Witnessing Elton John greet his burly, unshaven manservant with a peck on the cheek and a fruity ‘How are you, dear?’ was more than I had any right to expect. But then he sat on his piano stool, placed his fingers on the keyboard, and sang half a dozen of his most memorable ballads – all with the jutted jaw and the grimace of emotion directed at me, his one-man audience. Now, as he shows every sign of laying on one of his celebrated tantrums as well, I get the feeling he’s just spoiling me.
The pedal of the electric piano is sticking. He stops playing. He scowls. He pouts. ‘Look!’ he finally snaps at a young assistant. ‘It’s no good. It’s doing it all the time.’ In his eagerness to put it right, the assistant dives feet first between the black legs of the piano and begins tinkering around with its wires. He’s given half an hour to fix it, while everyone else breaks for a cold lunch of jambon, fromage and French bread.
We are in Nice, the town where Elton John has just bought a fourth home – a £5-million pink palace on a wooded hill, within waving distance of his neighbour, Joan Collins. A surprise really, given that a couple of years ago, during the most exciting tantrum ever captured on film, John swore he would never come back to the south of France, ever again, ever. It was after a female fan had shouted, ‘Yoo-hoo!’ at him while he was playing tennis on a hotel court. ‘It pissed me off,’ he seethed as he ordered his private jet to fly him away from the Riviera. ‘I take my tennis seriously. I don’t like people waving at me.’
Now, as we sit in the dressing room of a hall where he is rehearsing for his autumn tour, he says with a shrug and a lopsided grin, ‘Typical me. All mouth and no trousers.’ Spread over the dressing table is a cloth which, judging by its colourful rococo swirls, probably has a Versace label on it somewhere. Above this there’s a mirror, framed by small lightbulbs. It reflects a 50-year-old pop star wearing white Bermuda shorts, Nike trainers and a baggy blue T-shirt with the word Agassi – or rather issagA – emblazoned across it. On the bridge of his nose sits a pair of blue, rectangular glasses with slits so narrow they make his eyes look reptilian. In his right earlobe there’s a Theo Fennell cross, studded with diamonds. The round, unlined face beneath the expensive chestnut fringe is that of a debauched cherub.
The interview has been granted with the request that it will focus on ‘the music’. It’s not to dwell upon what Simon Prytherch, his publicity manager, has described as ‘the lifestyle, you know, going to parties and wearing Versace’. It will, I’ve been told, last exactly one hour and Prytherch will sit in on it. That is still to come. The half-hour we snatch while the piano is being repaired is an unexpected prelude. And it doesn’t bode well, because for its duration, Elton John is edgy, cold and suspicious – as he has every right to be. He talks too quickly, loudly and impatiently. He gulps at the words and interrupts questions before they’ve been fully asked. When he can’t be bothered to complete a thought he says, ‘Blah, blah, blah’.
There’s still a hint of the Cockney inflection he acquired as a child growing up in suburban Pinner. But there’s no sign of the cheeky chappie with the wide, gap-toothed smile that we, as a grateful nation, know and treasure from early photographs. As he’s talking, one of the outbursts recorded in Tantrums and Tiaras, the unflattering yet oddly endearing documentary filmed off and on throughout 1995 by Elton John’s long-term partner, 34-year-old David Furnish, keeps echoing bullyingly around my head. ‘Not another fucking interview,’ John hisses to the camera. ‘I don’t know how Mrs Jagger does it.’
One reason ‘Mrs’ Jagger – and ‘Miss’ John – do it is because it publicises their records. And, despite already having sold more than 150 million of them and having a back catalogue so enormous it makes him the highest annual earner in the British music industry, Elton John’s appetite for writing hit songs has yet to be sated. ‘The music business,’ he says, lapsing into mid-Atlantic, ‘fascinates the shit outta me. If I hadn’t been a performer, I would’ve been happy working in a small CD store sharing a small flat with David. As long as I’ve got someone to come home to who loves me. Very picket fence.’
