and left MCA Records. I wanted­ to have an instrumental on the charts. They said, “You can’t.” So I said, “Fuck you, I’m joining Geffen.” In retrospect, that was a big mistake.

Elton John by George Rose - Getty Images

Elton John by George Rose – Getty Images

“Mama Can’t Buy You Love” The Thom Bell Sessions (1979)

A million-selling record that was only played on black radio. With “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Bennie and the Jets” and then “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” I had three Number One R&B rec­ords, which meant a huge deal to a white guy from Pinner. Producer Thom Bell was an idol of mine, and I was crazy about all that music from Philadelphia: Gamble and Huff, MFSB, the Three Degrees, the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass – come on! That era was so great, totally brilliant stuff, never dated.

“Elton’s Song” The Fox (1981)

I’m searching for a hit. At that point, with the record companies, you had to have a hit. And The Fox didn’t really have a hit. It was the first album I made for Geffen; it wasn’t a success. I was in good company – David Geffen also signed John Lennon and his record was a stiff until, unfortunately, he was shot, then it made the charts. It was a big slap in the face for me. Again, a lot of drugs involved, but “Elton’s Song” is so beautiful, and Tom Robinson’s lyric is so beautiful. It reminded me of the film If . . . ., by Lindsay Anderson. It was very homoerotic. I could imagine the boy that I wanted to be, on the parallel bars, swinging with his tight little outfit on and his bare feet. It was the first gay song that I actually recorded as a homosexual song. Rather than “All the Girls Love Alice,” it was the first boy-on-boy song I wrote – because Tom, of course, is a gay man, and we became great friends.

“I Saw Her Standing There” (with John Lennon) 28th November 1974 EP (1981)

What did John Lennon see in me? I think outrageousness and being true to myself and not giving a fuck. We hit it off straight away, even though I was in complete awe of him. He was nothing else but kind to me. I never saw the other side of John, the Harry Nilsson drinking side of John, where he’d turn on a sixpence. I only saw the gentle, gorgeous side of John, and he was gentle­ not only to me but my parents, my band members, and I just fell in love with him. I kind of brought him back, in a way, to performing, with the Madison Square Garden thing, because I did the bet with him about “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” and it got to Number One. He was petrified – he hadn’t performed in years – but he came. I’ve never forgotten, I’ve never heard an ovation for anybody that was so heartwarming, and it moved him. It was, like, an eight-minute standing ovation. He was physically sick before he came on, he re-met Yoko that night, it changed the course of his life again. And I had something to do with it. Maybe I was put into John’s life to reinstate him with Yoko.

We were so naughty together, we made music together, it was a huge thing for me to be able to play with him. We laughed our heads off. I can remember being stoned out of our mind on coke at the Sherry­Netherland hotel, and at 2:00 in the morning, there would be a knock on the door – of course, you know how paranoid you get on coke, you say, “Go to the door and look through the thing!” And it took me about five minutes to get the door because I was so paranoid, but it was Andy fucking Warhol! And I said, “It’s Andy Warhol,” and he said, “Don’t fucking let him in! He’ll have a camera and everything!” So we just waited for him to go away. Little things like that, crazy things like that. I would absolutely include “I Saw Her Standing There,” which he acknowledged that Paul had written, which was great.

“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” Too Low for Zero (1983)

Bernie was back on Too Low for Zero – we wrote everything on the album. Also, it was the first time I met Renate [Blauel, later to be his first spouse], because she was an engineer on that record. It really was a return to form. Even though “I’m Still Standing” was kind of an anthem, “Blues” is the one for me because it’s just a great song to sing. It’s timeless.

“I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That” Reg Strikes Back (1988)

Personally, I’m headed for the abyss. There didn’t seem to be a way out. I’m not the sort of person that should ever have taken a drug, because I don’t need it – I have enough speed in my body to deal with anything; I have enough enthusiasm. The only reason I liked taking cocaine was because it was an aphrodisiac for me, which for 99 percent of other people, it was not, but it just made me horny, so I liked taking it.

The ironic thing is, this was a hit single and a gold record. “I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That” is an uptempo song, for one, and it just worked perfectly. When I’m in the studio, I’m paying full attention, but on that album, I was out of control. I never took my personal stuff onstage, though. You have to divorce yourself from it. All great artists do that. Billie Holiday did it. Diana Ross did it. Otis Redding did it. Johnny Cash did it. Or, if you do take your personal stuff onstage, you do it to help you. You do it to make yourself more emotional. Judy Garland did that. But don’t do an Amy Winehouse. Don’t come onstage and ruin yourself. Come onstage and go with it, however sad you’re feeling. I’ve only got to see an audience, a piano and the band, and I’m off. Then I’ve got to come offstage and deal with it. But for two and a half hours, I’m transported to somewhere else.

“Club at the End of the Street” Sleeping With the Past (1989)

Sleeping With the Past was more of a drunken album than a drug album. It was the last album before rehab, but it was a good album, and I love “Club at the End of the Street.” We wanted to write a song like the Drifters would record, one of those Goffin-King, Brill Building songs. It’s the closest we ever got to one. By this time, I had known for years that my little run was up. I studied the charts, I’m a fan, and I know that people have their little time in the sun when they can do no wrong. It maybe lasts for five albums, six albums, and then someone else comes in, and in my case, it was Phil Collins, Madonna, Prince, U2, the Police, all those people. I knew I was good enough to maintain, because I’m a good live performer, but I said, “I’m not going to be Number One for all time” – and thank God, I had the common sense to know that. With people like Michael Jackson, when he said, “I want to sell more records than Thriller,” I thought, “You must be joking, you’re just setting yourself up for a fall, you can’t expect to do that.”

