WEARING A LOOSE BLACK SUIT, leopard-print slippers with golden studs and amber-tinted eyeglasses, Elton John ushers me into his Los Angeles condo and introduces me to his family: his partner of 17 years, David Furnish, in a bathrobe at 10 a.m., and his two cocker spaniels, Marilyn and Arthur. Conked out and bundled in a stroller is the newest addition, their baby boy, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John, who was welcomed just nine days earlier, via surrogate, on Christmas Day. “He came sprinting out,” says Elton, looking at his son adoringly. “It was like Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. The obstetrician caught him.” Becoming a dad, he says, “was the most incredible feeling.” Elton, usually quite squeamish, was proud to have snipped the umbilical cord: “It’s like a calamari!”
Elton has owned this aerie in West Hollywood for three years. The walls are lined with contemporary art and iconic photos: Miles Davis shot by Lee Friedlander, and portraits of Nina Simone and Billy Preston by William Claxton. “There is nothing else I collect more passionately than photography,” says Elton, who also hoards porcelain, glass and napkin rings. At his main U.S. home, in Atlanta, it would take four hours to stroll through his photo collection, which includes Tears by Man Ray, a print he bought in the early Nineties for $126,000. “I thought I’d gone stark-raving mad,” he says. Elton also owns properties in the South of France, London and Venice — and a 35-acre estate in Old Windsor, England.
Past the five-foot-tall stack of baby gifts, the apartment unfolds into a large living room. A glass coffee table is covered in art books, glass sculptures and multiple skulls — including ones by William Morris, Marc Quinn and the shiny, metallic “exploding skull” created by Damien Hirst. “The skull is a Venetian thing,” Elton says. “It brings good luck.”
Los Angeles is smog-free this morning, and the window facing east offers a crystal-clear view of snowcapped Mount Baldy, 60 miles in the distance. Elton points down Sunset Boulevard, at a giant ad for the new animated film Gnomeo & Juliet, which he and Furnish produced. Not far to the south is the Troubadour club, where Elton played two legendary sets in 1970 and kick-started his U.S. career with a bang. “I never go past that place without thinking about it,” he says. In the past 40 years — with 35 studio albums and countless singles, collaborations and hits packages — Elton John has sold more than 250 million albums, placing him squarely among the top 10 best-selling artists in history.
On his second night at the Troubadour, Elton looked out from the stage and saw his hero, pianist and bandleader Leon Russell, in the crowd. “Leon was the man,” says Elton. “I had so many influences on piano: Allen Toussaint, Ian Stewart, Booker T., Little Richard, Fats, Garth Hudson, Jimmy Smith, Jerry Lee…the list is endless. But I wanted to be Leon. He played on everything I loved: Delaney and Bonnie, all the Spector records, Frank Sinatra sessions, and the Wrecking Crew. He had that country feel but with rockabilly and gospel and soul all mixed up in it.” Russell, in his commercial prime, thanks to hits like “Tight Rope,” brought Elton on tour in the early Seventies. But soon after, they lost touch.
In December 2008, Elton appeared on Spectacle, the musical variety show hosted by Elvis Costello, where he talked at length about Russell, whom Elton hadn’t seen or spoken to in 38 years. A month later, on safari in Africa, he got the idea to make music again with his hero, who was barely scraping by. “He was touring just to put bread on the table, playing small places and losing his self-respect,” says Elton. “It was awful, like Crazy Heart without the drugs or alcohol.”
The pair were soon in an L.A. studio, with producer T Bone Burnett and Elton’s writing partner of 44 years, Bernie Taupin. The Union is a return for Elton to his country and soul roots, and Taupin’s lyrics revisit the Wild West imagery of the duo’s 1970 triumph, Tumbleweed Connection. On The Union’s last track, Russell thanks Elton for reviving his career, singing, “When you’re in the hands of angels/ Life is oh so sweet/And you feel the love, down deep inside.”
“I thought, ‘What do you give a guy who’s got six houses and 10 of everything?'” says Russell. “The only thing I could give him would be a song.”
