July 2000 By Philip Berk
The worldwide success of The Lion King, both as an animated film and a Broadway musical encouraged Elton John to try his hand at another ambitious project, a new version of Aida written for the stage.
The show opened on Broadway to mixed reviews, but the public response was spectacular despite a negative review from the New York Times. The score (with lyrics by Tim Rice) won a Tony Award, which it richly deserved.
After a long separation Elton is once again working with his former lyricist Bernie Taubin and their new CD has earned rave reviews.
When I met with Elton in Los Angeles, he was there promoting The Road to El Dorado, his other collaboration with Tim Rice. He had delayed his visit to supervise the opening of Aida, unhappy with the production, but after last minute changes were made he was pleased with the show.
The New York Times review, however, was a source of annoyance and I asked him about it.
“I personally found (New York Times critic) Ben Brantley’s review incredibly insulting. He’s a very bitter, twisted person. I’ve never met him, but the thing that galled me was he said the melodies were as adhesive as an unchewed piece of gum. I found that incredibly insulting because I think the melodies are terrific, and I know what a good melody should be. Maybe you don’t come out singing the songs, but it does sink in when you hear it more than once. A personal viewpoint is one thing, but a vicious attack is another. We’ve had great reviews in Time and Newsweek, so you take the rough and the smooth. But I predicted we’d get lousy reviews; they hate what Disney is bringing to the stage in New York.”
And he’s right. The show is a spectacular success and audiences are greeting it at every performance with standing ovations, in fact it should run for years.
Unfortunately Road to El Dorado hasn’t done as well, which has been the pattern of his remarkable career. In the midst of great success there has been heartache.
When did he first realize he was going to be a musician?
“I grew up in a musical household, so I knew from an early age that I wanted to do something with music. The song writing thing came as a result of me playing in a band and getting fed up and thinking, ‘What can I do, maybe I could write a song?’ So I answered an advertisement in the New Musical Express in England: Songwriter Wanted. I’ve always known I couldn’t write lyrics, so they put me together with Bernie Taupin, who only wrote lyrics. I wrote all those (early) songs without even having met him. When no one was interested in recording our songs, everyone seem to think I should sing them myself. I wasn’t really a singer, but it’s incredible how things worked out.”
And work out they did. His first album, released in the U.S. as Elton John, took off like no first album before it.
By the end of the year (it was l970) he had two albums out, Tumbleweed Connection was the other, and the following year he had an unprecedented four hits in the American Top Ten simulateously.
For almost ten years he could do no wrong.
But by the end of the next decade he was heavily into drugs, booze, and bulemia.
And had become a figure of fun.
So he made a decision — rehab.
After successfully overcoming these addictions, he re-emerged in the 90s as a respected artist, and in l994 he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then came The Lion King.
Not only was it an artistic success but it became the third biggest money making movie of all time, Much of that success stemmed from Elton and Tim’s songs, which earned him an Oscar and opened up a new career for him in the theatre.
His personal life, which up until then had been fraught with closeted homosexuality, a flirtation with bisexuality, and a faux marriage, took a turn for the better, and he found true love and companionship with one person, David Furnish.
“What I love most about my life now is my sobriety and my relationships with my friends, my family, and most of all my partner. I’m so in love with the guy I live with. I said to him, ‘If there was a fire in my apartment in Atlanta where I have a huge photography collection, the one picture I would save is the one, by the bed, of you as a little boy.”
How did rehab change his life?
“It gave me back my sense of reason, my sense of responsibility, and to a degree my humility, which I didn’t have when I was doing drugs. When you really get into taking a lot of drugs and alcohol, you become completely irresponsible. Your mood swings are so bad, your friends don’t want to know you. You don’t hang out with your true friends, you hang out with people who do drugs.”
So what made him seek help?
