Rock and Roll Book Club: Elton John's 'Me'

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Elton John's memoir 'Me.'
Elton John's memoir 'Me.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

What will Elton John's new memoir Me tell you that the hit biopic Rocketman didn't? Well, the movie ends with a triumphant recreation of the music video for "I'm Still Standing," a testament to how John has beat the odds after going to rehab and making peace with himself. In the book, we learn what actually happened after filming wrapped on day one of the 1983 video shoot.

Reports vary about precisely what happened next. I'm afraid I can't confirm or deny them because I don't really remember anything beyond thinking Duran Duran were enormously jolly company and noticing that the vodka martini had slipped down remarkably easily. Depending on who you believe, I had either six or eight more of them in the space of an hour, and a couple of lines of coke. I then apparently returned to the video set, demanded they begin running the cameras, took all my clothes off and started rolling around on the floor naked.

And friends, we're only on page 182.

John is a larger-than-life pop star in the old mold; you might say they don't make them like him anymore, and that would be true, but then there is Lady Gaga, the godmother of one of the sons John has with his husband David Furnish. His story is such that even at 354 pages, Me still feels like a mere digest. Now 72, he's lived for so long at the highest reaches of celebrity that the world's biggest names appear in almost offhandedly casual contexts.

The Queen Mother pops by John's house for tea, and he doesn't bother to tell his grandmother, who's appalled at having to greet Elizabeth in gardening clothes. Not only does he party with Princess Di, he watches Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere physically face off over the recently-separated royal. Freddie Mercury regales him with a story about visiting Michael Jackson and having to wrangle the King of Pop's pet llama. ("I was wearing a white suit...it was a nightmare, darling.") When Andy Warhol literally comes knocking, he doesn't even answer.

This isn't one of those music memoirs written on a mission, like Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run or Tegan and Sara's High School. It's one of those that feels like you're sitting next to the author on a long airplane ride; he starts telling his story at the beginning and then continues right up to the present day, stopping at every great anecdote.

When you're Elton John, you have a lot of great anecdotes, and the book's chattiness makes it a fun read, even if it doesn't offer the kind of insight into his music that you might hope for. How did he write "Your Song" and "Rocket Man"? Me isn't going to tell you, but it doesn't omit the drag name John gave to Rod Stewart. ("Drag name 'Phyllis'" gets its own sub-entry under Stewart's name in the index, between "dancing" and "EJ's friendship with.")

Compared to Rocketman, the book isn't as tightly focused on the dynamics that drove John's career and crises, but it certainly affirms that his troubled relationship with his parents is something that's haunted him for life. About his dad, he writes, "I still sometimes think that I'm trying to show my father what I've made of, and he's been dead since 1991." About his mum? "If she liked to scare people, she must have been overjoyed by me, because I was f---ing terrified of her." In one of their last conversations, she said she loved her son, "but I don't like you at all."

Drugs and alcohol were pervasive in John's life for decades, and he also developed addictions to food and sex. (It's difficult, we learn, to find a clinic where you can get them all treated at once.) He's pleased to be sober, but his spirit is so generous that he even includes his surprisingly warm-hearted breakup note to cocaine. "We had great parties with people," he wrote in 1990. "We had great, intense talks about how we were going to change the world."

Although he doesn't delve too deeply into the musical details of songwriting, recording, and touring, John does hit a lot of other bases. He writes about his legendarily flamboyant stage costumes, which started with the colorful getup he wore for his breakout Troubadour debut in 1970 and may have hit their height of absurdity when he dressed as Donald Duck for a Central Park encore in 1980. "I attempted to play 'Your Song,' but I couldn't stop laughing," he remembers. "Once again, Bernie's tender ballad of blossoming young love was decimated by my choice of stage wear."

That, of course, is Bernie Taupin, John's lifelong lyricist. While he's collaborated with other songwriters, including Lion King co-writer Tim Rice ("there was no getting around the fact that I was now writing a song about a warthog that farted a lot"), it's Taupin who's been the mainstay of John's career, the lyricist behind classics including "Tiny Dancer," "Bennie and the Jets," "Crocodile Rock," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (the latter reluctantly, since "Bernie was not, and is not, a fan of anything he thinks is shallow pop music").

John doesn't tell Taupin's own story, but just like in the movie, Bernie is John's professional rock, the collaborator he was miraculously paired with when they both responded to the same ad seeking songwriters and, to this day, his best friend. During the first flush of their creative partnership, they shared an apartment, and John describes how Taupin would be at the typewriter in one room while John was at the keys in another; they'd run back and forth passing paper and sharing updates.

He's aware of his iconic status, wearing it lightly but with a genuine sense of responsibility. "It's become a bit of a running joke," he writes, "Elton always springing into action whenever a pop star has an issue with drink or drugs — but I don't mind at all. If someone is in a state and needs help, I call them."

He's also a hero to the GLBT community, having publicly come out in an era when many gay pop stars understandably remained closeted. After he spontaneously came out as bi to a Rolling Stone reporter in 1976 (he now identifies as gay), John braced himself for a "disastrous impact" — only to learn that the British press weren't going to let a public revelation about the star's sexuality distract them from the much more important matter of his receding hairline.

Even if the movie's timeline was a little fudged, the film's climax was true in spirit: John is still standing, after battling addiction and personal demons (although for his one suicide attempt, he notes, he put a pillow in the oven to cushion his head, set the gas on low, and left the kitchen windows open). Some of the most haunting passages in the book concern those who aren't still standing.

John remembers meeting Elvis, whose TV appearances helped inspire him to become a musician. By 1976, though, the King had "expressionless black holes where his eyes should have been." Then there was a deeply disquieting early '90s dinner with Michael Jackson, who was "giving off waves of discomfort the way some people give off an air of confidence."

He ends his book with a series of what-ifs. "What if I'd been so upset at failing my audition that I'd dumped Bernie's envelope in a bin on the way to the station? What if I'd stood firm and not gone to America when Dick James told me I should? What if Watford had beaten West Bromwich Albion that Saturday afternoon in the early nineties and lifted my spirits, so that I didn't need to call a friend and beg him to bring some gay men to dinner?" (That's the dinner where John met Furnish.)

"You can send yourself crazy wondering," he concludes. "But it all happened, and here I am. There's really no point in asking what if? The only question worth asking is: what's next?"

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Oct. 23: Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

Oct. 30: The Beautiful Ones by Prince

Nov. 6: Jack and the Ghost by Chan Poling, illustrated by Lucy Michell

Nov. 13: Wham!, George Michael and Me by Andrew Ridgeley

...and mark your calendar for The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads Reveal at Number 12 Cider from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13! The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads is presented with support from AARP Minnesota. Vote now and tell us what you think are the best music books of all time.

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