COVER STORY : Elton’s Exorcism : On the eve of his first U.S. tour in three years, Elton John talks about his battle with the demons of drugs, alcohol and despair

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic</i>

In the late-night world of rock ‘n’ roll, noon is as likely to mark the time for a wake-up call as it is for lunch.

But an energetic Elton John has already been up for almost five hours as he leads a guest on a tour of the lavish 6,000-square-foot condo that is now his home base in America.

It’s only two days before John’s first U.S. tour in three years--his first fully “sober” American tour in more than a decade, a series of shows that includes performances Saturday and next Sunday with Eric Clapton at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.


“I get up at 6:30 now, which is kinda funny because there was a time when I’d be going to bed at 6:30 or . . . more likely, I’d still be going strong,” he says in his first newspaper interview in almost three years. “I used to stay up sometimes for days at a time . . . concerts three nights in a row once without any sleep.

“It really was Elvis Presley time again. (Rock ‘n’ roll) isn’t a normal life. You get cut off from people . . . isolated. . . . It’s easy to lose your values and self-respect. I got to where I didn’t know how to speak to someone unless I had a nose full of cocaine. Nothing could satisfy me. I used to complain about everything . . . right down to the color of the private jet.”

For anyone exposed to the joy and good-time spirit of his music and concerts in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it is sobering to listen to John, 45, detail for almost two hours the despair in his life during most of those years.

Despite being one of the most beloved figures of the modern pop era, the singer-composer went through a private hell of drugs and other problems, including the eating disorder bulimia.

The reference to Presley is especially poignant because it was hearing Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” as a child in England that made John fall in love with rock ‘n’ roll.

So, it’s easy to understand why he walked away with tears in his eyes in the ‘70s after his first meeting with a bloated and self-destructive Presley.


But John’s own condition became so desperate in the late ‘80s that some of his friends and associates now speak about the times they came away with tears of their own after seeing him in such bad shape.

“I had to change because I was frightened,” he explains of his decision to enter a treatment center in Chicago in 1990. “I didn’t want to die angry and bitter and sad, and that’s what I had become . . . physically ugly, spiritually ugly . . . a slob, a pig.”


The air outside is sticky and hot, but it’s comfortably cool inside John’s million-dollar apartment in a stylish new high-rise on Peachtree Street in Atlanta’s fashionable Buckhead section.

John, who also owns a London townhouse and a country estate in England, enjoys spending time in the United States and settled in Atlanta because he believes it is a city with lots of energy. He also can relax more easily here than in Los Angeles, where he maintained a home in the mid-’70s, or in New York.

“I feel like a new kid on the block here,” he says, walking through an elegant living room furnished with pink and white cushions and chairs.

“It’s a young city, and I don’t feel any pressure from the entertainment world. If I’m in Los Angeles or New York, I get involved a lot with the industry and it’d be harder to just lead a normal life. Here, I drive myself around, go down to the market . . . a lot of the simple things that I never did before.”


The living-room table is stacked with books--including the latest novel by Anne Rivers Siddons and a biography of Marilyn Monroe, whose own tragic career was chronicled in John’s hit single “Candle In the Wind.” The condo walls are covered with tasteful paintings and photographs, including some nature shots by Robert Mapplethorpe.

But there are no signs that this is a pop star’s residence; no gold records, album covers or favorite concert shots. Photos of Elizabeth Taylor and Sting rest on one table, but most of the adjacent pictures are of John relaxing with friends from outside show business.

“I feel free here,” he says, looking out the high-rise window at a vast wooded area below. “I can be me . . . and I found in my life that I needed that.”

It has been widely assumed that John decided to seek help for cocaine and other addictions because of his emotional involvement with Ryan White, the Indiana teen-ager whose heroic battle against AIDS made headlines around the world.

John became engrossed in the youngster’s story, which included having to rally against the hostility of parents who feared their children would be infected if White were allowed to attend school. His family finally filed a discrimination suit against the local school system in 1985 after Ryan was barred from attending classes. Through it all, he maintained a warm, forgiving, idealistic spirit.

