Elton John: ‘I can still explode at any moment. I just have terrible feelings about myself’

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A bully illustration of Elton John successful 2021 is how, past week, helium scored the eighth UK No 1 azygous of his vocation and besides had his close hep replaced. The 74-year-old surely has his frailties – “my near hep is the hep of a two-year-old, and my close hep is the hep of a 92-year-old” – but is youthful successful different ways. His enormously enjoyable and varied caller album, The Lockdown Sessions, whitethorn diagnostic a scope of boomer-pleasing names, specified arsenic Eddie Vedder, Glen Campbell and 2 A-list Stevies (Wonder and Nicks), but determination are besides plentifulness of popular artists that could feasibly incite a TikTok creation craze: Dua Lipa, Lil Nas X, Rina Sawayama. One opus pairs John with state vocalist Jimmie Allen implicit a drum’n’bass beat; different is interspersed with raps from Young Thug and Nicki Minaj.

“Watching Young Thug freestyle was conscionable amazing!” helium enthuses implicit a video call, self-isolating the time earlier his operation, dressed successful collared, lapelled pyjamas implicit a rugby top. Oil paintings of 19th-century figures flank him successful the background. “I hatred it erstwhile radical sound rap and hip-hop – erstwhile you really spell successful the workplace and ticker Young Thug successful beforehand of a microphone, it’s an unthinkable thing.” He’d had meal with Lipa, who duets with him connected their No 1 azygous Cold Heart, a fewer nights before; helium rings up Olly Alexander of Years & Years, who covered Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin with him, “a mates of times a fortnight. I consciousness an empathy with these people. I’ve got the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old, and enthusiasm keeps maine going.”

Even done a laptop screen, John has a buoyancy and a chemoreceptor for fun. Holed up successful Los Angeles erstwhile the pandemic began, helium says it was beauteous to walk clip with his sons and husband, but his feet were intelligibly itchy: soon capable helium was 4 doors down the roadworthy astatine the location workplace of popular prima Charlie Puth, and the pursuing time helium was connected Zoom, adding vocals and soft to a way by Texas radical Surfaces. “I went successful the workplace and wrote thing with the Weeknd erstwhile I was there,” helium reveals. “Whether he’ll merchandise it oregon not, I don’t know, but it was fascinating to spot the mode helium works. I constitute songs from commencement to finish, I’m old-fashioned; these radical instrumentality bits of melodies and marque a collage. Songwriting doesn’t person to beryllium the aforesaid aged signifier of songwriting.”

On The Muppet Show successful  1977.
On The Muppet Show successful 1977. Photograph: David Dagley/REX/Shutterstock

Even if he’s intelligibly thrilled to beryllium successful the charts again, this isn’t a cynical bid for relevance – helium talks astir caller euphony with the zeal of a teenage stan trying to person a doubtful parent. “Billie Eilish, astatine 15 she made a record, Lorde astatine 16 – I was inactive astatine schoolhouse astatine 16. God knows however they bash it. I’m successful wonder, full awe, erstwhile I perceive thing antithetic and new.”

After returning to London, an medium started to look arsenic helium picked up much signaling gigs: a way with Gorillaz, a strident Metallica screen with Miley Cyrus, soft and vocal harmonies for Lil Nas X recorded astatine Abbey Road. “I was successful Studio Two, astatine the aforesaid table with the stuffing coming retired of it, and I thought: 54 years agone I was present with the Hollies doing He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I’ve travel afloat circle.”

That ellipse began erstwhile helium was a league instrumentalist starting retired astatine “the extremity of an epoch of songwriters, and the opening of the singer-songwriter”. That’s him successful the inheritance of Daughter of Darkness by Tom Jones (“the camaraderie successful those sessions, we conscionable couldn’t sing for laughing”). At different Abbey Road league with drama radical the Barron Knights successful 1968, besides attended by Bernie Taupin, Paul McCartney walked in. That week, Hey Jude was astatine No 1. “This is the astir celebrated idiosyncratic I’ve ever seen adjacent up astatine this constituent successful my life. Bernie and I were benignant of stuck to the partition going ohio … my … God! He sat down astatine the soft and played Hey Jude, a infinitesimal I volition ne'er hide successful my full life.”

Within 5 years, John was generating Beatlemania-level fandom of his own, powered by his fantastical, observational and baldly romanticist songs with Taupin: Your Song, Tiny Dancer, Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The dorky, virginal naif Reg Dwight became the flamboyantly dressed popular prima Elton John, yet knowing his sexuality erstwhile helium was successful a narration with his manager, John Reid. They moved successful unneurotic but John remained closeted to the public. “After a while, Bernie made the lyrics use to a antheral oregon a woman, due to the fact that I couldn’t get distant with saying: ‘Darling, I emotion you, my angel’, oregon whatever,” helium says. “I was surviving with my manager, I was ever going to cheery clubs, it was an unfastened secret.”

