The pandemic forced Elton John to radically alter nearly all of his 2020 plans, including his sold-out Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour that’s now on hold until at least next summer. But for Bernie Taupin, his songwriting partner of the past 53 years, it’s basically been business as usual.
“Everything is good,” he says on the phone from his home in California. “Where I live is basically Covid-free. And what I do, I do in a solitary situation. I’ve got my family. Everyone is doing well. I have no complaints. I do miss traveling within the continental United States and simple things like going out to restaurants.”
Taupin has spent his time working on the forthcoming eight-disc collection Elton: Jewel Box and writing lyrics for the next Elton John album. He called up Rolling Stone to talk about both projects and share memories from his long history with Elton.
I was speaking to Elton the other day. He said he was restless at first, but he’s adjusted to life during Covid. He seemed happy to be off the road and home with his kids.
He’s keeping himself busy. He’s got lots of outlets. I miss him, though. I miss being able to see him. We talk on a fairly regular basis. In the real world, we don’t see each other a great deal, but we certainly see each other more than we’re seeing each other now.
I’m enjoying the box set. It’s overwhelming to suddenly get 70 songs I’ve never heard before.
Yeah. The one thing I love and I’m so proud of is that the design is stunning. For me, without a doubt, it’s one of the most beautiful box sets I’ve ever seen. It’s stunning and it certainly gives you a massive amount of information to approach what’s inside it. That’s a plus for it.
What was your role in the creation of it?
Being 100 percent honest, I was a tad hesitant at first. To see the product of our initial attempts at songwriting 50 years after the fact … you can imagine it’s a little alarming to reconvene with. I wasn’t sure I wanted people to hear these things, to be honest.
I thought I might be embarrassed by their naiveté, especially the very, very early work. After all, at that time I was really faking it. The whole idea of how to construct a song was foreign to me. The idea of verse/chorus/bridge was big-pants terminology to me. Back then, I was throwing it down on the page. It was brain-to-pencil sort of freeform. It was a gradual process to find my voice. There was a lot of mimicry involved, a lot of purloining from what was currently a hit. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was trying to join a gang.
What’s cool is that you can hear you both growing as artists almost month by month.
There are several different steps to it, or I guess I should say rungs because it was kind of like climbing a ladder. You go to the absolute beginning and it’s full of, as I said, naiveté, but you can hear the enthusiasm. And the second rung of it is we’re becoming a little braver and there’s a little more understanding about creativity. After that, you can see that we’re breaking out and there’s no holding us back. It’s kind of like sex. Once you discover how good you can get at it, it’s sort of like “boom.”
I sort of draw the line at calling it “experimental” at the beginning because that sounds way too grown up. I rather more think of it as floundering and grasping at straws.
As I said to Elton, you guys started right when Sgt. Pepper was all the rage. But I don’t hear that influence in the earliest work at all.
You have to look at what the various rungs represent. The very first rung was us starting out. We were purloining from what was currently popular and trying to find our feet. Lyrically, it’s more charming than pretentious. It’s very pie in the sky, but you can see the roots of something taking shape.
It’s like the track “Regimental Sgt. Zippo.” Immediately people think, “Oh, that’s your take on Sgt. Pepper” and it possibly was. But trying to reconnect my memory from that far back, can I honestly say that was a tip of the hat to Sgt. Pepper? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But it certainly proved that we were hanging on the coattails of things that were currently popular, things like “A Whiter Shade of Pale” were in vogue at that particular point in time. I think in a way, I was literally trying to be part of a gang.
It must be strange to hear this stuff now. Are there any songs you just don’t remember writing?
Oh, absolutely. When they were putting the album together, they were sending me files of all the songs because they had to get all the publishing credits cleared to make sure they were literally Elton/Bernie and not Elton/Bernie and someone else included, which was very much par for the course at the time.
At Dick James’ studio, when I came into the mix and Elton and I started writing together, it was our own mini Brill Building. But there were other components involved when we first started writing, people like Caleb Quaye, Kirk Duncan, and people like that who were songwriting hanging around Dick James’ studio.