And all Barbara Cartland ever wanted was a quiet life of rural simplicity. Elton John’s record-store fantasy may sound bogus, but the point is well taken. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about the charts and, as is the wont of all self-respecting 50-year-olds, he will always rush to his local store and buy the latest Prodigy album, Chemical Brothers single, whatever, on the day that it’s released. Indeed, such is his interest in the rock pantheon – and his own status within it – that he will agree to interviews, despite his claim to be tired of talking about himself.
It could be, though, that this reticence stems from the crushingly low sense of self-esteem from which he periodically suffers. It’s to do with the way he looks and the way he wants to look – this, after all, is the man who once described himself as being ‘physically and spiritually ugly, a slob, a pig’. It’s also because, bored as he is with himself and his excessive lifestyle, he doesn’t believe anyone else can find them subjects of interest either.
The bonus half-hour up, it’s back to the rehearsals. Perhaps conscious of an air of tension, Simon Prytherch whispers: ‘In private, you know, Elton can be very witty. He has a really black sense of humour. I think it’s just that he learned it pays to be less flippant and more guarded in interviews.’ With the piano pedal now fixed, however, the atmosphere is becoming more relaxed and frivolous. During ‘Benny and the Jets’, John slips into a jazz improvisation. For ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’, he leans back precariously on his piano stool, sliding his legs forward and knitting his brow in a caricature of keen emotion. He moves on to a slow song from the new album – ‘Long Way from Happiness’ – and, just as I’m about to get out the lighter and wave it slowly above my head, he breaks the spell by slipping into ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside’, played off-key, Les Dawson-style.
His mood has changed and, homework done for the day, there’s almost a skip in his plimsoled step as we return to the dressing room. ‘Come the second half of the rehearsal, I was really getting into it and enjoying it,’ he says. ‘First half, it wasn’t there.’ And as the designated one hour that follows stretches into two, the real reason emerges why guidelines have to be laid down for the interviews Elton John professes to loathe: it’s to save him from his own candour. Like many people who’ve undergone therapy – and many who haven’t – Elton John actually loves talking about himself. More than that, he enjoys confessing, purging, and getting everything out into the open.
Try though I do to stick to the subject of ‘the music’, John insists on bringing up all the juicy details of his life that none of us are really interested in – much: you know, the drink and drugs hell; the homosexuality; the suicidal tendencies; the traumatic childhood; the self-loathing; the fits of black despair; the rotting cavity in his life that can’t be filled by fawning sycophants. Blah, blah, blah.
Within arm’s reach of John’s chair there’s a bowl filled with chunks of nougat. He helps himself to several pieces, talking as he chews, and washes them down with slugs from a can of Diet Coke. There are half a dozen of these to hand, chilling in – very rock and roll – a silver icebucket. Elton John only tipples soft drinks these days. And since he ‘faced his demons’ seven years ago, in a drink and drugs rehabilitation clinic in Chicago, the only Coke he takes is the diet kind that comes in a can. So addicted was he to cocaine that he would sometimes have it flown in to wherever he was staying and, even when he suffered seizures from it, he would only wait about ten minutes between snorting lines.
His compulsions though, as he readily concedes, were not restricted to drink and drugs. In his time he’s been addicted to Sainsbury’s cockles, Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice-cream, and porcelain – especially porcelain. Elton John’s therapist Beechy Colclough once said of him: ‘He’s a totally obsessive, compulsive person. He was born an addict. If it hadn’t been the alcohol, it would have been the drugs. If it hadn’t been the drugs, it would have been the food. If it hadn’t been the food, it would have been the relationships. If it hadn’t been the relationships it would have been the shopping. And, you know what? I think he’s got all five.’
