“I’ve done gigs dressed as a woman,” recalls Elton John, “a cat, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, a Ruritanian general, a musketeer, a pantomime dame and, very occasionally, a normal human being.” When Reg Dwight from Pinner was transforming himself into the biggest pop star on the planet, dignity wasn’t always a major concern, and it isn’t in this bracingly open and spectacularly funny autobiography, either.
So, the mock 18th-century wig the author wears for his 60th birthday party is so towering that he has to be transported to the venue in the back of a furniture van. The van then gets stuck in traffic for over an hour. When he goes to collect his knighthood at Buckingham Palace, the Lord Chamberlain announces him to the Queen as “Sir John Elton”. He leaves a clinic with his scalp tenderised after a hair transplant, and promptly bangs the top of his head getting into his car. It’s around this period of maximum hair-loss trauma that his beloved old pal and fierce rival Rod Stewart gleefully sends him a sit-under salon hair-dryer.
Of course, in the background to all this frolicking, John and Bernie Taupin spent most of the Seventies and Eighties prodigiously and permanently expanding the standard repertoire of popular song, but this book isn’t particularly interested in how they managed it. We learn that, handed a new lyric by Taupin, Elton gives it 40 minutes or so and if a tune isn’t happening, he moves on. Some of the best-loved melodies of the modern era seem to have taken Elton only slightly longer to compose than to sing. Certainly, earnestness rarely seems to have come into it. On holiday in Barbados, he and Taupin dash off two songs – the international smash hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and another number called “I’m Always on the Bonk”.
Stay, though, for the premium celebrity tittle-tattle. Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone squabble over Princess Diana in the corridor at Elton’s house in Windsor. The Queen Mother drops in for lunch. Michael Jackson appears for dinner with an incomplete nose. In a definitively English scene, Elton finds himself at Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle, on the dancefloor with Princess Anne and the Queen, moving decorously to “Rock Around the Clock”, which is being played at such a low volume that it can barely be heard above the shuffling of feet.
Elsewhere, practically everyone who is anyone in rock jumps briefly but revealingly into view. At a party at home in Los Angeles, Elton is affronted to see the gardener helping himself to the drink and then realises that it’s Bob Dylan. Elton buys John Lennon a cuckoo clock wherein the part of the emerging cuckoo is played by a wooden penis. He also sends Lennon an utterly withering parody of “Imagine”, recalibrated to acknowledge John and Yoko’s significant real-estate holdings in the Dakota Building: “Imagine six apartments/It isn’t hard to do/One is full of fur coats/The other’s full of shoes.” Somehow their friendship survives.
With equally beguiling unguardedness, Elton meditates on his epic temper and monumental unreasonableness, traits inherited, he suggests, from his mother, although he seems to have put his own unique spin on them. The legend that he once rang his office in a rage and asked his people to do something about the wind outside his hotel room is cheerfully confirmed. On the night of his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he is made apocalyptically angry by something and storms back to his hotel. Then, in a sudden fit of remorse, he returns to the venue, only to become apocalyptically angry again and walk out for a second time. Back at the hotel, remorse again descends and Elton once more departs for the venue, only for anger to consume him yet again and oblige him to leave. This goes on for most of the evening.
Clearly these are lessons in rock-star behaviour from one of the original pioneers of the concept. Elton’s outlandish impulse-buys include a full-scale fibreglass Tyrannosaurus Rex which once belonged to Ringo and a tram which once belonged to the city of Melbourne and has to be gingerly lowered into Elton’s garden by helicopter. Apparently you know your shopping habit has got out of hand when you can’t get on to your squash court because it is wedged tight with unopened packages. And you know your cocaine habit has got out of hand when somebody wakes you in a Cannes hotel suite and invites you to witness the destruction you have wrought in a nearby room – destruction you have no memory whatsoever of wreaking.
This, from the Eighties, turns out to be the first of a series of moments of self-disgust, unsparingly recounted, which eventually inspire Elton to clean up, to settle down a bit, have children, and slip at least part-way free of the self-obsession that is rock stardom’s traditional counterpart and which doesn’t tend to produce books as riotously entertaining as this one.
There is no tidy reconciliation at the end, alas, with Elton’s mother, now deceased, who seemed to have no issue with him being gay and promiscuous, but did have a problem with him marrying and settling down with somebody he loved. On the morning of Elton’s wedding to David Furnish, she “turned up in character as a sociopath”, sat outside in the car for a while and then pointedly drove away.
In the main, though, perhaps this heroic volume’s most uplifting lesson is that, with a clear head and enough will, major tiffs with almost anyone can be overcome – even Tina Turner, who ignites a huge firestorm by telling Elton that he looks fat in Versace and that he can’t play “Proud Mary” properly. Yet she later spends a happy time at his house in Nice and leaves a lipstick kiss in the visitors’ book. For a follow-up, the publishers could do worse than reproduce Elton’s visitors’ books. Who wouldn’t want to read those?
Macmillan, 384pp, £25
This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state