I had to go through everything and say, “I definitely wrote that. I didn’t write that. I’m not sure about this one.” For the ones I wasn’t familiar with, it was pretty easily to nail if it was me or not since I could tell it was my style. But it was kind of interesting reconvening with these songs. Most of them from that time period in 1967 and early 1968 I hadn’t heard in over 50 years.
I spoke to Nigel Olsson a couple of years ago and he pointed to “Lady What’s Tomorrow” as the first song he heard of yours that he felt was really special. In your mind, what was the turning point? When did you reach the top rung of the ladder?
I think that happened when we found our own voice, when we weren’t mimicking what was currently in vogue. I think the song that Elton and I always go back to is “Skyline Pigeon.” That was before “Lady What’s Tomorrow.” That song was written prior to the songs that were written for Empty Sky. That was the first song in the aftermath of Steve Brown coming in and saying, “What is all this shit you guys are writing? You don’t need to write songs for MOR [middle of the road] artists that Dick is trying to push you into.”
Bear in mind, this is before Elton was a performing artist, before we even realized that he was going to become the artist that was going to perform our songs. I keep using the word “naive,” but the naiveté, once that subsided, we literally found our voice. It’s like art.
When artists start to create, start to paint, they start by … not plagiarizing, but working in the style of their heroes. Until you find your own style, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. You need to find your own style. That’s what we did.
What motivated you two to keep going through the dark months of 1968 when you’re writing so many songs, just an absurd number of songs, and they’re going nowhere and you have no money?
That’s a very good question. I think the obvious answer was that no matter how many roadblocks we came up against, the thing that kept us going was just a love of music in general and the attempt at creating something that would change our direction. We were continually striving to find the golden goose. We wanted to be the golden goose. We were continually chasing it.
As I said, we hit roadblocks, but we never, ever gave up. There was never any time that we said, “Let’s throw in the towel.” I think what it was, was that we were continually around musicians because Elton was out there doing sessions for different artists. We were continually invigorated by the people around us and what we were listening to.
You have to remember that that particular point in time was such a bountiful time for new music and new artists and people coming up. It was people like Leonard Cohen and even Joni Mitchell. We were hearing all this music, especially from the States. It was absolutely inspiring to us. We knew at that particular point in time, if these people can do it, then ultimately there was a chance that we could too. There was never any option to throw in the towel.
Tumbleweed Connection recently turned 50. Tell me what inspired you to write an album of songs about a country you’d never visited at that point.
There’s no reason you can’t re-imagine a foreign country by not having been there. I grew up absolutely immersed in American culture, whether it be music, movies, TV, literature, history books. Everything I aspired to had an American slant to it. I had that in my head prior to us making that record for quite some time.
I was a closeted country [music] aficionado. Once I heard the Band’s first record, that really unleashed my hidden attachment to the musical West and the timelessness of classic country music, the things I grew up listening to. They made it hip. They made me feel OK baring my private passion for American roots music. That’s what made it OK. Luckily, Elton just went with it.
Do you remember the label response to Tumbleweed? There was no “Your Song” or “Border Song” or anything that would obviously work on the radio.
None whatsoever. I don’t remember any pushback either in England or in the United States. The music business was totally different back then. In regards to us, especially with the American label and people like [record executive] Russ Regan, they just saw the potential. They realized that we weren’t the normal act that they were probably used to. They saw that there was an incredible variation in styles within our songwriting and they let us run with it.
The coolest thing to me about this box set is it tells your story though the songs that weren’t hits. Are hit songs ever a burden because they tend to block out everything else you guys have done?
It’s par for the course. That’s the way of things. You adjust to that. Do I wish the radio played deeper cuts? I think in some areas, they probably do. But that’s something you’ve got to adjust to. If you’ve got the enormous fan base that we have and you pay attention to what the people say … for instance, on my Instagram, people will just randomly quote lyrics that I actually have to step back and say, “Wait, what is that?”
