Friday, February 12, 2016

Evening Standard, Scottish Sun Interview

The queue outside ITV Studios on the South Bank is long and expectant. The smiley grannies with their silent husbands clutching hot milky teas, the single forty-something men with bad anoraks, the nonchalant, pretty students sharing a half bottle of Rioja — all are jostling in line for the chance to join the audience at tonight’s filming of The Graham Norton Show.

I walk briskly past, heading for the door usually reserved for guests. A bright-eyed woman in a red coat catches my eye. ‘Are you on the show?’ I toy with telling her I’m Bradley Cooper’s seat-warmer. I’m a journalist, I say. ‘Oh, are you going to interview him?’ Him? ‘Yes, Sir Elton?’ I smile conspiratorially. She clicks, at which point the woman virtually self-immolates, her face melting through every known emoji ever posted. Even the aubergine.

I leave her squeals behind me and hurry inside, somewhat bewildered. Surely, I think, heading through the warren of grubby white corridors to Stage 1, Elton John doesn’t still have this sort of impact? Who does he think he is? Or rather — who do they think he is? Harry Styles?

‘Hello, I’m Elton.’

Flamingo-pink shades, sharp navy blue suit, white T-shirt, big smile, firm handshake, rings like Liberace and actually really great hair. It’s downtime between rehearsals and recording, and the 68-year-old, born but never known as Reginald Kenneth Dwight, is in a jubilant mood. He’s here to promote Wonderful Crazy Night, his 33rd album in almost half a century of nonstop hits.

The dressing room is as you’d expect for a man who once spent £40 million in a 20-month spending spree, £293,000 of which was solely on flowers: warm lighting, white roses and a spread of grapes and cheese straight out of a Caravaggio still life. We sit. I’m offered a drink. Elton, famously sober now for 25 years, has Perrier on the rocks.

On my way over, news filtered through social media that Elton had made a surprise appearance at St Pancras International station, tinkling the ivories and donating a new Yamaha piano. ‘Yes, that was a bit of fun,’ he beams, savvy enough to appreciate the Twitter storm he had left in his wake. ‘I heard about those pianos and thought perhaps the one they had was getting a bit tired. Now they have a new one. I christened it. Commuters can go and get rid of their frustrations on their way home or early, before the office. Music can have a transformative effect. Its power still holds so much magic — even for an old codger like me.’

His work ethic somewhat perplexes me, I tell him. Surely by now he’s done it all — more than 300 million records sold, six Grammies, five Brits, a Tony, an Oscar, public adoration that unites generations, a knighthood, the ear of politicians and royalty alike — and an art collection that would put Charles Saatchi to shame. Why not spend his days practising his backhand and ordering staff to make him endless Shirley Temples in the grounds of his Windsor pile? ‘I get it; it’s not a big event for me, releasing another album. I like the creative process. If you make peace with the fact that you aren’t going to sell millions of records any more, you can be more like Bob Dylan and do what the hell you want. I want to keep being inventive. I don’t want to stop creating.’

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Elton’s creative partnership with songwriter Bernie Taupin, with whom he’s collaborated on some of his biggest hits, from ‘Candle in the Wind’ to ‘Your Song’ — as well as this new record. The way they work is staggeringly intuitive, with Bernie providing the lyrics and handing them to Elton on the day they walk into the recording studio. Elton doesn’t consider a single note of music, nor a whisper of a melody, until that moment. When you hear of brilliant artists such as Adele who spend months, sometimes years writing new material, it’s astonishing. ‘Bernie and I work very quickly, as we always have done. I don’t keep a notepad by my bed at night and I don’t carry songs around in my head all day. I’ve never written a single lyric. Well, I have but they are all absolute filth!’ He cackles wickedly, his eyes burning behind those pink specs, backlit like a fully charged iPhone.

I do know of one thing Elton wrote — a farewell letter to cocaine. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he had a drug addiction that, at its peak, saw him take cocaine every four minutes. In rehab Elton’s therapists asked him to write a letter saying goodbye to all his addictions — drugs, drink, even sex. ‘Yes, it was a masterpiece letter,’ he recalls. ‘Bernie said it was one of the best things he’s ever read, which was such a compliment. I wrote two pages and it just poured out of me because it had to. I put cocaine in the role of a mistress saying, “I love you very much but I can’t see you any more. You’ve been my whore, I’ve taken you everywhere round the world with me, I’ve flown in private jets, I made love to you and now I must say goodbye. If I see you in a room, I will have to leave.” Cocaine was my worst best friend.’

