When Bernie Taupin auctioned off his extensive archive of original lyric manuscripts last year, many crucial Elton John songs were missing, including “Candle In The Wind,” “Border Song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” It turns out they’d been in the possession of his ex-wife Maxine Taupin ever since they split 43 years ago. And on December 9th, she’s auctioning them off at at Bonham’s in Los Angeles.
“I thought after 40 years of having these fabulous treasures and enjoying them that it was time to have somebody else enjoy them,” Maxine Taupin tells Rolling Stone. “And with the fever-pitch interest in Elton, it’s really the year of Elton John with the movie Rocketman and with his autobiography Me. I figured this was a good time.”
It’s hard to predict how high bids will go, but the auction house has set the following estimates: “Candle In The Wind” ($150,000 to $250,000), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” ($150,000 to $250,000), “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” ($100,000 to $200,000), “Bennie and the Jets” ($80,000 to $120,000) and “Border Song” ($30,000 to $50,000). (She also has the “Your Song” manuscript, but the auction house already has an “aggressive pre-sale offer” and will probably sell it privately.)
Maxine doesn’t recall how she wound up holding onto these items after separating from Bernie. “You don’t just normally sit in a room and divide things up, but it might have happened like that,” she says. “I don’t really remember the moment. But some of them were framed on a wall in my home and other ones were in a bank vault, perfectly preserved.”
The lyrics are handwritten and typed on blank typing paper and reveal many discarded lyric fragments. For example, “Candle In The Wind” originally began with “Goodbye Marilyn Monroe” before he settled on “Goodbye Norma Jean.” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” features the crossed-out line “You can’t plant a tree in a penthouse” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” has a unused section with the lines “cause we get us a draft and kick up stink.”
Most intriguingly, “Border Song” has an entire verse that didn’t make the cut: “My God, I’m sick of this motel/please give me the key to this coal hole/there’s a man down here in a mousetrap/praying that he doesn’t see your black cat.” The lines were crossed out and replaced by the “Holy Moses, let us live in peace” verse from the finished song. That part was written in John’s handwriting, though it’s unclear if he added them in himself or if they came from Taupin.
Maxine began dating Bernie in 1970 and they married the following year. She inspired some of his greatest love songs, including “Tiny Dancer.” The song refers to her as the “seamstress” in the band because she sewed tourist patches on Elton’s denim outfits while on tour.
“Hearing it today takes me back to the first moment that Elton and Bernie played it for me at Trident Studios,” she says. “It was a big surprise to me because Bernie did not show me the lyrics when he wrote them like he usually did with other songs. They played it for me in the studio with Elton on one side of me and Bernie on the other. I was totally blown away when Bernie said, ‘I wrote this for you.’ It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
A couple of years later, she was hanging out with Bernie when Elton walked through the door after a long tour. “He was tired and was talking about the tour and how difficult and challenging and wonderful it was,” she said. “I just rolled my eyes and said, ‘Oh my God, the bitch is back.’ We all started laughing and that is how that phrase was coined.”
She also suggested he write songs called “Harmony” and “Love Lies Bleeding,” which he wound up doing for 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The latter title was taken from the name of a flower she came across in a plant catalog.
Bernie wrote the lyrics by himself, but coming up with the tiles of song as famous and distinct as “The Bitch is Back” and “Love Lies Bleeding” might have earned her a piece of the publishing if she ever pressed the matter legally. “I would never, ever do anything like that,” she says. “That is totally not my style. Coming up with an idea for something and sharing it and telling someone that I loved to use it, that’s fine. It’s enough. It’s enough that he thought it was a great title. I didn’t invent it.”
Maxine hasn’t spoken to Bernie in many years and she last saw Elton in concert when he played Radio City Music Hall in 2004. She enjoyed seeing Rocketman, but she feels the movie didn’t quite capture the guy she knew in the early 1970s. “My experience with Bernie and Elton in what I call ‘the foundational years’ were very different than what was represented in that film,” she says. “There was so much joy and laughter and the excitement of success and notoriety. Elton is so generous and he has an unbelievable sense of humor and love. He had love for his mother and John Reid and a lot of that love wasn’t represented in the movie.”
She’s kept a low profile since the 1976 separation, rarely giving interviews or discussing her past. (Her silence led to some funny misconceptions about her life, like Wikipedia listing “seamstress” first among her three supposed occupations.) And even though she’s heard “Tiny Dancer” countless times, it still brings a smile to her face. Recently, a good friend sent her a video of his 21-year-old niece singing it when asked to name her favorite song, having no idea it was about her. “It’s those kind of things that make that song important to me,” she says. “Someone that is so much younger loves that song. It means something important to them. It’s a great thing.”