Nowadays John’s main addiction – apart from shopping – is to being honest about himself. Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. He repeats this word as though it were a mantra. ‘One of the good things about growing older is that you become more honest with yourself,’ he will sigh as he pushes his glasses straight with a thick forefinger. ‘I’ve realised that I’ve spent a lot of my life with people I didn’t really care for.’ Five minutes later, bobbing up and down in his chair: ‘I know what I like and what I don’t like and I’m more prepared to say so. More honest with myself.’ Later still, accompanied by a bitter guffaw: ‘My grandmother was incredibly forthright. I’d rather be surrounded by that kind of honesty than by sycophancy.’ Liam Gallagher pops Ecstasy. Elton John takes Honesty. He’s mad for it. And it’s easy to imagine how seductive a drug Honesty can be to one who, in his past addictions, admits to having lived a life of deceit: the Queen Mother of Rock who in private was, at his own estimation, ‘a nasty, vicious drunk’; shy Reg Dwight pretending to be the extrovert Elton John; the balding man playing at being hirsute; the homosexual who married a woman, Renate Blauel, in 1984 – only to divorce her three years later.
‘Tantrums and Tiaras’ was, of course, the biggest Honesty trip an addict could take. John says it taught him a lot about himself: about how abysmally he could behave on the road, how pampered he was, how harrowing life was for the people around him. ‘I looked at myself and thought, “She’s an absolute cow,”‘ he says. ‘I had to laugh. I was just impossible. Like Zaza from La Cage aux Folles.’
This, of course, is exactly how the rest of us enjoy seeing him – because, let’s be frank, as a hard-core rock and roller, Elton John was never terribly convincing. He dressed in funny costumes and monster specs, pulled silly faces and sung hummable, middle-of-the-road songs. What he became instead, though, was something much more original: the apotheosis of excess. John, sadly, seems to be unable to revel in this accolade; rather, he offers a 12-stage analysis of it.
His main fear, he says, relapsing into therapy-speak, was of confrontation. It was a condition that could be traced back to his childhood. ‘My parents used to argue a lot when I was young,’ he says, defensively drawing up the ankle of one unhairy leg to rest on the knee of the other. ‘I would lock myself in my bedroom. My father would come home and there would be a row. I expected it. And lived in fear of it.’ As a consequence, he was not surprised when his mother told him that his late father, who was in the RAF, didn’t like him very much and would have ‘a little dig’ whenever he could.
Reg Dwight was a child prodigy: at three he could hear a piece of music and then play it on the piano; at 11 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music; in his early twenties he composed the music for hits such as ‘Daniel’ and ‘Your Song’ in ten minutes flat. Given this, and the admission by Reg Dwight’s grown-up alter ego, Elton John, that he’s still a mummy’s boy, it would be reasonable to assume that he was a bit spoilt as a child – by his doting mother, at least – and that he always got his way when he stamped his foot. And this would explain why, in later life, he was capable of complaining about the colour of his private jet, or of walking out of a hotel suite simply because he didn’t like the flowers.
It would also follow that what Stanley Dwight, the father, might really have felt toward the repressed, pampered and freakishly gifted son was not anger but jealousy. To this day, the film Field of Dreams, about a father and son relationship, makes Elton John cry. ‘I missed getting close to my father and I think my father missed getting close to me,’ he reflects, examining his nails. ‘Even though we saw each other when I became famous, it was always awkward. We just didn’t connect.’ But fear of confrontation was not the only legacy from the singer’s youth. Partly because he believed he was plain, overweight and, at 5ft 8in, short, he was afraid that he would never be ‘accepted’, destined always to be lonely and unloved. This belief led to another fear: of showing his feelings, particularly of affection. The irony that he was, nevertheless, able to manipulate his audience’s feelings by singing lyrics borrowed from Bernie Taupin’s heart is not lost on him. ‘I wasn’t a good communicator,’ he says, resting his chin on his chest and fixing me with a stare over the top of his glasses. ‘That’s why I’ve never been able to write my own lyrics. I had to communicate my feelings through my melodies. I could never do it in conversation. I thought that’s what cocaine did for me but it didn’t. It made me talk – but I was talking rubbish.’
Such was John’s emotional discordance, he began to suspect he was incapable of feeling anything, ever again. He has lost many friends to the Aids virus (and considers himself lucky to have emerged HIV-negative himself after his early years of promiscuity). And although he has devoted a lot of energy to the Elton John Aids Foundation he says he was never able to cry about the deaths he had seen. ‘I don’t think I had any feelings when I first went to treatment [for drink and drugs]. They said, “How do you feel?” and I said, “I don’t know, I haven’t felt for years.” My feelings have always been suppressed. Buried for so long it was like having to get them out of the icebox and defrost them.’
