Peter Greenberg and his two-man film crew had just flown into San Diego from L.A. with the Elton John tour. They had quickly hopped onto the stage of the tense and sweaty Sports Arena to map out their camera position, behind the speaker columns, out of view of both the 15,000-seat audience and the main man onstage. This will be for the Newsweek Broadcasting Service, a division of the magazine, where Greenberg is a reporter; this two-minute number they’re working on will go to 55 customer-TV stations around the country.
Standing right next to Greenberg in this tight, frazzled knot of people backstage is Johnny Hyde, the longtime small-town California DJ, now program director of KCRA radio in Sacramento. Like Greenberg, Hyde free-lances TV features, and he’s here to gather material for a possible piece on the Today show.
Greenberg is hopping and yelling and Hyde is barely keeping his doubleknit cool, because here, no more than three minutes before Elton John is due onstage, they are being told that Elton has changed his mind and doesn’t want cameras onstage. They can shoot from the audience, and they can shoot only one number: “Burn Down the Mission.” And they can have exactly 20 seconds, at the end of the song.
Greenberg puts on a little show – he is stunned, it seems, dazed and at a loss. He jumps on Connie Pappas, a partner of Elton’s manager John Reid, and publicist Peter Simone, reminding them of their earlier promise – a general one – to let him shoot the show. He shakes a flustered head when Pappas begins to explain just where cameras could be placed. But nothing can change John’s apparent orders. Greenberg walks away. The lost and confounded guise has not worked. He is left only one alternative.
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“I, I’ll steal it,” he says, stalking the catacombs backstage “That’s what I’ll do.”
The two crews are able to roll their cameras when Elton John appears out of the dressing room, where, from out of a half-dozen huge, white steamer trunks, he has selected tonight’s uniform: a violet top hat brimmed with rhinestones, a stone-studded white scarf, a long-waisted topcoat and satin pants with wide chartreuse and violet stripes. Long violet and black feathers jut out of the hat, and Elton’s glasses are framed in wispy fur. He stands still, looking a little nervous, surrounded by security guards. His own bodyguard, Jim Morris (the current Mr. America), is clutching the curtain, ready to pull. John Reid, his manager, hustles around with orders for everyone. And Bernie Taupin, lyricist of the Taupin/John team, stands aside – tranquil and tanned from a recent vacation. He and wife Maxine are on board for the first couple of swings of the tour, mostly to watch, listen and enjoy the limousine rides.
The audience, responding to the darkened houselights, is already screeching. When they spot this outlandish little mass of flash climbing the stage stairs, they get even crazier, and the noise level is actually accelerated and sustained for a full two minutes while the show begins, sound and fog machines creating the whooshy, spatial opening of “Funeral for a Friend,” which gives John a chance to sit studiously at the piano, creating immediately that ironic juxtaposition of nonsense costuming and serious music which helped make him a stage star four years ago, when he first came to the States, to Los Angeles, to play the 350-seat Troubadour for a week.
With the show begun, the camera crews are forced idle for an hour, to the halfway point of the concert. That’s when “Burn Down the Mission” turns up. The crew members sit or pad around backstage, ignoring the unfurling, unrelenting music: “Love Lies Bleeding,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Grimsby,” “Rocket Man,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Daniel,” “Grey Seal” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
They are missing some show. And not just the music, which is performed well, and is staged, lit and amplified swell. There’s this parade of young girls hurtling up onto the stage, or being tossed up, and they land right in front of Elton and his equally glitter-dressed Steinway. From there, they are led, pulled or carried into the backstage area by blue-shirted security cops. If they jump onstage, they are hustled out the back door, banished from the concert.
The others are casualties and are placed in the first-aid room, where two nurses attend to them. By the end of 15 songs, one of the nurses says that they’ve seen maybe 24 girls, mostly the victims of “festival seating,” of pushing and shoving by people behind them. Also, several faintings from excitement and a couple of drug overloads – “But not nearly as much as we get for the teenybop concerts here – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, or, you know, the Moody Blues.
“What kind of drugs at those concerts? Oh, mostly LSD.”
Peter Greenberg beamed. Looking conspiratorial, he pulled me aside and told how his cameraman was able to cop 364 feet of film – approximately eight minutes. “Simone was standing there with his watch, ready to time us and hurrying us to set up our cameras, and my man is futzing around with his meters and shit, and all the time his camera was running. I mean, I didn’t even know!”
A week later, I called Greenberg to find out when all America might see his work. He had scored a minute-and-a-half interview with John on the rented 707, called the Starship, on its way back from San Diego to L.A. that night, and before the trip to San Diego, he had shot some interiors of this rock-tour plane. “You know what I call this?” he asked, inviting consideration of the plane’s garishly decorated compartments: a tiny bedroom with Plexiglas nightstands and hideaway bed (for certain rock groups, a waterbed is installed), and a standard airplane John, but also a shower and a sink with an orange bowl. Next door, a parlor with contempo pillows and fireplace with artificial, day- and night-glo “fire.” In the main cabin area, a long bar, flanked in mirrors and Mylar, gold and orange foil. Greenberg had a phrase for all of this: “2001: Levitz.”
Anyway, so he was all set, right?
“Well,” he said. “Funny thing. It’s not going to be aired. Because of the position they put us in, we got unusable film, even though we stole stuff.”
But up in Sacramento, it’s full speed ahead for Johnny Hyde and his project. “The film looks good,” he said. “We’re editing it now.” Hyde’s camera operator also had been given 20 seconds originally. “Then they said two minutes.” He smiled. “We ended up with a good three minutes.”