Moved by the boy’s plight, John was one of several celebrities--including Michael Jackson, Willie Nelson and football star Joe Montana--who tried to comfort White in the final days before his death, at age 18, in April, 1990.


“I was pretty screwed up at the time . . . getting angry at the littlest thing,” John says now, sitting on a step in the split-level apartment. “I couldn’t believe that a family who had had so much hatred flung at them and so much bigotry could be so forgiving.

“I never experienced that before . . . that amount of love. And it felt good (for me to) be able to contribute. . . . For that week or so I didn’t do any drugs or drink. I was too busy organizing things and trying to help.”


John jumps up and races into a nearby room, returning with a photo of him apparently taken around the time of the White meetings. The contrast between John then and now is striking.

In the photo, John looks like a sad old man--overweight, with gray hair and expressionless eyes. In the room, however, he is trim and upbeat, and there’s a sparkle in his eyes. Even without the recent hair weave, which cost a reported $25,000, he looks years younger than in the photo.

“When I saw the footage of the funeral, I thought, ‘My God,’ ” John says. “I was so fat, so old.”

Still, he didn’t begin the turnaround in his life.

It wasn’t until shortly afterward, when John’s lover at the time told him that he was checking into a detox center.


The singer’s first reaction: anger.

“I thought, ‘God, can’t you sort your own problems out?’ ” he says, sounding like a scolding parent to emphasize his arrogance at the time. “But that’s the way I was. I thought anybody who couldn’t sort out their own problems was weak.”

Still, John visited his friend at a clinic in Arizona. The meeting, however, didn’t go well and he returned to London, thinking the relationship was over.

“I stayed in my room and I cried, and I used off and on for two weeks,” he says, without a trace of self-consciousness. “But eventually I realized how much I cared about this person and how much I admired him for doing it.

“I thought, ‘This person tried to do something for himself and here, you are just sitting here . . . fat, haven’t washed for two weeks, vomit all over your dressing gown.’ ”

Resolved, John returned to Arizona where he and his friend went to a counselor to discuss their relationship. During the meeting, they drew up a list of complaints about each other.

“He wrote out this list about me first, and it nailed me for drugs, drink, sexual activity . . . and bulimia, which I didn’t even know that he knew about.


“I was shaking and he was shaking because he thought I was just going to walk out the door. But I stayed and showed him the list I had made for him . . . and it had things on it like ‘He does not put his compact discs away neatly.’ ”


John rolls his eyes to underscore the degree of difference in the lists--how he was still unable to look honestly at his own failings. That’s when he decided to seek help himself.

John has been speaking in even tones, recounting the experience in almost documentary fashion. But he suddenly laughs when recalling the irony of what happened next.

He couldn’t find a clinic or hospital in Los Angeles that would take him, because the places he tried wouldn’t accept patients who need help for both drugs and bulimia, which is a continuous hunger that leads to eating enormous amounts of food.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says, referring to his frustration and helplessness. “I was thinking, ‘You mean, I finally decide to seek help and they’re telling me no one will accept me?’ ”

With the help of doctors, he found a hospital in Chicago that would take him, and he checked in on July 29, 1990. He wanted his self-esteem and dignity back.


The experience was humbling--and he almost checked out twice.

“I tried to run away twice because of authority figures telling me what to do. I didn’t like that, but it was one of the things I had to learn . . . to listen,” John says.

“I packed my suitcase on the first two Saturdays and I sat on the sidewalk and cried. I asked myself where I was going to run: ‘Do you go back and take more drugs and kill yourself, or do you go to another center because you don’t quite like the way someone spoke to you here?’ In the end, I knew there was really no choice. I realized this was my last chance.”


John--born Reginald Dwight--was 23 and largely unknown when he made his U.S. debut in the summer of 1970 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. The combination of engaging showmanship and outstanding songs made such an impact on the industry-dominated audience that he was hailed as a new star by the time he stepped offstage.