“I knew I had to do something. I didn’t know what. I was confused. I knew I had a huge problem, but I thought it was too far gone to do something about it. Magically there were three words that came to me, and those words were, I need help. So when I got over my pride and realized I can’t do it by myself, it was like a shell cracked and I became alive again.”
And after that?
“I would get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and go to an AA meeting. I did exactly what I was told for a year. I did no work. I got my life back together. I began to live as an adult. It was like learning to walk again. I had to be taught to pay attention, to listen — to shut up and listen — and it has brought me nothing but joy. Of course there were days when you felt like crap, but instead of shutting the door and doing drugs, I would confront it and say, ‘Let’s sort it out.’ Addiction is about running away. It sounds strange to say this, but I’m glad I went through that awful period because I don’t think I would be the person I am now if I had not. What I’ve learned is life can be wonderful, and you can change. I’ve never been happier in my life.”
What did the success of The Lion King do for him?
“It broadened my palette for which I’m very very grateful. It opened so many doors for me. It enabled me to get my own film production company. It encouraged me to write a stage musical which I’d never written before. It’s made me want to do so many new things like write a screen musical that isn’t animated. ”
How different is it working with Tim Rice, who was Andrew Lloyd Weber’s erstwhile collaborator (They co-wrote Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita) as opposed to Bernie Tauper?
“We collaborate in a different way. With Bernie (we worked together for 33 years) I wrote the melody and he came up with the words. With Tim I get the lyrics first, and then I write the melodies. I have the easy job. My melodies don’t change as much as his lyrics do. He might be required to do countless rewrites, so it’s hell for him.”
Does he still enjoy performing live?
“Even though I’m fifty three years of age, I still love playing live. It would have been very boring for me to just make records. I love to entertain people. There’s nothing more thrilling than getting a response from an audience, but then again there’s nothing more thrilling than writing a song like Circle of Life or Can You Feel the Love Tonight? Although at one point, about three weeks before the film was due to come out, they cut the song out of the film. I freaked out and said, ‘You’ve got to put this back in. It’s a love song. It needs a love song,’ and it’s to their credit that they listened to us.”
How does a melody come to him?
“It’s very strange. I don’t write a lot. I don’t carry tunes in my head, and I don’t write every day. I suppose if I was a guitarist, I might strum a little bit if a melody came to me, but the piano’s kind of hard for that. It’s not like abstaining from sex for eight months and then having fabulous sex for three weeks, but I do write in spurts.”
What have fame and money done for him.
“They’ve enabled me to collect some amazingly beautiful things. My late friend Gianni Versace taught me you must allow time to go out and see things. ‘You must see this church, you must see this fresco. It will inspire you.’ So when I get up in the morning I look at the things I’ve acquired. I can’t believe I own these things, and it does inspire me. I’m inspired by beauty. Money nearly destroyed me — the drugs — but I’ve been sober for ten years touch wood. But money has also enabled me to travel, to see the most beautiful things, to acquire some of the most beautiful things. Money is wonderful, but in America it can get everything out of proportion. It seems to be such a passion here, everything is judged by money and I don’t think that’s healthy. So that’s why I live in Britain most of the time; they bring you down to ground level.”
So what does he collect?
“I collect a lot of modern artists. My big collection is photography. I love to collect black and white photographs, by the great 20th Century photographers like Cortege, Irving Penn, Hurst, Maholey Nagy. I also collect jewelry, cars, wristwatches, modern art glasses, clothes, CDs, porcelain, and I collect houses. I have four houses which I share with my partner David. I know where every single piece is, which is infuriating, but I have that kind of mind.”
Is there a downside to success and fame?
Sometimes you get up in the morning and you don’t want to face the world, but you have to. I’ve never been a recluse; in fact I like to go out. But there are days when you just feel like sitting home and reading. Not that I’ve ever wanted to shut myself away like Barbra Streisand or Michael Jackson and become completely detached from what’s going on in the world. To write good songs you have to be out there among people. “
And that’s just what he’s doing!