Today in this room, filled with all the scented candles ITV’s budget will stretch to, Elton has never sounded happier. He is fit for a fight, even while contemplating the potential indignity of sparring with the likes of Justin Bieber or a contestant from The Voice for airspace. ‘There’s so much good music out there, much better than all the pop shit they play on Radio 1. I never liked shows like The X Factor; I’m glad they are on the way out.’

There is one artist, however, to whom Elton will happily concede commercial defeat. ‘Well, I’m up against David Bowie, aren’t I? The best thing to happen to your records is for you to die. Death is very popular. Obviously, no one wanted David to die, but it’s astonishing how many records he’s sold since — something like two million in two weeks. And that’s CDs.’

Where was he when he heard the news of Bowie’s death? ‘I was in Los Angeles, asleep. It was 3am and the phone rang. It was David [Furnish, Elton’s partner of 23 years and now husband]. I immediately panicked, as when you get a phone call at three o’clock in the morning you think something is wrong. I thought of the kids, something has happened to the kids. And David said, “I thought I better let you know, David Bowie has died.” And I was shocked… I couldn’t go back to sleep.

‘David [Bowie] and I were not the best of friends towards the end. We started out being really good friends. We used to hang out together with Marc Bolan, going to gay clubs, but I think we just drifted apart. He once called me “rock’n’roll’s token queen” in an interview with Rolling Stone, which I thought was a bit snooty. He wasn’t my cup of tea’ — without missing a beat, ever aware of misconstrued soundbites, Elton corrects himself — ‘no; I wasn’t his cup of tea. But the dignified way he handled his death, I mean, thank God. I knew he’d had a heart attack on stage in Berlin years ago, but not about the cancer. Everyone else take note of this: Bowie couldn’t have staged a better death. It was classy.’

Aside from music, Elton has a role as a political agitator and philanthropist. He and Furnish — now parents to two boys, Zachary, five, and Elijah, three — have raised more than £240 million over the past two decades through the Elton John Aids Foundation. But his role as a human rights troubleshooter, a sort of one-man UN, has brought its own, shall we say, complications.

Last year, Elton, having called Vladimir Putin out on his human rights record, received what he thought was a phone call from the Russian leader. It turned out to be a prank by two Russian TV presenters. The recording went viral. Was Elton fuming when he discovered he’d been duped?

‘I wasn’t cross at all. I was in the studio with a band called Clean Bandit, writing a song with Jimmy Napes, and I got a call from my office saying, “Be prepared, Vladimir Putin is going to call you.” I said to the guys, “Putin is about to call me,” and they were all like, “F*** off!” But I answered the questions straight and I didn’t make a fool of myself. It didn’t sound like a prank call. You have to have a sense of humour about these things. Then the next day, the Kremlin got in contact and were extremely embarrassed about the way I’d been treated. And within a couple of days I did have a call from President Putin at my home in Windsor and we had a ten-minute chat. Soon I’m going to go to Moscow to talk to him face-to-face over a cup of tea — what’s the worst that can happen?’

You have to admire Elton’s will to get things done. While many pop stars won’t even admit they’re religious for fear of alienation, Elton’s straight talking is captivating. For him, the worst he could do is nothing. ‘It’s not just gay rights; I’ll take on anything and go anywhere to help those in need. I am not afraid. I will speak out. What are they going to do to me? If they shoot me, they shoot me, I don’t care. Listen, I am a fan of the human being. I don’t like seeing dead children washed up on the beaches of Europe. But I am an optimist. There’s more good in this world than bad.’

My time basking in the full beam of rock royalty is nearly up. As always with Elton, someone else wants a piece of him — this time, the ITV gophers shepherding guests to Norton’s sofa. Elton must miss his children’s bathtime, I ask as we rise, on long promo days such as this. ‘I do, yes.’ Will he have more children? ‘No, we’re too old now to have more. If I was 15 years younger, I would love to have more. I would love to have a little girl…’

He looks wistful. ‘I hate being away from my kids. We FaceTime but it’s not the same. They are wonders. OK, they beat the shit out of one another — but they’re brothers. I look forward to being closer to them, that is the way I want my future life to go. I want to give them a childhood they can love. And be a parent they will miss. I want to leave them a good place to live.’

