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17 September 2023

Bernie Taupin: good lyricist, bad writer

The songs he wrote with Elton John may be works of art. His bloated memoir is not.

By Jude Rogers

A book’s epigram says a lot about its author. Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyrical partner for most of the last 55 years, chooses two for the beginning of his whirligig memoir. The first is from one of his songs, but not “Rocket Man”, “Your Song”, “Bennie and the Jets”, or any primed to prompt waves of cigarette lighters or mobile phone screens at stadium shows. Instead, Taupin picks “Last Stand in Open Country”, a track he co-wrote for his American roots side-project, Farm Dogs. “I was looking for America in a Western movie/Saw a young gunslinger with something to prove.” The other is from Isaiah chapter 30, verse 15: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Together they suggest that this memoir isn’t concerned with humility or relatability. Then there’s a preface that reads like an exercise in expectation management (“What people want isn’t always what I can provide”), and Taupin writing that his songs should be treated like motion pictures or modern art, but also that he doesn’t remember much. All of which raises a question: why should we want to read about his life?

The main reason arrived several Christmases ago: Elton John’s autobiography, Me (written with the assistance of Guardian head rock and pop critic, Alexis Petridis). A barnstormer of a book and, unsurprisingly, a bestseller, it was stuffed to the gills with gossipy, high-octane tales of drugs, sex, celebrities and memorable scenes such as those on his private jet, Starship One, in the early 1970s, equipped with a fake fireplace, a brand new video recorder (on which his mother watches Deep Throat) and an organ at which Stevie Wonder pops up to play him “Happy Birthday”. It was also very funny.

[See also: Muna’s anti-capitalist pop]

Behind that star in the outrageous glasses and outfits was the shadowy figure of John’s writing partner. Taupin has never enjoyed being in the limelight, but we get some of his story here. The middle of three sons born in rural Lincolnshire to a culture-loving mother (who lived her life vicariously through her son, he later adds) and a farm-manager father, Taupin failed his eleven-plus, left school at 15, then worked at a printing factory and a poultry farm. In June 1967, he answered an NME advert from a company looking for songwriters. So did Reg Dwight, a 20-year-old piano player from Pinner.

Those expecting Scattershot to be full of revelations about Elton, however, will be disappointed. The only notable one involves Reg putting a hand on Bernie’s thigh early on in their friendship, a move that is warmly brushed off, never happens again, and leaves Taupin not even “remotely disturbed”.

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Scattershot is a ragbag of random anecdotes, jolting to and fro across time and written in quite extraordinary style. At times, Taupin seems aware of its verbosity: his letter replying to the NME advert was “fantastic codswallop… flowery purple prose”. Elsewhere, it’s hard to know whether he is being self-deprecating or serious. Of his wannabe days, he writes: “I was so desperate to be thought of as the embodiment of a worldly versifier.” On the evidence of this book, he still is.

Taupin begins with the duo’s early writing sessions together, many in the Dwight family flat where Taupin lived with Elton in 1967 and 1969 (with a brief gap in Furlong Road, Islington, in 1968, where Elton staged a suicide attempt that Taupin wrote about in the 1975 single “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”).

Lengthy sentences carry us along. Taupin doesn’t say people patronised him when he started out but instead: “From certain parties, I encountered a relative level of condescension from our small but urban enclave of workhorses.” He didn’t come from a place far from London but “inhabited a fanciful world, countrified and over five hours away from his groovy fiefdom”. The tone veers between PG Wodehouse without the irony and Alan Partridge – the latter especially in this sentence: “I had… taken up with the diminutive English pop singer Lynsey de Paul.” Often, it’s as if Taupin has not so much swallowed a dictionary as regurgitated a thesaurus.

The songs begin with Taupin, who sends John words to set to music (their most recent album was in 2016, but Taupin has said in a recent interview that there is new material in the works). It’s useful to remember that some of Taupin’s lyrics, which look clunky written down, become memorable when they’re married with melodies: the deeply weird “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no…” from “Your Song”; the oddly flatulent “Laughing like children/Living like lovers/Rolling like thunder/Under the covers” from “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”. The printed page, however, works differently.

