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Me 
by Elton John.
Macmillan, 376 pp., £25, October 2019, 978 1 5098 5331 1
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EltonJohn was born Reg Dwight in 1947 in the north-west London suburb of Pinner. His mother was a nightmare, his father a bully. He was a boy who did not start thinking about sex until he was 21. While he shared an interest in football with his father – they both supported Watford – his father didn’t approve of his taste in music. From early on, Reg loved shopping and acquiring things. Like many of his generation, he found his first glimmer of true happiness in record shops on Saturdays, flicking through all the new releases, finding a life in them that was, for him, unimaginable in its glamour and its excitement. Even when he grew famous, he never stopped remembering that his nose had spent time up against the window of this world. It filled him with wonder and surprise when he escaped and got to perform with and befriend singers whose music he was crazy about.

While his mother emerges in Me, his memoir, as one of the sourest people who ever walked the earth, she plays a heroic role at the beginning by introducing her only child to the music she loved. After work on Fridays, she often bought a new 78, enjoying the sound of big band and some American singers. One week she brought home a record by Elvis Presley. Her son already knew the name: the previous weekend in the local barber’s he had come across a photo of the ‘most bizarre-looking man I’d ever seen. Everything about him looked extraordinary: his clothes, his hair, even the way he was standing.’

Reg’s parents were a war couple. His dad was an amateur trumpet-player who spotted his mother in the audience one night. ‘They were both stubborn and short-tempered,’ he writes, ‘two delightful characteristics that it’s been my huge good fortune to inherit. I’m not sure if they ever really loved each other … The rows were endless.’ Since his father remained in the army after the war, Reg was brought up mostly by his mother and his grandmother, living in fear of his mother’s moods, the ‘awful, glowering, miserable silences that descended on the house without warning … she always seemed to be looking for a reason not to be happy.’ She had unusual views on potty- training, he tells us, ‘hitting me with a wire brush until I bled if I didn’t use the potty’. She also had strong views on constipation: ‘She laid me on the draining-board in the kitchen and stuck carbolic soap up my arse.’

The young Reg didn’t like himself: ‘I was too fat, I was too short, my face just looked weird, my hair would never do what I wanted it to.’ As his parents fought, he found solace in his bedroom, where everything was kept in perfect order. He began to study the singles charts, ‘then compiling the results, averaging them out into a personal chart of charts. I’ve always been a statistics freak … I’m just an anorak.’

He began to take piano lessons, studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and eventually started playing in a bar, becoming fascinated by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. He got a Saturday job to fund his record-buying habit. As he became more involved with what was happening in music, he was aware that the older generation was not amused. ‘People fucking hated it. And no one hated it more than my father … he thought the whole thing was morally wrong.’ Then his parents split up and his mother found a new partner whom Reg called Derf. In their two-bedroom flat, Reg acquired an electric piano and joined a band called Bluesology. They released two singles; neither was a success, but even so they were asked to be the support act for groups and singers whose names they recognised. ‘The whole thing was a dream come true for me. I was playing with artists whose records I collected.’ Even when the band went to Hamburg in 1966 and played at the Top Ten Club on the Reeperbahn, where the Beatles had played, Reg, aged 19, kept his innocence: ‘I barely drank and I still wasn’t interested in sex … I had no idea about penetration, no idea what a blowjob was … There I was, in one of Europe’s most notorious fleshpots … All I cared about was playing and going to German record shops. I was totally absorbed by music. I was incredibly ambitious.’

He decided to become a solo artist and changed his name to Elton John. In 1967, he made the mistake of singing a Jim Reeves song (‘He’ll Have to Go’) at an audition for a new, progressive label. The offices, he noticed, were chaos. ‘There were piles of reel-to-reel tapes and hundreds of envelopes everywhere.’ The manager ‘seemed to pull an envelope out at random, just to give me something to take away, so the meeting didn’t feel like a dead loss … That envelope had my future in it: everything that’s happened to me since happened because of what it contained.’ The envelope contained some lyrics by a songwriter called Bernie Taupin from Owmby-by-Spital in Lincolnshire. He was 17 years old and ‘long-haired, very handsome, very well read, a huge Bob Dylan fan’.