In San Diego, Hyde had fumed at Simone’s antipublicity stance; had gnawed at a roast beef sandwich in a dressing room and wondered out loud why radio and TV were being treated so bad. He’d had to go past Simone and strongarm Elton’s manager before being allowed to do this fluffy piece of business for the Today show, he said, essentially free promotion of Elton John to a large audience unfamiliar with him. “Until these last 18 months,” said the 40-year-old Hyde, “the mass media had treated rock stars as second-class citizens. Only in the last 18 months was rock recognized as a legitimate form of entertainment and a legitimate business. Broadcasters have always been supposed to serve the public, and now that we’re opening our arms to the younger, progressive artists, they’ve gotten to the point where they think they don’t need media.”
Hyde and crew had to stay with the tour up to San Francisco and wait through two more postponements, before getting John for an 11-minute interview at 1 a.m. on Friday morning, Elton pale and weak but patient, after the show in Oakland, on a day Elton will not soon forget.
For a whole week, the station had been up and screaming about his appearance there – “E.J. the DJ!” It was a juicy plum for KFRC. The other AM rocker in town, KYA, had been graced with a 15-minute phone call from Elton John two days before. But Elton in San Francisco, at the KFRC mike, picking his own records, reading his own spots – never in his 11-year radio career had Michael Spears, the station’s new, 27-year-old program director, come up with such a coup. He put out the word, every ten minutes for a week, it seemed: Elton John, Thursday, for a three-hour show from 3 to 6 p.m., just before the concert at the Oakland Coliseum.
When Thursday came around and it was time for the countdown, KFRC was near hysteria. A half-hour before, the announcer shiver-shouted, “Any minute now, Elton John will walk through that door and be a disc jockey on KFRC! I’m so ex-cited!”
Finally at three o’clock – “Good afternoon, this is Michael Spears, I’m the program director of KFRC. About five minutes ago on a day when we’ve probably had the best – or worst luck than we’ve ever had before – got a telephone call from one of our people with the Elton John tour. And, uh, it is not confirmed yet but apparently Elton John ate something last night that did not agree with him and he has food poisoning: We are not sure of anything more than that at this point except that, temporarily, his show this afternoon has been postponed – uh, there’s some word that perhaps his concert, too, tonight and we are checking on that. A doctor is with Elton right now, he’s lying down, and we’ll check for some more details and bring you all the information as we get it.”
A quick switch to KYA, and a cheery announcer named Christopher Cane was talking to a man on the phone. “We’ll sit here and have a nice little chat this afternoon, John, and find out some things about you that people don’t normally ask in everyday interviews. Gee, your life is really a combination of myth, real-life experience, rumors – you know, things of that nature. But let’s ask a couple of basic questions and find out what you’re really like, OK?”
“OK, the myth and the mystery . . .”
“The mystery of John Lennon . . .”
“Oh my God . . . will be revealed today on KYA.”
“Listen, John, what are you like when you’re not performing or recording or on the road, and do you know the true definition of leisure time?”
“Uh, I find that I have a very hard time relaxing, and my favorite occupation when I’m not doing any of the aforementioned is to lie back and watch TV and just tune out.”
“Do you have any special, favorite programs in the prime-time areas?”
“I haven’t quite caught onto this year’s batch of new programs yet – Oh, Planet of the Apes I’m getting off on.”
“You like to monkey around with that one, huh?”
“I never saw the film, you see, so I’m still impressed by the masks talking.”
Switch back to KFRC. “Bennie and the Jets” is on and as it fades, we hear the voice of Don “Doctor Don” Rose, the morning man. He had shown up at the station to ogle Elton; now, he is pulled into duty. Rose’s early morning MO is to spout purchased one-liners at the rate of two or three a break in a hysterical manner. Right now, he is straight. “It’s happening to you just like it’s happening to us. Elton is ill – I won’t say gravely ill, how ill we don’t know, there’s a doctor examining him in his suite at the Fairmont right at this very moment – we will keep you informed” – Rose suddenly quickens his gait – “as time goes along, on the Elton John station!”
Phones begin buzzing at KFRC. Bill Graham is on the line to read the station out for implying that the concert might be canceled. Connie Pappas on the line, to refute the food poisoning rumor. She had told KFRC’s man at the Fairmont of Elton’s disagreeable meal; somewhere in the relay, Michael Spears got poison on his mind. “That station,” she will mutter later. “As if all that wasn’t enough,” said Pappas, “they tell everyone that he’s at the Fairmont. We had to cut our lines and not take any calls.”
Doctor Don: “Just heard from Connie Pappas, who informed us that the concert will definitely be on tonight. Somehow in this business, the old warhorses just keep coming back at you! But we are definitely just as disappointed as you are. Dave Sholin – all of the guys are here, everybody came in. And funny thing, you know, all of the girls today, you could tell – they were all wearing their best dresses, best outfits, really looked great. We had any number of floral bouquets around the studios. Somebody shined up the coffee pot! We had guards hired. The station was sealed off, security was fantastic! Time kept passing and passing, and finally the word. Elton John has fallen – at least temporarily.”
KYA had to do it, and at 4 p.m., they did it: “This is Roger W. Morgan, program director of KYA. There is a rumor circulating around the Bay Area that Elton John will not be able to make his performance at the Oakland Coliseum tonight. According to sources at FM Productions, and Bill Graham, who is presenting the show, this is simply a rumor and, fortunately, not a true one at all. Elton John is definitely scheduled to go onstage tonight. The show will go on, and we’re also very happy to announce that KYA will be presenting the Elton John interview at 6 p.m. tonight – on the Rock of the Bay. The station that comes through in San Francisco.”
