On a Thursday morning in his Toronto hotel room, Elton John is in high spirits. He is 12 months into a three-year farewell tour that has sold out arenas and sports stadiums around the world, and earned some of the most rapturous reviews of his 50-year career. “The last time I had notices like this I had a full head of hair and the writer had to spend half the review explaining who I was,” is how he puts it. His musical biopic Rocketman has grossed nearly $200m at the box office. And he’s about to publish his autobiography, Me.
Full disclosure: I spent three and half years working with John on the book. I was both delighted and impossibly flattered to be asked, but work on it got off to a deeply peculiar start. The first interviews took place on the set of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, in which he had a cameo role that involved wearing one of his old stage costumes. Thus, I enjoyed the disconcerting experience of interviewing Elton John while he was dressed as Elton John in 1974: an outfit entirely made up of multicoloured marabou feathers, a headdress covered in jewels and mirrored glass, and a pair of silver platform boots with ELTON written on them in giant red letters. “Of course I can walk in them,” he frowned, when I mentioned the latter. “Listen, I’ve jumped off pianos in bigger platforms than these. It’s like riding a bike – you don’t forget.”
But however mind-boggling he looked, it was nothing compared with what came out of his mouth: a succession of stories about his life in 1975 – when he was both the biggest pop star in the world and horribly depressed – so lurid that I assumed they’d never make it past the first draft. But they all ended up in the book. No spoilers, but put it this way: you’ll never look at a snooker table in the same way again.
It set the tone for how things were going to be. I’d travel to wherever he was, he’d talk about his past with startling candour, hooting with laughter at the awfulness of his behaviour or the sheer preposterousness of his own success: “Me and Bernie [Taupin, his longtime collaborator] used to look at each other all the time, utterly baffled, like, ‘What the fuck is happening to us now?’”
There are lots of reasons why Elton John has earned national treasure status, most obviously his ability to write songs that have become part of the fabric of life, but high on the list is that it’s hard to think of another member of the rock aristocracy blessed with such a self-deprecating sense of humour, or such a keen sense that, from the moment he set foot on stage at the LA Troubadour in 1970 – a gig that transformed him into a star – his life has been completely ridiculous. He talked a lot about the danger of losing touch with who he really was – a gifted but shy, music-obsessed boy from a council house in Pinner. But listening to him, that was what he sounded like: someone who, for all his talent, couldn’t quite believe the way it had all turned out.
Today I ask him the questions we have been sent, and he is charmingly, fan-ishly delighted that one is from Bob Dylan (Dylan stopping him and Taupin on the stairs of a New York venue and telling them he liked their songs was one of the pair’s first “What the hell is happening to us?” moments). He dissolves into laughter recalling the late Freddie Mercury’s way with words, or John Lennon’s attempts to come up with his own drag name. And he is admirably unfazed by the tone-lowering line of inquiry pursued by rapper Eminem: once again, no subject seems is off limits.
When a tour ends I have a huge void of time to fill. What are you going to do when this big tour is over?
Ed Sheeran, singer-songwriter
I don’t have a clue. I’ve got another couple of years to go. What I’d like to do is spend time at my house in Windsor, walk around the garden, catch up with friends, spend some time with the boys [his sons Zachary and Elijah]. I just want to do nothing for about six months and catch up with my social life in England. Whether I’ll be able to do that is another matter – I’m not going to miss travelling, or life on the road, or staying in hotels, but I’m an enormous fidget. When I got sick a couple of years back, I was forced to spend seven weeks at home in Windsor, recuperating. It was the longest time I’d spent there in years, and I really enjoyed it: seeing the boys when they got in from school, hearing their news. I remember when I came out of rehab, there’s this thing they talk about called “the hole in the doughnut”: how are you going to fill the time you used to spend drinking and taking drugs? I had all these extravagant ideas about learning to speak Italian and how to cook, and of course I never did any of them. So I’m not planning on anything like that. I’d just like to take it easy and enjoy the fruits of spending three and a half years on the road.