Taupin moved in with the singer previously known as Reg; they slept in bunk beds in the second bedroom of the flat owned by Reg’s mother and her new husband in Frome Court in Pinner. ‘We would spend the days writing,’ Elton remembers, ‘Bernie tapping out lyrics on a typewriter in the bedroom, bringing them to me at the upright piano in the living room … If we weren’t writing, we spent all our time together, in record shops, at the cinema.’

The year after he met Taupin, Elton got engaged to a woman called Linda Woodrow. This caused Long John Baldry, with whom Elton had toured, to explain to him in a Soho club that he was obviously gay. The engagement was broken off. When he was 21, Elton ‘suddenly seemed to be undergoing some kind of belated adolescence … I just remember wanting to have sex, having absolutely no idea how to do it and feeling terrified that I might get it wrong.’

Bernie (who was not gay) and Elton sent their songs to the best recording artists, including Cliff Richard and Cilla Black, but they were always rejected. When they got a song into the final six for the British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969, it came last. (All six songs were sung by Lulu, and the winner was called ‘Boom Bang- a-Bang’.) To make money, Elton began to work as a session musician, singing backing vocals for Tom Jones and playing piano with the Hollies. He also worked for a label called Marble Arch which knocked out versions of chart hits and sold the albums cheap in supermarkets. This, Elton points out, might sound sad, but it was in fact ‘screamingly, howlingly funny’, as he had to be ready to do imitations of famous black singers, a football team or Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees.

Elton and Bernie worked fast: ‘Bernie got the lyrics to “Your Song” over breakfast one morning in Frome Court, handed them to me and I wrote the music in 15 minutes flat.’ He didn’t go around with melodies in his head. ‘I don’t even think about songwriting when I’m not actually doing it. Bernie writes the words, gives them to me, I read them, play a chord and something else takes over, something comes through my fingers.’ They made the album Elton John in four days and it appeared in 1970. The reviews were good. Famous singers, such as Pete Townsend, Jeff Beck and Dusty Springfield, began to turn up at Elton’s gigs to check him and his band out. The album’s cover photo showed a moody, nerdy-looking guy with glasses; his face was lit, but the space around him was black. He could easily have been someone’s answer to Leonard Cohen, the songwriter as lonely, fucked-up guy. He looked like a recluse, introspective, overeducated; his voice sounded weird, the accent fake American. At the time, it took me ages to work out that the opening two words of ‘Border Song’ were ‘Holy Moses’. He had sort of chewed them before he sang them. It was hard to make them out.

No one was sure where to place him. In Paris, when he supported Sérgio Mendes, he was booed off. In London, he played at the Royal Albert Hall supporting Fotheringay, the band formed by Sandy Denny in 1970. ‘They thought they were getting a sensitive singer-songwriter,’ Elton writes, ‘and instead they got rock’n’roll and Mr Freedom clothes and handstands on the piano keyboard. They couldn’t follow us: we had so much adrenaline … I felt terrible. Sandy Denny was one of my heroes … I scuttled home, absolutely mortified, before they came on stage.’

Between the album’s release and the Albert Hall concert, Elton had been in America. Before he set out, he’d found a clothes shop in Chelsea called Mr Freedom: ‘The stuff in the window was so outrageous that I hung around on the pavement outside for ages, trying to pluck up the courage to go in.’ When he played the Troubadour in LA, ‘the audience was greeted by the sight of a man in bright yellow dungarees, a long-sleeved T-shirt covered in stars and a pair of heavy workman’s boots, also bright yellow, with a large set of blue wings sprouting from them. This was not the way sensitive singer-songwriters in America in 1970 looked.’

On that​ first trip to America, Elton lost his virginity to a man he had known in London called John Reid. They decided that, once home, they should move in together. The speed with which this was decided became part of a pattern. ‘Later, when I was really famous, this became a terrible problem both for me and the object of my affection. I’d insist they give up their own lives in order to follow me around on tour, with disastrous results every time.’

