by Elton John
Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Hank Trout
The scene is Ryan White’s funeral in 1990. After performing “Skyline Pigeon” at the service, Elton John retreated to his hotel room “in a strange mood.” He was familiar with the kind of grief he felt, but this was different. “It wasn’t just grief, there was something else bubbling underneath: I was angry at myself.” He continues,
“I was the highest-profile gay rock star in the world. I’d spent the eighties watching friends and colleagues and ex-lovers die horribly… I should have been on the front line. I should have put my head on the chopping block. Liz Taylor did. I should have been marching with Larry Kramer and ACT UP. Everything I’d done so far—charity singles, celebrity fundraisers—seemed superficial and showbizzy. I should have been using my fame as a platform to gain attention and make a difference. I felt sick.”
Thus was planted the seed that in 1992 grew into the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which to date has raised more than $450,000,000 to fund research into a cure and to care for those living with HIV.
This is merely one episode in Elton John’s memoir, Me, in which we meet a subdued, contemplative, I daresay humble Elton John. Oh, there’s plenty of gossip in the memoir to satisfy our most prurient interests (a fiery exchange with a difficult-to-work-with Tina Turner, who dared to tell him he didn’t know how to play piano; talking Billy Joel into rehab; the fallings-out with Princess Diana and George Michael). Similarly, there is a surfeit of off-the-wall drug-fueled rock-star mania in the memoir (the morning he woke up on tour in the Caribbean and called his office back in London, demanding that they make the wind outside his hotel suite stop blowing) to remind us of the frenzied rock ‘n roll scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. And of course there is an abundance of stories of out-of-control drug and alcohol abuse (a ton of cocaine washed down with six or eight vodka martinis before an interview; locking himself in his bedroom for three or four days of wallowing in cocaine- and porn-fueled debauchery).
But first in Me we meet the shy, young, tortured Reginald Dwight behind the man who almost single-handedly revived the sequin and peacock feather industries in the 1970s and ‘80s. Reggie grew up with a distant, unloving father and a hyper-critical, vicious-tongued mother. His mother must have been a real piece of work. When Elton came out to her, her response was, “You know you’ll never be loved.” Much later, she once referred to Elton’s husband David Furnish as “that thing you married.” Nonetheless, Elton supported her financially, even letting her live with him on his Woodside estate until her imperious mistreatment of the household staff became unbearable. Imagine hearing your mother say to you, “I love you, but I don’t like you at all!” She remained a gnawing, thorny presence in John’s life until her death in December 2017.
The memoir traces John’s career chronologically, covering his days playing in rowdy pubs as the pianist in Bluesology, his serendipitous pairing with lyricist extraordinaire Bernie Taupin and their fifty-year-plus bromance, his earth-shaking gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970, his many worldwide tours since then, performing at Westminster Abbey a quickly re-worded “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral, his residency in Las Vegas with The Million Dollar Piano show, and his ongoing three-year farewell tour. He writes in detail about certain recording sessions, giving us more insight into albums like Blue Waves, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and Lower than Zero. And his love for his husband David and their two boys is palpable in his warm, tender language when writing about them.
Those contemplative sections of the memoir are where John shines as a writer. When he writes about his friendships with Princess Diana, George Michael, Ryan White, Gianni Versace, Leon Russell, and others, he is at his most interesting and most revealing on a deeply human level. He eschews gossip for heart-felt, eloquent expressions of genuine mutual love. His writing about his love for John Lennon is especially moving. And yes, believe it or not, Elton John is capable of great humility and discretion. Discussing his short-lived marriage to a woman in 1984, “Renate [Blauel] and I agreed when we divorced that we would never publicly discuss the intimate details of our marriage. And I am respecting that. The truth is I don’t have anything bad to say about Renate at all.” Meet Sir Elton John, gentleman.
The gentleman can also be extremely funny. Example: His retelling of his and David’s meticulously micromanaging the seating arrangements for the 600 guests coming to their post-commitment ceremony celebration. “I was quite proud of the fact,” he writes, “that we were having a party where members of the Royal Family had been invited alongside a selection of star performers from the gay porn studio BelAmi, but it seemed perhaps best to ensure they weren’t actually sitting together.” He recounts another party, dancing with the Queen and later watching Her Majesty chastise some viscount for not looking in on his sister. “When he repeatedly tried to fob her off, the Queen lightly slapped him across the face, saying ‘Don’t’—SLAP—’argue’—SLAP—’with’—SLAP—’me’—SLAP—’I’—SLAP—‘am’—SLAP—“THE QUEEN!’ As he left, she saw me staring at her, gave me a wink and walked off.”
If you read Me for the famous Elton John Anger Management Class Failures, they’re here. Remember the 1997 film Tantrums and Tiaras? Tame stuff compared to some of the room-smashing fun he’s had along the way. John narrates them all in lurid detail, and then laments them in what feels like genuine regret. Those incidents make for fun reading, of course, but they don’t really tell us anything that we don’t know. More telling and thus more interesting are, say, his encounters and friendships with denizens of the Laurel Canyon and wider Los Angeles area music scene (Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash, Joni Mitchell, Cass Elliot, Brian Wilson) or his memories of recording a CD with his idol Leon Russell and inducting him into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame not long before Russell died. All sides of Elton John are given space—everything about the shy star-struck little boy who attended the Royal Academy of Music and grew up to be a self-indulgent yet altruistic rock star and gay icon who, to his own amazement, got to dance to Bill Haley with the Queen of England, is here. And it’s quite a fun read.
Elton John has said that he based his decision to retire from touring on his desire to spend more time with his family. But he also plans to continue working with his Foundation, especially in Africa. And he emphasizes in Me that he is not retiring from music—he will continue to write new music, including film or Broadway scores; he’ll continue to perform at special one-night appearances, or at fundraisers, including for his Foundation. So, who knows? If we’re lucky, there might even be another Me in a few years.
Just tell me when the Bitch is back.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.