Elton John sits at a giant red piano left over from his Vegas days, wearing the same brownish Adidas tracksuit I saw him in two days earlier. Today is a Sunday rehearsal at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles for the debut show behind his 32nd album, Wonderful Crazy Night, and he is jawing with his crew about his vocals. They don't seem to be getting the sound to his liking, so he sings to them in an unrhymed couplet: "You'll know when my tits/Goes up your ass."
Everyone laughs, and then Elton breaks into a few bars from Oklahoma! before dropping down to his bass range and crooning lines not from the Rodgers and Hammerstein original: "Why do all the queers come from Tulsa?/Why do all the fairies live in Oklahoma?/I think I'll move there next to you!"
The crew and the band are now giggling, including guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who have been playing with Elton for more than 40 years. They work through the playful title track from Night. There's some talk with Johnstone as to whether they can get away with six new songs, versus five. Someone tells Elton that the show is going to be 90 minutes long. He shakes his head.
"Let's do two hours," he says. Elton reasons that if he's going to make the crowd sit through half a dozen new ones, he must give a hearty dollop of the hits. The band gets back to work, but before long Elton stops. It's NFL playoff season.
"Does anyone know the Packers-Redskins score?"
Someone reports the score, but Elton barely listens. He's more of a Patriots fan, because of his friendship with team owner Robert Kraft from their work with Elton's AIDS foundation. During a tea break, Elton says he called Kraft on the field minutes after the Patriots' last-minute interception of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson gave them their Super Bowl victory last year. "He told me, 'I thought we had lost,'" says Elton. I say that Wilson told me in a Rolling Stone interview that God had let him know it was all part of his plan as he walked to the sideline after the game.
Elton rolls his eyes behind his glasses. "You know what I call that?" He adopts an American accent. "Bullshit."
A call comes in. It's his husband and partner of 23 years, David Furnish, whom the British tabloids and even Elton have nicknamed Yoko for the way he has pushed out much of Elton's longtime inner circle and streamlined matters as de facto manager of Elton John Industries.
"Hello, darling. Things are going well. How are the boys? I'm gonna say good night, since it's late there."
It's time to go back to work, but Elton needs to use the loo. I wait for him and can't help but hear a voice emerging from behind the door. Elton is singing one of his new songs, "Blue Wonderful": "I dive in, I dive deep, I just swim/I lose myself in you/Blue wonderful, blue wonderful, again."
Sir Elton John emerges and heads back to his piano, sipping backstage coffee.
"This is a happy album." He flashes the famous gap-toothed smile. "Because I've never been happier."
Happy" does not mean "easy" in the world of Sir Elton John. He'd be the first to admit he is difficult. He laughs when remembering a scene from Tantrums and Tiaras, a documentary shot by Furnish in 1995, where Elton is in the South of France and returns to his room in full pout. He calls for his private jet and swears he's never coming back. Why? A woman waved at him from the other side of the court while he was playing tennis. On another occasion, he asked a crony if he could turn down the wind outside his hotel.
"We're all fucking monsters sometimes," says Elton with a laugh at the memory. And there have been challenges to his throne. Capitol Records rejected his current album, forcing him to take it to Island. Yes, he has two sons now, Zachary and Elijah, with Furnish, but he may or may not be speaking to his number-one fan, Sheila Farebrother, a.k.a. his mother. Mrs. Farebrother recently turned 90 and spent her birthday in the company of an Elton John impersonator.
"It upsets me, but to be honest with you, I don't miss her," Elton says at his Beverly Hills home. "When she says things in the press, like last year: 'I haven't spoken to Elton since he married that fucking asshole David Furnish...'" He shrugs his shoulders, paraphrasing many of her comments since the feud started. "That was pretty hard to take." He sent her flowers for her 90th birthday, but there was no call. "I don't hate my mother," Elton says. "I look after her, but I don't want her in my life."
Elton John is soon to be 69, and he has changed. Sometimes, that can be harder on the entourage and family than on the artist. Gone is his longtime publicist and personal assistant. Gone is Elton's obsessive attention to the pop charts – he knows the time has passed for that – but it's been replaced by advising new talent like Ed Sheeran through his management company. Regrets? He has a few – particularly that he wasn't more on the front lines in the fight against AIDS. He's banished most of his addictions, except for shopping – he has a notebook to keep track of each record, DVD and book he purchases, checking it off his list with a pink highlighter when it arrives. The most significant change: Elton John no longer wants to die at the piano.
