A popular musician who has stepped on stage dressed as Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse and Amadeus Mozart, complete with elevated, powdered wig, is unlikely to take himself too seriously. So it comes as no surprise that Elton John’s autobiography is laced with scandalous tales of the rich and famous, lacerating self-denunciation and brutal honesty. Nevertheless, irrespective of his fame, his wealth and his extremes in taste and behaviour, Elton still manages to come across a bit like a kid in a sweet shop, as if everything that’s happened to him in his extraordinary life might still be a dream and he’ll wake up one day as Reg Dwight again, back in the pub in Pinner playing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ on the piano while someone passes round the hat. Me doesn’t so much dispel that myth as reinforce it in spades. It is indiscreet in ways that suggest its author is really a naughty boy telling tales out of school, and in this respect it is hilariously funny, with most of the fun poked at himself.
We learn, for example, that his friendship with Rod Stewart – ‘Phyllis’ to his ‘Sharon’ – is contingent on them forever exchanging insults and doing their best to demean one another; that he believes the reason he never caught AIDS was because he’s a sexual voyeur who prefers to watch men doing it than join in himself; and that an unnamed American guitarist who auditioned for his band was passed over because he expressed a fondness for decapitating chickens while sexually engaging with them. “Apparently when you do that their sphincters contract and it makes you come,” he writes, nonchalantly.
This is the tip of the iceberg. There are stories about the Royal Family, mostly fairly benign except for when, prior to dinner at Elton’s New Windsor home, Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone square up to one another over the favours of another guest, Princess Diana; stories about rock royalty, like the time he mistook Bob Dylan for a gardener, or when he and John Lennon declined to admit Andy Warhol to their hotel suite because, squinting through the spyhole in the door, Elton confirmed that the prince of pop art was carrying his Polaroid so, as Lennon pointed out, it wasn’t wise to have him taking pictures with ‘icicles of coke’ hanging from Elton’s nose; and, lest we forget amidst the A-listers, uncomfortable stories about his mum and dad, neither of whom were equipped for raising a child, let alone one who would become a rock superstar.
Therein, perhaps, lies the genesis of Elton’s story: escape from a miserable, repressed childhood in drab North London homes where Ma and Pa Dwight rowed constantly. This led young Reg to lock himself away in his bedroom and tend to his record collection, lovingly listing the credits on the labels and cutting out pictures of pop stars to Sellotape to singles bags. All he seems to have inherited from both was an unusually short temper which would manifest itself in ways that eventually led to that TV documentary Tantrums And Tiaras. When he discovered he had an ear for music by picking out tunes on the family piano at an early age, he was away, firstly taking lessons, then attending the RSM, then playing in the pub, then Bluesology backing Long John Baldry and minor US soul singers, then a bit of session work before finding lyricist Bernie Taupin, and the rest is history.
Success didn’t so much come suddenly after five years of struggle as discomfortingly massive all of a sudden. A year after the release of his second album he was front-page news and for the next five years the pace rarely slackened, making him the most prolific rock star of his era, and one of the richest, as singles and LPs sold in their millions and endless tours visited the world's largest stadia, all accompanied by extravagance in dress and performance hitherto unseen on a rock stage. Thereafter his career slips into a familiar trajectory, with management issues and missing money, sex – albeit gay rather than straight – and a drugs and drink ‘hell’ from which he eventually emerges an older but wiser man, now elevated to knighthood and saintliness through his campaigning for AIDS. In the meantime there’s his association with Watford Football Club and that nasty business with the Sun newspaper, and the icing on the cake is his marriage to David Furnish and parenthood of two boys through a surrogate.
All of this is told disarmingly frankly, seasoned by absurdities like his OTT spending sprees and the time he rang up his management company to demand someone do something about the weather. The only curtain is drawn across the ‘intimate details’ of his marriage to Renate Blauel, an agreement both continue to respect. Nothing else is off the table which must have made ghost writer Alexis Petridis’ job a whole lot easier than those in this line of work who are faced with PR-driven reticence. We are left to ponder on how the work was apportioned but, since Elton’s lawyers probably insisted on Petridis signing an NDA, we are never likely to find out. He’s certainly done Elton proud however, with a journalistic affinity for detail and off-the-wall stories, and a droll, understated way of setting them down on paper. There is a refreshing absence of unnecessary exclamation marks.
There is also an absence of musical insight. Perhaps correctly assuming that his readers don’t really want to know how he does it, or perhaps because he doesn’t really know how to explain it himself, Elton largely refrains from talking about his talents as a musician, though he showers praise on others, most notably lyricist Taupin. It’s as if he takes it for granted that he can knock out a delightful melody in a matter of minutes, and to dwell on the art of composition might put a brake on the book’s pace.
The only time the pace does slacken is when Elton muses briefly on the pressures of fame and his hatred of the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, when a superstar surrounds himself with courtiers who say only what they believe their employer wants to hear. In a melancholy but spellbinding passage about when he and Taupin met the famously bad-tempered Elvis in Landover, Maryland, Elton cites the ‘barely coherent’ King of Rock’n’Roll as the personification of this. At this point I couldn’t help but ponder on how – as he readily admits – Elton, too, explodes in angry tantrums when something doesn’t go right or when someone says something he doesn’t want to hear. There were clearly times when Elton, too, was ‘barely coherent’ but, unlike Elvis, Elton had the presence of mind to snap out of it before someone found him face down in a gilded bathroom.
But this is a good-natured book by a good-hearted man who shares his foibles in a way that few in his position would dare to do. And he absolutely loves to puncture fabrications, like this example from the funeral of couturier Gianni Versace. “I feel I should point out that the famous shot they got of [Diana] supposedly consoling me – where she’s leaning forward towards me, speaking, while I’m red-eyed and glazed with grief – is the one moment in the service when she wasn’t doing anything of the sort. They snapped her just as she was leaning past me, reaching for a mint that David offered her. The warm words of comfort coming from her lips at that exact moment were actually, ‘God, I’d love a Polo’.”