But, for all his progress on the thawing front, Elton John still feels awkward about accepting affection, even from Furnish, whom he describes as the love of his life. ‘Before David, I would “Eltonize” everyone I went out with,’ he says. ‘They would come out on their conveyor-belt and be forced to give up their lives and come everywhere with me. And then, of course, their self-worth became nothing. Blah, blah, blah.’ Given these insecurities, it was brave – martyrish, even – of John to leave the queenie tantrum scenes in Furnish’s documentary. Then again, they were very therapeutic for him. Instead of lying on a couch for half an hour, he had a self-flagellating programme made about his life which took a year to film. And he may think that this overdose of Honesty represents a new departure in his life – but, surely, he has always had therapy on a scale as grand as this? Want to feel loved? Fill a rock stadium full of surrogate suitors whom you don’t have to get too close to. Afraid people will snigger at you? Make yourself a laughing stock by wearing a piece of embroidery on your head so intricate it can be compared to the Bayeux Tapestry. Short? Wear outrageous stack heels that draw attention to your height. Myopic? Wear absurd spectacles. Want to justify your feelings of self-disgust? Buy Watford Football Club and suffer the ritual humiliation of 10,000 away fans chanting hurtful songs at you: ‘He’s bald! He’s queer! He takes it up the rear! Elton John! Elton John!’
Actually, John doesn’t find the football songs humiliating. They make him chuckle. And this is what saves him from being unbearable. He he can really laugh at himself. To ‘know then thyself’ is perhaps the most that any of us can ever hope to achieve. To the extent that, ultimately, Elton John doesn’t take himself too seriously, it can be assumed that he knows himself very well indeed. He doubtless thinks it’s pretty amusing that he ended up conforming utterly to the stereotype of the mother’s boy and only child who turns out to be a homosexual with a retentive personality. He has thousands of CDs, for instance, that have to be kept in alphabetical order. When John and an earlier partner checked into the Chicago clinic, each had to write down all the things that they thought were wrong with the other. His partner wrote: ‘He is addicted to cocaine. He is an alcoholic. He is bulimic. He has terrible fits of rage.’ John wrote: ‘He doesn’t tidy up his CDs.’
Elton John loves jokes at his own expense. His favourite description of himself was that he was like Bet Lynch storming around with a leopardskin coat on. And in the chapel he had built at his Windsor mansion in memory of his beloved ‘Nan’, there are gold-leafed, swan-necked pediments inscribed with the words Eltono es Bueno, under his coat of arms. He can be disarmingly dry, too, in his self-deprecation, always getting in there first with the glittery toecap. When he saw the cover of the song ‘Live Like Horses’, which showed him standing alongside Pavarotti, he murmured, ‘Eat like horses, more like.’
In the starry dressing-room upstairs, Elton John has pulled the ring on three cans of Coke. He’s wandered over to the window and commented on the fine weather. He’s made me feel jumpy by shouting ‘Uugh?’, like grandmothers do, whenever he hasn’t heard a question. He’s excused himself to go to the loo. And he’s made me laugh by slipping into a camp Kenneth Williams impersonation as he describes how people react bitterly to Lottery winners: ‘Oooh, you’ve got all this now, you won’t want to know me.’ And he’s told me what he thinks are people’s criticisms of his capricious nature and his impulsive materialism. ‘I’m an excessive person,’ he says with a shrug. ‘You’ve seen all the pictures. You’ve heard all the stories.’
Far from feeling guilty about his indulgences, John finds them a comfort. ‘I just love collecting beautiful things. I love the workmanship and I’m much more knowledgeable about them than I used to be. Now I don’t buy in bulk. I know where every single thing is in every single house.’