“In the last third of my life, I want to make records that I really want to make,” says Elton. At 63, he continues to play more than 100 shows a year, in addition to overseeing an artist-management company and his AIDS foundation, which has raised more than $220 million since 1992 and benefits programs in 55 countries.
Over the course of four hours, Elton reminisces about The Union and the highs and lows of superstardom. He sits on an L-shaped couch with one side under a painting by Juang Yi Hi, and the other under a glossy Steven Klein photograph of a male model in a Speedo. Sir Elton sits with perfect piano posture.
Where’s the piano?
I don’t have one here. I have pianos in Windsor and Atlanta, but I don’t like pianos very much. They’re nine-foot, take up a lot of space, and I never play them. Being a piano player onstage is so frustrating — that’s why I was so acrobatic in the early days. I learned from Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis how to get some attention. Fats used to push the piano across the stage with his stomach.
I always wanted to be someone like Jimi Hendrix — you could do all sorts of things with a guitar. What can you do with a piano? You can decorate it, jump on it or lie underneath it.
Last year; you played more than 100 shows. Why do you work so much?
I have an unconditional love for what I do. And since I got sober [in 1990], each show is a completely joyous occasion for me. Not that it wasn’t joyous in the past, but I can come offstage to my wonderful life, with David in my life, and balance.
And the crowds. I appreciate them much more now that I can see them. I had corrective-lens surgery eight years ago, and now I can see the faces and the signs and albums they hold up.
People say, “Oh, the Stones are too old, they should quit.” What the fuck are they going to do? I mean, can you imagine saying to Keith, “Stop playing the guitar”? Would they say that to Muddy Waters? It’s like, “Fuck off!”
I do 110, 120 shows a year. I do the band show, the Leon show, the Billy Joel show, the Elton solo show, the Elton/Ray Cooper show, the Elton/orchestra show. I played over 80 different songs last year. I never get bored. I’m a fidget. Like Jack White. I love people like that. He’s always doing something. And Brandon Flowers and Elvis Costello and Dave Grohl. We should start a band. We’ll call ourselves the Fidgets. I’ll play keyboards.
Have you read Keith Richards’ autobiography?
I haven’t. Part of me wants to, part of it just sounds like it will take me back to the drug things. I was a bit put off by hearing the bit about Mick’s penis. I’m a big Mick fan. If I said that Bernie Taupin was a miserable cunt and had a small penis, he’d probably never talk to me again. He isn’t a miserable cunt and he doesn’t have a small penis — I don’t think, I’ve never seen it. It’s like, “Why do that?” especially with someone you’re in a working relationship with.
How is your relationship with Bernie Taupin these days?
We’ve never had an argument about music, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a personal argument, either. There have been times where I’ve behaved very badly, and he’s been very concise at saying he didn’t approve. When we separated for a while [in the late Seventies], there was a bit of an awkwardness. I think we both felt a little guilty.
I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve never had a bad word between us. And we’ve never written a song in the same room. I’ve never, ever felt any different from writing a song now as when I was writing “Your Song” in 1.969. I still get the same joy of saying, “Bernie, listen to this.”
In the liner notes to “Captain Fantastic’, you show a January 12th, 1969, diary entry that says, “Had row with Bernie.”
Really? I don’t know what we had a row about. I can’t imagine.
You used to edit his lyrics. That never pissed him off?
If something was too long — like “Daniel” — I’d just put a pencil through it. The last verse, about the Vietnam thing, just made the song too long. He never questioned it, never complained about it.
Your diary also says you used to hang out “all day” at Musicland, your local record shop. What were you doing there all day?
I used to hang out all day. Even when I became Elton John, I used to go there. Give me a record store and I’m in hog heaven. I was so interested in what people were buying. I’ll tell you, the biggest seller was the Soft Machine record, on import, because everyone wanted the American cardboard. It was more durable.
Where are your records now?
I sold them. Right before I got sober, in 1989, I was just starting the Elton John AIDS Foundation. To raise money, I sold them for $250,000 to somebody in St. Louis. I really regret it now.
Your hands are pretty small. How does that affect how you play piano?
