Elton John, Lonely at the Top: Rolling Stone's 1976 Cover Story

'My life in the last six years has been a Disney film and now I have to have a person in my life,' John told RS

Photograph by David Nutter
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Elton John walked shyly into the corner room of his sprawling suite on the tenth floor of the Sherry-Nether-land Hotel in New York, delivered a bone-crushing handshake and assumed the middle of a white sofa. He rarely does interviews and when his eyes, behind blue-tinted glasses, look away, they reveal his discomfort. His show in Madison Square Garden the night before (August 17th), with its dancing bananas and flying trousers, was the big finish to a sellout 16-day swing through the East and, by report, marked his farewell to the road for a long time, maybe even for good.

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"It was a pretty weird night, a very sad occasion, I must say. It came to the point where I sang 'Yellow Brick Road' and I thought, 'I don't have to sing this anymore,' and it made me quite happy inside." He sighed and ran a finger along the coffee table edge. "Yeah, it could be the last gig forever. I'm definitely not retiring but I want to put my energies elsewhere for a while. Y'know, I feel really strange at this particular point in time. I always do things by instinct and I just know it's time to cool it; I mean, who wants to be a 45-year-old entertainer in Las Vegas like Elvis?"

This article appeared in the October 7, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

Five days earlier, Elton had taken over the DJ's chair at a radio station here to blast critics for reviews that quibbled with his popularity and lack of musical significance. He attacked John Rockwell of the New York Times with special relish, on-air calling him an "asshole." And what had set him off that day?

"One glass of Dom Perignon. I was drunk and feeling goosey. I just thought, 'Oh Christ, what an outrage.'" He shot an unsure glance my way, then returned his eyes to the coffee table. "Really took over, didn't I? Don't remember half the things I said. I doubt if John Rockwell was even at the concert. It was the most piss elegant review I've ever seen: 'Performers come and go but we rock critics who have to deal with them... .' I thought, 'Who the fuck is John Rockwell!'"

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Everyone said how shy Elton would be. But, always the consummate recording expert, he played to my tape machine on the table so that later the playback was warm, lively, fun. No hint on it that Elton barely stirred from his spot on the sofa, or rarely looked this way. It is some flip side of his personality that gets him to boogieing atop white pianos in spangles and feathers.

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But by the time two Perrier waters were delivered to us, the talk had loosened up — considerably. We ranged freely over sensitive matters, loss of privacy, his sex life, love frustrations and the paradoxical kind of isolation felt by very popular entertainers.

What do you do hiding here in a hotel suite all these weeks?
"Dusting, Hoovering, polishing ... ha ha. [Elton has a ready chuckle.] Naw. I go to bed after a show. I'm not one to go clubbing. I used to but I'm too tired now and usually just play records or watch TV. I went dancing one night at 12 West [a downtown members-only gay disco] and that was great fun. Everyone left me alone. They were so into their disco records and passing their poppers. If the Queen of England had been standing in the middle of the floor with a tiara on her head, nobody would have paid any attention."

Is the band breaking up?
"The split is completely amicable. [Sigh, finger along the table again] It's silly keeping them under contract for a year, because, ah, I might never work again. On the other hand I might, but I don't want them hanging on, or any restrictions around my neck. I can foresee when I come back, we'll get together again. But now they'll all be going off doing their own thing, forming their ... I don't know what they'll be doing. But I'm sure they won't be inactive."

Neither will he. After a dignified solo piano concert ("possibly in tails") at the Edinburgh Cultural Festival September 17th, he says, he will resettle his house in Windsor, near London, and get down to a full plate. As he polishes off Blue Moves, a double album for November release, he will produce an album for Kiki Dee. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin. are putting together a fulllength cartoon feature of their autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and there is talk of his playing the title role in a projected film version of Candide, the recent Broadway musical. And he will be looking after the Watford Hornets Soccer Club of which he is a fan and the proud director.

I remind him that five years ago he said nobody stays on top more than three years, and that he planned to quit working hard while he was ahead.

Are you at that point?
"Yes, there has been a peaking. Every artist comes to the same crossroads and they either cross it or they don't, and if they do they're going to come to another crossroads. I'm at that second one as far as recordings go, and hopefully I can cross it with Blue Moves. It's got a few surprises. Melodically I attribute it to the Elton John album. Lots of slow, romantic songs. and jazzy-type tinges in there. Three instrumental. But who knows, I'm not worried. That's the fun of it."

Have you included disco pop like "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"?
"No, no way. That's a complete one-off single. I was messing around in the studio one day on the electric piano and came up with the title line. I made a hasty phone call to Barbados and said, 'Write a duet,' and Taupin nearly died 'cause he'd never done one. It's very hard anyway."

Bernie and Elton wrote the current Number One single under the names "Ann Orson" and "Carte Blanche," with Elton for the first time doing part of the lyrics.

