by Trevor Moore
Elton John, Macmillan, 2019, ISBN 978 1509 853311, 376pp
One of the benefits of being my age is that I was a teenager in the 1960s and in my twenties in the 1970s. As a result, as I once saw on a T-shirt, I got to see all the good artists and bands before they got old. Two piano-playing artists stand out and these two artists share in common that they released spectacularly brilliant first albums that few bought, and fewer still now recall. One of these two is Billy Joel whose Cold Spring Harbour (the predecessor to Piano Man) contains some of the finest songs ever crafted. I appreciate that I am waxing lyrical here, but I am right about this. I am equally right about the second of these piano-playing artists. I had Elton John’s Empty Sky which I put on cassette and I reckon I wore it out playing it in the car.
I must say here, lest I am beset with protests from any one of my children, that the classically trained piano-playing Warren Zevon’s eponymous first album (released a couple of years before Excitable Boy) is perhaps equally brilliant and under-rated. On the other hand, Jackson Browne, another piano player, is less under-rated with his equally brilliant debut Saturate Before Using. But I am rambling and getting away from the subject at hand, which is to tell you about the Elton John book, entitled simply Me. Elton was never one to be backward in coming forward and Me is as good a title as any.
I knew this book was due for publication on 15 October 2019 but had not expected that the marketing people at MacMillan were sufficiently on the ball to get copies into Janice’s shop in Moruya on the following day. I thought “what the hell? you never know” and popped in and lo and behold there it was. I also picked up Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman which was shortlisted for the Booker. Regular readers of my scratchings will know that I have a rule that you cannot buy but one book at a time; you need at least two. At just over a thousand pages you may be waiting awhile before I get around to reviewing Ellman’s book which I have seen described as a “stream of consciousness”. But again, I am rambling.
I am not rambling because I want to avoid telling you about the Elton John book. Far from it. I was due to fly to Hobart and took it with me. I started reading it in the lounge at Canberra airport and I was only a handful of pages from the end when I landed in Hobart some few hours later. It is a ripping read that is in turns hilarious, jaw-dropping, sad and reflective. The book is, of course, ghost-written. Its ghost-writer is Alexis Petridis (who wasn’t born until 1971 when Elton’s fifth (yes, really) album Madman Across The Water was released). There’s a combination of capabilities going on here. First there is the capability of Elton John to be self-deprecating and lacerating of others (Keith Richard is an “arthritic monkey” and Madonna “looks like a fairground stripper”). Of course, although he appears to be very honest and forthright in the narrative, one never knows what has been left out and whether the story has been adjusted to fit the required recollection; we all tell our life story how we would like it to be rather than how it necessarily was.
But the Elton John story would not have been told as it has been here without a good ghost-writer. I enjoyed Keith Richard’s LIfe (2011), Pete Townshend’s Who I Am (2013) and Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace (also 2013) but I could not have read (and indeed did not read) any of them in a couple of days. That I could read the Elton John book so quickly is due in large part to Alex Petridis who is the head rock and pop critic for The Guardian. The story races along for there is much to tell. The early part of the book, which deals with Elton’s rise to fame until the almost inevitable substance abuse and addiction (that seem to be a stock-in-trade for genius rock ’n’ roll stars) kicked in. This part of the book is almost unrelentingly funny and had me at times laughing aloud possibly to the bemusement of my fellow passengers on the plane. I had reached this midway point by the time I was waiting for the Hobart flight in Melbourne and a man and leaned over and asked me how I was enjoying it. I counselled him to buy the book immediately. He wondered how the book compared to the recent biographical musical film Rocketman. No doubt you are wondering this too.
I think that Rocketman suffered from being released too soon after Bohemian Rhapsody. Although Bohemian Rhapsody played fast and loose with the chronology of the events it portrayed, it was a first-class film. Rocketman was not quite so well made and coming so soon on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody the two were bound to be compared. But in Elton’s case the book is better than the film. And of course, Elton talks about his relationship with Freddie Mercury though it’s difficult to know how close they really were. He seems to have some sort of relationship or connection with almost anyone famous. He tells a story about Groucho Marx signing a Marx Brothers film poster “to Elton John from Marx Groucho” because Groucho “couldn’t understand why my name was, as he put it, ‘the wrong way around’”. Then he goes on to say that “when I got my knighthood … that’s how the Lord Chamberlain announced me to the Queen: ‘Sir John Elton’”. But it seems he also knew the Queen so that was probably alright in the end. On his connections with royalty he once invited the Queen Mother to lunch and decided to surprise his grandmother by saying that there was someone that he would like her to meet and could she come to lunch. His grandmother, as they say, was not amused at the surprise. The royalty with whom he is most associated of course is Diana, Princess of Wales and he tells movingly of the challenges of rewriting (Bernie Taupin rewrote the lyrics overnight) and rehearsing Candle In The Wind. He also tells how he managed to cope with the emotion of the event in front of an audience of 2 billion people.
The second part of the book is more reflective than the first part and there is less humour in it. He deals with his drug and alcohol abuse and describes the rehab process. Although it’s sometimes confronting, not surprisingly, it’s still interspersed with humour. Quite how he made any music at all when he was under the influence is a mystery to me and I get the feeling that it’s a mystery to him. In fact, though he did make music he does say that the “coke had precisely the impact on my creative judgement as you might expect. I stuck any old crap on Leather Jackets.” Later he says that “there was no getting round the fact that, overall, Leather Jackets had four legs and a tail and barked if a postman came to the door.” He was functioning while on coke but not very well. Perhaps I had listened to Leather Jackets on its release in 1986 but I could not remember it. It’s there on Spotify but I do not recommend it. He seems now, at least, to take the critics in his stride. He looks back to one review that referred to “a sickening piece of corrupt slop” but then says that “not all the critics enjoyed it as much as that.” Of course, we cannot know how much of that was in the original telling and how much was in the ghost-writing, But ultimately Elton did approve it all.
The last chapters of the book deal largely with his relationship, civil partnership and eventual marriage to David Furnish. He describes the relationship in a way that leaves you thinking that David Furnish must be a patient man indeed. His description of how he realised, fairly late in life in his sixties, that he wanted children makes for interesting reading. Those few of you who are addicted to the BBC’s long-running series The Archers will understand a little of the process of surrogacy by which gay couples can have children. Elton John describes the process and by the time there are two children from the same surrogate you get the sense that he has settled down and is probably quite a nice fellow. Pretty wealthy and more successful than most of us but if you sat next to him at a Watford Football Club match (which he briefly owned) then you would probably have a good match companion.
If you have any interest in rock music, then you will certainly enjoy this book. It’s well-written with a solid narrative and contains a litany of characters that made late 20th century culture what it was. I am sure Janice has a heap of them waiting for you. Go now and invest in it.