I would never have made it as a classical pianist, because you need long fingers to get all the notes together. I’m a power player. I hit the keys hard. That’s why I’ve got very strong forearms, like Popeye.
What was the first music you played for Zachary?
We got back here two days after he was born, and I put on the Christmas carols from the King’s College Choir in Cambridge, and I had him in my arms. It was “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and I just lost it. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
Does he have his own iPod yet?
Yes. We put on lullaby versions of songs by Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and the Beatles. Linda Ronstadt’s Dedicated to the One I Love, Carole King’s Tapestry, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Kate Bush, because we love her so much. Then some Chopin and Mozart.
You keep up with new music, and recently said, “Songwriters today are pretty awful.” There must be someone out there you like.
I like bands that have made their reputations by playing live. Real bands like Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and the Black Keys. We played with a band on T Bone’s revue, the Punch Brothers, and I want to make a record with them. They’re astonishing, the best jam band I’ve ever seen. It’s fucking brilliant. Jon Brion’s production is incredible. They, for me, are the exciting new thing. That’s where I want to go.
You played piano and sang on Kanye’s last album, on “All of the Lights.” How’d that happen?
I ran into him in Honolulu last January. He’s a stone-cold genius. He’s like Miles Davis meets Frank Zappa. 808s & Heartbreak is the sexiest record since What’s Going On.
He played us the track for “All of the Lights” and it was fucking amazing. It’s like, “Wow, this is something else.” I mean, he sampled Bon Iver! That’s his genius. His new album is a masterpiece.
Like Kanye, you have a history of going off the script at awards shows. At the Q Awards in 2004, you said, “Madonna, best fucking live act? Since when has lip-syncing been live?”
To be honest, the Q Awards are a piss-up. The evening started with [host] Jonathan Ross coming out saying, “Heather Mills, what a cunt!” It’s very irreverent. I get up there to present Best Live Act, and Madonna was nominated. I go, “Madonna? She’s the best live act?!”
You actually said, “Anyone who lip-syncs in public, onstage, when you pay 75 quid to see them, should be shot.”
I still believe that. Anyone who lip-syncs should be shot. Just take ’em out on the street and shoot em! I think Madonna’s a fantastic showgirl — show-woman — and I’m a big fan of some of her records. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and subsequently I’ve made up and apologized. I think she paved the way for everybody, but I am right. I’m right. Live means live.
You’ve helped Eminem on his path to sobriety.
I love him. I don’t see much of Marshall, but we speak a lot. He’s really worked very hard at [sobriety], and it’s changed him so much. I just saw a picture of him in a magazine, and he looks like a 17-year-old boy. I’m so happy for him.
What do you guys talk about?
We have such a laugh. We call each other cunts. I ask him how he’s doing and tell him how proud I am of him. He’s got a great sense of humor. When David and I had our civil partnership, he sent us a present. In a case, on velvet cushions, were two diamond cock rings. So there’s a homophobe for you [laughs].
Do you see yourself in Lady Gaga?
There’s about five years you have where you can do no wrong, and you work on adrenaline. That was me from ’70 to ’75. We did two albums a year, at least, separate singles, B sides, radio and TV interviews, touring, and it was never work. It was just joyous, at the peak of creativity. It’s a magic time.
That’s what Gaga’s going through. I’ve heard her new album. It’s amazing. The first single, “Born This Way,” is the anthem that’s going to obliterate “I Will Survive.” I can’t think of how huge it’s going to be.
Last June, you played Rush Limbaugh ‘s wedding. How’d you break the ice with that crowd?
I went onstage and said, “I bet you’re wondering what the fuck I’m doing here.” I could not believe I was asked to play. I thought it was a joke. I had a dialogue with him before, and he said, “I’m not anti-gay, I want you to come, bring David.” My goal is for Rush to say, “I support civil partnerships,” and if I rang him right now, I think he might agree. He was one of the first people to congratulate us on the baby. That wedding was the biggest Republican audience I’ve ever played to — Clarence Thomas was there — and they were probably the best audience of the year. They were fucking great.
You made a million dollars and took a lot of flak for it. What was your thought process going into it?
