In 'Me,' Elton John Pulls Back The Curtain On A Storied Life

Oct 13, 2019
Originally published on October 13, 2019 1:00 pm

The year 2019 has been a busy one for Elton John — and a revelatory one for his fans, who have been graced with a biopic, Rocketman; a tour, "Elton John: Farewell Yellow Brick Road"; and now a memoir, simply titled Me.

In an interview with Weekend Edition, Sir John shared that at 72 years old, he's finally ready to look back.

"It all changed with having children," John told NPR. "Ten years ago [...] I had nothing planned for the rest of my life except making music and touring, and then we had two fabulous little boys. [...] And as much as I love playing, I want to be with my boys now. This is the new part of my life."

And to usher in this new era, John is first pulling back the curtain on his storied career, and on the constellation of drugs, celebrities, and disappointments that both plagued and pushed him.

In one instance, he recalled, he was high on cocaine at a barbecue in Los Angeles and insisting to Bob Dylan that he needed to get new clothes.

"How I had the nerve to tell Bob Dylan how to dress, I don't know," said John with a laugh, "But that's what drugs do for you. And I didn't care."

His drug-induced behavior wasn't always a laughing matter, though. Now famously sober for nearly three decades, John tells of how he had to seek treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, and attempted suicide three times before getting clean. But through it all, he had his music.

"Even during my addiction, I worked," he told NPR. "Because music was my touchstone [...] it was my pillow, it was my teddy bear."

Today, John has been directing his energy elsewhere: to his family; to championing the fights against AIDS and HIV; and, even, to sticking up for his friends.

"I admire Ellen for standing up and saying what she said," said John, in response to recent criticisms of Ellen DeGeneres, who sat with former president George Bush at a football game and later commented that she has friend who don't necessarily share the same beliefs as she has.

"George Bush has made a lot of mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes. Ellen DeGeneres has made a lot of mistakes," said John. "People need to come together [...] They need to respect people's view on life. Except when it's heresy, and I don't think George Bush is that kind of guy."

And while he shied away from diving too deeply into his opinions on American politics (claiming that England has enough problems of its own at the moment), he noted that President Trump has kept PEPFAR — the President George W. Bush-era emergency plan for AIDS relief — "so that's a good thing."

Also of importance to Sir John? Privacy. Or more specifically, the right to privacy from the press. Addressing controversy from earlier this year, John spoke briefly about his friends, British royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and their recent lawsuit against several papers in Britain.

"I like the press. There's a need for the press," insisted John, "But sometimes they step out of their bounds, and hacking phones is not acceptable."

But phone hacking is likely something John doesn't have to worry about himself as, he told NPR, he doesn't own a cell phone.

Elton John's new memoir, Me: Elton John Official Autobiography, publishes on October 15.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sir Elton John sat down for our interview and immediately laid on the charm.

ELTON JOHN: Hi, Lulu. It's Elton. I was just admiring your name. It's the most exotic, fabulous name. I love it to death.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He was in Vancouver. I was here in D.C. But he was already pulling me into his world.

JOHN: You sound like a wonderful...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

JOHN: ...Forties photographer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ah, that's good. I was...

JOHN: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was worried what you're going to say there for a moment.

JOHN: No, no, no.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

JOHN: I imagine me saying, I have the most fantastic collection of Lulu Garcia-Navarro photographs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "BENNIE AND THE JETS")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elton John's world is a wild one. He's a legend with a string of hits that have taken him on major world tours and into parties with royalty. They've earned him millions of dollars that have afforded him extravagance and allowed him to indulge in collecting and gift giving. But in his new memoir "Me," we learn that behind the Rocket Man persona, there was insecurity and addiction. Now, I had read elsewhere that Elton John wasn't interested in looking back on his life. So what changed?

JOHN: I'm 72 years of age now. It all changed with having children. Ten years ago, I was going to just tour and make records. And I had nothing planned for the rest of my life except making music and touring. And then we had two fabulous little boys. And then David, my husband, said, well, what do you want out of life now? Do you still want to tour? I said, no, I don't. As much as I love playing, I want to be with my boys now. I want to be there for them. My life has been all about me up to now, as the title of the book suggests.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

JOHN: And now it's about them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of family, before becoming Elton John, you were from the small English town of Pinner. And as a teen, you were performing in cover bands and writing music. And you had a pretty difficult childhood, with a father who was estranged and absent and a mother who was - I think a nice way of saying it is mercurial. How did that shape you?

JOHN: It affected me very much because when you're at home and you're growing up in the 1950s, Lulu, which was a very conservative period after the war in Britain, children were told to be seen and not heard. So you were walking on eggshells anyway. And then when you had two parents that, you know, really shouldn't have been married to each other because they were unsuited and they argued over you, it was tough.

Looking back on it in hindsight now, at the time, it really affected me. And I was afraid of my own shadow. But I understand it may be the person that I am because I always wanted approval from my father. He wanted me to be in the Air Force or join a bank or - what? - have a proper job. And, of course, rock 'n' roll was considered to be absolutely disgraceful. Funny enough, I - he's been dead a long time. And I still find myself trying to prove things to my dad. And it's, like, instilled a determination in me, which I'm very grateful for.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Addiction plays a very big part in your life and in this book. The book goes into graphic detail - three suicide attempts, the drugs, the drinking, the sex addiction. Part of that, you write, was your family history. But a part of that is about fame itself. You became really famous, even though you say you were ready, quite quickly. What does it do to a person?