At a time when the pop and rock worlds were going in separate directions, John’s music combined the accessibility and craft of pop with the energy and passion of rock. The graceful and imaginative lyrics of John’s British songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, were intimate and appealing looks at such varied topics as youthful longing (“Your Song”) and old age (“60 Years On”).

When his debut album, “Elton John,” entered the Top 10 that fall, it was the beginning of an extraordinary streak that would establish John as the most popular artist of the decade.

The ‘70s chart statistics remain phenomenal: 13 Top 10 albums, including seven that reached No. 1, plus 16 Top 10 singles, ranging from the emotional urgency of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (which returned to the charts last year via a John duet with George Michael) to the disarming celebration of “Crocodile Rock.”


But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

John’s greatest impact on pop in the ‘70s may have been onstage, where he mixed flamboyant costumes (from a zany Donald Duck costume to a heavily jeweled matador outfit) and an almost childlike enthusiasm that suggested he was having more fun than anyone.

Offstage too he seemed gracious and good-natured, as if thankful to be living out his greatest fantasy. He was humble about his own accomplishments and loved nothing better than to talk about other artists or records he admired.

One sign of his remarkable rise and humility was his guest vocal on John Lennon’s 1974 recording of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”

Because Lennon was another of his pop heroes, John was honored to be on the record--yet it was his presence that helped Lennon achieve his only No. 1 single of the ‘70s and his first Top 10 hit since “Imagine” three years earlier.

But the pressure mounted and John--the man who had seen so many of his pop heroes destroyed by drugs or indulgence--began to get caught up in the rock lifestyle. By the time of “Rock of the Westies” in 1975, he was heavily into cocaine, he says, and his problems escalated a year later when sales dropped sharply.

Though “Blue Moves,” a double album released in 1976, remains one of his most compelling works, it was a dark, somber album that fans largely rejected.


Some in the industry point to a backlash resulting from an admission by John in a Rolling Stone interview that he was bisexual. Others say the sales dip was simply a matter of the public feeling it had enough John albums and looking for new heroes and sounds.

He continued to have hit singles in the ‘80s, including such flavorful tunes as “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” and he remained a strong and appealing concert attraction.

But his albums, while still selling respectably around the world, lacked the consistency and impact of his ‘70s collections.

Privately, John had bigger worries than chart position.


As the ‘80s unfolded, bulimia joined drugs and alcohol as problems. He became more isolated and fragile, frequently scheduling tours as a way to combat boredom and depression, then threatening to cancel them because of nerves and depression.

The isolation was sometimes so severe that even his closest associates didn’t recognize how dark things were in John’s life.

“He had been fairly careful to avoid it (rock excesses), but somehow it just slid in,” John Reid, who has managed John since the early ‘70s, said in a separate interview. “It was like a sliding door . . . so slow nobody even noticed it. You couldn’t pick a point or a period and say, ‘That’s when it kind of all came on top of him.’


“I had no idea that he was in such extreme pain. I knew as much about what was going on in his life as much as anybody could and I personally didn’t know about the bulimia. But I guess he buried so much of the feelings over such a long period of time that even I was surprised.”

John acknowledges that he kept much of his struggle private.

“I must have an alcoholic personality,” he says softly. “Whenever anything has gone wrong, I’d run away from it. When everything happened to me in 1970, I was just a little boy in many ways . . . and you can see that in the old photos.

“Suddenly, I could dress how I wanted. I could do what I wanted for the first time in my life. I felt as if I were free, and to a certain extent I was, but as soon as I started taking the drugs, I became a prisoner again of my old thoughts again . . . insecurities and doubts. I couldn’t deal with all the emotions it brought up.”

He pauses.

“Despite all the success, I think I just wanted to be loved,” he says finally. “I wanted someone in my life to love me.”

For a brief and surprising moment in 1984, he thought marriage was the answer.


John surprised the pop world, his friends and himself, no doubt, by marrying Renate Blauel, a recording engineer he met while making an album in London. The wedding took place on Valentine’s Day while John was on tour in Australia.

