Bernie Taupin on his 53-year musical marriage to Elton John: It’s ‘God’s right hand’
Bernie Taupin has bronchitis. “If I collapse into spasms of coughing, please forgive me,” he warns, calling from the patio of his house outside Santa Barbara.
The timing of the illness, he says, was lucky: It’s come during a break from promoting “Rocketman,” the biopic that recounts the life and career of Taupin’s friend and musical partner, Elton John, one of the top-selling solo artists of all time, with 31 platinum albums and 300 million records sold worldwide. Taupin (who writes the words) and John (who writes the music) have collaborated on an incredible 22 top-10 hits, including “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Daniel,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Candle in the Wind.”
For “Rocketman,” John and Taupin, who met in London in 1967, wrote an original song, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” Earlier this month, it won a Golden Globe for original song, and it’s nominated for an Academy Award in the same category. “Hopefully I can get rid of the bronchitis soon, because there’s a lot of glad-handing events between now and the next round of awards,” Taupin adds.
In an interview punctuated by polite spasms of coughing, the California-based writer, who will turn 70 in May, discussed his early youthful fondness for dirty songs, his puzzling lyrics to “We Built This City” and the time he disappointed John Lennon.
You mentioned doing a lot of glad-handing, and you’re known as a guy who doesn’t like the promotional part of the music business. With “Rocketman,” you’ve been more public than ever before. Has that been a challenge?
Initially, I thought it might be hard. When we premiered the movie at the Cannes Film Festival, it got an incredible reaction. Imagine if it had bombed, and we had to go through the next year promoting a film that nobody liked. That would have been miserable. And I don’t want to sound like an acceptance speech, but everybody involved with this film has been delightful. We’re going to be friends for life.
Is there anyone you felt the movie treated unfairly?
The only character that was a million miles from the person he actually was is [music publisher] Dick James. In the movie, he’s a sort of East End, cigar-chomping street tough, when in fact Dick never would have used a cuss word and regarded himself as honest — although some of his business practices were very Dickensian. His son was upset by the portrayal, and for that, I apologize.
You and Elton met through a coincidence of timing: Ray Williams, a young music publisher, spontaneously gave him a folder of your lyrics. Do you believe in fate?
I believe God has a hand in everything. We had a one-time shot at meeting, and we got it. You can call it fate, kismet or, as they say, God’s right hand.
What made Paul McCartney turn up at the Woolton [Parish Church] garden fete and meet John Lennon? What made Keith Richards run into Mick Jagger on the [train] station platform in Dartford? Like I say, God’s right hand.
A lot of cowriters work side by side but you and Elton work separately. With “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” which has a Motown feel to it, did you have that sound in mind when you wrote the lyrics?
No, absolutely not. When I was approached about doing a song for the [end] credits of the film, it was obvious that the song had to have a redemptive quality to it. I, probably not in my best judgment, imagined a slower, waltz-like, reflective melody, sort of like Tom Waits’ “Hold On.”
I can’t remember if I said to Elton, in my notes, how I envisaged the lyric to be treated, but when he sent me the demo, I was perplexed, because he’d gone in a totally different direction. Then I heard the finished version and I got it. If we’d gone in the direction I’d imagined, it might have fallen flat. So in the long run, everybody made the right decisions, except me. [laughs]
Once you give the lyrics to Elton, you don’t have much control over what the song turns into, which is unusual.
We’ve been doing it for 53 years, almost. We’ve probably written a lot of crap, but the majority is stuff I’m immensely proud of.
How often were you in the studio with him or on the road for a tour?
You have to remember, we were so young when we started out — I was 17 years old — and we were joined at the hip. Everything we did, we did together. When we started writing together, we were sharing a room at his mother’s apartment in Northwood Hills.
But then there’s a thing called growing up. You still maintain that solidarity but you have to create your own individual lives, which we did. I’m always there when we record, to help tinker with songs, if there’s a hiccup in it. I’ve been in the studio during pretty much every album we’ve made.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which Elton released in 1973, is often named as one of rock’s best albums. But people don’t often talk about how filthy the songs are. From “Jamaica Jerk-Off” to “All the Girls Love Alice,” half of them are about sex. Were you aware of a theme running through the lyrics?
It’s funny you bring that up, because not many people comment on that. People revere the album, but they never seem to dive in and figure out what you’re saying. It is a pretty blue record.
I was a young kid, a horny 23-year-old, among a lot of other horny twentysomethings. I read a tremendous amount all through my life, and I’m not sure how I would have drawn some of those songs out of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. I was basically writing about my fantasies at the time.
Songs aren’t literal, but still, in 1972’s “Rocket Man,” what kind of astronaut works only five days a week?
[laughs] Well, there’s a point to that. The song is based on a Ray Bradbury story [“The Rocket Man”], and the idea that in the future, being an astronaut is like driving a cab. The analogy is supposed to be that it’s a 9-to-5 job. It does make sense. A lot of the songs I’ve written are packed with metaphors and strange turns of phrase. There’s nothing wrong with confusing people.
What about the lyric “Marconi plays the mamba,” which you contributed as one of the cowriters on the 1985 Starship hit “We Built This City”? Does that have a point to it also?
None whatsoever! It just sounded good. I have no qualms about it, even though it was voted the worst song of all time, which I’m quite proud of. I can’t remember which magazine — was it Spin?
It was Blender.
Well, it’s a song that outlasted the magazine, so I guess I’ve got the last laugh there.
Are there any young songwriters you like?
I think women are totally ruling right now. Maren Morris has an incredible melodic sensibility. Brandi Carlile, Gretchen Peters, Brandy Clark, who’s a great writer. And there’s still the old guard. The best record of last year was the Tom Russell record, which nobody even knows about.
I don’t listen to pop music. I don’t think I could name one Taylor Swift song. It’s not that I don’t respect it. I’ve been in the room when my younger children have watched her on TV, but it doesn’t compute. I don’t take it in. I’ve created some, hopefully, captivating pop music in my life, but I don’t listen to pop music. That’s the million-dollar question with me.
Your website refers to you mainly as “Taupin.” Do you hate your first name?
[laughs] I was uncomfortable with it for a time. “Bernie” is really not a very rock ‘n’ roll name. If I’d thought about it early in my life, I might have changed it so something cooler, like Bono or the Edge.
Do you prefer that people call you Taupin?
A lot of people do. The road crew and the band call me BT. Elton calls me Taupin, or Taupy. He’d never call me Bernie.
Elton tells a funny story in his memoir, “Me,” about John Lennon trying to get you to come onstage with him in 1974, when he was the guest star at Elton’s Madison Square Garden show.
John was terrified. The guy was throwing up in a bucket in the dressing room. He wanted somebody to lean on. I said, “I can’t do that. I can’t lead you onstage — you’re not Stevie Wonder. Just go out there and enjoy it.” And he was fine.
There are a lot of funny stories in Elton’s book. I laughed out loud many times. I mean, this is a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. Nothing is sacrosanct.
With this farewell tour Elton’s doing, can you imagine taking a bow with him at the last show?
If he wants me to, I will, but it’s not on my bucket list. I’ve had plenty of the spotlight on me — much more than somebody of my nature probably would have. I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve always been outside of the velvet rope.
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