In the song Tiny Dancer, did you work your way up to the cathartic chorus gradually, spontaneously, or did you have it thought out from the start?
Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter
This is a very good question. Tiny Dancer has a really long lyric, a very cinematic, California-in-the-early-70s lyric, so it had two verses and a middle eight before it even gets to the chorus, and it lent itself to a long buildup. The middle eight sets it up well, then it slows down for a moment – “when I say softly, slowly…” That line suggested a big chorus. I don’t remember much about writing it, but I do remember trying to make it sound as Californian as possible. Writing a song like that’s a bit like having a wank, really. You want the climax to be good, but you don’t want it to be over too quickly – you want to work your way up to it. Bernie’s lyric took such a long time to get to the chorus, I thought, “Fuck, the chorus had better be something special when it finally arrives.” And it’s “here I come”, literally.
Have you used your wedding gift yet?
Ah, no. Eminem bought me and David matching cock rings when we got married. That was his gift. They sit there, like the crown jewels, in this beautiful box on satin cushions. They’re wonderful to look at. I don’t know if any guests we’ve had have used them. God, I hope not. They’re kind of sacrosanct. The fact they came from Eminem makes it even better. It’s very him, as is this question. I call him up every couple of months, and every time he picks up the phone he says the same thing: “Hello, you old cunt, how are you?” Justin Timberlake says the same thing, actually.
Over the years, you and I have talked about the need for a new ‘championship’ song that can become a sports anthem. How’s it going?
Billie Jean King, tennis champion and founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative
Billie Jean has always gone on about We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions by Queen being the ultimate sports songs. I couldn’t ask Bernie to sit down and write a lyric like that – he’s not that kind of writer. We wrote Philadelphia Freedom for Billie Jean’s tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms, but it’s not really about tennis; Bernie just wrote about Philadelphia. And to be honest, We Are The Champions can’t be beaten: it’s so good at what it does, any sport can use it. Queen had that market sewn up, which was hysterical, because Freddie Mercury hated sport; he knew nothing about it at all. If you’d mentioned Arsenal to Freddie, he’d have thought it was something to do with gay sex.
Your path to success hasn’t always been easy. You weren’t born into privilege and you’ve had to battle other people’s preconceptions in many aspects of your life. How have you overcome these challenges, and what drives you when things seem difficult?
Lewis Hamilton, Formula One champion
The challenges I had were shyness and my sexuality. I’ve always tried to be honest. I didn’t hide my sexuality from myself or people around me – as soon as I realised I was gay, I told everyone I knew; it didn’t give me a hang-up. Shyness never really held me back – a lot of creative people are shy and pull themselves out of that on stage. It’s when you come off stage and you’re stuck with yourself again that the problems start. I found challenges hard to overcome until I got sober, because I didn’t know how to deal with them.
Being sober is all about asking for help to get through challenges. You can’t just barrel through and do things yourself – you have to reach out. It took me a long time to get where I am now: I was too trusting, I didn’t like confrontations, so I made bad decisions, especially in business. The fear of confrontation went back to my childhood, my parents rowing all the time, and it really held me back. It became less and less when I got sober, but it’s still there. It doesn’t magically disappear.
Which song from the last five years do you wish you had written?
Charli XCX, singer-songwriter
I wouldn’t have minded writing Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, but I think The Joke by Brandi Carlile. I just love it, I’ve played it continuously. It’s just the kind of song I could have written, quite Elton-ish. It’s the song that launched her into the stratosphere after seven albums – it was nominated for four Grammys. She’s a friend, I love her and people are now giving her the respect she deserves.
Out of everyone you’ve worked with, who is the most annoying?
