Elton John – Me
(Pan Macmillan, £25)
Elton Hercules John’s autobiography arrives just five months after the film of his life, Rocketman, with the 72-year-old over a year into a worldwide farewell tour that won’t wrap up until December 2020. Characteristic excess, you might think, especially after reading an eye-popping life story that is rarely more than a page away from more sex, drugs and star cameos.
This is a man with such a range of connections that he invited members of the Royal Family, former Beatles and gay porn actors to his civil partnership celebration. He’s qualified to tell you why John Lennon reminds him of Billie Jean King (“both felt really strongly that they could use their fame to change things,”) and who’s better at charades, Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel (Dylan, Nobel laureate in Literature, apparently didn’t understand the concept of syllables). He’s surely the only man on earth who could have a special lunch, at which he planned to introduce his mother to his new boyfriend David Furnish, scuppered by the unplanned arrival of a marbles-free Michael Jackson.
However, the former Reggie Dwight has already lived his life as an open book – witness Furnish’s 1997 documentary Tantrums & Tiaras, a pioneer in the field of warts and all reality television – so his memoir doesn’t feel like a collection of secrets shared for the first time. He could have dispelled a few myths, but instead finds the fun in declaring that he’s exactly as awful as you thought. “I’m perfectly aware how ridiculous my life is, and perfectly aware what an arsehole I look like when I lose my temper over nothing,” he writes. That tale about him phoning his record company to demand that they do something about the weather? Entirely true.
Me was written with the Guardian’s music critic Alexis Petridis, who keeps humour to the forefront as the stories pile up. It sticks to the familiar trajectory of the rock biography: unhappy childhood, success and excess, culminating in belated contentment with marriage and children. Young Dwight’s suburban life featured Saturdays spent between the Royal Academy of Music and the stands at his beloved Watford FC. His rock and roll-hating father played almost no part in family life, while his self-absorbed mother potty-trained him by beating him with a wire brush. They collectively bestowed on him what he calls “the Dwight Family Temper”.
If she hadn’t died two years ago, perhaps he might have felt less able to be so honest about his mother, “the Cecil B DeMille of bad moods”, a permanently dissatisfied woman who singlehandedly ruins that civil partnership ceremony and comes over as the real ogre here. The other complex relationship is with John Reid, his occasionally violent long-term manager, to whom he loses a lot of cash and also his virginity. Meanwhile his partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, whose work he is introduced to almost by chance in 1967, is a comforting constant.
In other areas he’s surprisingly discreet, especially when writing about his surprise 1984 marriage to Renate Blauel, a woman clearly still held in great esteem. Stars with whom he doesn’t get on include Keith Richards, David Bowie, Tina Turner and Madonna, but he isn’t too hard on them either.
The book becomes more serious when he finally comes off the coke and beats his bulimia (though this serial obsessive even manages to become addicted to attending addict meetings, going to 1,400 in three years) and then reaches the summer of 1997, when he’s left reeling by the sudden deaths of his friends Gianni Versace and Diana, Princess of Wales. He sings at both funerals, and expresses astonishment at the subsequent gigantic chart success of his rewritten version of Candle in the Wind: “Under what circumstances would you play it?”
It’s one more bizarre occurrence in a life packed with them. Me could be twice as long, but is mercifully free of technical details about recording sessions, and covers the extravagance with pace and hilarity. Towards the end, his feelings about first time fatherhood at 63 leave a warm glow, and there’s welcome reassurance that although he’s retiring from touring, his career is far from over. It feels like there are lots of outlandish tales still to tell.