Elton began to enjoy parties. ‘Life was heaven. I was finally able to be who I was, to have no fear about myself, to have no fear about sex. I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say John taught me how to be debauched.’ He got to meet all sorts of people, including Neil Young – who performed his forthcoming album, Harvest, at a party in John’s house – and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who, when Elton went to see him, sang the chorus of ‘Your Song’ (‘I hope you don’t mind/I hope you don’t mind’) over and over. ‘By now, the novelty of hearing the chorus of “Your Song” sung to me by one of pop history’s true geniuses was beginning to wear a little thin.’

In the last months of 1970, Elton went to a party at Mama Cass Elliot’s house in LA to find many of his favourite singers present. ‘They were all there. It was nuts, like the record sleeves in the bedroom at Frome Court had come to life: what the fuck is happening?’ He had cause to ask this again when he and Bernie passed Bob Dylan on the stairs at the Fillmore East and Dylan told Bernie that he loved the lyrics of ‘My Father’s Gun’.

As he began to make money, Elton enjoyed shopping and collecting things, announcing that when he had a day off in Paris he had ‘every intention of absolutely looting the Yves Saint-Laurent store’. When he finally sold his record collection for charity, it contained 46,000 singles and 20,000 albums. Defending his urge for acquisition, Elton sounds like someone you would run from:

I earned my money by working hard, and if people think the way I spend it is excessive or ridiculous, then I’m afraid that’s their problem. I don’t feel guilty about it at all … It makes me happy. You know, I’ve got 1000 candles in a closet in my home in Atlanta, and I suppose that is excessive. But I’ll tell you what: it’s the best-smelling closet you’ve ever been in in your life.

He was pleased to see that his friends John Lennon and Yoko Ono were ‘as bad as me’ when it came to shopping. ‘The various apartments they owned in the Dakota were so full of priceless artworks, antiques and clothes that I once sent them a card,’ which read: ‘Imagine six apartments, it isn’t hard to do, one is full of fur coats, another’s full of shoes.’

As the 1970s went on, the image of the sombre songwriter had given way completely to high camp and high colour. At concerts Elton was stuck behind the piano and couldn’t prance around, so he put his energy into his entrance. It reached a peak, he writes, at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973: ‘The stage was hung with a huge painting of me in top hat and tails, surrounded by dancing girls.’ Then Linda Lovelace appeared, followed by lookalikes of the queen, Batman and the pope, among others. When Elton arrived, he was wearing an outfit covered in white marabou feathers – the trousers as well as the jacket – and matching hat. Four hundred white doves were meant to fly out of the grand pianos. (When they didn’t, Reid and Taupin ran around scaring the birds, which eventually flew off.)

Elton became skilled at throwing tantrums. Early in 1974, while recording in the Rocky Mountains, he announced that he hated ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ and that everyone should stop work immediately. He was coaxed back, but once the song was on tape, he yelled at one of his colleagues that he hated it even more now it was finished and was going to kill him with his bare hands if he put it on the album.

During that recording session, Elton was introduced to cocaine. ‘I tried it, I hated it, it made me puke – hello?’ Despite the puking, he liked how it made him feel. ‘If anything, cocaine gave me too much confidence for my own good.’ When the Rolling Stones came to Colorado and asked him to join them on stage, he blithely outstayed his welcome. ‘After a few songs, it finally penetrated my brain that the expression on [Keith Richard]’s face wasn’t really suggestive of profound musical appreciation.’ Elton also enjoyed a brand of poppers known as Cum. ‘They could make anyone dance, even Rod Stewart, which was quite a feat … The only time he stopped was when he was after another sniff.’

Eventually Elton broke up with John Reid and his personal life became a disaster. He would fall in love with straight guys, or meet a gay guy and demand eternal love. ‘I didn’t pick them up as much as take them hostage … I’d end up getting bored with them, and it would end in tears. And then I’d get someone else to get rid of them for me and start again.’ He was never, he writes, ‘into fucking that much’. He was more a voyeur. He liked having ‘two or three guys doing things for me to watch’. He would take Polaroids but, being houseproud, he would shout at the guys not to ruin the furniture.