Ouch! In fact, ouch and a half, as KYA followed up with the Billy Preston hit, “Nothing from Nothing.”
“It was the lowest moment in my life,” said Michael Spears a week after that horrible Thursday. Still, he was feeling victorious. On Saturday, just before heading for the airport to board his Starship for dates in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland, Elton called KFRC and ended up answering questions from the audience for an hour. KFRC canceled all ads and records for this face-saving hour.
(Elton really did get ill – either from a room-service dinner or a crab omelet that afternoon. At the show in Oakland that night he was pale and queasy through the first couple of numbers, but proceeded to do his usual.) The real kicker, for Spears, was that he hadn’t even done anything, in the first place, to get Elton. John’s people had called KFRC. Their boy still had these fantasies, see. Rock star wasn’t enough. Record collector wasn’t enough. In L.A. he’d done stints on KMET-FM and on KHJ. And so, for San Francisco, he was asking if he might get on the respective sister stations, KSAN-FM and KFRC.
From the first, Elton John has been almost suspiciously accessible to the press, to media exploitation. With reporters he’s been consistently open and apparently candid. He may hang up on KYA and roll his eyes, or do a tap dance around certain questions, but he is never upset. In the role of pop star, he is happy to make a fool of himself, with his Christmas-tree-on-Sesame-Street fashions, to please the audience. For the same reason, he is happy to pound his piano so hard that his fingers are bleeding and yell out to the crowd: “I’ll play for you even if I’ve only got one finger left!” (This year, he’s carrying with him the bowler’s best friend, Nu-skin lotion which coats fingers with a protective plastic film.) And for the same reason, he understands media as a channel to further reach the fans who love him – and who pay his way.
But somewhere between him and the outside, there are forces which don’t seem to understand the nature of Elton John, and the nature of his success. Plastic protection. At KFRC, Michael Spears accepts John. “He’s straight ahead, I know that. But I don’t know about the people around him. It’s like Nixon, with people insulating him, not letting him know what’s going on, telling him everything’s OK when it’s not.” Another man, an artists’ manager who has spent time with John, says “Elton is hard to talk to when anybody’s around. By himself, he’ll talk.”
The first time John worked L.A. he stayed at the Continental Hyatt, modest rates for modest rooms. Nowadays, when he’s in town, which is about four months out of each year, he stays at a rented house high up in Beverly Hills – this is the little $50,000-a-year number that Clive Davis took for the summer of ’72. (His declaration of the rental as a business expense was one of the reasons given by CBS for dismissing Davis as president of the record company.)
The house is a neat Tudor-styled six-bedroomer and comes complete with patio, back lawn, pool and a staff of four keepers. The furnishings are a mixture of W&J Sloane’s and Museum Deco, with stagey floor-to-ceiling drapes in almost every room and plenty of couches and wingbacks and Mediterranean cabinets and bars. Elton John thinks it’s all “horrible,” and wherever he can he adds his own touches.
Like in the circular foyer that greets you, an airy space lit by a graceful chandelier, the hallway to the left flanked by two pots of dried flowers set on ceramic columns. Elton has placed a Rockola jukebox there, a flashy computer-like holder of 80 tunes, stocked, of course, by Elton, with singles by Johnny Bristol, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, the Ohio Players, BTO, Steely Dan, Shirley Brown, Thelma Houston, Bobby Bland, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Rufus, the Spinners, Smokey Robinson, the Miracles, the Raspberries, Martha Reeves, Tavares, Don Covay, Sly, the Tymes, Souther Hillman & Furay, Ecstasy, Passion & Pain, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sylvia and the Moments, and Kool & the Gang. Also: ZZ Top, Jethro Tull, the Osmonds, Steppenwolf, the Blackbyrds, Three Dog Night, Nilsson, Bowie (“1984”), Curtis Mayfield (“Kung Fu”), Van McCoy, Gene Redding, Mavis Staples, Elvin Bishop and the Dynamic Superiors.
And only one Elton John single: “The Bitch Is Back.”
Other touches. In the study, accouterments of the biz: a TV and videocassette unit blocking the fireplace; record albums stacked neatly on the floor against the bookshelf; a Victorian desk littered with trade magazines and a bag of 500 Qualatex balloons imprinted with the insignia of the current tour, an almost skinheaded Elton John inside a circular piano keyboard. In the living room, on the Steinway, there are picture books on Maxfield Parrish, Dali and Disney. A composition is in progress: a set of lyrics, signed by Taupin, called “Desperation.” Atop a small JBL speaker across the room, there is a neon sign that reads TALKIES. And on the coffee table, inside an ashtray, a lapel button urges: START SOMETHING.
And there are gifts from fans. Outside, in the patio, a candle the size of a small barrel, with ELTON JOHN TOUR ’74 THE BITCH IS BACK along the side. And in the living room, on the floor, propped up against the marble fireplace, is a four-by-five-foot painting of ol’ four-eyes. He is in a classic pose – on a couch, with a passive hand over the couch’s arm. Elton is in a sea blue jacket, baby blue shirt, autumnal vest. His glasses are huge rimmed and shell colored and not at all outlandish. The mood is sober. And it’s wrapped in a garish, gold-painted, curlicute, “1901: Levitz” frame.
It’s a sunny day, ten in the morning. Few of the five house guests are up; they’re padding around in robes, taking breakfast in the patio, doing chores. There are only men – assistants, friends and manager John Reid.
