Me: Elton John

Published by Pan Books

“I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, or even what I could do. I knew I could sing and play piano, but I clearly wasn’t pop star material. For one thing, I didn’t look like a pop star, as evidenced by my inability to carry off a kaftan.[1] For another, I was called Reg Dwight.”

As most people know, Reg Dwight went on to become one of the biggest pop stars ever—after he changed his name to Elton John and met Bernie Taupin, his songwriting partner for over half a century.

This is the story of how Elton became who he is now.

Elton John was born in Pinner, Middlesex, in 1947. He and his mother lived with his aunt and grandmother. Both of his parents were difficult: his mother had mood swings, and his father—who wasn’t around for most of the time—was harsh with him. So Elton spent a lot of his childhood trying to be invisible and keeping out of his parents’ way.

There was no denying Elton’s incredible talent for music, a talent that was encouraged by his mother. As a child, he could play the piano by ear and at 11, had won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.  

In 1967, having decided to work in the music industry, he answered an ad placed by Ray Williams, the A&R[2] manager at Liberty Records. Williams gave him some songs written by a man called Bernie Taupin, who had also answered the ad. The rest is history. Elton John and Bernie Taupin became one of the greatest songwriting duos in pop history, with Taupin writing the lyrics and passing them onto Elton, who wrote the music. Their partnership and  close friendship has lasted for more than five decades.

Elton is a great raconteur, and his book had me laughing out loud. At one of his parties, high on cocaine, he offered to lend Bob Dylan some of his clothes. George Harrison came to the rescue, so we will never know what Dylan would have looked like in four-inch platform heels and sequins! There are many great moments here: Elton throwing oranges at Dylan because he couldn’t play Charades; his sparring and friendship with Rod Stewart (although the two have now fallen out); and my favourite: the incident of the doves. At the beginning of a live show at the Hollywood Bowl, doves were meant to be released from pianos on the stage. But because Elton John had taken so long to come onstage, the doves had fallen asleep and had to be woken up to do their thing!

This book is not just a barrel of laughs. Elton is also honest and clear-eyed about himself. He spent years heavily addicted to cocaine, battling bulimia and low self-esteem, drinking too much, shopping too much, changing partners frequently, and giving in to what he calls the “old family friend”, the Dwight Temper. His emotional life was a roller coaster: he had a long-term relationship with John Reid, who became his manager. But the relationship was volatile, and finally broke up, although Reid continued to be his manager.

Elton makes no bones about his outrageous behaviour at the time, and the fact that he refused to face up to his addictions, even when Freddy Mercury told him to give up cocaine. The tipping point came when his partner at the time went into rehab. This forced Elton to acknowledge that he too had a problem. He too went into rehab and has been clean ever since.  

This is one of the most enjoyable celebrity autobiographies I’ve read. It is funny, entertaining and thoughtful, and with no pomposity or self-pity. With his trademark humour, he tells the story of his suicide attempt in California, when his mother and grandmother were visiting. Having swallowed a handful of Valium, he threw himself into the swimming pool. “For someone who was supposed to be in the process of trying to end it all…I suddenly became surprisingly keen not to drown. I started frantically swimming to the side of the pool.” When he was helped out, his grandmother, thinking that her wonderful Californian holiday had just come to an end, said “We might as well bleedin’ go home, then.”

Elton is now married to David Furnish and raising their two sons, which would have been unheard of at the time he started out on his career. He now helps young artists, and runs an HIV/AIDS charity. Looking back, he acknowledges the role that chance has played in his life. What if he hadn’t been handed Bernie Taupin’s songs? What if he had refused to go to the US on tour in 1970, a tour that catapulted him into fame?

Fans of Elton’s music will love this book: there is quite a lot about his work. The paperback edition has been updated with an extra chapter. The book takes us right up to the point of the making of Rocket Man, a biopic of Elton John.

Unusually for a celebrity autobiography, there is a shout-out in the dedication to the ghostwriter. Judging from the various interviews of Elton John that I have seen, his ghostwriter Alexis Petridis has perfectly captured his tone.

I’ve always loved Elton John’s music, and his autobiography does not disappoint.

Buy from UK / USA

[1] When he was a member of Bluesology, Long John Baldry’s backing band. Baldry insisted the band dress in kaftans for live shows.

[2] Artists and repertoire.

5 thoughts on “Me: Elton John

  1. Sophie

    Many songs of his belong to my life soundracks! I saw Rocket man, which I liked a lot. Funny how I never regarded myself as a fan, while knowing most of the songs’ lyrics by heart, and singing along when I happen to hear them!

    1. suroor alikhan

      I don’t know if this happens to you but I can remember the lyrics of songs I’ve heard decades ago but sometimes have trouble remembering more recent stuff. I guess there’s only so much space in my brain…

      1. Sophie

        It does happen to me too indeed (no pun intended) 😀

        PS: Read XX. Found it a page turner and really liked it. Great book. Loved the many references to comics, I sometimes was obliged to reread the pages dealing with astrophysics but I like a challenge, I found the book creative, unusual and deeply thoughtful.

  2. Pingback: The Best Books of 2022 – Talking About Books

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