As the sits alongside his beloved cocker spaniel, Arthur, inside a plush villa at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Elton John is a man who has been creating almost as much controversy as music of late. And he’s been creating a lot of music.
Last night, John was in fine form during a Ray Charles tribute at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The night before, he played a cancer benefit at Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne’s mansion. Later today, he’s heading down to the O.C. to host a tennis event for his AIDS foundation. Then it’s off to Las Vegas for two weeks of The Red Piano, his musical residency at Caesars Palace. And there are the two musicals that open next year – including his first with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. Finally, there’s the real reason he wants to talk today: Peachtree Road, his strongest and most revealing album in years.
Yet none of this is why John has been making headlines recently. In the weeks leading up to the release of Peachtree Road – his forty third album, and the first he’s ever produced himself – Sir Elton has been at the center of a few royal media flare-ups. First, upon arriving at Taipei Airport, he offered a memorable critique of the Taiwanese press corp., calling them “rude, vile pigs” on live TV.
From there, Captain Fantastic’s 2004 goodwill world tour moved on to London, where one newspaper recently dubbed him “England’s Alternative Queen.” While accepting a songwriting award at magazine’s annual awards show, John expressed his outrage over the fact that Madonna had even been nominated in the Best Live Act category. “Anyone who lip-syncs in public onstage when you pay seventy-five pounds to see them should be shot,” he said: “That’s me off her fucking Christmas-card list, but do I give a toss? No.” (Madonna replied that he’ll stay on her Christmas-card list “whether he’s naughty or nice.”)
“For me, this moment in my life is about trying to be true to myself, and I got in trouble this week when I spoke my mind,” John says. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I said, but you know what? Anyone would have thought that I had said I believe that Hitler was right or something. Madonna was probably the wrong person to choose to level the accusations at, because there are far worse culprits. I kind of regret that. But you know what? I’m fifty-seven – I’ve got to speak my mind.”
On the new album’s first track, “The Weight of the World,” you sing about being “amazed that I’m still around.” Are you surprised you’re still standing?
I’m amazed I’m still around and still as enthusiastic, because there was a point when because of the drugs and the depression you become cynical. You hate your career and you hate everything. I came out of that, and I still am enjoying what I do like I was in the 1970s. Last year I wrote sixty songs. I wrote two musicals, which were totally different from each other – Billy Elliot, which is a Seventies pastiche, and lestat, which is Bernie’s and my first-ever musical together and totally without electronic instruments. I also wrote a lot of songs for the movies. It’s like when we were in the Seventies, when we did two albums a year.
2001’s “Songs From the West Coast” and “Peachtree Road” find you back in classic form. How did it happen?
I have to thank [producer] Pat Leonard for the last record. When we went into the studio, Pat said, “Just do what you do. Stop being someone you’re not, Be Elton and play a lot of piano.” Songs wasn’t a big commercial success here, but that wasn’t the point of it.
“Porch Swing in Tupelo,” on “Peachtree Road,” concerns Elvis Presley. Has it occurred to you that you’re doing Vegas during a healthiertime in your life than the King did?
I remember seeing Elvis in concert the year before he died. My mom was there, and we met him backstage. I knew he would be dead in a short time. He was so tragic. Yet within that tragic persona – he came onstage and was like a zombie – there were flashes of incredible brilliance. But it was suffocated by all the shit going on inside his body, the shit that he was doing to himself. If he had lived in Britain, I don’t think that would have happened to him. The celebrity world of America has too many yes men. You get cocooned. At least when I was doing drugs, I had my good friends move away from me because they didn’t want to know me.
Were you ever close to an Elvis-like tragic ending?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Just look at the footage of me from the Ryan White funeral [AIDS activist White died in 1990 at age eighteen], where I’m huge, and I have white hair, and I look seventy years old. I can’t believe that Elvis died at only forty-two. It seemed to me that he was sixty when he died, because he looked sixty.
At your most decadent, what was the most insane purchase you ever made?
I thought at the time there were two: a Francis Bacon painting, which I paid about 40,000 pounds for in the early Seventies; then I paid 130,000 something pounds for a Man Ray photograph in the early Nineties. I thought I lost my mind on both of them, and I’ve still got both. But cars were the biggest waste of money in the early days. Whenever I watch MTV Cribs, I cringe. I think, “Oh, my God, he has got no great art on the walls and twenty motorcycles and twenty cars. Sell the cars and buy a nice piece of art.”
By causing a controversy recently, aren’t you paying Madonna the ultimate tribute by borrowing from her media handbook?