I knew I was going to get my head blown off for it, and I did. I understand why. But I did my homework first. I’m not going to throw away 40 years of trying to do good things by just taking the money and running. The only way you ever solve anything is by communicating, by planting seeds. And America is so divisive. I want to knock down walls and build bridges.
I’m probably the most famous homosexual in the world, and I love that. With that, I have a responsibility, and I sometimes annoy other homosexuals by playing Rush Limbaugh’s wedding and things like that. But I try and do what I believe is right.
You’ve worked a lot with Billy Joel over the past two decades on your Face 2 Face Tours. Billy told me that he has a deli tray backstage, while you have Persian rugs, flowers, candles, manservants…True?
Oh, yeah, I’m very cheeky like that.
And everyone calls you Sharon!
Yeah! I like to have an area to entertain. I don’t want to go back and sit there in front of 12 empty lockers and a vegetable platter. I need the lot. I like to get to shows four hours early and acclimatize. If I’m at the Garden, yeah, I might have naked waiters [laughs]. I had a gladiator theme once.
Billy told me that you admonish him for not writing music anymore.
I always say, “Billy, can’t you write an other song?” It’s either fear or laziness. Billy says, “I can’t write, I can’t write.” Maybe he can’t, but I think there’s still something inside him. At the end of the day, he’s coasting. And it upsets me. Billy’s a conundrum. We’ve had so many canceled tours because of illnesses and various other things, alcoholism He’s going to hate me for this, but every time he’s gone to rehab, they’ve been rehab light. When I went to rehab, I had to clean the floors. He goes to rehab where they have TVs.
I love you, Billy, and this is tough love. Billy, you have your demons, and you’re not going to get rid of them at rehab light. You’ve got to be serious. People adore you, they love you and respect you. You should be able to do something better than what you’re doing now.
Bernie Taupin told me The Union is “certainly the best damn thing we’ve done in 30 years.” Agree?
I think so. We were in the right place, trying to resurrect this person we love. And with T Bone’s expertise and Bernie’s wonderful lyrics, and playing live in the studio… I’m so proud of the record. We’ve sold 300,000 copies without any airplay, and we hope to get it gold.
On Elvis Costello’s Spectacle pro-grain, you spoke of Leon Russell in the past tense, as if he were dead or gone: “Leon’s piano -playing was…””/ did know Leon…” When was the last time you’d seen him?
I didn’t know what he was up to. I’d seen his name around, playing small clubs, but I hadn’t seen him since 1971 or ’72, when I played the Fillimore East. I felt very sad that I’d fallen out of touch with him, that he’d obviously fallen on bad times, because if you see they’re playing the Coach House [venue in L.A.], you know they’re not getting paid very much.
In January 2009, you and David were on safari in Africa, and Leon pops up on your iPod.
I’m such a Luddite. I don’t have an iPad, iPhone, computer or a cellphone. I didn’t even know how to work an iPod — it’s pathetic. So we were getting ready for lunch, we were in Kruger National, and David was scrolling down the artists, and I went, “Oh, Leon Russell! Let’s play Leon!”
When I heard Leon sing “Back to the Island,” an incredible wave of sadness and joy came over me, and I burst into tears. David was horrified! He said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “This takes me back to the most wonderful time in my life, when I met my idol at the Troubadour club. It makes me really angry that he’s been forgotten.”
I understand that Cameron Crowe recorded all of the Union sessions.
He’s got everything from the word “go,” from our first four days, writing songs at the Village Recorders. Cameron was so into it. We hope to enter it into the Tribeca Film Festival. We knew we had it when Brian Wilson came into the studio to do “When Love Is Dying.” Leon played on the Beach Boys records, so he was telling Brian Wilson stories. It really helped Leon’s confidence when people came by to visit him. Ringo came, Stevie Nicks came, Jeff Bridges came, and Grace Jones came and laid on his lap for half an hour. He loved that.
Where did you first see the “Tiny Dancer” scene in Almost Famous?