“We just clicked,” he said later that year. “It was the first time I met anybody in my life that I wanted to marry.” He spoke about the responsibility of marriage and longing for children. “I’d like to have two because I grew up an only child.”


The marriage lasted only four years--and there were no children.

It’s a delicate point with John, but he talks about it without prodding.

Since the hospital stay, John has gone regularly to recovery program meetings, where everyone is encouraged to talk freely about his or her problems and concerns. Throwing himself into the process with the same energy and enthusiasm he has thrown into his music over the years, John has attended more than 500 meetings, he says, sometimes three a day.

That may be what helps him talk openly now about such personal issues.


“Even though I knew I was gay, I thought this woman was attractive and that being married would cure me of everything wrong in my life. . . . And my wife did love me. . . .,” he says. “But it didn’t change my way of life. I wasn’t a sexual philanderer during that time, but I certainly didn’t stop taking drugs and alcohol, and when you take that amount, you can’t have any relationship.

“In the end, we ended up in this big house with (separate bedrooms), never seeing each other. It was very sad. . . . I wasn’t being honest.”

John lowers his head for a moment.

“She is one of the few people in my life that I haven’t actually been able to make amends to for my behavior, because I don’t think she is quite ready to. . . .,” he says, finally resuming the thought. “I know she is very kind, still sees my grandmother. But I haven’t seen her since we divorced or heard from her.

“I think she’s very much hurt by it, and I can understand why. I think she genuinely loved me . . . the real me, which she could see in glimpses, but you were dealing with a nightmare (because of my problems).”

In 1989, John began a tour that was, according to those around him, the worst period in his life.


“I don’t know what the people around Elvis did and what atmosphere they created, but it’s a real tough thing,” said Connie Hillman, who is John’s U.S. representative and tour producer. “There’s nothing you can turn to that says, ‘Here’s what you do when your artist becomes bigger than life and isolates himself.’

“When we saw this happening with Elton, I think we all tried to chip away at it. You just stay there. Maybe it’s like a parent goes through with their child. There are good days and you get encouraged and you hope for the best, but it was the worst during that tour. There were times I walked out of his room and you felt like you had just left someone who was dying.”

John took his stay in the Chicago hospital seriously enough to declare a one-year moratorium on his career--no touring or recording. He wanted not only to work on his own problems, but also to re-establish relationships that had been strained or fractured by his erratic behavior.

“I did what I was told,” he says now about the months after the treatment program. “I went to lots of meetings, met new friends, did what my sponsor told me to do . . . kept in touch on a daily basis.

“I started to enjoy things I had never done before. I bought a dog and spent most of that first year in London. I lived alone for the first time. . . . and I’ve just built upon all that.”

Does he live in fear of a relapse?

“You can never say, ‘I’ll never do this again,’ but I don’t have any fear in my life on a day-to-day basis anymore, except sometimes in a relationship you have to work things out,” he replies.


“Since I’ve been sober, I’ve been through deaths, been through the end of a relationship . . . things that I could never cope with before. I am so much more confident . . . so much easier to be around. I am not afraid of confrontation. It is still hard for me to say no, but I have to learn.”

The first major test for John, in terms of re-entering the pop world, was recording his new album, “The One,” in Paris last year.

“He had had a lot of fear going in to make the album because he hadn’t made an album sober (in some time),” manager Reid said. “We went into the studio the first day, and he lasted about 20 minutes and he said he couldn’t do it. He just wasn’t ready, but we went back the next day and eventually it was fine. The album just flowed.”

The album is John’s strongest and most confident work in years, and the title track is in the U.S. Top 15. The tour is expected to run through early November in this country and then continue around the world through the first half of 1993. Only two of the U.S. stops are with Clapton: Dodger Stadium and Shea Stadium in New York.

John is already looking to new challenges. He wants to make a more “naked” piano-and-voice album and possibly do a tour with just piano and percussion as he did in the late ‘70s. He is also working with lyricist Tim Rice on the music for an animated Disney film that is due out at Christmas, 1993, and is tentatively titled “King of the Jungle.”

But he is careful, he says, not to let career overwhelm him once again.


