Reclaiming a ‘Fantastic’ era
ELTON JOHN didn’t just become a pop sensation in the 1970s because he wrote some of the most gorgeous melodies since Lennon-McCartney. He and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin also gave us songs that seemed almost revolutionary in their refusal to stick to the rock ‘n’ roll rules of the ‘60s.
Rock in those days was exclusively a young man’s game, a guitar-driven rebellion against adult rules, values, power and lifestyles, but even at the beginning John and Taupin’s themes reached out. Piano man John opened his U.S. debut in 1970 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood with “Sixty Years On,” which spoke about old age with a rare empathy. The graceful tune told of a military veteran who felt discarded by those around him:
Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age.
When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave.
And senorita play guitar, play it just for you.
My rosary has broken, and my beads have all slipped through.
John turns 60 himself in March and Taupin will follow him three years later, but they seem as energetic and upbeat as they did in the Troubadour days. They are less innocent to be sure. They have gone through ups and downs in their careers and in their personal lives, and they address it all with remarkable candor in the new autobiographical album “The Captain & the Kid.”
It’s a sequel to 1975’s “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” one of John’s seven consecutive No. 1 albums.
In one of the most moving new songs, “Blues Never Fade Away,” they touch on questions of faith and fate, contrasting the loss of friends and loved ones with their own darkest times with addictions.
Who makes the call and who gets to choose?
Who gets to win and who gets to lose?
And how did we get so lucky?
It’s like we’re rolling dice in the belly of the blues
And blues never fade away.
“I’ve had two of my best friends shot on their doorsteps and murdered,” John said, referring to the deaths of John Lennon and fashion mogul Gianni Versace. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of them and why they are gone and I’m still here. With the amount of drugs I did in the ‘80s, there’s no way I should be here.”
At the heart of the album is a topic as rare in pop music as old age: friendship.
“We’ll be 40 years writing together next year, and it’s great that we are closer as friends than ever, and I think we’re doing some of our finest work,” said John. “It is one of the things I’m most proud of, my relationship with Bernie.”
John and Taupin are like brothers who are connected in spirit and admiration yet who fight fiercely to maintain their independence. John thrives on showbiz glamour. He’s an entertainer in every sense of the world. He loves to pepper his guests with stories about his showbiz pals and his latest list of musical favorites (they include the Scissor Sisters and Ray LaMontagne).
He’s got so many enthusiasms, including art and his charity foundation, that no day seems long enough. He has homes in four countries and hosts an annual Oscars-night charity gala. Loving to be onstage, John, who “wed” his longtime partner, David Furnish, in a civil ceremony in England last year, performs about 130 concerts most years.
Taupin shuns the showbiz life, rarely even showing up at John’s concerts. He is probably the last person you’d notice at an industry gala because he keeps to himself, but he may well prove the most engaging. Taupin laughs easily and also lives each day to the full, though that can mean taking one of his cutting horses to a competition, which is as much a thrill for him as a concert. He lives on a 30-acre horse ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley with his fourth wife, Heather, and their 17-month-old daughter, Charley Indiana.
Both men have gone through many relationships because it’s often hard for others to adjust to their life patterns -- John’s fame and Taupin’s solitude. But they both seem to be blessed these days with a balance that allows room for others.
For years, Taupin wrote lyrics and sent them to John, who, without even talking to his collaborator, set them to music, and Taupin said they always sounded just as he heard them in his head when he wrote them. One reason the approach worked so well was that they spent so much time together, talking about music and experiencing life.
But as they drifted into separate directions personally in the late ‘70s, they didn’t have that everyday communication and, while their friendship never ended, you could sometimes feel a distance between Taupin’s words and John’s music and vocals. They have begun communicating more in recent years about the music, and that helps in the new album. Their private lives, however, are still quite different.
Like Dylan, liberated
TO reach John on a recent weekday afternoon, you just had to drive to one of Beverly Hills’ most luxurious hotels, where he was in a bungalow getting ready for a flight by private jet to Sacramento for a concert that evening. Rather than spend the night there, he would fly back to the luxury of Beverly Hills to repeat the process again the next day -- this time flying to San Jose. While in town, John also took part in a charity tennis event (teaming with Andy Roddick in a doubles match).
On this day, the new Bob Dylan album, “Modern Times,” was playing in the suite.
“It’s fabulous,” said John. “I can’t get past track one, ‘Thunder on the Mountain.’ The thing you know is that Dylan made the record he wanted to make. He didn’t try to make it fit into what they’re playing on the radio. That’s what we did too with this album.”
One song on the new album, “Old ’67,” even speaks about a conversation at John’s home in the south of France before the making of the 2001 album “Songs From the West Coast.”
“We spent five days together, which for us is a ridiculous amount of time,” John said. “We laughed and we talked about the old days, but more than anything, we said, ‘Let’s draw a line in the sand and not make any more uneven records.’ We needed to stop worrying so much about hit singles.
“Besides, the writing was on the wall. The radio is so formularized now, and there’s ageism. So we decided to forget about making records for the radio. We vowed to just write what we feel.”