In a way, these people know our catalog better than I do. The upswing of it is that these people do know our material. Just because it’s not played on the radio, doesn’t mean it’s not played in the minds or homes of thousands of people that are hip to the deeper catalog.
Elton told me he wants to do a theater residency when the tour ends where he just plays the deep cuts. Are there certain ones you’d love to see him play live?
Absolutely. I’m not sure I can throw them at you at the top of my head right now, but I can certainly make a list. There would be things like “I Feel Like a Bullet (in the Gun of Robert Ford).” That has been put on hold and it’s going to be pushed back a lot further now than we originally imagined due to Covid. But I think that’s a wonderful idea. It’s something Elton had up his sleeve for the last couple of years. I would love to sit down and hopefully the two of us can come up with a fairly special set list. I’d love to be involved with that. I’d like to sit down and make my own choices.
I vote for “Razor Face.” I love that song.
Right. Those are the kind of things. Absolutely.
Elton told me that when he was in Australia, you gave him lyrics he planned on turning into songs. Is a new album in the early stages?
[Laughs] Well, I’d like to think so. I nudged him gently a number of times. I did send him probably close to 16 or 18 things when he was in Australia. The original plan was that he was going to write when he was in Australia because he had so much free time down there because he was going to stay there for the duration of the Australian and New Zealand tour. He felt that he wanted to write. The idea was not to lay the things down on tape, but maintain them in his mind. That would be the way to tell if they were special or not. If he remembered them, they were keepers. If he didn’t remember, maybe they should be brushed under the rug.
That didn’t happen. But he still has the work that I’ve done. I’m very, very proud of it. I think it’s very, very special. I’m continuing writing, too. I sent an additional couple of things I’m very pleased with. I think they are slightly different. When he does decide to put digits to piano, I think we might come up with something very special. Being that he’s not going to hit the road potentially until the end of next year, that gives him plenty of time.
I would love to see him start to do some work. As I say, I continually encourage him to do so. How we would do it, I’m not sure. I’ve got some ideas in my head that he might be interested in. But I really, really would love to get back on track and back in the game.
I know for Wonderful Crazy Night in 2016, Elton asked you to write happy, upbeat songs. Did he give you any instructions this time around?
No. None whatsoever. Quite honestly, I didn’t want any. I just wanted to go with it and run with it. I think the things that I’ve written are pretty unique. I think potentially, we could come up with something that is really, really special.
How was Oscar night for you? What was it like to stand onstage in front of the entire world and accept the award for Best Original Song?
It was a lot of fun. It was great. Anyone that says, “I didn’t want to be there” or “it was really grueling” — no. It was fabulous. We had a blast, just the whole evening. The whole Oscar season was great, starting with the Golden Globes. I’m not particularly one for socializing, but it was really nice to be recognized. And all the different things that came with it, all the different lunches and just meeting your contemporaries was just wonderful. I enjoyed the whole thing.
Are you keeping your Oscar in a prominent location in your house?
Oh, yeah. It’s not propping up my garage door, let me tell you. It’s sitting right next to the TV so I can see it every night. It’s really special. To get one of those things, as I said onstage, it sure doesn’t suck.
Do you see any reason why you guys can’t keep making records into your eighties?
No. Absolutely not. None whatsoever. I’m chomping at the bit to do it. I think in keeping with the theme of this particular interview, it goes all the way back to Day One. I’m probably equally enthusiastic about working now as I was back then. Back then, there was in the back of my mind the obvious chance that maybe this wasn’t going to work out. I think I said, “I’ll try this for a couple of months and it it doesn’t work out, I’ll go into advertising.” The enthusiasm level has not gone down one iota. I’m just raring to go.
I can’t think of a creative partnership that’s gone on longer than you two.
That’s why I want to do some work. I don’t want there to be some huge gap in our creativity where people are saying, “You guys aren’t really working anymore. Are you just flying on fumes now?” I don’t want that to be the case. I want to be relevant. I think we can certainly do that and achieve that.