Fat Tony, DJ
Well, he wasn’t annoying, but I was perplexed when I went to work with Timbaland, the hip-hop producer. I did a track for him in Las Vegas for his Shock Value album. I loved his work, so I went to the studio, said hello and just sat at the piano and wrote this song. He’s obviously quite shy, and while I was writing it, he didn’t really communicate with me. He was making beats with some other guy. I’m there for three or four hours, trying to write something really good, and all I was hearing in my headphones was him messing around with beats, no feedback at all. He didn’t tell me he liked it, didn’t tell me he didn’t like it. It was confusing; I was convinced I was doing something wrong. When I left, he just said, “See you again”, and I thought, “Well, maybe you won’t”: I was crestfallen, a bit angry.
Anyway, the next day he rang up and said: “Hey man, it’s fucking genius. I love you, sorry if I didn’t communicate, I’m really shy.” And the track turned out brilliantly. It’s called Two Man Show. The funny thing is, the finished song’s got him going “I like that… yeah… don’t it sound good to you, don’t you agree?” over my piano part. So it was fine in the end. I still love him to death.
If you could be one woman alive and one woman from the past, who would you be?
Cara Delevingne, model and actor
From the past, I would love to have been Elizabeth Taylor, because (a) she was fucking talented and brilliant, (b) she was beautiful, (c) she had a lot of sex, and (d) she had the most fantastic jewellery. And she became one of the world’s greatest philanthropists. I mean, it’s a very easy choice. She was a very dear friend of mine. She had an absolutely filthy sense of humour, very British. It’s hard to pick someone from today, because there are so many candidates, but I think I’d choose Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. She’s one of the few politicians that I respect and love – she’s got dignity and she’s humane. I think she’s doing a brilliant job.
You like to obsessively collect different kinds of objects – art, photography, jewellery. Where did this obsession start?
Alessandro Michele, Gucci designer
It started when I was a kid. My mum and dad would be shouting at each other, or shouting at me, and I’d run to my room, where I had my records, my toys, my books. They were like my best friends – they didn’t shout at me. I kept them in pristine condition – I started really valuing objects. Then when I first started making money, I collected art nouveau and art deco. And I’m capable of getting rid of stuff. Just before I got sober, I sold everything. But I didn’t stop collecting, I just started collecting different things. Photography, obviously, but also napkin rings, china and tablewear, which Gianni Versace got me into. The real gay me came out when I was sober!
I’d love to be a minimalist, but I just have to accept what I am. I’m a magpie. You learn about things by collecting – you buy things, you read up about them, you learn. I mean, I could write a book about napkin rings, but I don’t think it would be a very big seller.
We had the best time on holiday with you and David in the summer; who are your favourite holiday companions of all time, aside from me and David of course?
Victoria Beckham, designer and Spice Girl
Theo Fennell, the jeweller, and his wife Louise. They’ve been my friends for about 35 years and are just the nicest, funniest people. If you have people on holiday with you, you have to have funny people, and Theo is one of the funniest people I know. I’ve never had a dull moment with them in all the time I’ve known them.
If you were a Spice Girl, which Spice Girl would you be?
Sam Smith, singer
Obviously Posh. Although, there was a side of me before I got sober that would definitely have been Mel B.
You saved my life. How many other lives have you saved?
Donatella Versace, designer
I have absolutely no idea. Donatella’s talking about addiction here. I am responsible for helping a lot of people get sober and hopefully to stay sober. That’s your responsibility, and it’s part of the process. You give them your phone number, you take theirs, you make sure you phone them, check up on them, see they’re OK – that’s what I did with Eminem.
I remember very, very well the night Donatella decided to go for help. It was an intervention, which isn’t always the best way of doing things – if people aren’t ready for it, it turns into a disaster. With Donatella, I knew she was ready, because she came to see me play a show in Reggio Calabria three weeks beforehand. She was in a terrible state, and I knew she was giving me a message: “I need help, I need this now, I’m at my lowest ebb.” She didn’t take much persuading to go.
Some people, you try and they just don’t want to know. George Michael was like that. He did go away to Switzerland for a while, but he was too stubborn. It was weird; when he died, Ozzy Osbourne said to me, “You know what, Elton? I don’t think he wanted to be here any more”, which seems like a harsh thing to say, but I think it was right. He didn’t want to be here. He had a choice, he knew what he had to do and he wouldn’t do it. So there you go.