They renewed that vow before this album.
To find Taupin the same week, you had to take U.S. 101 to Santa Barbara, then drive 40 minutes or so into the heart of the rural Santa Ynez Valley. This is “Sideways” country; the only references to businesses along the two-lane highway are posters offering scenic glider flights and directions to wine-tasting stops. Taupin lives in a gorgeous but not massive Spanish-style house. A sign at the ranch gate warns, “Dogs Have the Right of Way.”
Dylan wasn’t playing on his sound system (an old Louvin Brothers album was), but Taupin was also excited about “Modern Times.”
“One of my favorite things about the album is that it sounds like music befitting a man of his age,” Taupin said. “That’s why I’m proud of our record too. We are sounding our age. We did fall into the trap of trying to stay current with what was on the radio, and I think it was a mistake.
“I think Elton’s vocals are some of the best he’s ever done, simply because he’s relaxed with the lyrical content. He could crawl inside these songs and really understand the feelings because, after all, he lived them.”
Spurred on by the ‘70s
THE idea of a sequel to “Captain Fantastic” came from John’s manager, Merck Mercuriadis. Taupin struggled with the concept until he came up with the line that opens the album, “We heard Richard Nixon say, ‘Welcome to the U.S.A.’ ”
“Like so many lines, it just came to me when I was working around the ranch,” he said, sitting on the quiet patio of his hillside house, which offers views of the valley that seem to go on forever. “It kicked everything off because it set the time and the place of us coming to America in the 1970s.”
The next couple of songs swiftly retrace the early glory years, reaching in “Tinderbox” the time in the late ‘70s that John’s record career hit a block wall commercially and they each fell into a pit of addiction (drugs for John, alcohol for Taupin).
Around the same time, they drifted apart and collaborated with other writers. John stepped into movies and Broadway with “The Lion King.” Taupin wrote tunes for others, including Jefferson Starship.
“We had exhausted all avenues,” Taupin said. “We had records come in at No. 1, which was unheard of in those days, and Elton was playing stadiums. There was just nowhere to go, and it felt like a pressure cooker. Unless we got out, we would have imploded. The split happened naturally, no big scene. I ended up in Mexico for, like, six months. I think I would have had a nervous breakdown if I hadn’t gotten away. The strange thing is, there was no big scene when we eventually got back together either. It just felt right.”
Though John and Taupin started writing together again in the early ‘80s, the results were mixed. They came up with some marvelous singles, but the albums rarely reflected the character of their best works. The musical arrangements lost their early soulful edge. In the new album, the music echoes the wide range of pop, country, soul and rock influences that contributed to the distinctive sound of such hits as “Your Song” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” The production (by John and Matt Still) too is stripped down and convincing, focusing chiefly on John’s vocals and piano.
Despite the absence of a hit single, the album entered the sales chart last month at No. 18, about par for John’s recent work. But the reviews, especially in England, were John’s best in years. Q magazine called it his finest since the ‘70s.
Toasting one’s past can often sound pretentious, but there’s a humility and warmth in these tunes that make you want to join in raising a glass.
As youngsters, city-boy John and country-lad Taupin were loners. They found comfort and inspiration in the arts but in different ways: John was absorbed by music, especially early rock and Motown. He began playing the piano when he was 5. Taupin was pulled toward literature and poetry.
When the two met, they found not only friendship but a way to pursue their goals. John had tried to write lyrics but wasn’t pleased with the results. Taupin couldn’t imagine writing the music as well as the words. So the pairing was perfect.
“You’ve got to remember how young we were when we started working together,” Taupin said when asked about the split in the late ‘70s. “Because we were both loners, we were pretty much solely dependent on each other. We didn’t have a large group of friends. Everything we did, we did together. When Elton went on the road, I was instinctively part of it. I really had no choice. I really didn’t have a home. I hadn’t formed a life.
“It wasn’t until after ‘Captain Fantastic’ that we both sort of formed our own lives. I basically ended up going back a full 360 to the countryside, which is where I was from in England, only I did it in America. I have my office, my studio where I paint and a gym. I love the solitude.”
At his hotel, John too reflected on the friendship and the music.
“I think we were both extremely hurt and jealous that we were writing with others for a while,” he said. “But we were savvy enough to know that if we didn’t let each other write with other people, then the relationship would end. You can’t shackle somebody down.”
It was nearing time for John (whose birth name is Reginald Dwight) to head to the airport, but he paused for one more question: What’s the difference between Captain Fantastic and simply the Captain?
“Captain Fantastic was the luckiest man in the world, appreciating everything that was happening to him, but not having much beyond that,” John said. “Being Elton was all-encompassing, there was no time for Reg. But there wasn’t a lot underneath the stardom. It was a bit like a souffle. Now I am far more grounded. I have balance in my life, and a person in my life, David, that is a 50-50 relationship, someone who has his own point of view and protects me and loves me, and I do the same for him.
“It was a different journey for Bernie, but he’s also much happier. He has found his soul mate, and he has a lifestyle that is very comfortable and rewarding. Maybe that’s the right word for both of us: We are finally comfortable in our own skins.”