Balance . That’s a word John uses a lot these days--a balance between personal life and career demands that he violated during most of the ‘70s and ‘80s.


“I enjoyed my year away from the business, and I don’t want to lose my personal life again to career,” he says. “Two days before rehearsals for the new tour, I ran away in a panic.

“I thought, ‘I must not do this. This is going to take me away again. I’ve just got a new relationship and this (expletive) career is going to mess up my personal life again. This relationship is not going to work because I am on the road again.’ I left the rehearsal and talked to the person I was in the relationship with.

“So that tendency--to run away--is going to always be there, I know how to deal with it now, and it’s not running away and shutting myself off in my room.”

In recent months, John has regained the humility and enthusiasm that he exhibited in the early years. He has also recaptured his sense of humor.

Aside from weight loss (down from about 200 pounds to 175), the most obvious physical difference is his new hair.

After trying various techniques to overcome or disguise his baldness, he turned to a technique known as “micro cylinder” and is delighted with the results.


“I was tired of being bald and wearing hats,” John says with a smile. “I knew I’d have to put up with all the ‘squirrel on your head’ jokes in England, but it makes me feel better.”

John says he also feels good about the European leg of the current tour.

“I actually remember what I sang,” he says with a quick smile. “There is much more piano on the album (than on recent albums) and there’s more playing onstage. I am really looking forward to playing in America. I haven’t been at my best in America for so long--at least I haven’t felt at my best.”


With a fortune estimated at more than $150 million (largely based on publishing rights, real estate and an extensive art and antique collection), John could walk away from his career altogether. But he still loves music, he says.

He was especially touched by the Freddie Mercury memorial and AIDS benefit concert in April at Wembley Stadium in London, where he sang Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses.

Their joint appearance was a dramatic moment because the London branch of ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, urged fans to boo Rose if the rock star didn’t apologize for alleged anti-gay lyrics and sentiments.

John, who has long been active in AIDS-related projects, once criticized the late comedian Sam Kinison during a rock awards show in New York for what John felt were earlier anti-gay remarks, so there was some question when Rose walked onstage to join him in the song if John would keep his distance. Instead, he reached out his arm in greeting.


“I heard that he had problems with the people in ACT UP, but I thought if he was willing to come on the show that we should make him feel at home, which is why I put my arm around him,” John says. “We all say and do things we regret. I met him before the show and he seemed quite gentle, and I very much like some of his music.”

John pauses and looks down at the floor, as if trying to find a way to summarize his feelings on the subject.

“In this business, I don’t care who you are. There are Jekyll and Hyde characters in us all. There’s not one performer who can’t be an absolute animal at times. You have to be pretty strange to want to be a performer.

“There must be a need to want to be loved. I’m not a psychiatrist, but there is something very vulnerable in most performers. Just listen to Axl’s songs. I understand the nightmare of being a performer. There are fantastic moments, and there are dangerous, life-consuming ones. The art is to find a balance. And I’m glad I got a second chance.”

Elton’s Top of the Pops

These are the Elton John albums that have scored highest on the Billboard magazine pop charts. They are listed in chronological order, along with their highest chart position and key tracks.

“Elton John,” 1970, No. 4 (“Your Song,” “Take Me to the Pilot”)

“Tumbleweed Connection,” 1971, No. 5 (“Country Comfort,” “Burn Down the Mission”)

“Honky Chateau,” 1972, No. 1 (“Honky Cat,” “Rocket Man”)

“Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player,” 1973, No. 1 (“Daniel,” “Crocodile Rock”)

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” 1973, No. 1 (“Candle In the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets”)

“Caribou” 1974, No. 1 (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “The Bitch Is Back”)

“Greatest Hits,” 1974, No. 1 (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Border Song”)

“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” 1974, No. 1 (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “We All Fall in Love Sometimes”)


“Rock of the Westies,” 1975, No. 1 (“Island Girl,” “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”)

“Here and There,” 1976, No. 4 (live album)

“Blue Moves,” 1976, No. 3 (“Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” “Tonight”)