"Years ago, I didn't have anything," Elton tells me quietly. "I wanted to die on the stage. That's all I had. Now I don't. I've got children. I want to come off the road. I want to be there, I want to take them to baseball, I want to take them to soccer games. My life is completely changed."
Well, not completely. By the time you read this, Elton John will be gearing up to get back on the road, playing everywhere from Michigan to Tel Aviv.
Some old habits are hard to break.
Elton John's Beverly Hills home is one of several of his domiciles, including an Atlanta penthouse and a sprawling estate in the English countryside. It is well-appointed in the slightly less ostentatious style that Elton has adopted since getting sober 25 years ago. The walls are covered in Keith Haring originals and pictures taken by the Southern photographer William Eggleston. Elton hobbles in gingerly – he's had surgery in the past on both knees, the result of too much tennis, and too much jumping on and off pianos.
For someone whose singles aren't on the charts anymore, Elton still attracts the attention of a pop star in his prime. There have been scraps aplenty, beginning a decade ago by ripping on Madonna for lip-syncing in concert. "I say what I feel," says Elton. "I probably went too far with Madonna, and I got very personal and I wrote her – she was very gracious." Still, it's an issue for a singer whose tenor has become growly but relies on no artificial enhancement. "You know, fucking music magazines writing a review of Janet Jackson saying, 'This is the greatest show – four and a half stars.' It's fucking lip-synced! Hello! That's not a show! I'd rather go and see a drag queen. Fuck off."
He doesn't apologize for calling out his frequent touring partner Billy Joel for his drinking: "He's one of the great American songwriters. But I know when people used to say to me, 'You're wasting your life,' I'd go, 'Fuck off!' and I wouldn't speak to them for two years. Billy was pissed, and I understand. But does it mean I don't love him? No, of course not."
Elton says it all with a laugh and a serene smile. This doesn't quite take the edge off. He attributes his tendency toward the outrageous to his British heritage. "There's something about British men that can't wait to get into drag," says Elton. "I'm very fortunate to have grown up in Britain, which has a very lethal and wicked black sense of humor."
Elton has long been a target of the British tabloid press, and he sued the Sun after a series of allegations, from the serious (that he once hired rent boys for a party) to the absurd (that he had his dogs de-barked). The Sun printed a retraction and reportedly paid him £1 million. But now he looks on the tabloids with something bordering on kindness and respect. "In a way, I'm grateful to them," he says. "Americans sort of think of their stars as royalty and give them an easy ride. Elvis Presley would never have happened in England because he wouldn't have been able to hide away. Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith – the British are so 'Oh, get a fucking grip.' They're so hard on you. If Brian Wilson had lived in England, he wouldn't have had a [disgraced guru] Dr. Eugene Landy to deal with."
Of course, Elton says this while literally wearing rose-colored glasses with 20/20 hindsight. His early days were volatile and awash with cocaine, booze and parties where he dressed like Marie Antoinette. Bernie Taupin, his writing partner of nearly half a century, had a box seat for many of Elton's shenanigans.
"A lot of those awful tantrums happened when he was heavily into drugs or alcohol or whatever," says Taupin, who now spends most of his time painting outside Santa Barbara. "So, obviously, those vices sort of gave birth to that." In the bad old days, his solution was to walk away: "There are times when I've just thrown my arms up, left the tour and said, 'I don't want to be around this. I'm not going to be around this.' Ultimately, I think he feels incredibly embarrassed. He will never apologize, but I think there was a part of him that was very ashamed that I'd been so disgusted with it. I think a lot of the times that snapped him out of it."
Elton freely admits to all the boorish behavior and takes the blame, but his childhood provides some insight into the root causes. It was 1950s England, and men, coming off fighting the Germans, were stoic and aloof. Elton's father, an RAF officer, wasn't any different. "They wouldn't hold you, they wouldn't say they loved you," says Elton. "I was afraid of my father. I was walking on eggshells the whole time trying to get his approval. He's been dead for a long time, and I'm still trying to prove things to him."
I ask him what he means.
"I still do things and say, 'Dad, you would've loved this.'"
His father died in 1997 without ever seeing Elton play live. His father physically touched him most when he was beating him. "My mum always says, 'That's just the way we did it in those days, and it didn't affect you,'" Elton says. "And I'd say, 'What are you talking about? It affects me every day.'"