Jeffrey Katzenberg called me and said, “There’s a scene in this film which is going to make ‘Tiny Dancer’ a hit all over again.” When I saw it, I said, “Oh, my God!” I used to play “Tiny Dancer” in England and it would go down like a lead zeppelin. Cameron resurrected that song.
On tour, what songs do you love to play the most?
“The Greatest Discovery.” I do “Indian Sunset” with Ray Cooper. Nobody knows that song at all, it’s an obscure track from Madman Across the Water, and it gets a standing ovation every night. It’s a six-minute movie in a song. I’ve got to play “Amoreena” sooner or later. Of all of the songs we’ve ever written, though, “Levon” is one of my favorites.
Who is “Levon” written about?
Ask Bernie. I assume it was written with Levon Helm in mind. The name, at least. Part of the enjoyment and mystique of our thing is we’ve never collaborated. I’d never ask Bernie what it means.
I don’t know. I just leave it alone. I always thought “Your Song” was written about one of his girlfriends, and when I asked him that, he just said, “No, it wasn’t!” He gets fairly defensive. The story of how we met is so ridiculous in the first place. I went to Liberty Records while I was still in Bluesology and said, “I may be able to sing, I may be able to write, but I can’t write lyrics,” and a guy hands me a big brown envelope that hadn’t been opened and says, “Take these, they’re from some guy in Lancashire.” [Laughs]
Is it true that you and Bernie slept in bunk beds at your parents’ house?
[Smiles] He was on the top and I was on the bottom. We had so little space. We had a wardrobe, a little stereo set and a separate device so we could both listen with headphones. We used to lie on the floor with our gatefold sleeves, listening to Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix…Electric Ladyland blew my mind. It was an incredible time.
The Union tips its cap to your 1970 masterpiece, Tumbleweed Connection.
I felt more confident writing for this album than I have in a long time. Before I even thought about making this record with Leon, the record company suggested, “Make a Christmas record,” and I nearly killed them. A Motown record? No. It offers nothing creatively for me whatsoever.
I have found, I think, a new path. I knew I had to go back to go forward. I’m not one for wallowing in the past, but I did go back and listen to Tumbleweed and Madman, and it was better than I could have ever imagined it. Listening to Tumbleweed again, I realized that you don’t have to have a hit single to sell a record.
I still love the pop charts, and I still love pop music, but I don’t have to try to compete. Being on the Kanye West record is enough for me.
The arc of your first three albums — Empty Sky, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection — is truly remarkable. I can hardly listen to Empty Sky, and within 16 months you released Elton John — with “Your Song” and “Border Song” — and then Tumbleweed. How do you account for your and Bernie’s growth during that period?
No one’s ever pointed it out before, but you’re absolutely right. On the Empty Sky record we sounded like naive little rock & rollers, then suddenly…it was night and day. I don’t know what happened. I’d finally found my own voice, and the seismic change was happening in Bernie’s lyrics. And recording Elton John was a terrifying step, because I had to play live with an orchestra, and we had a £5,000 budget, so we had to do three tracks in the morning and three in the afternoon. I was really frightened, I didn’t want to mess up, and that steeled me. It gave me great fortitude for the rest of my life.
Before you had any hits on the R&B charts, Aretha Franklin released “Border Song” as a single, in 1970. Did you see that coming?
No way. Up to that point, that was the biggest highlight of our career. I was brought up on American R&B and black music and blues.
In America, they wanted “Bennie and the Jets” to be the third single from Yellow Brick Road, and I fought for “Candle in the Wind.” Then someone from MCA rang me up and said, “‘Bennie’ is the Number One black record in Detroit.” I said, “Release it! Release it!” It wasn’t “urban” then, it was “black.” That was the ultimate compliment, a white boy from Pinner has a Number One black record. I went on Soul Train. Part of me is black, definitely.
Is that so?
I feel black sometimes. I’ve always felt that way. I did “Spirit in the Dark” with Aretha for a TV show, we did it for 15 minutes, and she was in tongue, and I was in tongue playing it. It was going off.
I feel an affinity for black music like no other, and I feel sometimes when I’m playing it that I’m channeling something. Like Eric Clapton, or when Mick sings the blues. Black music was our gospel.
