“I’m not very good with words,” Elton John said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. “I let all my expressions and my love and my pain and my anger come out with my melodies. I had someone to write my words for me. Without him, the journey would not have been possible. I kind of feel like cheating standing here accepting this. Without Bernie Taupin, there wouldn’t have been any Elton John at all. And I would like him to come up and give this [award] to him.”
Bernie Taupin came onto the stage and embraced his songwriting partner, whom he met in 1967 when they both responded to a “talent wanted” ad in the British music magazine NME placed by Liberty Records. Forty-six years later, they are still writing songs together. Their new album, The Diving Board, just hit shelves. We spoke to Taupin about the new album, his songwriting methods, how he wound up co-writing Jefferson Starship’s 1985 hit “We Built This City” and why he blames narcotics for some of Elton John’s lesser albums in the Eighties.
It’s got to be great to see the album finally out. It’s been a such a long buildup.
Oh, yeah. Today has been extraordinary. I just got bombarded by stuff from the public relations office, and thank God it’s all been positive. I’m very relieved and happy about the whole thing.
It’s pretty tough for veteran artists to get attention for their new albums.
I think we’ve actually experienced that in the past decade, even when we felt we did something relevant and satisfactory. I think a lot has to do with the people you have around you, the way it’s marketed. We’ve been unlucky with a couple of our last releases. We had problems with marketing. With this one, I’m very confident with the product itself. I’m very, very proud of it. At the same time, the stars all got aligned as far as the people working on it. We had an incredibly diligent crew. I think they’ve done a remarkable job, but if you don’t have the product it’s not going to work. It’s kudos all around for everybody.
It seems you guys realized that Top 40 radio just isn’t going to happen, so why even try?
Exactly. Both Elton and myself – probably more Elton who has been more vocal on that, but I’ve said to several people that the beauty of recording now is that you don’t have to sell your soul to the forces that aren’t going to be interested in you anyway. People’s memories are very short. Everything is very “here today and gone tomorrow.” It’s ridiculous to try and put yourself into the shoes you fitted in so neatly a couple of decades ago. It’s a great relief to just sit back and go, “I don’t have to think about making this a radio product.” It’s been so, so gratifying to just be able to write whatever I wanted and basically throw it at the wall and see what sticks.
I’ve heard Elton say that he was so dismayed by the lack of marketing for [2006’s] The Captain and the Kid, that he felt he was done making records. Did you think you were done at that point?
I don’t think so. I think that was Elton shooting from the hip. That’s what I was talking about earlier. It was an absolute disaster. The record company just buried that record, for reasons that I’ll never know, whether it was political or whatever. But that record was a really, really good record, I think. It deserved much better than what it received. Not by the public . . . I don’t think much of the public even realized it was out. I think there was a section of our hardcore fans that were aware, but the record might as well not have even been released for how it was treated. That’s a great shame.
When that happens, you get despondent. We were thoroughly despondent. I never stated that I never wanted to write songs or record again. I felt we would. Again, it’s just Elton shooting from the hip. That’s the nature of the beast with him. We both have different ways of dealing with things. This is a guy who wears his heart very large on his sleeve.
He said the label asked him make a Christmas album and a Motown covers album.
Yeah. That’s all true. I’m aware of that. Basically, they wanted him to go the safe route. The thing is, that’s absolutely ridiculous, and it’s almost callous. If you actually think about where we come from, what we do is write songs. We started out in 1967 to write songs and achieve a certain sort of style in our music. To come full circle, 45 or so years later, and wind up being asked to do Christmas albums and cover songs of 1970s Motown hits, that’s pretty despicable, when you think about it.
How do you operate? Are you always writing songs, or do you wait until an album project starts?
It’s almost like songwriting is a sideline. I paint 80 percent of the time. Then 20 percent of it is writing songs. When Elton decided he wants to record, he will call me and give me some good leeway so I don’t have to rush or anything like that. I get plenty of time to work on what I want to work on. No, I’m not continually writings songs, unless there’s a project. I suppose I could, but there’s not really an outlet for it.
The kind of things I’m writing with Elton now are not the kind of things that I could write for any artist here or there. It’s just not the kind of material that is coverable by other people. It’s very individual. It’s very personal. It’s very geared towards the style of which we write. There aren’t many people out there . . . It’s not that I’m against writing with other people. I just don’t think there’s a lot of people that can write like Elton and I do. I certainly don’t like to write to melodies. It gives me more of a freedom to do it this way around. It’s a style that we’ve perfected. There’s a lot of telapathic sort of communication going on in the way we work, since we’ve been doing it for so long.