“The North” The One (1992)

I’m rehabbed. When did I know it was time? I knew subliminally in 1989, when I auctioned off all my stuff at Sotheby’s. My marriage had finished, I didn’t have a partner, I was miserable. I thought, “Right, I’m gonna cleanse myself of all these possessions for a start, and I’m gonna start making my house at Woodside into a real home instead of a fucking pop star’s house with gold records on the wall. I’m going to have a human life.” I was still taking drugs, but living a more humane life. Six months later, my partner at the time was in rehab in Arizona. I knew when I visited what was going to happen. He had a counselor, I had a counselor, we faced each other knee to knee, we wrote a list of what we thought was wrong with each other. My list was so puny – like, he didn’t put his CD covers back in the right place. He said I was a drug addict, a bulimic, a sex addict, a food addict, an overeater, an alcoholic. I said, “You know what? You’re absolutely right. I give in. I surrender.” I came out of rehab and, you know, it’s astonishing when you think of the chain of events. Everything came alive again. The hope. Everything. Music never left my side.

Sobriety allows you to let things go. I’ve had so many things happen to me in sobriety that normally would have freaked me out: the turmoil of having to break up with my manager, having money stolen, stuff like that. Sobriety lets you focus on the now and not the past, and I’ve never had any regrets. Since I got sober, nothing bad has happened to me. Things happen, you fall out with people, but I’ve been given the tools to deal with it, and I’ve had the luck of having David [Furnish] as a great partner to help me deal with it, and good business people. I love my life now. I loved my life before, I just didn’t know how to live it.

I went to Paris to make The One, and it was a strange experience. I was used to making records under the haze of alcohol or drugs, and here I was, 100 percent sober, so it was tough. But I managed to come up with a good song, which was the title of the record. “The North” I love a lot; that’s my favorite song without question. Then, of course, afterward, The Lion King came along and all hell broke loose.

“Circle of Life” The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King changed my life. It gave me the opportunity to write for the stage. It gave me more strings to my bow. After The Lion King, I wrote Aida, I wrote Billy Elliot, and I wrote The Vampire Lestat – four stage musicals. Up until that point, I was just doing records, videos and touring. Of course, nobody knew it was going to be this big. I’m so proud to be involved in it, and I have Tim Rice to thank for it. He phoned me up and said, “Disney said you won’t do it,” and I said, “Of course I’ll do it, it’s a great story.” It was a wonderful experience working with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Tim, and Bernie gave me his blessing – there wasn’t any jealousy or anything like that. I don’t often play the songs from it live, because they don’t really fit in, but I do play “Circle of Life” because it’s a brilliant lyric. It’s really the song that should have won the Oscar, but “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” did. I’m not complaining.

“Original Sin” Songs From the West Coast (2001)

Hearing Ryan Adams’ album Heartbreaker was a seminal point for this part of my career. I just fell in love with him and that record. And I had the great fortune of doing Songs From the West Coast with producer Pat Leonard. He got my idea and simplified the record, and made me work with other musicians. I have to say that one of the biggest regrets of my life is that I’ve not fallen out, but I’ve drifted away from Pat. I feel very ungrateful to Pat that I didn’t make another record with him. We were so close on that record, he shifted me so much in the direction that I wanted to go. “Original Sin” is one of the best songs I’ve ever written.

“Gone to Shiloh” (with Leon Russell) The Union (2010)

The album before this, The Captain & the Kid, was the lost gem of my life. It was telling the continuing story of us, Bernie and Elton, now. I cared so deeply about it, because it was so personal and such a really good record. I was so furious with Interscope Records because they put it out and they dropped it. I had meetings in the South of France, and I said, “I know this isn’t a commercial album, I just want you to do your best,” and they dropped it like a fucking turd. It’s probably why I didn’t make another solo record. It was pure heartbreak.

I was so disillusioned. If it hadn’t been for Leon Russell, I wouldn’t have gone back into the studio – a chance call to Leon, just to see how he was doing and to thank him for all he did for me as a young artist, turned into one of the greatest experiences of my life. “Gone to Shiloh” is a song that feels like a movie – it was a pivotal moment for the record I did with Leon, The Union, and a pivotal moment for us as writers.

When I heard the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss record Raising Sand, I noticed T Bone Burnett again. I’d heard all the Elvis Costello records he’d produced and I loved them, but Raising Sand was such a simple record, and it made me want to work with him. When the Leon thing came up, he was the first person I thought of, and we started this relationship, which has gotten so strong that I can’t really see me recording with anybody else. It’s the beginning of a new beginning.

“My Quicksand” The Diving Board (2013)

When I did “My Quicksand,” I thought, “That’s the best track I’ve ever recorded, right there.” Pianowise, vocal­wise, everything about it. I’ve never played the piano like that on a record before – the solo was improvised. It’s just a very musical moment that I was very proud of on this record. I knew that I’d moved forward – this is the kind of song that I never thought I’d be singing when I started out. My days of making pop records like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, they were when I was younger. I’m not that guy anymore. I’m this guy. It’s the most honest rec­ord I’ve ever made.

I’m at a stage where I want to give back as much as I can. It’s all kind of unexplainable, you know. There was this little boy, not the normal prototype; there was no one else like me in rock. I got stuck on the piano. And I think people realize that I genuinely appreciate their love and affection and their loyalty. It’s so fucking joyous after all this time. I wasn’t always comfortable in my own skin. They were with me when I didn’t know who I was. I’m just so grateful, and this is the music I want to make. This is the very best I can do.

Courtesy of Rolling Stone – Cameron Crowe – October, 2013

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