Elton John is also in a bathrobe, conservative blue-on-white terrycloth, and rose-tinted glasses with little red palm trees along the outer rims. He walks into the living room, where Reid in a bright red robe is seated on a couch talking to the road manager. Elton rolls off the latest trade news of their Rocket Records artists’ singles. Kiki Dee is the two-year-old label’s first big hit, and Neil Sedaka, just signed, has entered the charts and looks promising. Elton rattles off numbers, bullets and magazines, then turns to leave.
“What about your own record?” Reid asks.
“Oh,” says John. “I thought you’d never ask.” He consults a scrap of paper from out of his pocket. Oh yes. He is still at the top of the charts, all trades and the second single from Caribou, “The Bitch Is Back,” is Number 12 with a bullet. And Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, exactly a year since its release, is still in the healthy middle of the charts. In the study, by himself, John talks. “I still basically get my kicks from the same things,” he says, “from listening to records and making records. I’m still a fan. Twice in the last week I’ve been at Tower Records at eight in the morning; they opened it for me so I could have a look in peace and look thoroughly through the racks.” This time, he said, “I bought some great spoken-word records.
“I’m crazy. I’ve absolutely got this vision of having – I’ve got a great library and I just like looking around to add things to it.”
His latest major addition is a collection of 30,000 singles, purchased for some $8000 from a former BBC producer. “It’s every single that’s been released in England for the last 15 years or something. I haven’t got ’em yet. I don’t know where to put them. When I move in England, when I buy a new house, I’m going to get them all cataloged – my mother is going to catalog them for me – because it makes me feel a bit uneasy that they’re not. I feel that-inanimate objects have feelings. I hate having my records strewn around the floor, I won’t lend my records to anybody.”
John is saying that he hasn’t changed. Available evidence supports the claim. But there are these questions about “the people around him.”
When Rocket was first started by Reid and John, Elton told a pop paper: “What we are offering is undivided love and devotion, a fucking good royalty for the artist and a company that works its balls off.” But, said one former early employee, the first artists on Rocket were mismanaged, paid a retainer and “no one was trying to get them any work.” In answering these criticisms Reid said he never managed anyone but Kiki and Elton, that in fact he did arrange a U.S. tour for Mike Silver, one of the failed Rocket acts, and that the other, Longdancer, was managed by another man.
Elton John himself will say this much: “Our ideals still haven’t changed, it’s just the first year was a nightmare, really, because we made so many mistakes. We signed a few acts that we shouldn’t have signed and we – see, we thought it was going to be easy, and it’s so difficult.”
John Reid was head of Tamla/Motown’s English operation in the late Sixties, and, at age 25, he is now a pronounced genius, with John and Kiki Dee under management, with separate offices in L.A. for Rocket and for his John Reid Enterprises. He was the man behind the reissue and resurgence of a number of Motown records in England five years ago “when,” he said, “we were having a dry spell.” In America for a Motown meeting in 1970, he saw Elton in performance – it was the week after the legendary Troubadour date – and went after him; he joined Dick James to snare the plum assignment, managing Elton.
Reid is small and short fused. And he lights up especially quickly around Elton John. Said one former employee: “They’re very close. John knows every whim of Elton. He’s the epitome of a personal manager. He will kill for Elton.” Another ex-: “He’s diminutive, but he’s a killer. He’ll punch anyone.” Besides the celebrated incidents in New Zealand last spring–he tossed a glass of champagne at a man for not having enough liquor at a reception for Elton; slapped a woman journalist who scolded him and reportedly called him a “poof” (meaning a gay); and he beat and kicked another journalist whom he said he heard had threatened Elton. He paid a $2500 settlement to the woman and was convicted on an assault charge for the beating.
Less celebrated, but known, was another incident, in Hollywood last year at Universal Studios, brother and neighbor to MCA Records. It was a party to unveil Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and it was held in a screening room, so that a movie could also be shown. “Someone hired a couple of engineers,” one member of the party recalled, “and they brought in these huge speakers and placed them in front of the screen, and set up tape equipment to play the tapes of the album. When they started playing it, it didn’t sound too good the first two or three minutes. So they stopped, and tried again. Still it didn’t sound good, and everyone’s kind of embarrassed, and John Reid went and asked the engineer, ‘Can’t you get the fucking thing together?’ and the engineer yelled back, ‘It’s not us, it’s the fucking tape.’ And Reid punched the guy in the mouth, he was bleeding, and Elton clomped out of there with his friends, yelling ‘bloody cunts!’ at the engineers. The rest of us finally went up to an MCA executive’s office and heard the album.”
John Reid does not deny the incident. “I don’t think it has any reflection on Elton’s competence or character,” he said. Reid does not think he’s particularly short tempered. “They’re isolated incidents,” he said. “I don’t make excuses, I’m not particularly proud of it, but any time anything like this has happened, it’s been in defense of Elton or Bernie, not for personal reasons.”
In talks with friends, enemies and associates of John and Reid, invariably there is an insinuating reminder that they share a house in Surrey.
“No,” said Elton. “He’s just my manager. I have a close circle of friends who just aren’t in the public – sort of like Elvis and his . . . motorbike people. They were the people who first gave Bernie and me encouragement. It’s very much a family. That’s why it’s so incestuous sometimes. We’ve still got the same roadies, and the guy who mixes our sound, and our agent Howard Rose and Connie, and I like it that way. I’m sort of like – not Godfather” – John laughed, perishing the thought – “but everything around us is incestuous, and that’s probably why there might be a lot of talk about us. There’s hardly ever a change in our lineup.”