I’m not averse to writing with other people, and I do it occasionally, but it never achieves the level of pleasure I get from when we work together. It’s something very special. I think doing it every once in a while makes it very unique. There are so many other things that take up my time. My art is preeminent over everything else.
How did The Diving Board begin? When he calls you up, does he give you any guidance, or does he just let you go?
Basically, the album came about because, obviously, we got a great sense of satisfaction from doing The Union with T Bone Burnett and Leon Russell. That had a very strong reaction and did very well. It just seemed a sensible thing to do to stay with T Bone. I’m not sure we expected to do it as soon as we did. I suppose in true terms it’s been seven years since Elton and I made a full-on Elton John album.
It was just a natural progression to do something with T Bone again, and T Bone discussed with Elton the possibility of going back to basics, going back to the trio situation that we started out with when we started doing live gigs in the early Seventies. It’s interesting, and I digress slightly here, that a lot of people are referring to this record by saying it’s going back to the style of Tumbleweed Connection and the earlier albums. In essence, it’s really not. We never really did studio recordings with the original trio. It was always much more a band situation. On things like Madman Across the Water, Tumbleweed and especially Elton John, which had a full-on orchestra on it, those records were more band-oriented records. This was much, much simpler. I don’t think we’ve ever made a record that sounded like this. As everyone has picked up, Elton’s piano has never been so much in the forefront as it is on this record.
We hand-picked a group of musicians with T Bone that we felt would make an interesting mix, which was Jay Bellerose, who is probably my favorite drummer, and Raphael Saadiq, who was Elton’s idea, and it just worked. The recording was so intimate. It was such a pleasure and joy to work on that kind of earthy sound. When we did decide to go in and record, I would say I had at least a few months upfront to work on material. I wrote as much as I possibly could, which I shared with Elton. Then we went into the studio and I think wound up recording maybe 12 or 13 songs.
Then we basically sat on it for almost eight months, and then Elton called me in again and said he wanted to go back in and record some more songs. The thing is, there was no scheduled release date from the day we started recording. As we talked about before, nobody was in a hurry for a new Elton John and Bernie Taupin album. We could really wait and see when it was the best time to put it out. We went back in and recorded another five or six songs, and put everything together and re-listened to the whole thing. It was a great idea to go back. It really revitalized us and gave us a greater appreciation of things we did before. We realized that everything blended together so well. We reconfigured it, and this is what we ended up with.
Is there a theme to the album?
There’s not a particular theme, but it is story-driven. My material has always been story driven. I like to think that I’m a relatively cinematic writer. Obviously, I collect ideas as I travel down life’s highway. For example, something like the “The Ballad of Blind Tom.” I read the book The Ballad of Blind Tom, and being a voracious reader I get so many ideas from reading. When I read that book, I thought to myself, “If this isn’t a song, nothing is.” It appealed to my method of writing. I had to literally make the Readers Digest version of the book, condense it into a song. I think it worked.
I can be anywhere or anyplace and an idea will strike me. I could walk past a bookcase and there’s a book about Oscar Wilde on it. I’ll think, “Here’s a good idea. Put yourself in Oscar Wilde’s mind after he’s spent time in Reading Gaol. How did that change his perception of his life?” Also, I like the title, “Oscar Wilde Gets Out.” That’s all par for the course for me. I pick up things in what I read, what I think, how I feel. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it slips off and doesn’t really work. As I’ve said many times, I see myself far more as a storyteller than anything else.
How do you write? Do you use a computer? Do you write longhand?
It’s changed over the years through technology. In the old days, it was just longhand on a notepad. Some of the early things I wrote for Elton were just written longhand on a sheet of paper. Some were typed. The way that I’ve developed over the years now, one of the things I need now as a security blanket is a guitar. I always write with a guitar and chord things. It gives me more of a melodic structure. It’s sort of like Linus and his blanket. I sort of need it in order to write. It’s very hard for me to sit on a plane with a notepad. I can write lines and title ideas, but to construct a song I need to be in my office at home with a guitar on my knee and a pad and a piece of paper and a computer. I’ll write things down and then transfer them to my computer, so that I can actually see it better.
I look at it on the computer and then just chord stuff on the guitar to give myself an idea. It has nothing to do with the ultimate melody. It just gives me a better sense of the rhythm of the lyric. That’s the way it’s done.
Do you email them to Elton?