Perhaps not coincidentally, Elton has long been a friend of outcasts – appearing onstage with Axl Rose and Eminem at their public low points. He has also crossed lines others wouldn't dare, including playing at Rush Limbaugh's wedding.
"I went onstage and I said, 'I bet you're all wondering what the fuck I'm doing here,'" says Elton. "And they just broke – it was one of the best audiences I've played. I'm playing and I say, 'Listen, I'm not so bad after all. I'm queer, I'm gay and you love me.' OK? Point taken. Thank you very much."
Creatively, he doesn't wish he had done anything different, not even 1979's Victim of Love, his attempt to surf the disco craze. "It was a good idea, except that disco had finished by then," he says. "It was just too late. I don't regret anything." He pauses and laughs. "Well, I regret taking the drugs for as long as I did."
But Elton does rue some steps he didn't take during the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. "I should've been there at the ACT UP marches," he says, his voice a mixture of guilt and fact. "I should've been there and I wasn't. I know I did the fucking record with Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. I wasn't omnipresent, and I've felt a lot of guilt about that." He rubs his hands over his face. "I've tried to make up for lost time."
Elton has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research, and one of his recent efforts on the gay-rights front was indicative of Elton's camp effectiveness. Elton has long spoken against Russia's prehistoric, brutal legislation against homosexuality. So when he got a call from President Vladimir Putin, he wasn't shocked; they talked for a few minutes. Alas, it wasn't Putin: Elton had been pranked by two Russian radio DJs and was lampooned in the media. He can laugh about it now: "I was just happy I answered their questions so intelligently."
But there was a serious endpoint: The real Vladimir Putin called Elton a few days later to apologize. Putin told Elton to call him the next time he was in Moscow and they could talk gay rights in Russia.
"He spoke to me in English – he was very apologetic," remembers Elton, folding his arms across his chest in a satisfied manner. "He said, 'I would love to meet you. Let's sit down and talk,' and I said, 'I'm very, very flattered that you called me.'" Elton grinned again. "Come on – hello!"
Except for a break in the late 1980s, Taupin has been around since the two paired up as suburban London youths bunking in Elton's bedroom. Their unorthodox writing technique may explain their longtime partnership: Elton tells Taupin that he's ready to do another album, and Taupin writes up a batch of lyrics that John doesn't look at until he's sitting at the piano in the studio. For years, Elton was still obsessed with commercial success. Then his old friend Bob Dylan came along. Elton listened to 2006's Modern Times, and it changed his creative world.
Says Elton, "I thought, 'You know, this is an amazing record by the artist who I probably respect more than anybody who is living, and he's still breaking the mold of what he's trying to do, and he never cares about singles, because he's always been Bob Dylan.'"
Elton has recorded three albums since then: The Union, a collaboration with longtime hero Leon Russell; the introspective The Diving Board; and now Wonderful Crazy Night. T Bone Burnett has helmed all three. Each has been recorded in Burnett's old-timey live-to-tape style. "I just try and make him feel comfortable," he says. "He's an artist like Dylan – you just try and point him in the direction he was already going."
As usual, Elton didn't start thinking about the sessions until he was in the car on the way to the studio. "I know it sounds mad," he says with a shrug. "I'm reading the lyrics, and it inspires me to write something. It's like when you're writing something for a movie, and you're seeing the image on the screen."
For Wonderful Crazy Night, Elton used longtime touring band members Olsson and Johnstone. (Johnstone looks exactly the same, with flowing long blond locks, and Olsson has aged gracefully into the drummer version of Batman's Alfred, playing in a suit with white gloves.) Elton told Taupin to keep the songs upbeat. The lyricist put on Van Morrison's happier records to get in the mood. "I listened to 'Wild Night' and '(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball' many times," says Taupin. But as proud as Elton is of the record, not everyone was happy with it, most notably Capitol Records, his label. Elton knew something was going on, because he hadn't heard anything from Capitol executive Steve Barnett.
Finally, the call arrived. "Steve Barnett said to David, 'You know we love Elton, but we don't want this record,'" Elton says. He admits he was angry at first. "I would have chewed his head off that first day," Elton admits. "But he's a good record man. David said, 'These things happen for a reason.'" Elton's husband was right: They shared the record with Island, which snapped up Wonderful Crazy Night immediately.
It turns out, according to Elton, that his husband is right about a lot of things.