But Howard Rose was not Elton’s first agent; Connie Pappas, a bright 25-year-old, streaked from a secretarial job with Rose to head of the U.S. Rocket, to partner and vice-president in John Reid Enterprises; Reid wasn’t Elton’s first manager; and Simone is his fifth publicist in four years (“Our problem with PR,” said Pappas, “is that they all got overbearing and thinking they were the reason for the act’s success. You ended up policing them.” Peter Simone, 21, has never previously handled a rock artist; in this case, perhaps, inexperience counts).
Elton John said once, “The only thing that depresses me is the business side of things.” That has not changed, he said, and he tries to keep out of the way of Reid and his dump truck. Reid, after all, did take care of business this summer, negotiating the largest record contract ever for Elton with MCA: A five-year deal calling for six albums in that period and guaranteeing John $8 million for those albums.
“Actually,” said Elton, “the deal is worth more, because of the higher percentage royalty rate. I’m getting 20 or over 20 percent.” The arrangement begins next year, after the spring release of an album he just finished at the Caribou ranch studios in Colorado.
Reid and John chose to stay with MCA after hearing offers from “every conceivable record company – even Motown,” in John’s words. But MCA, stung badly by the loss of Neil Diamond to Columbia, was expected to fight hard to keep Elton. “They came after us – and Mike Maitland [MCA president] just came out – obviously he had orders from the top, I think, ‘Get him at all costs,’ and they did.
“It’s a great deal,” he said. “It gives me more flexibility, and there won’t be so much product coming out. But it will give the public and me a chance to get used to the fact that I won’t be around so much. I want to do other things.”
The desire to stretch out – or at least be able to show that he’s stretchable – is a recurring theme and possibly a fixation with John.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “the ambition was to someday be successful. At that point, I just wanted to be a pianist with a band. So everything that’s happened to me has come as a total shock. Now, I just have ambitions, just to do things. I’ve done it musically, but I’d like to do something that would surprise people, to show that I do have another side to my talent than just writing songs and playing piano. I’ve always said I don’t want to be around in ten years still playing the same set I played last night, ’cause that’d become depressing for me. ‘Cause then I’d be something I set out not to be.”
TV and films are obvious next steps. Elton and Bernie Taupin were the subjects of a documentary shown on TV, and an upcoming England show will be filmed for a BBC special. And John has the role of the Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell’s Tommy. “I’m only in it two-and-a-half minutes; I just sing ‘Pinball.’
“I’d love to be a film star, but not just relying on . . . there’s another side to me, apart from the music,” he says again. “I’d like to be in comedy films. A film like Blazing Saddles, where you could laugh all the time. I’ve got a very sort of Monty Python-ish humor and don’t know if it’d catch on in America. It’s a little bit avant-garde.”
So when Elton asks if maybe a radio station might have him aboard to spin some of his favorite tunes – he’s extending himself in more ways than one. Here’s E.J. the DJ from his two-hour appearance on KMET: the show is in progress:
ELTON: . . . That’s the wonderful Joe Cocker and “I Can Stand A Little Rain,” and before that you heard John Lennon and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out),” and I think right now it’s commercial time. [Following spots for MGM’s The Outfit and Evelyn Wood’s Reading Dynamics School, Elton returns] We have now again a live advertisement from Elton John – this is me? Oh yeah, Hi, this is Elton John, for Licorice Pizza. I’ve never had a licorice pizza, what’re they like? . . . Gives you a good run for your money . . . Licorice Pizza celebrates my appearance this Sunday at the Forum in Inglewood. Can you imagine that, the Licorice people – the Licorice Pizza people have put my entire MCA catalog on sale for 98¢, as well as other great MCA LPs by Kiki Dee, Phoebe Snow, Golden Earring, Silver Jockstrap, and more, all on sale for just $3.68 for 12 albums. No, seriously, it’s only for one album. The Who catalog, the Neil Diamond catalog, the Sears & Roebuck catalog. . . . I understand that all LP people are coming to see me this Sunday night at the Forum – we’ll have to do an extra show – to do that they’re closing their doors at 5 p.m. on Sunday, they’re no fools. Go by and say hello for me. [High voice] “Hello for me!”
(Elton spins records by Little Feat, Kiki Dee and Aretha Franklin and is back: The humor is the same, only the record store has changed.)
ELTON: Did you know that the largest record store in the known world is here in Tower Records. Yes, it’s Los Angeles. Tower is in the heart of the Sunset Strip, and because I’m doing this commercial they’re paying me $7 million! They’ve put a stack of my Caribou albums just inside the front door, and from today to Sunday midnight they’ve paying compensation to everyone who falls over them. I hope you know that the LP featured my single, “The Bitch Is Back,” the LP’s on the MCA label, and it’s listed by the manufacturer at $6.98. However, folks, Tower’s price is only $3.66, and Tower has all my other albums and all my tapes discount priced, too [Elton yodels the word “too” and stretches it out] . . . Here, please ad lib something about Tower. [He starts singing, kiddie-song style]: Oh, I do love to be beside the Tower sign, oh, I do like to be beside the Tower – yes. Tower is in the heart of the Sunset Strip – and here I’ve got to sound a little loose. [Pause] And it’s open tonight and every night of the year until midnight. I know, I sleep there as I said before. As they say in advertising, go get ’em, go to Tower.
(Two more commercials later, John plays Little Feat, followed by Syreeta Wright and Neil Sedaka. He reads a public-service announcement telling L.A. where to go to get flu shots . . .)