Now I do. Again, it’s not as calculating as it might seem. Once he gets them, he looks over them, reads them, ingests them, but he won’t work on them again. He never works on things outside of the studio these days. He likes to set up a writing booth in the studio. Maybe he’ll go in a day or two before we start recording and he’ll start writing in there. They he will just run a tape in the control room and everything he works on goes on tape so he can refer back to something if he loses track of it.
Then I come in the studio also, so we can discuss things. I can give him what I call “bullet points” on songs. If something has a Leon Russell feel to it I’ll say, “When I wrote this I was thinking Leon Russell or Leonard Cohen . . . Dylan.” It could be a myriad of different things, but it gives him a kind of idea to at least start him off. It doesn’t mean those songs will sound up like the artists I’ve given him, but it just kicks him off. They are always interesting.
My favorite song on the album is “My Quicksand.” Can you tell me what inspired that?
I can never say what inspires things, though I’m contradicting myself with what I said earlier. But there are certain songs that you just get a first couple of lines and the songs form themselves. With a song like “My Quicksand,” I had the title and I thought, “This is a good metaphor for sinking in a relationship.” I started off with that, and whatever came into my mind that was relevant was the first couple of lines. The thing is, some of my songs could be three songs in one. You can get a triple metaphor in a song where it’s relatable on different levels to different people.
I always like to have a little mystery in the songs, where you can’t quite tell. There are the obvious ones, but there are certain songs with a little mystery to them. Even “Home Again,” the single, although it seems like a straight-ahead song, it’s really not. If you listen to the verse, it’s a little all over the place. Is it one person talking about that? Is it several people’s feelings of what home again means? To me, home again isn’t obvious as it seems to certain people. To me, it can be a metaphor for a lot of things. It’s a state of mind. It certainly doesn’t mean that I want to go back to where I came from. In fact, that’s the last place I want to go. [Laughs] So it’s slightly contradictory on my part, but at the same time it means a lot more than what it means to the average person.
I’ve heard a song like “Levon” 10,000 times, but I still have no idea what it means.
The interesting thing about that is that people keep bringing that up. I notice when it’s mentioned lately, I don’t know if it’s because of the passing of Levon Helm, who I was a huge fan of, but people always . . . In fact, Robbie Robertson himself said to me that it confused Levon when he heard the song, because he didn’t understand how it related to him. The thing is – and in the press I’ve seen “the song was inspired by Levon Helm.” No, it wasn’t. It never was. I just liked the name and, I don’t know . . . As it says in the song, “Because he likes the name.” [Laughs] I just noticed that. I just quoted myself! Oh, dear.
It’s the same as with so many of our songs. People think they’re about something that they’re absolutely not about. That’s the beauty of writing songs. That’s why I don’t like to explain what a song means to me, and some of the early stuff I’m not sure I really know anyway. I’m quite happy to admit that. That’s what makes them interesting. It’s what I say about abstract painting. Andy Warhol never explained what his paintings were about. He’d just say, “What does it mean to you?” That’s how I feel about songs.
Paul Simon always talks about how people interpret his songs, and they have nothing to do with what he had in his mind at the time, but sometimes they are far more interesting than his original concept. You have to maintain a little mystery. That’s so important to me. There are songs, of course – I’ve written so many that are very straightforward. You don’t have to ask me what they mean. There are some that are incredibly cryptic.
But going back to “Levon,” quite honestly, it was written so long that I really don’t know what was in my head at the time. It was a free-form writing. It’s not David Bowie throwing words into a hat and picking them out. It’s a totally different way. I think that Bob Dylan did that, too. It was just lines that came out that were interesting.
I think back in the Sixties, Dylan would write hundreds of lines, total stream-of-consciousness, and then use four or five of them.
Exactly. Mine isn’t as complex as that, but it certainly is. It’s almost like writing a weird kind of science fiction. There’s nothing with confusing or mystifying the listener. I think it makes it more interesting. Going back to Dylan, that was the greatness of Dylan in the days of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. I think he started out with a theme. Take the song “Highway 61 Revisited,” with a biblical reference opening it. Then it goes a totally different place. In essence, that’s a lot of what I do with my songs. It starts in one place and goes off in another.
But then there are songs like “My Father’s Gun.” I can close my eyes and visualize the entire story. It’s almost like a mini-movie.
Exactly. Again, without being contradictory, that’s a song that’s a guy coming back from the Civil War. It’s very easy to understand. It’s about inheriting your father’s will and strength. You’re right. It’s a mini-movie, and so many of those Tumbleweed songs were. Then you get a song like “Son of My Father,” which is slightly odd, because it’s a bit like the old Dylan songs from The Basement Tapes, with those cryptic vignettes.
