He has sold a quarter of a billion records worldwide, had more than 50 Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums and recorded the biggest selling single of all time. He has won six Grammy Awards, four Brits, an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Tony. Yet Sir Elton John doesn’t want to talk about any of that…
He wants to talk about his new publishing debut, Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS. So what inspired the 65-year-old to finally write a book? “I wrote this book to tell the world that we can cure the AIDS epidemic right now,” Sir Elton tells us.
“Love really is the cure. We already have the medicine and prevention tactics we need to end the AIDS epidemic; all we are missing is the compassion to treat everyone with AIDS - no matter who they are or how they became HIV-positive - equally and with dignity.”
There was little dignity being offered to AIDS sufferers when Sir Elton first heard of the epidemic in the early 80s. With 70 percent of AIDS cases involving homosexuals, it was quickly dubbed the ‘gay plague.’ Friends of the pop star began dying early.
“I didn’t speak out in a very strong manner, and it was a very weak thing not to have done,” he has said of the period. “I know I was taking a lot of drugs at the time, but when I look back I don’t understand why I didn’t get into the fray a little bit more. And I’m quite ashamed of that to be honest.”
The call to action finally came in 1985 when he read the story of Ryan White of Ryan White a 14-year-old schoolboy expelled, then ostracized by his town in Indiana because of an HIV infection he had contracted from a blood transfusion.
“I was so incensed about this little boy, you know? People were throwing bricks through his windows, firebombing his house. That was the level of ignorance about the disease at this time.”
Sir Elton got in touch with White’s family and helped them move to another town. They became friends, and In 1990 the singer spent the last week of White’s life with him in a hospital in Indianapolis.
“I learned about forgiveness. I learned about dignity. And I learned about how my life was in complete disarray, how self-obsessed and horrible my life was compared to these people who had nothing,” he has said of the exerience.
The personal problems were in no small part due to a cocaine addiction that had become so severe that he began to have fits and pass out. At one point, he spent two weeks alone in his bedroom in London doing lines of the drug, drinking scotch and growing ever more paranoid. Following White’s death, he eventually managed to get clean, and in 1992 started the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
“This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of EJAF,” says Sir Elton. “I had no idea that the Foundation would still be needed two decades later, or that the epidemic would become a leading cause of death around the globe.”
He started by giving away the royalties from his records and moved on to selling off his clothes, pianos and cars and hosting an Oscar fundraiser. And then there is his legendary RMB10,000-a-head White Tie & Tiara Ball, where the likes of Stephen Fry auction off Rolls Royces and Tracey Emin artworks to guests including Elizabeth Hurley, Donatella Versace and the Beckhams, who eat filet mignon with Maine lobster tail; later, Sir Elton hits the stage to sing ‘Delilah’ with Tom Jones and ‘Big Spender’ with Shirley Bassey.
It all seems to have done the trick. “Today EJAF is one of the world’s leading nonprofits working in the field of HIV/AIDS,” Sir Elton tells us. “We have raised more than US$275 million in support of worthy projects in 55 countries all around the world. I am the Foundation’s founder, and my partner David is the chairman.”
"David" is David Furnish, who Sir Elton began a relationship with in 1993. “This was someone who was my equal and was determined to be my equal from the word go - someone who had a job, their own flat, their own car, their own life,” he has said of their meeting.
“I’d taken hostages before that; I sort of kidnapped people and took them round the world with me. And after six or seven weeks you get the resentment coming through, because what role do they play? They just follow you round like a puppy dog. It was the first time I respected someone else’s feeling in a relationship. I was 46 years old and for the first time I was mature enough to have a decent relationship.”
An advertising executive, soon after they got together Furnish gave up his job to become a film student. His first (and still best known) offering was the delightfully memorable Tantrums and Tiaras. The 1997 documentary captured the colorful side – and colorful language – of Sir Elton as he traveled the world, effing and blinding when his clothes were left in his limo and going apoplectic when he lost at tennis in a scene that makes McEnroe seem meek.
The couple survived the dramas, and on December 21, 2005 entered a civil partnership, celebrating with a lavish reception estimated to have cost RMB10 million. And then, on Christmas Day 2010, they got the present they were waiting for when son Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John was born to a surrogate mother in California.
While speculation was rife that the younger Furnish – 15 years Sir Elton’s junior – had provided the sperm, the toddler bears an uncanny resemblance to the older of the two, and it was Sir Elton who was recorded as the boy’s father at the register office in LA.
“As I am sure any parent knows, having a child completely changes your life in ways you could never have imagined,” he says of the arrival of Zachary, who counts Lady Gaga among his godmothers. “You find new depths of love, and experience pure joy, along with a huge sense of responsibility. Nothing can prepare you for it and nothing comes close to it.”
It has been a long and eventful journey for the boy raised in a council house in Pinner, Northwest London, who cut his teeth as a weekend pianist at a nearby pub, earning “a pound a night and all the money I could keep from someone passing a box round.”
Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in March 1947, he remembers being immediately hooked on rock'n'roll from age nine, when his mother brought home records by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & His Comets. It was with her help that at age 15 he began tickling the ivories in the local boozer. Saturday night was alright for fighting, then, too – Sir Elton has recalled that his piano was positioned by the window and “many were the nights when fights broke out and I dived out through the window.”
Then, in 1967, Dwight answered a fateful advertisement placed by Ray Williams of Liberty Records in the New Musical Express looking for talent. At their first meeting he told Williams he could only write melodies, not lyrics, so Williams gave him a stack written by Bernie Taupin, a 17-year-old who had answered the same ad. Dwight went straight home and began writing songs to them.
So began the most lucrative songwriting duo since Lennon and McCartney, with Taupin moving into Dwight’s mother’s house (it was only after he had four albums simultaneously in the American Top 40 that Dwight himself eventually moved out). But before they hit the big time, something had to change. Reginald Kenneth Dwight wasn’t exactly rock’n’roll, and so he became Elton John, combining the names of two musicians he had played with during a stint in English R&B band Bluesology.
It was the 1970 self-titled second album Elton John containing the ballad ‘Your Song’ that catapulted them to the big time. On the back of its success they traveled across the Atlantic, with just five shows booked to break America, the first of which was at legendary venue The Troubadour in Los Angeles.
“I think people thought I was going to be a very somber singer-songwriter,” Sir Elton recalled of the occasion. That was never going to be his style, though. “I was doing handstands on the piano. People were going ‘Oh my god, what is going on here?’”
With rave reviews he became an overnight sensation in the US, and it inspired him with an empowering confidence – it was on this tour in San Francisco that he first had sex with a man, “I was basking in my glory, I suddenly thought ‘To hell with it, here goes.’”
Here goes indeed. By the mid-70s he was the biggest selling pop superstar in the world, and the flamboyance really kicked in. Transport took the form of Starship 1, a Boeing 707 complete with onboard Hammond organ and bedroom and bathroom. “Way to go baby, it was a lot of fun. I had sex on the plane. Fabulous. And a fireplace. Fantastic. I mean how many planes do you get now that have a fireplace? Richard Branson eat your heart out.”
By 1975 he had had seven consecutive No. 1 US albums. Yet despite this popularity, when he finally came out as bisexual in a Rolling Stone interview in 1976 (because he “just thought it was common knowledge,”) his records were burned in the US and some radio stations wouldn’t play him.
“That reaction was in a specific area of America and was in no way representative of the way most Americans responded, or indeed the way most people respond anywhere,” Sir Elton says, looking back. “You cannot avoid prejudice, but my approach is, and always has been, to just go where I am invited, meet people, play my music and hope that somehow we connect.
“I sometimes joke that I’m the ‘acceptable’ face of homosexuality, the kind of bloke your mother wouldn’t mind having over for dinner… but I do feel the responsibility to use my platform as a musician to help gay people around the world find acceptance.”
The rocker certainly found acceptance himself – anecdotes of his famous friendships seem endless. The time he played piano on John Lennon’s ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night’ on condition that if it got to No. 1 Lennon would play at one Sir Elton’s concerts. It did, Lennon kept his side of the bargain, Yoko Ono turned up and the estranged pair got back together. Sir Elton was later asked to be Sean Lennon’s godfather.
The stories continue: Buying his beloved Watford FC and taking them from the Fourth Division to second in the English league behind only Liverpool, then all the way to the 1984 FA Cup Final. Marrying German recording engineer Renate Blauel (yes, a woman) on Valentines Day 1984, shortly after the release of ‘I’m Still Standing,’ prompting a fax from good friend Rod Stewart: “You may still be standing dear, but we’re all on the fucking floor!”
Then there are his royal acquaintances: the Queen Mother popping round for a lunchtime drink; being knighted by Her Majesty for “services to music and charitable services” in 1998; and his relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales, and the song he sang at her funeral, ‘Candle in the Wind 1997,’ that holds the Guinness World Record for the highest selling single of all time.
With all that behind him, and having reached the official UK age of retirement, is he not tempted to reach for the pipe and slippers? Seems not. “I’ve played well over 3,000 concerts since I started in 1969, and I still love playing live as much as ever. All audiences are different and, yes, it is still a great thrill to go to a new venue or to one where we haven’t played for a while.”
And he assures us we are still in for a treat in Shanghai. “We put on a very good show – it’s an expensive production, a long show, and my band members are the finest musicians around. We are very happy that, even after over 40 years, people still take the trouble to buy the tickets and come along. I’m often amazed how we can go to somewhere completely new in a far away country and find that people seem to know the words of every song!”
// Elton John and His Band, Nov 23, 8pm. Mercedes-Benz Arena, 1200 Shibo Dadao, Pudong 世博大道1200号, 浦东 Nearest Metro Yaohua Lu on Lines 7 & 8. Tickets RMB280-1680 by calling 400 610 3721 or visiting www.smartshanghai.com/smartticket or win them on p120