The night before Elton John's big Wiltern show, he's back at the theater to do a small concert for Sirius listeners and a question-and-answer session moderated by Rolling Stone's David Fricke. Elton is at his most charming, slagging on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for rarely producing new music – "I don't think they like each other very much" – and his aborted effort to hook Jagger up with Burnett. "Mick said, 'No, he uses all that old-fashioned equipment,'" says Elton.
He addresses David Bowie's recent death with sorrow and a subtle admiration for the way he lived, a way that is the antithesis of the carnival that has been Elton's personal life. "We know David Bowie, the singer, the outrageous performer," says Elton, "but actually we don't know anything about him. And that's the way it should be in music."
The band runs through new numbers as well as a rousing, funky "Bennie and the Jets," clearly one of Elton's favorite classics. A well-groomed man with a goatee and a pinstripe suit stands in the shadows and takes notes on his phone. He doesn't mingle, just keeps a tight, small smile on his face. It's David Furnish.
Back at the house, Elton proudly refers to Furnish as Yoko and also says he has saved his financial life.
"David came into my life, and in the last two years has been very involved in sorting out the dross that we had surrounding me," says Elton. "We had so many people who were earning vast amounts of money that weren't pulling their weight." Later, he adds, "Every year at this time, we've been looking for money to pay our taxes, but this year we've already got the money.
"David doesn't mind being Yoko Ono," says Elton, "but he's doing it on my behalf."
The stated goal is for Elton to bank enough money in the next couple of years so he can maintain his lavish lifestyle and spend more time with his two boys. Their path to having children was a long and winding one. In 2009, they became attached to a Ukrainian boy named Lev while visiting an orphanage for HIV-positive children. Lev and his brother came from a destroyed family; Elton says his father is in jail. They tried to adopt him, but the government ruled them too old and, more to the point, too gay. (Elton says he and Furnish still provide for Lev and his brother. "We got him to the grandmother, and we surreptitiously look after them," says Elton.) During Christmas, Furnish came to Elton and asked him what he wanted to do moving forward. Did they now want to start their own family? The short time they'd spent with Lev had upturned their world.
"I always said no to having kids, because I'm too old, too set in my ways, too selfish, the lifestyle doesn't suit me," says Elton. "But I said, 'This boy we met was trying to tell me something.' He was trying to say, through God or someone else, 'Bullshit, you can be a dad, look at how much pleasure I gave you in an hour and a half.'" And I said, 'Let's go for it.' " His son Zachary was born to a surrogate in 2010, and Elijah in 2013. He lets out a giant smile. "God, that was the best decision."
Showtime at the Wiltern has a nostalgic Elton feel as tickets go for almost $600. Elton is conservatively dressed, for Elton, in a black sequined jacket and a light-blue shirt. His band knows him in an almost telepathic way, and it rips through the new and old songs with precision and vitality, a quality often missing in the groups backing aging superstars. Elton even jumps onto his piano during "Bennie and the Jets," before gingerly slipping back onto the bench. It is obvious, despite his talk of coming off the road, that Elton's passion remains playing live. Before songwriting and activism, Elton is an entertainer.
"I'm still in the game, I love playing live more than I've ever done," Elton tells me a few days before the show. "I have wonderful musicians – there's nothing in my life to complain about." He pauses and shrugs. "But, boy, do I ever find it."
Elton is a benevolent vampire – he keeps young by collaborating with artists a third his age, including Lady Gaga. Tonight isn't any different. The three weakest numbers are when he's joined onstage by three Island Records stars: Shawn Mendes is outclassed on "Tiny Dancer," Demi Lovato dances spastically during "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," and Patrick Stump tries to come off as hard during a game but futile "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting."
Still, if the duets weren't actual successes, they did seem to re-energize Elton. His deft fingers sweep through a Bowie-tribute "Space Oddity" instrumental into "Rocket Man," a version so moving that it sends Burnett and his wife into an extended canoodling session.
Elton closes the show with the Taupin-John signature number "Your Song," and kids from seven to 70 sway to the music. But if anyone thought Elton was going soft in his old age, the Bitch is back after he introduces the band. He thanks Taupin, who is watching from somewhere in the wings, and then dedicates the show to his husband. "This is for darling David, who has weeded out all the horrible people in my life."
Fans in the audience turn to one another and give "WTF" shrugs. But it doesn't matter to the piano player. Elton John waves and bows to the crowd. He walks slowly off the stage. There are a few more interviews and promo shots to do, but soon he'll be gone. It's time to see the boys.