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Elton John: My Life in 20 Songs

Cameron Crowe explores Elton’s journey from Reginald Dwight to technicolored pop sensation to rehab and back

elton john my life in 20 songs

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“You don’t mind if I play it loud, do you?”

It’s morning in Las Vegas, and sunlight fills the condo that serves as Elton John‘s home during his latest run of shows at Caesars Palace, part of the residency known as “The Million Dollar Piano.” Wearing a white terry-cloth robe, he moves to the stereo system like an athlete, arms swinging crisply at his sides. Soon, he’s locked and loaded his latest album, The Diving Board. Many who’ve just spent the past year and a half working on arecording might then leave the room, allowing the listener his own experience. Not Elton John. He sits down on a small sofa in front of the speakers, closes his eyes and listens along with you. And yes, it’s loud.

The album is a game-changer for him. It’s spare, sophisticated and deeply personal. Call it Elton John’s Sketches of Spain, after Miles Davis‘ own deep­career discovery of a worldly new creative voice. Spread around the stereo are other CDs – from new artists as well as Nina Simone at Town Hall. Elton is a fan who refuses to download his music. Music is a tactile experience for him – he wants to read liner notes, look at the pictures and take the journey.

He closes his eyes as he listens to The Diving Board, his leg bouncing and head catching the rhythms. You might even forget he’s made a few records before this one: This is his 30th. This one began as a trio recording, produced by T Bone Burnett. The first run of songs was relaxed and promising. A second session, fueled by an inspired new set of lyrics from longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, pushed the album into deeper waters. The feeling taking hold was reminiscent of Elton’s earliest recordings, when his band was a blazing trio, peaking with the live album 11-17-70. But Elton’s voice is more resonant now; the songs ring with experience and a life filled with epic highs, lows and plateaus. Now in his sixties, he is finally a father of two children, a family man and a working artist.

In the spirit of the intimate nature of his album, we reconvened a few months later to put together a fan’s playlist of his own most personally affecting songs. It was the perfect late-summer afternoon to reflect and kill some time before a doctor’s appointment to remove the stitches from a recent appendix operation. Going over all of his recordings, Elton chose the songs – not necessarily the hits – that still mean the most to him.

by Cameron Crowe

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

“Gone to Shiloh” (with Leon Russell)

The Union, 2010

The album before this, The Captain & the Kid, was the lost gem of my life. It was telling the continuing story of us, Bernie and Elton, now. I cared so deeply about it, because it was so personal and such a really good record. I was so furious with Interscope Records because they put it out and they dropped it. I had meetings in the South of France, and I said, "I know this isn't a commercial album, I just want you to do your best," and they dropped it like a fucking turd. It's probably why I didn't make another solo record. It was pure heartbreak.

I was so disillusioned. If it hadn't been for Leon Russell, I wouldn't have gone back into the studio – a chance call to Leon, just to see how he was doing and to thank him for all he did for me as a young artist, turned into one of the greatest experiences of my life. "Gone to Shiloh" is a song that feels like a movie – it was a pivotal moment for the record I did with Leon, The Union, and a pivotal moment for us as writers.

When I heard the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss record Raising Sand, I noticed T Bone Burnett again. I'd heard all the Elvis Costello records he'd produced and I loved them, but Raising Sand was such a simple record, and it made me want to work with him. When the Leon thing came up, he was the first person I thought of, and we started this relationship, which has gotten so strong that I can't really see me recording with anybody else. It's the beginning of a new beginning.

Rob Ball/WireImage

“My Quicksand”

The Diving Board, 2013

When I did "My Quicksand," I thought, "That's the best track I've ever recorded, right there." Pianowise, vocal­wise, everything about it. I've never played the piano like that on a record before – the solo was improvised. It's just a very musical moment that I was very proud of on this record. I knew that I'd moved forward – this is the kind of song that I never thought I'd be singing when I started out. My days of making pop records like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player, they were when I was younger. I'm not that guy anymore. I'm this guy. It's the most honest rec­ord I've ever made.

I'm at a stage where I want to give back as much as I can. It's all kind of unexplainable, you know. There was this little boy, not the normal prototype; there was no one else like me in rock. I got stuck on the piano. And I think people realize that I genuinely appreciate their love and affection and their loyalty. It's so fucking joyous after all this time. I wasn't always comfortable in my own skin. They were with me when I didn't know who I was. I'm just so grateful, and this is the music I want to make. This is the very best I can do.

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