We say our goodbyes and shake hands. Outside, evening has fallen; it’s cold and windy but London is ablaze with life. I load up ‘Tiny Dancer’ on my iPhone, turn into the wind and rush home to hug my daughters. Everything is going to be all right, I’ll tell them. Sir Elton says so.

- Evening Standard

HE loves life. He loves his family. He loves his designer shades. And he loves music.

So Elton, how do you wish to be remembered?

“I’m not finished yet!” he retorts, quick as a flash. “I’m more interested in keeping going. I have so much more to do.

“I’m not nostalgic. I don’t think about my place in music history at all.

“I know my own worth as a musician. And if I know that I’m a good musician and a good writer and a good artist, that’s all that matters to me.

“It’s up to others to judge me but I know the piano playing on my new record is pretty f***ing special!

“You have to keep trying to improve as you get older. Look at Leonard Cohen. That comeback at 75 was astonishing.”

I’m meeting the irrepressible Sir Elton John, flamboyant knight of this realm (or dame as some would have it), to talk about his rollicking album Wonderful Crazy Night and we quickly come to an agreement . . .

. . . that it’s time to remind the Great British public about his abiding passion for his craft.

Behind all the showbiz headlines, it’s still music that nourishes his beating heart along, of course, with his beloved boys Zachary and Elijah and husband/manager David Furnish.

All right, I guess his dogs, his lovely houses in the UK, France and US, his priceless art collection and his clothes must all help.

But whether it’s vibrant new songs or consummate live shows or simply digging out a vinyl copy of an album by one of his favourite artists, the Rocket Man is still standing — and still obsessed with the day and night job.

He admits: “I’ve been so lucky to be involved in music. It’s been my lovely companion.”

If Elton hadn’t sold more than 300 million records in a storied career spanning five decades, he could still have sold, er, records.

Only these would have been over the counter at a record shop.

As we sit at the kitchen table in his West London home beside a bowl of perfect white roses, he imagines how things might have been had success not beckoned.

“Even in 1970 when I started to make it, I used to go to Musicland in Berwick Street and work on a Saturday for nothing,” he tells me during a misty-eyed anecdote about a long defunct shop in London’s Soho.

“I was fascinated by what people would buy and I just loved it. It was the job I might have done.”

He remembers shifting a few copies of bedsit troubadour Cohen’s latest and something by jazzy prog rockers Soft Machine.

I can’t help wondering if he turned customers on to his self-titled second album with breakthrough hit Your Song or, later that same year, the follow-up, Tumbleweed Connection.

All these years later in 2016, I’m happy to report 68-year-old Elton is thrilled by the vinyl revival. He says: “Unless I’m in a car, I only play records on vinyl. I sold my record collection in 1991 but now I’m collecting again.

“I have a record player in Woodside (his Windsor estate) and one in Vegas when I play there. There’s a place in Vegas called Wax Trax Records, owned by this guy Rich Rosen and his wife Sunny.

“It’s one of the best old record stores, just vinyl, and has everything you want. I spent three hours there the other Sunday and came out covered in dust.

“I’ve never lost the excitement of seeing something I haven’t got or something repackaged like Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants, one of my favourite albums.

“Now I’m collecting Pet Shop Boys on vinyl, not easy because a lot of it is from the Eighties and Nineties. Their artwork is always the best

“I love the ritual. Turning the record over mid-way and looking at the sleeve notes to find so much information.”

Next, Elton turns his infectious enthusiasm to his new album, its upbeat mood and carefree Southern rock sound in sharp contrast to darker, more reflective previous album The Diving Board.

“For me, The Diving Board was a true portrait of who I can be and this one shows my other side,” he explains.

“You’ve got the dichotomy of Elton John. The serious, sad, plaintive, sometimes self-destructive side and then the joyous side.

“They’re both part of my character and I’m so happy I’m not singing f***ing Motown records at this stage of my career.”

As well as his rich baritone, Elton lets his piano fingers do the talking on Wonderful Crazy Night, ripping into rockers such as the exuberant title track or the pounding Claw Hammer or the life-affirming Looking Up while adding a soulful edge to heartfelt ballads such as Blue Wonderful or The Open Chord.

“It’s very Southern,” he says. “I’m a Southern boy at heart. I live in Atlanta some of the time and I love the South.

“The South really is where all the great music started, blues, gospel, jazz, country, soul and all those five elements infiltrate other music.

“So when you listen to an old Lynyrd Skynyrd record, it’s f***ing amazing. Wow, these guys rock out!” He also cites the music of Little Feat, The Allman Brothers and The Black Crowes with great affection in this context.