What are your real or imagined top three drag names?
Tilda Swinton, actor
I’ve got three drag names. My original drag name, the one I use the most, is Sharon Cavendish. Cavendish came from a keyboard player in the 50s called Kay Cavendish, who was always billed as Kitten On The Keys. My friend Tony King came up with it. When I’m in France, I am Régine Pouffe. And when I’m in Atlanta, because I live in an area called Buckhead, I’m Tallulah Buckhead. And I’ve been known to check into hotels as Chlamydia Schiffer, which David came up with. You can’t choose your drag name – someone has to give it to you. I love giving people drag names. John Lennon wanted to be Morag, but it doesn’t work like that, so he ended up being Carol Dakota. Freddie Mercury was Melina, after [Greek actor, singer and politician] Melina Mercouri. Rod Stewart’s Phyllis.
The world lost an incredible artist to HIV when Freddie Mercury died. Can you share your favourite memory of him?
Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria
Backstage at Live Aid, I had a huge area that I kind of decorated. I made sure there were seats for everyone, so that people who were playing could sit down and have a natter. Freddie came over after Queen had stolen the show. I said, “Freddie, nobody should go on after you – you were magnificent.” He said: “You’re absolutely right, darling, we were – we killed them.” He was so excited. Then he said, “You, on the other hand, dear – you looked like the fucking Queen Mother when you were on stage. Where did you get that absolutely awful hat?” That was very Freddie. He was hilarious. Even when he was dying, he was exactly the same. He was lying in bed, too weak to stand, losing his sight, going: “Have you heard Mrs Bowie’s new album, darling? What does she think she’s doing?” I always had the best time with him.
I find you to be one of the best soul singers of all time. Which singers inspired you and helped you find your own voice?
Lenny Kravitz, singer
In the 60s, I was in a band that played soul music – we started out playing blues and switched to soul. I used to sing My Girl by The Temptations, and we got to play as the backing band for Lee Dorsey, Major Lance, Patti LaBelle and Billy Stewart. I learned a lot just by watching them every night. I never consciously tried to imitate soul singers – you have to be authentic in what you do. But it’s my favourite type of music, I’ve always loved it. It has the best singers – Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Levi Stubbs from The Four Tops, the Detroit Spinners, the Stylistics – and obviously I’ve listened to so much of it, a little bit rubbed off. I’ve had three records at No 1 on the US R&B chart: Bennie And The Jets, Philadelphia Freedom and Mama Can’t Buy You Love, which was incredibly flattering.
Have you ever thought about what life would have been like had you been born a girl and grown up in 1950s England. Do you think you would have followed your instincts to make music?
Kristin Scott Thomas, actor
It was very difficult to be a girl in the 50s. I didn’t enjoy the 50s much – it was all people peering out from behind their net curtains and being judgmental. For a girl, sexuality wasn’t talked about – if she got pregnant, she was sent away in disgrace. It’s harder for women, period, but especially in the 50s. They were looked upon by boys as sex objects and nothing more – you know, “I can’t wait to get a bit of tit.” I had female friends at school, and I obviously didn’t look at them as a potential bit of tit, but that’s how they were seen.
If I had the same musical desires, of course I would have tried to follow them, but it would have been so much harder. There were no role models for female musicians at the time – boys had dozens, but all the female artists were singers; there were no role models for songwriters and musicians. There was Honey Lantree, who played drums in The Honeycombs, and that was it. My dad thought it was disgraceful that I wanted to get involved in rock’n’roll. Can you imagine what it would have been like if I was a girl?
One of your first gifts to support the fight against Aids was donating your entire vinyl collection to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Are we where you thought we would be in the fight against HIV now – and have you replaced the collection?
