The complimentary magazine in my hotel room features Elton John on the cover. Inside, it claims that the singer’s current show at Caesar’s Palace, titled The Million Dollar Piano, represents a back-to-basics approach. This perhaps tells you more about Las Vegas than it does about the show, which, after all, opens with the fanfare from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, features the titular piano — covered with 68 LED screens that variously light up with colors reflecting the mood of each song, appear at one point to transform it into an aquarium and at another display the face of Kiki Dee — and comes complete with a gift shop selling not just the usual T-shirts and CDs, but Elton John feather boas, Elton John playing cards and scented candles and underpants with the words “I’m Still Standing” emblazoned over the crotch.
Backstage, John’s dressing room is the size of a small apartment. There are dozens of shelves displaying a vast collection of figurines. In the toilet there’s a ceramic liquid soap dispenser in the shape of a large penis. In the middle of it all, nursing a mug of coffee, sits John himself, who turns out to be about as unassuming as it’s possible to be for a man wearing what appear to be golfing shoes encrusted with multi-colored jewels.
It goes without saying that unassuming is not an adjective frequently associated with John. The public perception of him is still shaped by his partner David Furnish’s remarkable 1997 documentary Tantrums and Tiaras, which depicted a man with a fuse so short as to be microscopic — at one particularly memorable juncture, he loudly threatened to abandon an entire tour and go home because a fan had shouted “Yoo-hoo!” at him while he was playing tennis.
And yet he is charm personified: friendly, uproariously funny, engaged and engaging. Indeed, he’s so likeable, it’s weirdly easy to forget who you’re talking to — particularly when he’s enthusing about music, which he does all the time, with genuinely infectious enthusiasm — at least until he says something that reminds you that you’re in the presence of a man who’s sold 250 million records.”
He looks in remarkably good nick for a 65-year-old man who plays 120 shows a year and, aside from an annual, month-long summer break, “doesn’t really take time off.” If he’s not performing live, he’s recording. If he’s not recording, he’s writing musicals or running his management company, which boasts Ed Sheeran, Lily Allen, James Blunt and hotly-tipped Brooklyn hipsters Friends among its roster: he’s not averse, he says, to getting on the telephone and telling a record company to “get their fucking finger out” if he feels his artists aren’t being suitably promoted. Then there’s his film company — he’s planning a biopic of his life story, scripted by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame — and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Yesterday he phoned Jay-Z to thank him for endorsing gay marriage. On the other hand, his unlikely friendship with Rush Limbaugh, the ultra-conservative radio talk show host at whose wedding he performed, has apparently cooled, after Limbaugh claimed that, like him, John wasn’t in favor of gay marriage. “I sent him a harsh e-mail when he said that.”
It occasionally takes its toll — a few days after we meet, he’s hospitalized with pneumonia and forced to cancel several Las Vegas shows — but as he points out, it’s nothing compared with his workload in the early 1970s, when he toured the US constantly, and released seven albums in five years: 1973’s 31 million-selling double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in 17 days. Then again, that’s probably just as well, given the well-documented effect that kind of schedule had on him: at the height of his success, in 1975, he attempted suicide, in suitably flamboyant style, by taking an overdose of Valium and throwing himself into a swimming pool while shouting, “I’m going to die!” He claims his desire to work hard actually saved his life in the 1980s, when he was ravaged by cocaine addiction and bulimia, going days without sleep or washing, gorging on cockles and ice cream, then throwing it up — “Thank God, during my heaviest addiction I still made records and I still toured, and without that I would have been dead by now” — but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was the sheer amount of work he was doing that pushed him into addiction and mental illness in the first place. “Even though I was the number one star in the world at that time, I still felt like an outcast, and that’s why I did drugs because I thought, ‘I want to join the gang.’ I was never actually in the gang at school, so when I saw someone doing drugs, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can do that and I’ll be with the big boys.’ I didn’t know who I was off stage. I was very safe on stage, but the Elton persona was way ahead of Elton the person. Although I was having relationships and buying the necessary house and stuff, it took me until I got sober to realize — and be told — in the cold light of day that your balance is so out of whack that there’s no time for Elton the person, and you resent him. I still work a hell of a lot — I do 120 shows a year, I’m still recording a lot, I’m writing musicals, blah blah, blah — but I do have a wonderful private life and it’s found its feet.”