Yeah, like “Come Down in Time,” with the “cluster of night jars.”
That was me being very English for once, which is very unusual. [Laughs]
People are always shocked to learn that you wrote “We Built This City.”
[Laughs] That’s kind of interesting. That was voted the worst song of all time in Spin or something, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, considering the way it turned out. [Laughs] Though I shouldn’t say that, because it was an incredible successful song. It will probably help send my children to college, and I like that they play it at sporting events, being a sports fanatic.
Anyway, there’s an interesting anecdote about that song. I wrote it with Martin Page. The original song was a very dark kind of mid-tempo song, and it didn’t have all this “We built this city!” It had none of that. It was a very dark song about how club life in L.A. was being killed off and live acts had no place to go. It was a very specific thing. A guy called Peter Wolf – not J. Geils Peter Wolf, but a big-time pop guy and German record producer – got ahold of the demo and totally changed it. He jerry-rigged it into the pop hit it was. If you heard the original demo, you wouldn’t even recognize the song.
Then a song like “I Am Your Robot . . . “
Oh my God! [Laughs hysterically] How could you bring that up? That will go in . . . That’s a far worse song than “We Built This City.”
It’s a really bizarre song, but I kind of like it.
You know what? I don’t even remember the song. I just remember the title. It was on one of those batch-of albums when we were really not real stellar and on the top of our game. I’d rather not think back on some of that stuff.
I’ve heard Elton say that he thinks [1986’s] Leather Jackets is the low point. Do you agree?
No. I think there’s actually a couple of good songs on there. I certainly don’t think it’s the low point. I think one of the worst albums we ever made, though it does have one of our best songs on there, is [1982’s] Jump Up! It does have “Empty Garden,” but the rest of it is just junk. I was never a fan of [1997’s] The Big Picture, either. I thought that was one of the most anemic records we made. In fact, it was miserable being in the studio, since it was all done on machines.
That’s what made [2001’s] Songs From the West Coast so refreshing to hear when it came out.
That was definitely the turnaround. The sad thing is, a lot of those records that we made pre-West Coast and post-Blue Moves, there were a couple of decent records. The unfortunate thing about them is that they’d have a couple of really good songs on them, but because the rest of them were sort of lackluster, those songs got lost. I always thought it would be a good idea to take individual songs off those albums that are really good and have somebody redo them and have a compilation album. So many of them are really jazzy, and I’d love to get people like Diana Krall and have them do versions. People have never really heard those songs, and there are some really good songs on there. Sometimes the production didn’t help them out, either.
What happened where the quality control sunk to the point where you made Jump Up!?
I don’t know. I suppose you could blame it on narcotics. Who knows? We’ve all had our demons and all ridden the dragon, as they say, but it’s not real complimentary to our artistic skills. Maybe it works for some people, but I don’t think it served us well. I think we just got tired. We got . . . It just didn’t work. There are so many things that you could throw into the mix that made it just go south for a while. I really have no idea. It’s really foggy.
It’s funny to think that you’ve had the same job since you where 19, 18 . . .
Try 17! [Laughs] And I’m glad I still got it, because I don’t know how to do anything else. [Laughs] No, yes I do, I suppose. That’s ridiculous. I’ve done a lot of other things, but it’s definitely what I do best.
I recently wrote a couple of songs with Burt Bacharach. How do you turn down that chance? Unfortunately, nothing has happened with them yet. They were in a bit of a country vein. I’ve written with Burt before. It was fun to write with him. There’s always somebody that comes along. I’ve love to find a young kid that I could work with in the same way that I work with Elton. I mean, Elton works with other people when he does his musicals and other projects. I’d like to find somebody. There are projects I have on the back-burner that I’d like to get off the ground. As of yet, I haven’t been aggressive enough about them. I suppose if I could, I’d move them along. But I’ve got time.
Do you think it’s going to be another seven years before the next album?
I don’t think so. I think there’s a new fire in our belly. Quite honestly, I don’t think it will be too long before we are in the studio again. This album has been too satisfying. We’ve yet to see how it will be received in sales and charts and that, but it’s already doing very well in England. It was released earlier there and came in the charts at Number Three. That’s satisfying. But we’ll see here in America. Hopefully word of mouth and whatever kind of publicity we’ve had on it . . . Elton has worked himself silly doing promotion work. We’ll see. I think we’re having too much of a good time writing and recording now. If we do something, I don’t think it’ll be too long.