"I'd like to branch out into words. I never had the emotion in me to get it to sound right, but I think it's beginning to come. I used to be terribly 'moon' and 'June.' I've encouraged Bernie to work with other composers too, why not?"

There was a decline in sales of his last two albums. Elton, the marketing man: "Fantastic did about 2.8 million [units sold]. Rock of the Westies about 1.9 million. Here and There, the live album — a total fuckin' disaster — was to finish off a contract and it's done better than it deserved to, oh, about 860,000 copies. I think a lot of people liked the old band — Nigel and Dee really had their fans — but I don't regret Westies one instant. Fantastic was an easy thing to market and was selling well. Westies came out very soon afterward; but I knew I was taking a bit of a gamble and it was like, oh, here comes another Elton John album! [laughs] So soon. A lot of critics said it didn't have much depth to it and probably it doesn't have much depth to it. I kinda like it. Greatest Hits is on the charts still. I think it's 5 million now.

"'Bennie and the Jets' did about 2.8 million, and there's very few singles selling 2 million. 'Philadelphia Freedom' did 1.7, I think. Those two crossed over R & B..."

Talk of album grosses gives me a sense of déjà vu — it's something to do with this room we're sitting in. What is it? Elton is hunched forward, elbows to knees, feeling much better now, talking into the mike as funny little likenesses of his face watch us from a dozen gewgaws around the room. They are handmade gifts sent by fans, propped up on the mantle and tabletops: Elton smiling in oil and in tempera, Elton singing in Crayola and needlepoint, Elton carved in — then it comes to me. I'd been here in Suite 1005 before, a few times during the period David Bowie came to America for his Diamond Dogs tour and camped out in these six rooms leased by Main-Man, his production company, for one year at $60,000.

MainMan's mysterious chairman, Tony De Fries (whom Bowie later broke with amid injunctions and lawsuits), liked to sit at the windows on Fifth Avenue, enthroned behind a fake Louis XIV table, phoning transatlantic and spouting his grosses. Cherry Vanilla, the porn poetess, liked the floor by the fireplace. Mick Jagger supposedly liked the Plaza across the street but he and Bowie sat where Elton now sits and giggled about him, about "Fat Reg," the session musician they knew of from the early days in London. Currently, Bowie appears to be trying to start up a feud in Playboy, admitting in an interview that he had referred to Elton as "the Liberace, the token queen of rock." Says Bowie, "I consider myself responsible for a whole new school of pretensions — they know who they are. Don't you, Elton?"

Elton: "He was obviously a little high when he did it. David's one of those people of the moment. I mean, what is the fashion this week? What's it going to be next week? His insults to me go by the board. I think he's a silly boy."

What's a "new school of pretensions"?
"I've no idea. God, I mean, I happened before he ever happened. Bowie's a little crazed, I think. I didn't understand half the things he came out with. Heavy things about 'the rock scene,' y'know? Boring shit.

"I first met David when I took him out to dinner when he was Ziggy Stardust. We had a nice time, y'know? He was with Angie and I was with Tony King, who's now with Rocket Records. And all I remember is his horrible manager walking in with half the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar and they all had dinner and left me to pay the bill. I had the feeling then that David was in for a hard time. [Meaningful glance]

"The only other time we met was at Dino Martin's party when I was with John Lennon and David was so stoned that I don't think he remembers. He was out of it completely. I don't think I've seen him since. We really can't say we have a feud going, although he obviously doesn't like me very much. I'm not being bitchy, I just think ..."

A stout chambermaid had come silently into the room and stood over the coffee table, taking her time buffing empty ashtrays. Noticing this, Elton stopped in midsentence and grinned, then cocked his head in a way that said, "Get her? Eavesdropping on el rock & roll star, eh?"

Elton, I hear you can't get any peace or privacy in New York anymore... The buffing stopped.
"Yeah, that's part of the reason I'm getting out. I mean stopping concerts for a while. I'm getting so cheesed off. [Exit maid. We laugh.] A couple of years ago I could deal with three or four fans outside the hotel and walk off down Lexington Avenue. Now it's impossible. I can't cope. I don't want to end up my life like Elvis. I want to be somebody who's active and involved with people and that means going outside. I've been stuck in this hotel for two weeks and it's driving me cra-zee. I even tried disguises but I have one of those faces and it just doesn't work. I went to an amusement park on the tour and 15 people surrounded me for protection. I felt like the Pope."

Were you really slammed against the wall at a Shirley MacLaine concert?
"No, that happened when Divine took me to Crisco Disco. [Divine is the name of a well-fed drag queen who acts in underground films and Crisco Disco is a Manhattan gay bar, so named for the frying oil which is also a popular sexual lubricant.] We went in and they looked at us. [He demonstrates with his open-mouth trademark leer.] Everyone in New York wears jeans or fatigues and I had on a striped jacket and the guys said, 'What the fuck is this, Halloween?' We couldn't get in so I was a bit high and really pissed off, and I threw an ashtray. Anyway it was printed in the London Daily Mail that I was pushed against a wall and got beaten up and caused a fuss. But at the Shirley MacLaine concert, photographers knocked over an old lady and trod on her to get to me. I'm really, really cheesed off at all this. People say, 'Well, fucking hell, he created the problem himself, didn't he?' Yes, I did because I was too silly not to see it would get to these proportions. I mean, I never wanted to do this in the first place. I only wanted to be a songwriter... ."