With regard to your wardrobe, was there a specific moment where you said to yourself, “Fuck it, I’m going for it”?
It was a natural evolution. I’d always wanted to go for it anyway. People used to say to me, “You can’t wear that onstage,” but I did. Maxine, Bernie’s first wife, gave me a little Santa Claus where you pull the string and it lit up, and I put it on my crotch when I played the Santa Monica Civic. I was being liberated from my teenage years, where I couldn’t wear Hush Puppies, for fuck’s sake, because Hush Puppies were associated with mods.
So we had midgets onstage, and Linda Lovelace introduced me at the Hollywood Bowl, because I loved Deep Throat. I was just totally free, and it was the most exhilarating feeling in the world. I had so much fun.
Harmonies and backing vocals were crucial to your biggest hits in the Seventies: “Rocket Man,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” etc. I read that your band — bassist Dee Murray, guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsen — recorded those parts while you slept. How’d that work?
At the Chateau d’Herouville [where the band lived while recording Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in France], we’d have all of our instruments set up at the breakfast table. I’d come down, have breakfast, get a lyric, and write a song at the electric piano while they’d eat. Then they’d start playing it with me. Then we’d go record it in the main studio.
Backing vocals were so important to my records, and 98 percent of the time I let them do that. I said, “I love your singing so much, let me be surprised in the morning.” I’d go to bed early, at 1 a.m., and then they’d stay up until four getting stoned and doing the background vocals [laughs]. I didn’t even know what dope was at that time. I was a merry little boy. There was nothing better than waking up and hearing what they did, like “Rocket Man,” or “Love Lies Bleeding” and “Candle in the Wind.” Their voices blended like angels.
Were you drinking then?
A little. I was drinking some wine, but not really. I was never really that big a drinker until I started doing blow, and I drank just to come down off the blow.
You told Lily Allen recently that you could “still snort her under the table.” Back in the day, were you like a vacuum?
In the Eighties, yeah. George Harrison used to say, “Go easy on the marching powder.” I spent a lot of late nights with my contemporaries. I remember being with George at eight in the morning [laughs]. The sun was coining up, so I said, “You know what, would you play ‘Here Comes the Sun’?” And he did! And it was pretty amazing!
It was fun sometimes. It was an aphrodisiac for me. But the last two weeks I was using it alone in my bedroom. The blow brought out the dark side of my soul.
Did you do blow onstage?
Not during the shows, but before the shows. I didn’t know how to be offstage, so I worked all the time. My work is what saved me. I still got onstage, and God knows what it sounded like. But at least I was out there making records and playing. Until 1990 my life was all about my career.
Bernie also told me that you’ve made an “appalling amount of appalling records” over the years.
Maybe we did. They were what they were. I’m really too close to comment. I don’t regret anything, you know, and I’m not going to sit here and slag them off. Bernie is much more critical than I am. Obviously, we’re far better when we don’t write commercial songs, or have that pressure. I never felt pressure on Tumbleweed or Elton John or Madman or Honky or even Yellow Brick Road. It was after Blue Moves, moving into the Eighties, when the music scene had gone through punk and electronic music and new romanticism, and the record company wants you to write “Sad Songs (Say So Much).”
I like that song!
Yeah, I still play it. That’s the thing. I think on every record I made there were some great tracks. Too Low Zero was a wonderful album. Ice on Fire and Single Man had good stuff. I don’t know. Yes, there were some lazy records.
What was the low point?
God, I can’t even remember the title of the album. [Yells] David, what was the Julian Schnabel album cover? Right! The Big Picture. That was the low point. That’s when you’re going into the studio to make an album just for the sake of it.
On the brighter side, what’s the most spectacular thing you’ve seen, looking into an audience?
Seas of people. Central Park was phenomenal; I got to ride in a police car in New York, which was almost as fun as the show [laughs]! I played to 800,000 people at the Colosseum in Rome, with it all lit up. Or the square in Kiev. That was 600,000.1 played the Odeon in Athens, where you’re looking up at the Acropolis. Or the Ephesus amphitheater in Turkey, where Mary Magdalene fled after Jesus died.