He continued to enjoy hanging out with the stars, including Dusty Springfield and Franco Zeffirelli and later Gianni Versace and Princess Diana. Simon and Garfunkel were both bad at charades, he writes, though not as lousy as Bob Dylan, who couldn’t even do ‘sounds like’ or ‘how many syllables’: he was so inept that Elton threw oranges at him. Years later, Elton writes, ‘I was flying, absolutely out of my mind, when a scruffy-looking guy I didn’t recognise wandered into the party … It must be one of the staff, a gardener.’ It was, of course, Dylan. Elton demanded that he get out of those terrible clothes and wear something more suitable. ‘Full of cokey confidence, I wasn’t deterred.’ He demanded Dylan follow him upstairs, only to be warned to stop by George Harrison.

Elton came out in 1976, in an interview with Rolling Stone. Around the same time, he became chairman of Watford Football Club. ‘One piece of advice I would give anyone publicly coming out is this,’ he writes: ‘Try and make sure you don’t do it immediately after being appointed chairman of a British football club, unless you want to spend your Saturday afternoons listening to thousands of away supporters singing – to the tune of “My Old Man Said Follow the Van” – “Don’t sit down when Elton’s around, or you’ll get a penis up your arse.”’

The tantrums grew worse. In Nice in 1983, having added vodka martinis to his menu, Elton wrecked a hotel room. ‘There wasn’t a single piece of furniture left intact, except the bed … The main impact the events in Nice had on my life was that – wait for it – I decided to drink more vodka martinis.’ In the evenings, after the vodka martinis, he would have a bottle and a half of wine over dinner, ‘then all back to mine to start on the cokes and the spliffs’. He liked the vodka martinis partly because ‘they made me black out, so I couldn’t remember how appallingly I’d behaved the night before.’

Elton still had problems with his parents. His father, whom he barely saw, took no pleasure in his success and didn’t even enjoy the fact that his son owned Watford FC. Elton’s mother and stepfather visited for Christmas in 1983 after he bought a house, Woodside, on the edge of Windsor Great Park. His mother, he writes, ‘immediately slipped into her old role of managing the house and being foul to the staff’. They ended up storming out in a rage on Christmas Eve. When Elton, in an impressive moment of impetuosity, got married to a woman called Renate Blauel in Australia, ‘the only person who was cold towards her was my mother, and that had nothing to do with Renate, or her personality. I just think my mother hated the idea of the apron strings finally being cut, of someone else occupying the lead role in my life.’ (After the wedding ceremony, on the steps of the church, an Australian voice rang out: ‘You finally did it. Good on you, you old poof!’)

At his subsequent wedding to David Furnish, Elton was

as happy as I could ever remember being. And that was when my mother turned up, in character as a raving sociopath … As the years passed, she had elevated sulking to an epic level. She was the Cecil B. DeMille of bad moods, the Tolstoy of taking a huff … She would rather move to a foreign country than back down or apologise … At the party in the evening, she tutted and groaned and rolled her eyes during the speeches … She was vile to everyone, no matter how innocuous their attempts at conversation.

When the art dealer Jay Jopling remarked that it was a lovely day, Elton’s mother snapped: ‘I’m glad you fucking well think so.’ It was more than a matter of bad moods: ‘She seemed to actively enjoy picking fights.’

In 1987 the Sun newspaper began a campaign against Elton. He issued 17 libel actions against them:

I’d love to tell you that I never wavered in my conviction that I would defeat them, but it wasn’t like that … The thought of it made me do what I’d always done when things got too much. I would shut myself away in my room, just like I had as a kid when my parents were fighting, and try to ignore what was happening. The only difference was that now I would shut myself away with an abundant supply of booze and drugs. I wouldn’t eat for three days, then I would wake up starving and stuff myself with food. I would panic about gaining weight and make myself sick by jumping up and down until I puked.

Eltonmakes no effort to make himself seem good or worthy of the reader’s approval. When he sells all his stuff, he writes: ‘Before you get the wrong idea, I should add that I had absolutely no intention whatsoever of leading a more simple and meaningful life, uncoupled from the yoke of consumerism and unencumbered by material possessions.’ And he makes no secret of the fact that, as he grew older and richer and more famous, he became unbearable. When his house was being emptied of all its goods he moved into a hotel, only to find that he was being kept awake by the wind, so he phoned his office: not to see if he could change rooms, but to demand that something be done about the wind itself. ‘I absolutely was crazy and deluded enough to ring the international manager of Rocket [his company] and ask him to do something about the wind outside my room.’

But Elton also has a big heart, as his work for Aids charities makes clear. Such work put him in closer contact with Elizabeth Taylor.

She was incredibly kind … although you had to watch your jewellery around her. She was obsessed. If you were wearing something she liked the look of, she’d somehow just charm you into giving it to her; you would walk into her dressing room wearing a Cartier watch and leave without it, never entirely sure how she’d managed to get it off you.

Until he met Furnish, Elton wasn’t easy on his boyfriends. When one of them decided to go into rehab he went ballistic, causing a scene in the treatment centre and then flying back to London, where he ‘holed up in the bedroom for two weeks, alone, snorting cocaine and drinking whisky. On the rare occasions when I ate, I made myself sick immediately afterwards. I was up for days on end, watching porn, taking drugs. I wouldn’t answer the phone. I wouldn’t answer the door.’ He finally agreed to see a therapist in the company of the boyfriend and they were asked to name the other’s problem. The boyfriend, Elton said, was untidy. ‘He left his clothes everywhere. He didn’t put CDs back in their cases after he had played them. He forgot to turn the lights off after he left a room at night.’ When the boyfriend was asked about Elton, he said: ‘You’re a drug addict. You’re an alcoholic. You’re a food addict and a bulimic. You’re a sex addict. You’re co-dependent.’ Elton had to agree that he was all those things and decided that he wanted to get better.

He went to a hospital on the outskirts of Chicago where the patients had to do things for themselves. Elton found this hard: he had got ‘to the stage where I shaved and I wiped my arse, and paid other people to do everything else for me.’ He had to learn how to use a washing machine and try to work out how much things cost. ‘It was years since I’d done any shopping myself that didn’t involve an auction house or a high-end designer boutique.’ Being sober came at a cost. He didn’t feel like going to clubs anymore. ‘I tried not to think about how long it was since I’d last had sex, in case the sound of me howling in anguish frightened the staff.’

One Saturday afternoon in 1993, when he was feeling especially lonely and Watford had been defeated 4-1, he rang a friend in London and asked if he could round up a few nice gay men and invite them to dinner. ‘I wasn’t looking for sex. I was just lonely.’ Among them was a Canadian working in an advertising agency in London: Furnish. Elton asked him for his number and David’s friends spent the journey back to London ‘mercilessly teasing him and singing the chorus of “Daniel”’.

Soon, David saw the part of Elton that was less than charming. In 1994, Elton reluctantly agreed be to inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in New York. He left the ceremony the moment he arrived, ‘ranting all the way about how the place was a fucking mausoleum’. Back at the hotel, he felt guilty so he went back to the ceremony, only to decide to leave again ‘with David dutifully in tow’. Again he felt guilty and decided to return, only to storm out again, only to return once more. In France a fan waved at him while he was playing tennis: he screamed that he would never come back to France. When someone inadvertently left his clothes in the back of a car, he swore that he would never make a video again.

After surgery for prostate cancer, he performed to great applause in Las Vegas in 2017. ‘Nothing unusual in itself, save for the fact that, as I was walking across the stage, basking in the crowd’s applause and punching the air, I was also, unbeknown to the audience, copiously urinating into an adult nappy concealed beneath my suit.’ By this time, he had become used to nappies, since he and David had two sons, using a surrogate mother in the United States. Zachary was born in 2010 and Elijah two years later. Like much else in life, these boys gave Elton immense pleasure. ‘The only person who did not seem delighted for us was my mother,’ he writes. ‘By the time Zachary was born we weren’t speaking at all.’ In a subsequent row, Elton’s mother, who died in 2017, said: ‘You care more about that fucking thing you married than your own mother.’ When a journalist door-stepped her and asked how she felt about not seeing her first grandchild, ‘she told him she wasn’t bothered, and that she didn’t like, and had never liked, children’.

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