He leaned back in the sofa for a moment, studying me with his big, shortsighted eyes. There are certain questions I'd promised myself I'd ask.

Can we get personal? Should we turn off the tape?
"Keep going… ."

What about Elton when he comes home at night? Does he have love and affection?
"Not really. I go home and fall in love with my vinyl... . I suppose I have a certain amount of love and affection as far as 'affection' goes. From friends and stuff. My sexual life? Um, I haven't met anybody I would like to have any big scenes with. It's strange that I haven't. I know everyone should have a certain amount of sex, and I do, but that's it, and I desperately would like to have an affair. I crave to be loved. That's the part of my life I want to have come together in the next two or three years and it's partly why I'm quitting the road. My life in the last six years has been a Disney film and now I have to have a person in my life. I have to — Let me be brutally honest about myself. I get depressed easily. Very bad moods. I don't think anyone knows the real me. I don't even think I do.

"I don't know what I want to be exactly. I'm just going through a stage where any sign of affection would be welcome on a sexual level. I'd rather fall in love with a woman eventually because I think a woman probably lasts much longer than a man. But I really don't know. I've never talked about this before. Ha, ha. But I'm not going to turn off the tape. I haven't met anybody that I would like to settle down with — of either sex."

You're bisexual?
"There's nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex. I think everybody's bisexual to a certain degree. I don't think it's just me. It's not a bad thing to be. I think you're bisexual. I think everybody is."

You haven't said it in print before.
"Probably not. [Laughs] It's going to be terrible with my football club. It's so hetero, it's unbelievable. But I mean, who cares! I just think people should be very free with sex — they should draw the line at goats. Shirley MacLaine said the right thing to Tom Snyder on TV. She said, 'Oh c'mon, Tom. Let's stop all this stupid macho business. It really is a bit passé now.' And he didn't know what to say to that. Shirley's got the right approach."

A TV set by the fireplace has been on all afternoon, with the sound off. Betty Ford and Tony Orlando are doing the Bump. "Extraordinary," Elton says.

Elton was speaking cheerfully, no hesitating, as if it's all finally a relief.

Was the first experience a man or woman?
"Um, when I was 21, with a woman. The famous one."

Who?
"The famous woman... ."

Oh, the "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" woman. And how soon after that the first man?
"Um. The famous woman frightened me off sex for so long that I don't remember really. I think it was probably a good year or two."

People have speculated that Elton and Bernie Taupin had been lovers.

"No, absolutely not. Everybody thinks we were, but if we had been, I don't think we would have lasted for so long. We're more like brothers than anything else. The press probably thought John Reid [his manager] and I were an affair, but there's never been a serious person the whole time. Nobody really. And it's very dangerous to have relationships within the circle you work in. It's too close for comfort. Bernie's whole situation is up in the air as well."

A lot of readers will go, Wow.
"Well, I don't think so, there shouldn't be too much reaction but you probably know those things better than me. Nobody's had the balls to ask me about it before. I would have said something all along if someone had asked me, but I'm not going to come out and say something just to be — I do think my personal life should be personal. I don't want to shove it over the front pages like some people I could mention. To be on the front of newspapers with my tongue down somebody's throat. That's really appalling. I'd like to have some children, but I don't know if the time is right. I just want to settle down and sort of be lazy for a while. There are a couple people back in England. I do have a crush on somebody but I can't say who it is, somebody I met two or three times who is American. Yes, I think she told me that she's American. She has children but I go for older women. Listen, Miss MacLaine would do me fine but she's already happily set up."

Tinkly sounds of a pinball machine, that started a minute ago from the dining room, stop now. John Reid, Elton's manager, puts his head in the door. "When you're ready... ." he says brightly.

"Awright," says Elton in a Bugs Bunny falsetto. Sighing and removing his glasses, he rubs his weary eyes and then, for the first time, turns to level them squarely on his visitor. Without glasses, they're blue.

"But getting back to this personal thing of meeting someone — as soon as someone tries to find out about me or tries to get to know me, I turn off. I'm afraid of getting hurt. I was hurt so much as a kid. I'm afraid of plunging into something that's going to fuck me up.

"It's reached a point in my life when I get to my house and my animals that I think, 'Who am I going to ... ?' I'm certainly not going to bed with my horse] Ha, ha. And I think, Christ, I wish I had somebody to share all this with... ."

From The Archives Issue 223: October 7, 1976