Downstairs, Bob Halley, the burly, unshaven Cockney whom Elton John had earlier greeted with a kiss, has ambled over to say hello. For 23 years Halley has been John’s loyal personal assistant, a job that has involved being chauffeur, the target for Coke bottles thrown in anger, and dresser during the glam-rock days – when the star was panicking before a concert, Halley would have to squeeze his boss into his Donald Duck outfit with the words, ‘Get a grip.’ And once asked if he thought Elton John’s records would always sell, Halley said flatly, ‘No. Load of old crap, aren’t they?’ John, who was standing by his side, nearly burst out of his suit laughing. When I question Halley about his bantering relationship with the man who pays his wages, he gives a laconic grin and scratches his stomach. ‘Yeah, I think he likes me because I don’t suck up to him. We have the same sense of humour. It’s my job to bring him back to earth.’
Bob Halley is the Fool to Elton John’s King Lear. He is the deadpan jester licensed to insult and jolly his boss out of his evil moods. Joan Collins has Christopher Biggins. Elton has Bob. But the analogies with a royal court don’t end there. Two of the most poignant photographs taken this year have featured our Elton John. One shows him trapped by self-parody and shamelessly divorced from reality as he arrives for his 50th birthday party at the Hammersmith Palais. He turned up in a removal van on a hydraulic platform, resplendent in a £50,000 costume, an ostrich-feather train and a three-and-a-half foot tall wig – topped with a silver galleon.
The other – altogether more chilling – image was splashed over the front page of the Mirror under the headline ‘Healing Hands’. It shows Diana, Princess of Wales, the Queen of England manquee, consoling a weeping pop star at the memorial service held in Milan Cathedral for his close friend of 20 years, Gianni Versace. The pictures showed his ugly duckling reality crashing into a fantasy world filled with beautiful porcelain and smelling of fresh flowers. It also showed the extent to which the lines between royalty and rock aristocracy have become disturbingly blurred.
Today, according to both the star and the publicist, Elton John is trying to shed the personality he has created for himself – the ‘going to parties and wearing Versace’ image. In the old days, he says, he used to go to the opening of everything. Now unless it’s an Elton John Aids Foundation event or a friend who needs support he won’t go to anything. ‘I can’t be bothered. All that flashbulb scene. Such a rigmarole. You see the same old bloody people. Quite honestly, I’m more interested in looking at catalogues of porcelain now.’ Remembering the three-and-a-half foot tall wig, ‘Oh yeah?; is all you can think. But thank goodness. We love our bejewelled, exotically plumaged, all-new, honest Elton. We love the splendid ‘rubbish’ he still spouts, even without cocaine. And we love the fact that, fortunately, he hasn’t quite been able to shake off the acquisitiveness.
Thought to be worth at least £150 million and with houses and mansions in Windsor, London, Atlanta and Nice, John will buy an extra Rolls-Royce Corniche on a whim, employ Sir Roy Strong to design his Italianate garden, and travel with a wardrobe of 30 suits, 40 jackets and six drawers of designer spectacles. The reputation for conspicuous materialism has stuck. And it’s not so much that it detracts from ‘the music’ as that it has become inextricably linked with it.
The interview over, the tape recorder switched off, Elton John talks excidedly about the latest purchase for his new palace of excess in Nice. A spaniel puppy. He didn’t intend to buy it but, last night, when his Alsatian puppies arrived and he went to the pet shop to buy beds for them, he just couldn’t resist. ‘I love doggies,’ he laughs. ‘I just love them.’
In response to this article Elton John’s publicist, Simon Prytherch of John Reid Enterprises Ltd, wrote to the Sunday Telegraph: ‘We felt it necessary to register our outrage at the interview with Elton John… Some of the article is accurate, some funny and some quite insightful but our frustration and anger is at the misrepresentation – it is simply not the feature we agreed to do nor does the piece reflect the conversation that took place. Both Elton and myself feel very hurt and let down.’
A week after this interview apeared in 1997, Elton John sang his re-written version of Candle in the Wind at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales and it became the biggest selling single of all time.
He has since been knighted, had a pace maker fitted and taken his manager, John Reid, to court after discovering that £20 million had disappeared from his estate. At the trial it emerged that Sir Elton had once run up a florists bill of £293,000, during a £40 million 20-month spending spree.