JOHN: Well, for the first five years, it was so great because we were in America. We were touring in the country where all the great music came from that I loved. We were doing shows with people, like Leon Russell and Eric Clapton, people that I loved and admired and were so generous to me. And we were having the times of our lives. I was very prolific creatively. I put out a lot of records, a lot of albums, a lot of singles, different B-sides. We were doing it on adrenaline. And we worked extremely hard. And it wasn't work for us. It was just wow. You know, we were living our dream.

And after five years, I was pretty tired. And that's when the addiction started to come in and the drugs started to appear on a more regular basis. And I always worked. Even during my addiction, I worked. I made records. I toured - because music was my touchstone. It was my pillow. It was my teddy bear. It was like the thing I could hold onto and just disappear into when my parents argued and my - you know, I was feeling afraid or alone. Music was always there for me. And it's been the one constant thing in my life. God, thank you, thank you, thank you for that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a lot of stories of your bad behavior. But one that made me actually laugh out loud, among many stories, was when you tried to get Bob Dylan to wear your clothes because you thought he looked too scruffy.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN: Yeah. That - I was really high on cocaine. And it was - we were having a barbecue in Los Angeles with George Harrison, who actually told me over dinner to stop taking the cocaine. And then Bob Dylan appeared. And he was - I thought he was the gardener. I didn't recognize him at first. And then I said, Bob, you really got to get some new clothes. I'll take you out. And his - the look of horror on his face was - so it's kind of an embarrassing story. But it's also extremely funny when you look at if - it's a great sketch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elton John's relationship with the press has been intense. He actually came out to a journalist writing for Rolling Stone on the spur of the moment in 1976. He also spent years suing the British tabloids. Even so, he writes, I still think a world in which artists are coached not to say anything that might upset anyone and are presented as perfect figures is boring. So when I started to ask him a few controversial questions of my own, people surrounding Sir Elton popped onto the line to shut me down twice. But he was having none of it.

You are also good friends with Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle. In this book, you talk about your fight against the British tabloids, which you eventually won. As you know, Harry and Meghan have also decided to sue several papers in Britain for how they're covered. Did you have any advice for them?

JOHN: I know...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can we just move on to the next question, please?

JOHN: I know that he - it's a difficult one for me to answer. But I know they were very upset because their phones had been hacked. I just said, listen. You take the appropriate action that you want to take. You have to know that when you take appropriate action like this, there are going be consequences. And people are not going to like it. But if you feel that you have an injustice - I said, I've always lived my life fighting injustice with the press. I like the press. I - there's a need for the press. But sometimes, they step out of their bounds, and hacking phones is not acceptable. If your phone is hacked, you've got to take action because the press cannot do that. And so I would say bravo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to also ask you about our president, Donald Trump, whom you do mention in this book. You played at his casino.

JOHN: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were also asked to sing at...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...His inauguration.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi, Lulu. I need to interrupt. I'm sorry. We do need to end the interview now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, can I...

JOHN: Again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can I...

JOHN: Yeah. Just carry on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh. OK. I'm going to take your guidance from this, sir. You were also asked to sing at his inauguration. You turned him down very politely. Your songs are played at his rallies. I've heard them there. Are you OK with that?

To that question, he said he doesn't want to get involved in U.S. politics.

JOHN: I disagree with a lot of his policies. My big philanthropic concern is AIDS and HIV - has been for a long time. My concern about President Trump is that he continues with the PEPFAR.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a U.S. program very dear to Elton John and a program that came up again when he, unprompted, decided to address a different controversy with a different controversial president.

JOHN: We live in a very, very fractured world at the moment. But there is so much kindness out there. And it comes in all shapes and forms. There was a thing with Ellen DeGeneres being criticized for being with George Bush in his box at the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I saw.

JOHN: ...Dallas Cowboys game against the Green Bay Packers. And she very eloquently said, our policies and our views are different on things. But that's OK. That's what a democracy is all about. Unfortunately, what a democracy has become now is that it's not OK to have different opinion from yours. And that is not healthy. George Bush has made a lot of mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes. Ellen DeGeneres has made a lot of mistakes. But on the other hand, he was responsible for PEPFAR, which is the most incredible thing that a Republican president has done on philanthropic level. PEPFAR came from the Republicans. People have to remember that, yes, there were things that he's - decisions were made. But that's been made by Democratic presidents and Republican presidents. And I admire Ellen for standing up and saying what she did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to end by asking you - you write at one point about preparing for a trip and being surprised by a Leon Russell song that comes on, "Back To The Island," because, though beautiful, it's a song about loss and regret and time passing. And I was wondering - in writing this book, looking back at such a rich life, did you have any moments like that, of being surprised by regret and the passing of time?

JOHN: Of course you do. I've had such a colorful life and just a wonderful life. The drug addiction I would rather not have gone through, thank you very much. But without the recovery from the drug addiction, I wouldn't know how to be the person I am today. So if I could say to anybody listening to your program, if you feel isolated and you feel you can't unburden and don't want to be a burden to anyone, don't go down that road. Tell people how you're feeling. Just ask for help. You'll get it in droves. It's amazing how kind people can be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Elton John. His new memoir is titled "Me." And it's out on Tuesday. Thank you very much.

JOHN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU READY FOR LOVE")

JOHN: (Singing) Catch a star if you can. Wish for something special. Let it be me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.