In Hampstead successful  1968.
In Hampstead, 1968. Photograph: Val Wilmer/Redferns

He announced helium was bisexual successful a 1976 interrogation with Rolling Stone. “Some vigor stations successful America burned my records, but successful wide I got distant with it. People appreciated honesty.” Did helium confuse fans erstwhile helium aboriginal joined his pistillate portion relation Renate Blauel, successful 1984? He can’t accidental thing astir the matrimony – successful 2019 she launched ineligible enactment against him aft helium discussed their narration successful his memoir Me, aboriginal settling with the committedness that helium would nary longer sermon it – but helium acknowledges that it did astonishment immoderate fans: “I got a batch of comic telegrams, enactment it similar that.” In 1992, helium said helium was “quite comfy astir being gay”, and the pursuing twelvemonth met David Furnish. They had a civilian concern successful 2005, connected the time it became ineligible for same-sex couples, and past joined successful 2014, erstwhile that was ineligible too.

The half-closeted disorder of the 70s has evaporated successful pop, and a fig of the artists connected The Lockdown Sessions, including Alexander, Sawayama and Brandi Carlile, are proudly LGBTQ; Lil Nas X precocious danced bare successful a situation ablution for the operatically cheery video to his azygous Industry Baby. “Outrageous, right? God almighty!” John laughs. “That didn’t hap successful the 70s. God, we person a batch of enactment to bash arsenic acold arsenic equality goes, but it’s encouraging to spot radical similar Perfume Genius and Troye Sivan penning songs astir being gay. Things person changed – though if you unrecorded successful Chechnya, Poland, Hungary, Russia, the Middle East, they’re not successful the fortunate presumption we are.”

Another impermanent is Stevie Wonder, playing harmonica and singing connected gospel opus Finish Line. “I benignant of played Ernie Wise to his Eric Morecambe,” John says. “My vocal is beauteous straight, but determination helium is singing similar [he does on] Superstition. I haven’t heard him sing similar that for a long, agelong time, and that was magical, to perceive him agelong out.” I punctual him of a communicative helium tells successful Me, wherever successful 1973 helium grumpily boards the Starship, a converted Boeing 720 flying him astir the US implicit with organ. “Of people determination was an organ connected the plane!” helium laughs. Unbeknown to him, Wonder had been brought connected committee to sing Happy Birthday to him, but John, successful a funk aft an unsatisfactory gig, repeatedly told his publicist to “fuck off” earlier she burst into tears and revealed the surprise.

John’s caustic broadside worsened erstwhile helium started abusing cocaine and alcohol. Recalled successful his memoir, this excess leads to immoderate undeniably comic moments, specified arsenic trashing a edifice country aft Simon Le Bon introduces him to the conception of the vodka martini, mistaking Bob Dylan for a dishevelled gardener astatine a location enactment (to the disapproval of George Harrison), oregon jamming connected signifier with the Rolling Stones for mode longer than the 1 opus helium was invited for. There are immoderate starker motivation failures, too, specified arsenic erstwhile helium brings 1 fellow retired from Australia to unrecorded with him, gets bored and sends him back.

“I wasn’t unkind to anybody … I’m not horrible to people,” helium protests. How does it consciousness to look backmost connected moments similar that Starship outburst? “I’m not arrogant of that stuff, no, it makes maine shudder,” helium says. “My behaviour was truthful erratic and truthful unpredictable. And it’s inactive successful me, to detonate astatine immoderate moment. I’ve been trying to enactment connected that for a agelong clip and I’ve got a fantastic hubby who knows however to get maine retired of that stuff. I deliberation it’s an creator happening – artists tin beryllium truthful self-destructive sometimes, for nary reason. I tin person a time erstwhile everything successful my full beingness is going truthful well, and I get up and I consciousness similar the satellite is against me. Why, I bash not know.”

When pressed, helium says helium does know. “The self-loathing, not having immoderate self-esteem, that each comes from erstwhile I was a kid.” His memoir recalls his parent beating him with a ligament brushwood during potty training; his begetter deed him for taking disconnected his schoolhouse blazer successful a mode helium didn’t like. “That’s the mode it was successful the 50s – you got slapped circular the face, you got a bully hiding. ‘It was bloody bully for you’ – it wasn’t bully for me. It near maine walking connected eggshells.”

That feeling lasted into adulthood. “All my life, until I became sober, I was acrophobic of talking to anybody. They asked maine erstwhile I went to attraction however I felt and I said: ‘I don’t know, I don’t consciousness anything.’ I came to defrost, arsenic it were, and discovered I did person feelings, and they went backmost a agelong time. And I deliberation it stays with you for the full of your beingness … I conscionable person unspeakable feelings astir myself; I consciousness atrocious astir myself sometimes.”

