Living in the flourish

star shines on

Living in the flourish

After 47 years in the spotlight, more than 250 million albums sold, six Grammys, a Tony, an Oscar and a knighthood, Elton John still gets the jitters when he steps onstage. Striding to his piano at the Wiltern here in a blue, rhinestone-dusted suit to play songs from his new album, ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’, for the first time, he surveyed the crowd of die-hard fans and music-industry insiders fretfully.

“When you’re playing new things,” he said afterward, “you’re thinking: Are they going to the toilet? Are they liking it? It’s impossible for them to like it right away, because compared to the other stuff, it’s not going to sound as good.”

He filled his two-and-a-half hour set at the club, an art deco theatre that’s a tenth the size of the arenas he normally plays, with that “other stuff”: hits like Bennie and the Jets and Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, standing and strutting around the piano, the consummate showman. “Nobody rocks out anymore,” he said, exhorting the audience. “They’re all bed wetters. I wanted to make a proper rock ‘n’ roll album for all the bed wetters!”

A few days later, at his 60s-modernist Beverly Hills home, he said he enjoyed the concert, “but I wasn’t relaxed.” He shrugged amiably. “If you don’t have any fear anymore, then you have to give up.”

Fading out is not the Elton John way. ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ is his 33rd studio album. He’ll be 69 in March, as he mentioned more than once, and next year will celebrate 50 years with his songwriting partner and lyricist, Bernie Taupin, a near-singular act of rock ‘n’ roll endurance. Like his 1970s compatriots Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel, he could be forgiven for a little late-career coasting on his greatest hits, especially as he’s relishing family life with his husband, film producer David Furnish, and their sons Zachary, 5, and Elijah, 3.

Roles of an artiste

Instead, John has injected himself ever more forcefully, and candidly, into pop culture — and art, and politics. He’s continued his activism and advocacy for gay rights and AIDS research while on an endless concert tour, which outgrossed the teen juggernaut 5 Seconds of Summer last year and Miley Cyrus the year before that. He’s probably the only musician to have scored both a show on Apple Beats 1 Radio and a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin within a few months. He beefs like a rapper, and mother-hens younger artistes. Lately, he’s even started collecting vinyl records again — on an extravagant scale, of course. As an artiste and a personality, he lives in the flourish.

“His nature is to do things when he thinks about it,” Taupin said. “And he certainly is not painting by numbers now; he’s doing it because he loves it. I think if he wasn’t on the road, he’d be bored to tears. I think the stage is his life.”

John — born Reginald Dwight in Pinner, a hamlet outside of London — couldn’t disagree. Sitting at his dining-room table, surrounded by a formidable art collection and ignoring a fresh cappuccino brought by a housekeeper, he sermonised about the value of performing.

“If you want to be in the game, you’ve got to be good live, and you’ve got to do it regularly, to improve your chops,” he said. “‘Wonderful Crazy Night’,” he added, “is an example of the energy I have at this very moment in my life, which I’m very grateful for. I don’t want to wallow in nostalgia.”

After ‘The Diving Board’, his darker, more intimate 2013 album, he craved something upbeat. “I said to Bernie, you’re in a good place, I’m in a good place,” he recalled. “Let’s make the album jingly-jangly and as happy as we can.” But jingly-jangly does not come easily. “It’s not in my nature,” Taupin, 65, said. “I had to put my happy cap on.” John, too: “As a piano player, I find it very hard to write up-tempo songs. You can write ballads coming out of your wazoo. This was a challenge for me.” The album has love songs both languorous and “jovial,” as John put it, and one, Good Heart, lyrically inspired by the musicians’ children.

Taupin, who composes on guitar, sometimes gives his partner a song’s back story, but just as often John prefers to leave it a mystery and creates a different melody. Tiny Dancer? Rocket Man? “I find out what they mean about 30 years later,” John said.

Their songwriting process is idiosyncratic. Taupin, who’s also a painter, lives with his wife and young daughters on a ranch near Santa Barbara, California; John, he said by phone, had been there “once in 25 years.” They email mostly about music. For ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’, Taupin wrote lyrics for 24 songs, which John first saw when they got in the studio together, with his band. He writes and records, analog, in days — “I don’t pore over things,” he said.

Their relationship is one of the great flukes in songwriting history: They were matched at random by a record label in London in the 1960s. It took five years, John said, “to become Elton John,” and then a string of seven No 1 albums followed. Two of his bandmates from that era, drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, remain with him.

Although they took breaks, the John-Taupin partnership is equally ingrained. “He was my first-ever friend,” John said. They buddied up at movies and concerts; shared books and records. “He introduced me to Lord of the Rings, and to Bob Dylan, really.” But their tastes, and lifestyles, diverged.

“It’s not soppy or silly to say this,” John said. “Because we haven’t lived in each other’s back pockets, we still love each other. To me, he’s like a brother.” Taupin agreed that their differences kept their union strong, although he was sometimes annoyed by John’s flamboyance. “Donald Duck in Central Park, hello!” he said, referring to John’s 1980 performance of Your Song in a duck costume.

Sober since 1990, John has toned it down considerably. At home, he wore a black-and-gold Adidas track suit, sneakers and rose-hued glasses, although he had eye surgery years ago and now has 20/20 vision.

John’s obsession, besides music, is art: On his album cover, he’s grinning in front of a photo by Brooklyn artist Mariah Robertson; his video for Blue Wonderful was inspired by a Gregory Crewdson image. He has a piano at some of his homes, but “the kids play more than I do,” he said. Yet he was fist-pumpingly excited about his vinyl collection, now numbering about 3,000 records. And he pays close attention to new artistes, inviting songwriters like Sam Smith and James Blake to lunch.

“He’s a huge influence,” said Tom Odell, another young British musician whom John counsels. “He’s got more passion than some of my friends who are 23 who are making music,” Odell said.

In an email, Adam Lambert said, “When I was in the final stages of American Idol, Elton handwrote me a note wishing me luck and praising my run on the show.” Lambert, who came out after his Idol season ended, added that as a kid, when he first heard John’s music in The Lion King, “I remember the label ‘gay’ being used, but it never sounded like a negative thing. It was just a matter of fact. The focus was on his music.” Only later, he said, did he realise how groundbreaking that was.

After a year in which he lost both Ingrid Sischy, the cultural critic and a close friend who was writing his biography, and his compatriot David Bowie, John understandably has legacy on his mind. The gay community is still stigmatised in Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he said. “I’m going to try to help see if I can change those things.

I probably won’t, in my lifetime, but I’m going to try. I might get ridiculed, or I might get laughed at — I’m prepared for that. But I know I have the ability to bring people together, so I have to try.”

First, he hopes to parlay his phone conversation with Putin — a call the Russian president made after pranksters impersonating him conned John into a plaintive conversation about Russia’s dismal record on gay rights — into a face-to-face meeting. “I’m not going to go in there and say, ‘Hey, Mr Putin you’ve got to do this’,” he said. “I’m going to have a cup of tea and I’m going to talk to him, and schmooze. It’s all about schmoozing.”


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