ELTON: And now I’ve got another spot to do. This is a commercial for MCA records and tapes. They told me I could do whatever I wanted for 60 seconds. Right. Have you heard the new Little Feat album? It’s on the Warner Bros, label. And 10 c.c.’s album is good, that’s on UK. What else is good? Oh, Bad Company, that’s on Atlantic, and Syreeta, she’s on Motown. Um, MCA’s got a few good records out, too. They have the Andrews Sisters, you know, Pete Fountain’s greatest hits, um – No, they have Leon Russell, Mary McCreary – who else they got? Elton John, that little punk, you know, the bald one that looks like a bank clerk – little punk, I hate him. Uh, Kiki Dee, Neil Sedaka, Rocket Records. You know, if it wasn’t for Rocket Records MCA would be dead….
I move from the bathroom to the lounge and press the Steward buzzer. Three seconds later he appears, complete with early morning charm.
“Bonjour Monsieur. Ca va?”
Before he says, “Would you like some coffee and croissants?” I have already told him that fresh grapefruit, Melba toast and tea would be required. He vanishes backwards and returns in ten minutes with the tray. Vitamin pills are swallowed – lots of Vitamin E – good for the hair and wonderful for the sex life. I think I am living proof that this is just not true, but I still religiously take them, hoping that one day I will wake up to countless offers and hair like Bjorn Borg.*
Elton John is in the lounge of the Starship on the way to San Francisco. He looks like an elfin cartoon, pale-skinned, all in pinks and chocolates today, from glasses (rose-tinted) to shoes (they’re pink) to shirt (pink and brown), and he has a briefcase in his lap, supporting a diary. He is busy writing.
“I’ve kept a diary for the last five, six years,” he says. This, too, is an extension of Elton John, another side of Reg Dwight, born 27 years ago in Pinner, England. He refers me to a chunk of his diary, published last month by the British Vogue, under the title, “My Day,” He was aboard the S.S. France July 22nd, 1974, on his way to New York, from there to Philadelphia for a round of tennis with friend Billie Jean King, and onward to Colorado to make another album. With him on this five-day journey were band members and wives and Tony King of Apple Records. He is writing this entry to the musical cassette of Joni Mitchell. We pick him up after the morning bath:
“At 12:00 I go to the music room to write some new songs. I have only booked it for two hours and to my embarrassment have to eject the ship’s classical pianist. She, however, makes her way to another room directly above and commences battle. I decide to write an uptempo number as most of the songs so far are slowisy. By 1 p.m. ‘Meal Ticket’ is complete – very pleased with it. Play it to the band and they nod their approval.
“At 3:30 p.m. play squash with Tony – he is just beginning and I am not much better – but we do quite well and attract an audience who quickly pick up a few tips on the lesser arts of the game.
“The schedule is now really light. At 4 p.m. rush to the Fontaine Bleu Room. Have tea – also decide to play bingo. Quite prepared to send it up, I find to my delight that I win the first game – £17. Bingo is definitely for me. My fellow players are rather amused, saying: ‘Money always goes to money,’ and other remarks which make me ever more determined to win the next game. However, it is not to be.
“Back to the cabin for a swift game of backgammon which I lose, then off to the swimming pool for a quick dip. The indoor pool is virtually empty. It is a saltwater pool and after three lengths of breaststroke, freestyle and Esther Williams, I am out – my eyes stinging from the salt, my skin shivering from the cold . . .
“I usually have at least one catastrophe when getting dressed. Tonight it is the due tie. My pale blue with yellow spots falls apart due to the catch coming off. I have to choose another. Looking quite the perfect English gentleman (except for my green hair), I swish up to the Riviera Bar for drinks with the Captain. I decide to break my no-alcohol rule and I have a glass of Mumm – excellent. The Chief Purser is extremely nice, but the rest of the crowd is extremely Gucci-Pucci and definitely disapproves of us. Someone says in a rather grand voice, ‘That man over there is Elton John – he is very famous, but I have never heard of him.’ This, of course, amuses everyone in the group and as I am about to fine them all £100 each, I am whisked away for a ship-to-shore telephone call. It is Los Angeles – ‘Caribou is now platinum. Congratulations. Roger and out.’ Back to the Captain. To celebrate the platinum album I decide to break my no-carbohydrate rule, and I have one pretzel. Feeling guilty about the champagne and pretzel, I go out to dinner in the Chambord Room.
“Dinner tonight is caviar, pepper steak, beautiful vegetables and stewed raspberries. Neil Sedaka sent me a bottle of champagne from New York. We all share the bubbly and gossip. Everyone comes under the hammer tonight. You can tell the Continental people from the Americans by looking at their clothes. Why do large American ladies squeeze themselves into dresses that show every inch of flab? I think our table is also coming under the hammer of various people, but we can out-bitch anyone tonight.”‘
I can bitch the best
At your social do’s
I get high in the evening
Sniffing pots of glue
Oh, Oh, Oh.
I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch
Oh the bitch is back
Stone cold sober as a matter of fact**
Elton John at a press conference:
“Who’s the bitch?”
Give me a couple of drinks and I’ll be the bitch.
Elton John, at home:
What about criticism about the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album? Someone – it was in ROLLING STONE –said the hatred of women in that album was “awesome” and pervaded the album?
“I don’t know. I went to WFIL in Philadelphia and George Michaels said, ‘Listen, man, you just made the most depressing album I ever heard.’I said, ‘What you talking about?’ He said, ‘There’s not one happy song on the album. There’s one happy one, but the rest are so down. Down on chicks, and I just separated with my wife.’ And I analyzed it; I said, ‘You’re right,’ you know. I couldn’t really answer for Bernie, but I would have to agree that there’s a lot of down-on-women songs.”