Yeah. In England the controversy has been far worse. The tabloids were having a field day with it. I’d like to set the record straight. This was said at the QAwards. It was about the Best Live Act of the year, and young bands like the Libertines and Razorlight and Muse, these kids go around playing gig after gig in a van or a bus or whatever. The category was the Best Live Act of the year. If it would have said Best Show of the Year, I wouldn’t mind.
Confess – you still want to get Madorna’s Christmas card or, because of her interest in Kabbalah, perhaps her Hanukkah card?
Maybe the Hanukkah card, yeah. I have great respect for her as a relevant and pioneering artist. I like Madonna, and I’ve had her to my house for tea. She’s probably hurt by what I said, but it was the British irreverence that was flying around the room. The MC was a guy named Jonathan Ross, who was roasting us all. He said, “Oh, the greatest act of the year: me – Madonna coming on my show and me saying that I liked her single.” Do I regret saying that I don’t think live music is about lip-syncing? No. But do I regret having said Madonna’s name? Probably, because she’s one of the few who do it the least. But again, I think, “Well, I saw Shirley MacLaine, and I saw Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler and Mick Jagger all run around for two hours singing.”
As a member of the rude American media, may I say that “Rude, Vile Pigs” sounds like a terrific band name.
What happened there was very unfortunate, and it’s been misrepresented. The Taiwanese press has a history of doing this. It was twelve o’clock at night. We had been flying for seven hours, because you can’t fly to Taiwan from Shanghai, because China doesn’t think Taiwan exists. So you go to Hong Kong, and we got to Taipei at 12:15, and they were deliberately trying to fuck with us. I was tired. Of course, I didn’t know it was going live everywhere. So that’s got to be popping up on Celebrities Misbehaving for ever and ever.
A very special all-Elton episode.
The Björk one is my favorite – when she’s hitting the guy.
I missed that one.
Björk lands with her son, and a photographer tries to take a picture. She just wallops him. Brilliant. I loved that.
I wonder where you think you fit into rock history. You arrived during the sensitive singer-songwriter era, but then you became the sensitive singer-songwriter in a Donald Duck suit.
I was hip for a while, and then I started wearing the clothes. I’m never going to be thought of in the same terms as David Bowie or Lou Reed. I’m a different animal. But then you get Michael Stipe telling me he used to go around L.A. with Courtney Love in a limo listening to Yellow Brick Road. I guess I’m not the sort of artist people are writing in their top-ten list, but…
You’re in their cars.
Yeah, like you would never say, “I like the Carpenters.” Yet Karen Carpenter is one of the greatest voices of our life-time. You would slip Led Zeppelin on and put the Carpenters in the closet. I accept that.
Do you think your celebrity disconnected people from your music?
There were times I worried the persona was getting in the way of anyone taking my music serously. I always took the music seriously. Even when I made a record like Leather Jackets in the worst drug stage of my life, I always gave my best. But you’re foolingg yourself if you think you can write on drugs. People still think about me and think of those glasses and the boots. That’s something I created myself, and I cannot have any grievances about it, because it helped me as well. And the music lives on, and the people are still coming. More and more people are covering our old songs again. But the persona was my fault, and I can’t blame anyone else.
There are songs such as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and new songs such as “My Elusive Drug,” on “Peachtree Road,” where it feels like Bernie Taupin is channeling you. Yet you two don’t communicate all that much, night?
No, as a couple, we live very far apart. I am Captain Fantastic, living mostly in England when I’m not touring. Bernie really has become the Brown Dirt Cowboy in Santa Ynez Valley [California]. Bernie always wanted to live in America. Even from the early days, like Tumbleweed Connection, he’s been so influenced by his love of America. We don’t see each other very often, but we’ve become closer. He’s always known me inside out. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is about the two or three years when we lived together with my parents. He’s like the brother I never had. But you don’t have to live on top of each other to have that. That distance keeps us close.
Are there any lyrics by Bernie that remain a mystery to you?
“Take Me to the Pilot” – I don’t think either one of us knows what that one’s about.
Finally, your new song “All That I’m Allowed” is a powerful expression of gratitude. What are you most grateful for today?
I’m most grateful for just having my life back after I wasted sixteen years of it doing drugs. One thing the twelve-step program teaches you is gratitude, and I’ve been blessed a million times over. My life is the best it’s ever been, and it seems to get better. I’ve done a lot of work on myself, so it should be better. Like the song “Weight of the World” says, “I’m happy to see a sunset/Instead of a line.” That’s exactly where my life’s at today. Make way for duckling – John onstage in 1980 John and Madonna in 1995, during happier times. “England’s Alternative Queen” helps kick off the football season, in September. Greeting Taipei’s “rude, vile pigs” in September With boyfriend of eleven years, David Furnish, at John’s fifty-fourth birthday party in 2001