What moments are unforgettable?
Hanging out with Groucho Marx. Meeting Mae West. Neil Diamond introducing me at the Troubadour. When the Band played an early show in Connecticut, they flew down to see me in Philadelphia. When George Harrison sent me a telegram saying, “Well done, congratulations,” when my album was on the charts just above All Things Must Pass. When I met Bob Dylan at the Fillmore East. He was standing on the staircase and he tells Bernie, “Oh, I really like the lyrics to ‘Ballad of a Weil-Known Gun,'” and Bernie goes [fakes heart attack]. There’s nothing like when your heroes rubber-stamp what you’re doing.
In 1970, Neil Young came to my apartment and played the whole After the Gold Rush album on my piano until three in the morning. How are you ever going to forget that?
You received a vote of confidence from John Lennon in his legendary 1970 interview in ROLLING STONE. Where did you first meet him?
I visited John when he was doing a video at Capitol. I was so nervous, but John was so easy and sweet, and later he asked me to play on “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.”
There was a year or two when we hung out a lot. We had so many laughs, so many great conversations, did so many drugs.
He promised that if that song went to Number One, hed play a show with you. And it did. What was it like leading up to that performance with John at Madison Square Garden in 1974?
First, John saw a show in Boston when I was being my most outrageous. I’d come out for the encore in a little bikini-chocolate-box outfit [laughs]. He hadn’t been to a show in years, and was surprised by all the lights and the sound. He was like, “This is what it’s all about now, is it?” At the Garden, we rehearsed and it sounded great, but he was physically sick before the show — he hadn’t been onstage in so long. Yoko came to the show and brought him a gardenia — I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget the reception he got that night. Like, eight minutes of floor-shaking standing ovation. He was genuinely moved. We all went out that night to the Pierre Hotel, and that was his reconciliation with Yoko. Amazing night. I never saw much of him after, and I didn’t need to. He was back with the woman he loved, genuinely happy.
So many of your close friends have met tragic fates. Where were you when John Lennon was shot?
I was in Australia, on a plane from Brisbane to Melbourne. When we landed, the Elton John party was told to stay on the plane, and I immediately thought, “It’s my grandmother,” because she was elderly. When they said it was John, I couldn’t believe it. We went to the cathedral in Melbourne at the exact time they had the vigil in New York. We sang hymns and we cried. It was an astonishing time. John truly touched my soul.
It’s happened so much in my life. With John, with Gianni [Versace], with Princess Diana, and my friend Linda Stein. Four of my friends have been murdered. John was so lovely. When I think of him, I remember how lovely he was to my mom and dad — I mean, he drove them to the airport. I remember going to a Russian restaurant in New York, and when John went to the bathroom, my dad put his false teeth in John’s drink. We were laughing and laughing.
The last song on The Union, “In the Hands of Angels,” is Leon saying thank you for, essentially, saving his life. He smgs, “John ny and the governor came and brought me to my senses.” Johnny is your manager — and you’re the governor?
Yes, he calls me the Governor and I call him the Master. That was the last track we recorded. Leon came to the studio and said, “Last night at the hotel I wrote this song. I want to put it down with just me and the piano.” T Bone, me, Johnny and Cameron were all in the control room, and we obviously knew straightaway what it was about. We all cried. It was so emotional, just one man saying thank you.
It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. Leon came into the control room and said, “Thank you for saving my life.”
That’s quite a story.
The music on The Union is phenomenal, but to see someone regain their pride was the greatest experience I’ve had in a recording studio, and I’ve had some fucking wonderful experiences in the studio. When you see the man you love, your idol, come back to life…
For so many years, Leon was just paying the rent, going on tour in this old fucking bus, breaking down all the time, playing a little Yamaha electric piano. But we’ve changed all of that. I bought him a grand piano and sent it to his home and said, “You must always play grand piano now.”
And he got a new bus. I phoned him on New Year’s Day, and he said, “I got a new bus, and it’s so beautiful. I can invite you on the bus now!” He said, “You had a baby, I had a bus.”