Once again, the new album reunites Elton with lyricist Bernie Taupin, the latest chapter of an astonishing relationship, unique in music, that stretches back nearly 50 years. He says: “The album came together because of the good place I’m in.

“Bernie finds it harder to write up-tempo lyrics but I said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, I know you’re a miserable bastard, but let’s do this.’

“You know, me and Bernie haven’t made records in the same room for 49 years. It’s a mysterious way of writing but it’s as fresh now as the day we started.

“I still get the same thrill of going to him with a new melody. I don’t want to sound mushy but I love him more than ever.

“He was my first big mate and we’ve never had an argument. We went to the pub, we had a laugh, we went to shows together and we collected vinyl.

“We laid on the floor with our headphones and read the lyrics. He became my brother and then we went our separate ways.

“The only real ups and downs came when we started writing with other people. He worked very successfully with Jefferson Starship and Heart and I wrote with Gary Osborne, Tom Robinson and Tim Rice.

“But I knew if I’d said, ‘You can only write with me,’ it would have been the end. As The Police sang, ‘If you love someone, set them free.’

Wonderful Crazy Night also draws praise for his band. Elton says: “They’re not just my backing band, they’re part of my fibre.”

The high-octane vibe is cemented by Elton’s evergreen live band making their first studio outing since 2006’s The Captain & the Kid.

“When we were making Honky Chateau or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in the Seventies, I used to go to bed and by the time I woke up the next day, I’d hear their beautiful contributions to my compositions. As for (producer) T Bone Burnett, he’s so relaxing.

“He’s very tall and very Zen-like. This is by far the most raucous record he’s ever made. I’ve done three albums with him now and there’s no need to stop that partnership.”

One of the key aspects of Elton and music is that it’s not all about him.

For years, he’s taken a keen interest in other artists, often steering them in the right direction with avuncular advice.

As if to highlight this point, Elton says: “I try and keep up with Tom Odell, Sam Smith and James Blake.”

“I’ve had them all here for lunch or tea,” he adds, waving towards the dining area.

“I have no agenda with them and I don’t manage them. I’ve just said, ‘Listen, I’m always here, use me if you want.’

“People were like that to me. My big heroes were The Band. Tumbleweed Connection was all about them.

“When I went to America and played in Philadelphia for the first time at The Electric Factory, I was just about to go on stage when all of The Band walked into my dressing room.

“They’d flown down to see me and that validated me so much. George Harrison sent me telegrams and Leon Russell was so sweet to me. These were people I loved and admired and it made the difference.”

Elton’s also a huge admirer and good friend of Brit-nominated American singer John Grant, who bravely announced he was HIV positive at a Royal Festival Hall gig. Deserved success has come late to him.

“We’re both sober and he started out on the dark side of life. It’s amazing how his life has turned around.

“He’s so happy, has a wonderful partner and is very, very respected as an artist.”

Another source of happiness for Elton is the renaissance of Justin Bieber, his transformation from spoilt pop brat to respected artist.

“He was rebelling because he was like, ‘For f***’s sake, why haven’t I had a life?’

“I think it’s the best news, that he’s made a really classy pop record. He’s a very, very good singer.

“He was literally clinging by his fingertips to the White Cliffs of Dover wasn’t he? And a lot of people were willing him to fall but not me.”

As for Elton’s own place in the music pantheon, we know he comes from an incredible generation of music makers and he’s quick to praise his peers.

With the recent passing of David Bowie, it also feels is if they’re becoming a dying breed.

“The older you get, the more fond you get of them because they’re survivors,” he says. “The McCartneys, the Rods, the Springsteens, the Stings.

“I don’t know Paul and Bruce but I do know Sting and Rod. Then there’s The Who and the Rolling Stones, both still going.

“I looked at the latest picture of the Stones and I was quite touched. I thought, ‘What an amazing photograph.’ I thought, ‘They don’t look that bad and they’re still playing music.’

“And people say, ‘Oh they should stop’ and it’s like, bull***t. They like to play and they like to earn the money as well.

“I don’t know how Mick does it. He’s an extraordinary professional, probably the most professional person in the music business I’ve ever met.

“When he goes on stage, he’s the frontman. I’m stuck at the plank thank God. I used to hate it in my early days but now one is hurtling well past pensioner time, I’m glad I’m there.”

And I’m glad he’s still here, giving it his all. A wonderful crazy knight indeed.

- Scottish Sun

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