Elton John on Elton John

The tantrums and tiaras are a thing of the past for singer. These days it’s all about reading his son a bedtime story and championing the pop superstars of tomorrow

By Alexis Petridis  /  The Guardian, London

Sun, Jun 10, 2012 - Page 13

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.”

Today, he’s in such great good humor that he’s even tempered his views about some of his bugbears: there is no sign of his supposed feud with Madonna, while he’s even relatively equivocal about the deleterious influence of Simon Cowell’s TV empire. Actually, what he says is that a singer appearing on The X Factor is on “a road to ruin,” later adding, “in my day, we had Seaside Special, which was shit, but it wasn’t as shit as Britain’s Got Talent,” but given that last time an interviewer canvassed his opinions on the subject, he suggested, “I’d rather have my cock bitten off by an Alsatian than watch The X Factor,” this very much represents a new softly-softly approach.

Anyone searching for reasons for his good mood doesn’t have far to look. One will later come running through the dressing room clad only in a nappy, offering some fairly vocal resistance to the notion of having a bath: his and Furnish’s son Zachary, born to a surrogate mother on Dec. 25, 2010 and cheerfully described by his father as “a little sod.” I’d had word that John wasn’t keen on discussing fatherhood with journalists, but I’ve barely sat down before he’s explaining his childcare arrangements — perhaps uniquely in the world of rock ’n’ roll, John’s pre-gig preparations involve bathing an occasionally recalcitrant 15-month-old boy and reading him a bedtime story.

He and Furnish are keen to have more children, partly because he was an only child of an unhappy marriage — “I spent it in my room, listening to music if my parents were rowing” — and partly because of the specific challenges associated with being John’s son. “I think it’s difficult to be an only child, and to be an only child of someone famous,” he says. “I want him to have maybe a sibling so he has someone to be with. I know when he goes to school there’s going to be an awful lot of pressure, and I know he’s going to have people saying, ‘You don’t have a mummy.’ It’s going to happen. We talked about it before we had him. I want someone to be at his side and back him up. We shall see.”

The other reasons for his current ebullience are sitting quietly on the sofa in his dressing room: Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes, better known as Australian electronic duo Pnau. They are the latest recipients of Elton’s celebrated capacity for musical patronage, his interest piqued when he heard their eponymous 2008 album while on tour in Sydney and proclaimed it, with characteristic understatement, the greatest record he’d heard in 10 years.

He was always a genuine music obsessive. In the early 1970s, with his career in full, vertiginous flight, he incredibly found time to help out at a record shop in London’s Soho on a Saturday, manning the counter when the assistants went on their lunch break, selling albums by Leonard Cohen and Soft Machine to London’s discerning rock fans: “Maybe they did recognize me,” he frowns when I ask if London’s discerning rock fans weren’t a little disconcerted by finding Captain Fantastic on the till, “but I was just having a ball.” Even in the pits of his addiction, he says, “I would listen to music and cry because I was so out of it, but I always listened to music.” But it’s in recent years that people have really noticed. Alone among his superstar peers, John seems to spend as much time proselytizing about young artists as he does plugging his own records. “If you listen to someone young and fabulous,” he says, “it just gives you so much adrenaline, adrenaline that I had when everything was going my way in the 1970s.” He still gets sent a list of new album releases every Monday morning and buys four copies of anything he likes the sound of: one for each of his homes. He checks the British charts on a daily basis. Furthermore, he acts as a kind of unofficial publicist for younger artists — today he raves about the forthcoming Hot Chip album and Alabama Shakes — and a mentor to everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Lady Gaga. He is, he says, currently a little concerned about the latter. “I look at Gaga and I think, ‘How does she do it?’ I talk to her mum and dad about it. They worry. She is frail, and she doesn’t eat when she should do, and she’s a girl, and it’s tougher for a girl. She works really hard. She will be in Denmark one night and Saudi Arabia the next. I know how tiny she is and I do worry about her, yes.”

Last time I met him, I was in the company of a Scottish dance producer called Mylo, who looked a little gobsmacked when Elton blithely informed him he’d bought more than 100 copies of his debut album in order to give them away as presents. This time, however, his interest has extended beyond simply doling out Pnau’s CDs to his friends, although he’s done that, or signing them to his management company, although he’s done that, too. Four years ago, he handed the duo the master tapes from his early 1970s albums and told them to do whatever they wanted with them, a turn of events that the duo still seem a little stunned by. “We just kind of lost our minds at that point,” Mayes says, quietly. Littlemore nods: “It took us eight or nine months before we could even touch anything.”

The duo were doing OK in Australia, they say, but after John took an interest, things changed considerably. They moved to London at his suggestion. Littlemore’s collaborative project with Luke Steele of indie band The Sleepy Jackson, Empire of the Sun, sold more than 1 million copies of their album Walking on a Dream. They worked with Robbie Williams, Ellie Goulding and The Killers: Littlemore is currently engaged with both the new Mika album and the latest Cirque du Soleil show Zarakna, due to fetch up in Las Vegas in August: “I used Elton’s name to get me the job,” he deadpans.

“Well, yes, I wanted him to do it,” Elton says, “because I thought it would be a horrific thing to do.”

And then there’s the new album. It’s not the first time in recent years that John has returned to his early 1970s catalogue. Indeed, he’s returned to it again and again, in a way that suggests he’s keen to remind the world that behind the extravagant sunglasses and platform shoes there lurked a serious singer-songwriter, releasing a follow-up to 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in 2006’s The Captain and the Kid, and collaborating with his early inspiration, Leon Russell, on 2010’s The Union.

This summer, John and Pnau are playing together in Ibiza at the behest of the DJ Pete Tong, a state of affairs that seems simultaneously to horrify and amuse him: one minute he’s saying that he “might go down like a turd in a punchbowl,” the next that it’s going to be great and he’s planning on wearing a fishtail dress for the occasion. “I’ve never been to Ibiza,” he says. “I’ve got my house in France, so I never really go to places like Ibiza, and also I don’t take drugs, and it’s part of that culture, isn’t it? You have to go to a nightclub and get stoned. The last time I went to a nightclub was in London about 10 Christmases ago, and I felt so old. I felt like the Queen Mother coming down the steps. All I needed was a Dubonnet and soda in my hand.”

Indeed, there are moments when you’re reminded that for all his loudly-expressed love of dubstep auteur James Blake, John is a pop star from another era. He doesn’t own a computer or an iPod or a mobile phone.

There are more immediately pressing things to attend to: a million-US dollar piano to play, a small boy to bath.