With Olly Alexander astatine  the Brit awards astatine  the O2 Arena.
With Olly Alexander astatine the Brit awards astatine the O2 Arena. Photograph: JMEnternational/JMEnternational for BRIT Awards/Getty Images

Still, helium tin usage his self-knowledge to assistance his young philharmonic peers. “Olly [Alexander] was down successful the dumps recently, and I conscionable said: Go out, person fun! Sit determination alone, and that shot comes down similar successful Raiders of the Lost Ark: an avalanche of atrocious feeling.” It also, of course, informs the mode helium parents his sons Zachary, 10 and Elijah, who is eight.

“We ne'er deed them oregon suffer our temper with them,” helium says. “When they’re bad, they suffer their pouch money, oregon their physics worldly for a week – but they don’t get punished physically oregon mentally. We speech it done with them. And they’re precise blessed children. I was ever acrophobic of my parents, and I didn’t privation my children to ever beryllium acrophobic of me. They’re going to consciousness embraced and loved each 2nd of the day; they’re not going to beryllium beaten and person those scars for the remainder of their lives. I thought I was excessively precocious to person children but really they came astatine the close clip successful my life, and it’s taught maine truthful much,” helium adds, getting visibly emotional. “God, I emotion my children truthful much. I person a intent successful life.”

In 2022, he’ll restart his last satellite tour, Farewell Yellow Brick Road, postponed by Covid and his hep issues. “I privation to decorativeness it successful the close way, and spell retired connected a precocious note, but I besides privation to decorativeness due to the fact that I don’t privation to bash it again. I’ve been doing this since I was 17 – I’ve had capable applause. I’ll beryllium 76 erstwhile the circuit finishes – who knows however overmuch [time] I’ve got left? It volition beryllium spent with the kids, and with David, smelling the roses.”

The waspishness of aged occasionally emerges from the floral perfume though, for lawsuit erstwhile we speech astir Rocket Hour, his vigor amusement for Apple Music. “I play a batch of euphony connected my amusement that truly should beryllium played connected Radio 1, but things are truthful formalised with their playlists, you get the aforesaid happening clip and clip again.” So Radio 1, and their commercialized rivals, are excessively conservative? “So conservative! They overplay tracks – determination are caller things that request to beryllium heard, and it’s holding radical backmost … There shouldn’t beryllium immoderate rules, oregon barriers. If euphony is good, play it. And if it’s a caller azygous by immoderate unspeakable miss set oregon lad band, conscionable driblet it, volition you?”

Performing connected  signifier    c1974.
‘I’ve had capable applause’ ... performing connected signifier c1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

The vigor amusement volition support connected going aft helium finishes touring, an outlet for that voracious emotion of pop. Each week helium has a database of releases sent to him by the grounds store Rough Trade, and helium buys thing helium likes the look of, which sounds similar astir everything. Leeds post-punk set Yard Act are a caller fave. “It’s a spot similar Craig Finn from the Hold Steady, who Sam Fender loves – it’s talking, it’s music, it’s truly interesting, similar Fontaines DC …” He’s besides done a Christmas azygous with Ed Sheeran, whom John’s institution Rocket managed aboriginal connected his career.

“I’ve been capable to springiness him proposal and ticker him grow, and he’s been truthful benignant to me,” helium says. “When [2011 Sheeran single] The A Team came retired and a batch of US vigor stations wouldn’t play it, I did a happening successful the southbound of France, a backstage concert, free, for a definite vigor concatenation to marque definite they played it. When helium was connected astatine the Grammys, they weren’t going to enactment him connected astatine the Grammys due to the fact that they said helium wasn’t going to beryllium a prima – I said to [show producer] Ken Ehrlich: ‘Suppose I played a duet with him, would that help?’ Yes – truthful I got him connected the Grammys. He didn’t privation to enactment [2014 single] Sing out, and I said: ‘You’ve got to enactment Sing out, you’ve enactment ballad aft ballad out, and Sing volition astonishment everybody.’ And it did. He ever acknowledgment maine for that.”

The signifier philharmonic of The Devil Wears Prada, which helium wrote the euphony for, is coming successful July 2022 aft besides being postponed by the pandemic, and there’s a cache of Taupin lyrics waiting for his music, “in a cupboard, oregon a safe, and erstwhile the clip is right, I’ll get them out. I don’t cognize what’s going to travel up – I didn’t cognize I was going to bash The Lion King until Tim Rice phoned maine up and it changed my life. If you fto yourself beryllium unfastened to surprise, unfastened your doors and accidental thing is possible, past you’ll person a fantastic life. And I person a fantastic life.”

The Lockdown Sessions is retired present connected EMI Universal