Ian Green, chief executive, THT
Well, we have the medicines to stop the disease, which is what we need. We don’t have a vaccine or a cure, but there’s no need for anyone in the world to be affected by this disease any more. They can live a long and healthy life, the same as anyone else, if they get tested and diagnosed early enough. But the traumatic thing is still the stigma. People are afraid of getting tested, because they’re ashamed, or because their families will throw them out. That happens in Africa and eastern Europe, but also in rural America, which is unbelievable in 2019. We can stop the spread of the disease now – it’s more treatable than diabetes, for Christ’s sake. We need people to get tested, know their status and own their status. We need more role models like [former rugby player] Gareth Thomas to come out and say they’re HIV positive so people are less afraid. That’s where we stand. And have I replaced my vinyl? Yes. I started buying again about five years ago. I’ve probably got more now than I had then.
Did fairytale archetypes grab you as a child? What story couldn’t you get enough of?
Sophie Dahl, author and former model
I liked Alice In Wonderland, and I liked Peter Pan. I lived in my imagination a lot, and I loved to read: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That was what allowed your imagination to run riot – books and listening to the radio. There was no TV, or at least we didn’t have one at that point, so you were forced to visualise stuff yourself. And I think that helped me when I became a songwriter. With Bernie’s lyrics, I could put images to his words very quickly, because I had a great visual imagination. So with something like Tiny Dancer, I could see the song, I could imagine what was going on straight away.
How do you keep touring fun when you’re not on stage?
Billie Eilish, singer
When I was younger, everything about touring was incredibly exciting. We were running on adrenaline and everything was a new experience, even getting on a plane. Now I try and come home after shows as often as I can. If I’m staying in the city I play in, I go to photography galleries, museums. I go shopping, I see friends for lunch. It’s hard if you’re in the middle of nowhere – but if that’s the case, I always take a book of crosswords.
Your fans may not have known about your classical training at the Royal Academy of Music until they saw Rocketman. If you had your time again, would you still go through it?
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, principal, the Royal Academy of Music
In a heartbeat. I knew I wasn’t going to be a classical pianist – my hands are too small and I wanted to be a rock’n’roll player. But it was a wonderful place, even if it was full of fear – it was strict, they hated anything that wasn’t classical music, although it’s very different now. I learned so much from being in the choir, from the other musicians, from the teachers. You can hear it in the Elton John album: The King Must Die, The Greatest Discovery, Sixty Years On. I’d advise anyone to get formal training, because it teaches you the rudiments – chord structure, melody. It introduces you to music that’s beautiful and miles away from what you might do. It fills your mind with options.
Any ghost sightings at your manor lately?
Kacey Musgraves, singer
My manor! Woodside, my house in Windsor, is meant to be haunted, but I’ve never seen a ghost and I’ve lived there since 1974. David saw her, though. It was a Victorian lady. She sat on the bed and asked him if he could stop the noise outside – there were deer rutting in the park. David was very calm. I’d have been frightened to death!
I did see a ghost once, in a hotel in Belgium that used to be a convent. I went to bed and felt something pressing down on my chest. I was too terrified to move. So, strictly speaking, I haven’t seen a ghost, but I have been sat on by one.
Where did your love of football and Watford FC come from?
Troy Deeney, Watford captain
My cousin, Roy Dwight, was a professional footballer. He played for Fulham, so as a kid I used to sit on the touchline at Craven Cottage and watch him. This is how old I am – Jimmy Hill was playing for Fulham at the time. And then my dad took me to see Watford, because they were our local team. I was six or seven. I fell in love with the whole experience. And that was it. You can’t shake your team: it’s in your blood and your bones, even when they’re completely shit. Obviously, when they’re doing well it’s wonderful, but the other week they lost 8-0 to Manchester City and I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. But you can’t support anyone else. Watford are my team, and I’m glad. I never thought I’d end up owner of the club, or a director, but Watford saved my life. Working with them kept me grounded when my life was going completely crazy – it reminded me of my roots, of who I really was. I’m forever grateful to them. Except when they lose 8-0. I’m not very grateful then.
• Me by Elton John is published by Pan Macmillan on 15 October at £25. To order a copy for £18.75, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
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