Bernie Taupin, on the Starship, his wife Maxine nearby:
“I never thought of it.” He offered a laugh tinged with surprise. “I love women! That’s amazing.” He said people have a tendency to read more into his lyrics than he intends. Like how “Border Song” and “Levon” are anti-Semite; how “Honky Chateau” must mean the White House. How “Solar Prestige a Gammon” is an anagram for “Elton’s Program Is a Game.” “But I’ve never written a song meaning something more than it says.”
In Beverly Hills I asked Elton if he always agreed with the lyrics he sings.
“I never question them,” he said. “I just sing them. That’s his part of the fantasy, and I just don’t go and say, ‘What the fuck’s this mean?’ I never question his lyrics at all, ’cause that’s the kick he gets, by seeing his fantasies put onto a record.
“I thought Yellow Brick Road was the best album we’ve done as far as consistency went. Caribou – I can see why people hate Caribou, and I can see why people hate me. I went to a Who concert at Madison Square Garden. We were being shown to our seats, and this guy leaned over and said, ‘I fucking hate that man.'” John laughed. “I can understand that reaction. Why? People – after Yellow Brick Road–people thought I was going to come up with a fucking masterpiece of all time. ‘Well, what’s he going to do now?’ People don’t like the sort of thing I’ve done, you know, they probably think I’m flashy. I can see why people like Grand Funk and people don’t like me – they just think, ‘Oh, he’s full of shit.’ And also I’m on the radio all the time and that probably bores them to fucking tears.”
The costumes, Elton said, will continue to be a staple of his stage personality. “I just do it for amusement. It really started as a tongue-in-cheek thing, because the songs that I was performing weren’t the sort of songs that you’d expect anyone to come in wearing a costume to, ’cause they were very moody songs. And then I started to enjoy it. And there’s not – I never feel like coming out in a suit or a pair of jeans. Even at sound checks I’m a little glamorous.”
“I’ve got a suit which at the moment is being repaired which is incredible. It’s all lights, dangling lights, the shoes light up, a 60-foot parachute comes out, it’s dayglo and just shoots across the stage. And Bill Whiten had this other suit made for me, it’s got wooden legs, and as I step out, a button releases 60 colored snakes that fly into the audience.
“I mean I’ll do anything. If anyone’s prepared to make it and make it work, I’ll get into anything.” Elton never comes up with his own ideas, he said, and he’s never vetoed anything from his designers.
“But I don’t say, ‘Well, I must have this costume made ’cause the public will like it.’ I have it made ’cause it’s a big appeal for me. It’s the same as my records or the songs I write. I don’t want to sort of pander to them in any way, except when I’m performing. When I’m performing, yeah, I’ll pander to them, I’ll do anything for ’em.”
Elton and Bernie’s song-writing has also remained unchanged, he said. They still write only for a specific album; Bernie writes the words first, then submits them to Elton. That must be a moment, I ventured, when the song is returned to Taupin, with music. John smiled.
“Now,” he said, “it gets to the point sometimes where Bernie would send me a lyric and actually not hear the song till the album was finished. So he’d come to the album playback session and it really does him in. He can’t listen to more than three or four songs. It really does him in.”
He doesn’t even know what beat they’ll be in?
“No. He sometimes tries a suggestion, like on the new album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, there’s a song called ‘Better Off Dead,’ which he said, on the bottom of the page, ‘a la John Prine?’ And it’s nothing like John Prine, it’s sort of a – it sounds like a Gilbert & Sullivan song. Semioperatic.”
Taupin: “I wrote it folky, and he turned it into like a galloping major, a regimental thing.”
Captain Fantastic, John says, is a departure. “It’s a story of all the things that happened to Bernie and me, how we met, all we went through up to the point of the Empty Sky album, and all the disappointments, our experiences with music publishers, asking for ten quid a week to live on. It’s the entire album, and I think it’s very uncommercial. I don’t know if there’ll be any singles on it, even now that we’ve recorded it.” The album won’t be out until next spring, but a new single will be released in November, along with the Greatest Hits album. The single is another departure. It’s a Beatles tune, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and it’s performed on the current tour. Ringo Starr heard it at the Forum and declared it “great” at an MCA carnival/party the next day.
The idea came to Taupin from seeing Yellow Submarine on television, said John, and he tried it out at two charity concerts in England last spring. “It went down incredibly well, staggeringly well.” On the session, he said, “John Lennon played on it and put his own personality on it.”
Taupin and John – in yet another departure – have begun writing songs tailored for other artists.
On the solo album by Rod Stewart (who, like Elton, worked with John Baldry in the early days), he duets with Stewart on a John/Taupin number, “Let Me Be Your Car.” Actually, it’s Elton, with Stewart on harmony. “He’s a lazy kid,” said Elton.
“We’ve also written a song for Ringo, ‘Snookeroo.’ He said, ‘Listen, make it nice and commercial,’ so we did. Bernie wrote really simple lyrics, very Ringo-type lyrics, and I tried to write a simple sort of melody to it. And I play piano on it.” (Bernie: “It’s a simple, biographical thing: ‘I was born in a Northern town’ . . . like that. Just that bit got me humming ‘Yellow Submarine.’ “)
Ringo is almost a neighbor of Elton’s in Surrey; they live two miles apart. As for Lennon: “I met him last year in Los Angeles when he was doing the Phil Spector sessions. Tony King introduced me. He’s probably the first big star who I instantly fell in love with. It usually takes me about six or seven meetings with someone ’cause I’m very withdrawn. But he’s so easy to get on with. The first time we met, we got a Mercedes limousine, and we were driving down past the Roxy, and the Dramatics were there, and everyone’s really dressed up to the hilt to go in, all the black people, and they look fabulous. So John and I went past and started going ‘Right on! Right on!’ through the roof. It was great. We were tempted to get in, but we couldn’t ’cause it was full.”