[See also: Bruce Springsteen and the spectre of stardom]

Nevertheless, Taupin is a bookish man, quoting Homer and Hemingway, reminding us that “Rocket Man” was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi stories. Christopher Isherwood mistakenly rings his doorbell in LA (looking for Taupin’s neighbour Michael York, who is filming Cabaret), then Taupin spots Graham Greene, who he loves, at London’s Savoy. He relates this in a seven-page anecdote; his keenness to extract meaning from Greene’s every expression is both strangely sweet and buttock-clenchingly awkward.

Details about individual songs are rare but welcome. John and Taupin’s first number one, the 1976 duet with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, was “not bad for ten minutes of drunken scribbling”. “Candle in the Wind” (1973) was originally inspired by Montgomery Clift, who co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in John Huston’s The Misfits. Taupin, who is obsessed with the American West and dreams of being a cowboy, is drawn to Clift, “possibly due to his rodeo chops and the fact that he cowboy’d up while Monroe’s character stereotypically whined about animal cruelty”. Both film stars died within a few years of the movie’s release – for Taupin they were “charismatic and beautiful creatures impervious to the ravages of age” – but he pragmatically “decided Marilyn was more iconically recognisable”.

Elsewhere, Taupin recalls watching at a Texas hotel the quiz show Jeopardy, where one of the categories is Elton John’s Lyrics. His score underlines his odd relationship with his songs: “I only got two right.”

The book’s main source of momentum is its starry encounters, Elton being “a proverbial magnet for an oasis of cultural and exalted personages”. Not many are thrilling, though. Taupin was great friends with Freddie Mercury, who took him to “dens of iniquity that had seriously tested the mettle of my broad mind”, but that’s all we hear. Many meetings go on far too long, with few fireworks (John Lennon, Salvador Dalí).

Better tales include the Queen Mother going round to Elton’s for tea (“she could easily be your quirky old granny, a fact made more so by her lipstick-smudged teeth and chipped nail polish”), and when Taupin is asked to meet Frank Sinatra, also for tea (Taupin’s expression is “a combined blend of glazed adulation and obsequious terror”). There are also details of his various affairs and four marriages (his most recent, which has brought him two daughters, is reaching the 20-year mark). More refreshing is his lifelong attitude towards rock stars having sex with underage girls. “When you’re 28 and dating a 14-year-old, don’t try to blame it on the way it was back then. In any era it would be a fractured judgement call, tantamount to cradle robbing; it’s indecent and degenerate.”

My favourite moments come towards the end of the book: first in the late 1980s, when John and Taupin are spending time together after working at the glamorous Air Studios on the Caribbean island of Montserrat: “Elton being Elton (intoxicated and possibly as high as Saturn), he tried to drown me,” Taupin begins. He explains that the pair have had “jousting tournaments” for years, going back to their early days as friends, when Elton “took great pleasure in placing a hot teaspoon on the back of my hand at any given opportunity” or farting silently in cars to gauge his friend’s reaction. At one point a playful slap from Elton (now “built like a proverbial shithouse”) nearly knocks his partner to the ground. I sensed the playful boys in these recollections, still daft behind the miasma of stardom and money.

Taupin’s reaction to watching Princess Diana’s funeral is also oddly moving. He’s in a New York hotel, waiting for his friend to play the updated version of “Candle in the Wind” that Taupin had to adapt in half an hour. He cries “for the wrong reasons”, he writes, “my focus solely on my friend’s burden. I can only imagine how harrowing it must have been to perform at the axis of this sentimental tsunami not only carrying his grief but simply to hold himself together.” And then he writes six simple words, which say so much more than the others. “I was immensely proud of him.”

Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me
Bernie Taupin
Monoray, 320pp, £25

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[See also: Bob Dylan’s problem with women]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers