Saturday, June 2, 2012
Elton's Backstage Chat in Vegas, Concerns for Lady Gaga
Backstage, Elton John's dressing room is the size of a small flat. There are dozens of shelves displaying a vast collection of figurines, a selection of aftershaves and colognes that would shame a department store and, in the toilet, a ceramic liquid soap dispenser in the shape of a large penis. In the middle of it all, nursing a mug of coffee, sits Elton John himself, who turns out to be about as unassuming as it's possible to be for a man wearing what appear to be golfing shoes encrusted with multi-coloured jewels.
It goes without saying that unassuming is not an adjective frequently associated with Sir Elton John. The public perception of him is still shaped by his partner David Furnish's remarkable 1997 documentary Tantrums And Tiaras, which depicted a man with a fuse so short as to be microscopic – at one particularly memorable juncture, he loudly threatened to abandon an entire tour and go home because a fan had shouted "Yoo-hoo!" at him while he was playing tennis.
And yet he is charm personified: friendly, uproariously funny, engaged and engaging. Indeed, he's so likeable, it's weirdly easy to forget who you're talking to – particularly when he's chatting about music, which he does all the time, with genuinely infectious enthusiasm – at least until he says something that reminds you that you're in the presence of a man who's sold 250m records, such as when he casually mentions that he has the biggest private collection of photography in the world. He buys "at least" one photograph every week, he says, adding blithely, "But you can pick up a photograph for $600."
He looks in remarkably good nick for a 65-year-old man who plays 120 shows a year and, aside from an annual, month-long summer break, "doesn't really take time off". If he's not performing live, he's recording. If he's not recording, he's writing musicals or running his management company, which boasts Ed Sheeran, Lily Allen, James Blunt and hotly-tipped Brooklyn hipsters Friends among its roster: he's not averse, he says, to getting on the telephone and telling a record company to "get their fucking finger out" if he feels his artists aren't being suitably promoted. Then there's his film company – he's planning a biopic of his life story, scripted by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame, possibly starring Justin Timberlake in the lead role – and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Yesterday he phoned Jay-Z to thank him for endorsing gay marriage. On the other hand, his unlikely friendship with Rush Limbaugh, the ultra-conservative radio talk show host at whose wedding he performed, has apparently cooled, after Limbaugh claimed that, like him, Sir Elton wasn't in favour of gay marriage. "I sent him a harsh email when he said that."
It occasionally takes its toll – a few days after we meet, he's hospitalised with pneumonia and forced to cancel several Las Vegas shows – but as he points out, it's nothing compared with his workload in the early 70s, when he toured the US constantly, and released seven albums in five years: 1973's 31m-selling double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in 17 days. Then again, that's probably just as well, given the well-documented effect that kind of schedule had on him: at the height of his success, in 1975, he attempted suicide, in suitably flamboyant style, by taking an overdose of Valium and throwing himself into a swimming pool while shouting, "I'm going to die!" He claims his desire to work hard actually saved his life in the 80s, when he was ravaged by cocaine addiction and bulimia, going days without sleep or washing, gorging on cockles and ice cream, then throwing it up – "Thank God, during my heaviest addiction I still made records and I still toured, and without that I would have been dead by now" – but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that it was the sheer amount of work he was doing that pushed him into addiction in the first place.
"Even though I was the number one star in the world at that time, I still felt like an outcast, and that's why I did drugs because I thought, 'I want to join the gang.' I was never actually in the gang at school, so when I saw someone doing drugs, I thought, 'Oh, maybe I can do that and I'll be with the big boys.' I didn't know who I was off stage. I was very safe on stage, but the Elton persona was way ahead of Elton the person. Although I was having relationships and buying the necessary house and stuff, it took me until I got sober to realise – and be told – in the cold light of day that your balance is so out of whack that there's no time for Elton the person, and you resent him. I still work a hell of a lot – I do 120 shows a year, I'm still recording a lot, I'm writing musicals, blah blah, blah – but I do have a wonderful private life and it's found its feet."
Today, he's in such great good humour that he's even tempered his views about some of his bugbears: there is no sign of his supposed feud with Madonna, while he's even relatively equivocal about the deleterious influence of Simon Cowell's TV empire. Actually, what he says is that a singer appearing on The X Factor is on "a road to ruin", later adding, "in my day, we had Seaside Special, which was shit, but it wasn't as shit as Britain's Got Talent", but given that last time an interviewer canvassed his opinions on the subject, he suggested, "I'd rather have my cock bitten off by an Alsatian than watch The X Factor", this very much represents a new softly-softly approach.
Anyone searching for reasons for his good mood doesn't have far to look. One will later come running through the dressing room clad only in a nappy, offering some fairly vocal resistance to the notion of having a bath: his and Furnish's son Zachary, born to a surrogate mother on 25 December 2010 and cheerfully described by his father as "a little sod". I'd had word that Elton John wasn't keen on discussing fatherhood with journalists, but I've barely sat down before he's explaining his childcare arrangements – perhaps uniquely in the world of rock'n'roll, Elton John's pre-gig preparations involve bathing an occasionally recalcitrant 15-month-old boy and reading him a bedtime story – and showing me photos on his iPad. There's Zachary on his lap at the piano, Zachary kissing his housekeeper's daughter ("He's so straight"), Zachary playing football. He seems particularly pleased with the latter, as you might expect from a man whose love of football led him to become chairman and director of Watford FC shortly after coming out as bisexual, with perhaps inevitable results: "Thousands of away supporters singing 'Don't sit down when Elton's around or you'll get a penis up your arse,'" he laughs.
He says he worries about Zachary being spoilt. It's not him and David who are the problem, he says, so much as a global army of well-wishers. "You know what? At Christmas we bought him a swing for the garden and a little slide, and this was his Christmas present and his birthday present from us. But he had so many presents from other people throughout the world, which is touching, but we actually found it obscene. I said, 'This is shocking. It's four hours we've been opening these presents.'" They ended up giving most of the stuff to charity, and are trying to encourage people to donate money to an orphanage in Lesotho instead. "We had nine strollers given to us," he sighs. "It's crazy."
He and Furnish are keen to have more children, partly because he was an only child of an unhappy marriage – "I spent it in my room, listening to music if my parents were rowing" – and partly because of the specific challenges associated with being Sir Elton John's son. "I think it's difficult to be an only child, and to be an only child of someone famous," he says. "I want him to have a sibling so he has someone to be with. I know when he goes to school there's going to be an awful lot of pressure, and I know he's going to have people saying, 'You don't have a mummy.' It's going to happen. We talked about it before we had him. I want someone to be at his side and back him up. We shall see."
The other reasons for his current ebullience are sitting quietly on the sofa in his dressing room: Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes, better known as Australian electronic duo Pnau. They are the latest recipients of Sir Elton's celebrated capacity for musical patronage, his interest piqued when he heard their eponymous 2008 album while on tour in Sydney and proclaimed it, with characteristic understatement, the greatest record he'd heard in 10 years.
He was always a genuine music obsessive. In the early 1970s, with his career in full, vertiginous flight, he incredibly found time to help out at a Soho record shop on a Saturday, manning the counter when the assistants went on their lunch break, selling albums by Leonard Cohen and Soft Machine to London's discerning rock fans: "Maybe they did recognise me," he frowns when I ask if London's discerning rock fans weren't a little disconcerted by finding Captain Fantastic on the till, "but I was just having a ball." Even in the pits of his addiction, he says, "I would listen to music and cry because I was so out of it, but I always listened to music." But it's in recent years that people have really noticed. Alone among his superstar peers, Sir Elton seems to spend as much time proselytising about young artists as he does plugging his own records. "If you listen to someone young and fabulous," he says, "it just gives you so much adrenaline, adrenaline that I had when everything was going my way in the 70s." He still gets sent a list of new album releases every Monday morning and buys four copies of anything he likes the sound of: one for each of his homes. He checks the British charts on a daily basis. Furthermore, he acts as a kind of unofficial publicist for younger artists – today he raves about the forthcoming Hot Chip album and Alabama Shakes – and a mentor to everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Lady Gaga. He is, he says, currently a little concerned about the latter. "I look at Gaga and I think, 'How does she do it?' I talk to her mum and dad about it. They worry. She is frail, and she doesn't eat when she should do, and she's a girl, and it's tougher for a girl. She works really hard. She will be in Denmark one night and Saudi Arabia the next. I know how tiny she is and I do worry about her, yes."
Last time I met him, I was in the company of a Scottish dance producer called Mylo, who looked a little gobsmacked when Sir Elton blithely informed him he'd bought more than 100 copies of his debut album in order to give them away as presents. This time, however, his interest has extended beyond simply doling out Pnau's CDs to his friends, although he's done that, or signing them to his management company, although he's done that, too. Four years ago, he handed the duo the master tapes from his early 70s albums and told them to do whatever they wanted with them, a turn of events that the duo still seem a little stunned by. "We just kind of lost our minds at that point," Mayes says, quietly. Littlemore nods: "It took us eight or nine months before we could even touch anything."
The duo were doing OK in Australia, they say, but after Elton took an interest, things changed considerably. They moved to London at his suggestion. Littlemore's collaborative project with Luke Steele of indie band The Sleepy Jackson, Empire Of The Sun, sold more than 1m copies of their album Walking On A Dream. They worked with Robbie Williams, Ellie Goulding and The Killers: Littlemore is currently engaged with both the new Mika album and the latest Cirque Du Soleil show Zarakna, due to fetch up in Las Vegas in August: "I used Elton's name to get me the job," he deadpans.
"Well, yes, I wanted him to do it," Elton says, "because I thought it would be a horrific thing to do."
"You were right," says Littlemore. "Dead right."
"It was a nightmare, but it made you stronger as a person and a better writer," Elton says firmly.
And then there's the new album. It's not the first time in recent years that Elton John has returned to his early 70s catalogue. Indeed, he's returned to it again and again, in a way that suggests he's keen to remind the world that behind the extravagant sunglasses and platform shoes there lurked a serious singer-songwriter, releasing a follow-up to 1975's Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy in 2006's The Captain And The Kid, and collaborating with his early inspiration, Leon Russell, on 2010's The Union. Even so, his collaboration with Pnau is a bold move, and one you can't really imagine, say, his long-standing friend and fellow star of Caesar's Palace, Rod Stewart, sanctioning. For his part, Sir Elton is keen to point out that he's a long-standing lover of electronic music (an obsession that apparently began in the late 70s, when he listened to German pioneers Kraftwerk while smoking "a big joint" and "thought I'd found God") and that it wasn't merely an act of munificence on his part. "I saw the talent there and I thought they can do something really fresh and introduce my music in a different way to people. This is so much more about getting the records downloaded by some 15-year-old kid in Nottingham who might then say, 'I'll go and listen to another Elton John track.'"
If he boggles slightly at the duo's methods, which involved unpicking dozens of his songs and then reshaping their constituent vocal and instrumental parts into new songs – "I can't comprehend how they did it, it's like the fucking Sistine Chapel to me" – he is understandably delighted with the results: the album variously sounds like euphoric house music, disco and, in the case of a track called Telegraph To The Afterlife, something not unlike Pink Floyd ("It's like, pass the bong," he chuckles). "I'm hearing my music in a different way and I really love it, but I wouldn't love it if I was hearing the old shit that it was before, because I'd be bored to tears."
This summer, they're playing together in Ibiza at the behest of the DJ Pete Tong, a state of affairs that seems simultaneously to horrify and amuse him: one minute he's saying that he "might go down like a turd in a punchbowl", the next that it's going to be great and he's planning on wearing a fishtail dress for the occasion. "I've never been to Ibiza," he says. "I've got my house in France, so I never really go to places like Ibiza, and also I don't take drugs, and it's part of that culture, isn't it? You have to go to a nightclub and get stoned. The last time I went to a nightclub was in London about 10 Christmases ago, and I felt so old. I felt like the Queen Mother coming down the steps. All I needed was a Dubonnet and soda in my hand."
Indeed, there are moments when you're reminded that for all his loudly-expressed love of dubstep auteur James Blake, Elton John is a pop star from another era. He doesn't own a computer or an iPod or a mobile phone. "So I couldn't get hacked!" he cries with delight. "No, in one way, I wanted to be hacked, because I fucking hate…" Then he thinks better of it and his voice trails off. "Well, you know what I think."
Has he been following the Leveson inquiry? "I'm clapping my hands with glee. The Sun tried to ruin my life years ago" – in 1987, he successfully sued the Sun for an estimated £1m after they claimed, among other things, that he "was at the centre of a shocking drugs and vice scandal involving teenage rent boys" – "and I fought them because I had the money to do it and the wherewithal not to be bullied. A year and a half it took me, and I won the apology on the front page. I'm OK, I could afford to fight back. A lot of people couldn't afford to fight back."
Then his mood brightens again. There are more immediately pressing things to attend to: a million-dollar piano to play, a small boy to bath. He has another album finished and ready for release called The Diving Board: just him with a bassist and pianist. He talks, a little speculatively, about slowing down when Zachary reaches school age. But the thing is, he has never enjoyed his career more. "If I was burnt out and just doing it to pay the bills, then it would be different – I would be very resentful of it – but this is the time when I'm actually enjoying it the most. I know when I come offstage, I'm going to be happy. I can go to bed. I don't have to stay up all night doing drugs. I'm going to get up in the morning and see my little boy and see my partner. We have a life. You think, 'How the fuck do you do it?', but actually, you do. You just manage to do it."