At his Forum concert, Elton introduced “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by saying, “Here’s a song for romanticists, and it’s for Billie Jean King, whom I love.”
What? E.J. and B.K.? But sure enough, the queen of tennis was backstage that show. At the next night’s show, she asked for a stageside seat that would allow her to see Elton’s hands. And she was at the MCA party. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said about the dedication. “I turned red.”
Elton at home: “Well, I’m a sports groupie, you have to understand. And the only sport I play adequately is tennis. I’d met her a year ago, and then we heard she’s be at Wimbledon this year, and I went out with her a lot – eating out with her and having a laugh. She told me about World Team Tennis, so when I came over on the S.S. France, I went, down to Philadelphia to see the Freedoms play, and I played Cosby in an exhibition.
“She’s a lot of fun. I draw a parallel with her and Lennon. It’s that their public image has nothing to do with what they’re really like. And everyone’s got preconceived ideas. You mention Lennon and they go, ‘Oh, he’s a real shit, isn’t he?’ and Billie Jean King: ‘Oh, I hate her, she’s so fuckin’ . . . moody.’ And she’s not.”
Was she an Elton John fan a year ago?
“Yeah, and very shy, too. And she trains to records. And she tells me what’s wrong with my game. I love her ’cause she’s exactly the same as me, determined to win all the time. She hates it losing, and so do I. So someone like that is a knockout for me. I met Jimmy Connors the other night, and he’s incredible, too. They’re my idols. It’s good, ’cause everyone has to have someone to sort of look up to. And also, the line is so close between sports personalities and entertainers – the way it’s done, and mostly we come from the same background. The only thing is, in England, the sports personalities are underpaid.”
Elton John on money: “Money can be funny. It can make people withdraw into themselves, make them become absolutely paranoiac. I’m not a slave to it. I don’t go, ‘I must do another tour this year so I can make enough money to buy so-and-so a sewing machine.’ I enjoy it.”
So do a long and increasing list of friends and employees, subjects of John’s almost torrid generosity. John Reid, for his 25th birthday this September, got an Appaloosa racehorse and a powerboat; agent Howard Rose got a Rolls and Connie Pappas got a diamond in a gold heart. Elton has also surprised band and crew members on previous tours with Pulsar watches and Polaroid SX-70s.
At one time, Elton was notorious for his New York shopping sprees, with Pappas following behind holding a stash of $2000. Now, she said, “we refrain from doing that. Now we set up accounts, or write checks.” But here again, Elton hasn’t changed.
In San Francisco, the day after his ailment, he canceled the scheduled E.J. the DJ run on KSAN following doctor’s orders and went shopping instead, at a tiny shop on upper Sacramento Street, Obiko. Obiko carries jewelry and clothing, the star items being outfits conceived and made by Kaisik Wong, whose designs have been worn onstage by Tina Turner, among others. His ensembles have clearly Egyptian tones, and, at the shop, Steve Arnold, the San Francisco filmmaker (of Luminous Procuress) who Dali has called “the greatest imagination in film today,” describes Wong’s work as “Chinese science-fiction.”
“He bought almost everything,” the shop’s owner Sandra Sakata reported. “Eight pieces,” she said – “jackets, two-piece suits, all one-of-a-kind.” Plus jewelry and hats and berets. She preferred not to say how much he spent, but would not quarrel with a guess of “several thousands of dollars.”
“There were eight or nine people,” she said. “They spent two or three hours here. We closed the store for them. If it didn’t fit him,” said Sakata, “it didn’t matter. He said he would give it to someone else. And if anybody else tried something on and liked it, he bought it.”
Has anyone ever accused Elton John of using a feigned generosity as, say, a defense?
“I’ve read about it,” he said. “‘He does it because he’s insecure.’ It boils down to, say, at Christmas with friends, and you’re opening presents. I think most people will agree that you get more pleasure watching others opening yours. It’s just human nature, right? Shit, I love giving people things, ’cause if I’m able to give someone something they couldn’t possibly afford that I can afford to give them, it’s great. I’m not doing it because I want to be Mr. Generous. But the whole point is: Christ, we’re only around for a short time, and I intend to enjoy it, and the fuck with it, let’s give some other people some enjoyment as well.”
It all goes hand in hand with Elton’s previously stated pop philosophy.
“I take my music seriously when I’m playing and when I’m in the studio. It’s gotta be right or I go crazy. But I don’t take my position as a musician too seriously, because I think there are other musicians who are much better. And a lot of musicians do take their positions far too seriously. They think they are important, and it is a mistake, because in the sense of time we are very unimportant; we’re just extremely lucky to be able to be doing what we’re doing. I used to do sessions for groups and some of these groups thought they were creating masterpieces, just ordinary pop songs that were not very good. I’ve always said that pop music was disposable, and it is, and that’s the fun of pop music. If it wasn’t disposable it’d be a pain in the fuckin’ ass.
“There are so many people who think they’re big cheese – ‘Well, man, we played for 70,000 people.’ Well, it’s great, sure, but I mean, who cares? Next year someone else will be able to do it. Your next door neighbor might do it. And that’s the whole point of pop music. That’s the fun of it, the thrill of it.”