After years of much-publicised personal torment (now happily resolved), spectacular worldwide success and some failures, Elton John has at last achieved his childhood ambition. But more of that later.
We’re at his home high in the Alps above Nice, with wondrous views over the Mediterranean. Signs in the eight-acre garden warn you that dogs roam unsupervised and there are the usual superstar trophy cars and discreet servants. In the living room are two erotic Allen Jones coffee tables – clear glass supported by black-booted and gloved, pendulously breasted girls looking into mirrors on the floor.
We sit at a long dining table, cluttered with tasteful objets d’art. He’s dressed casually, his only concession to mild bling being a Hublot watch. By his side is his one stab at technology – an iPad on which he skypes his 19-month-old son, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
“I’m a Luddite,” he says. “I don’t have a phone or computer.” He and his partner, David Furnish, spend several weeks a year at the house, which they bought 16 years ago for £2.3 million. “It was the cheapest David saw, and everyone said, ‘Elton, you can’t live in Nice. It’s not fashionable. It has to be Cap Ferrat or Antibes’. But I don’t care where I live if the house is nice. For me, this is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s quiet and heavenly, with wonderful light.”
They have a succession of guests, including his many godchildren. David Walliams and his wife are there today, and Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of the Independent and London Evening Standard, is flying in after lunch. “It’s a great way to catch up with friends because I work incredibly hard with my own career [more than 100 shows a year], my management company, the Aids Foundation, my little boy. I’ve managed to intertwine everything perfectly. I’ve been with David 19 years in October, done a lot of work on myself, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m not interested in the past – just now and the future.”
The house puts him in a benign mood. He’s even complimentary about Madonna, who earlier in the week he called “a nightmare who looks like a f***ing fairground stripper”. Nostalgia is in the air because Radio 2 is paying tribute to him over five days, culminating on Monday with The Elton John Show, where he presents music that inspired him.
“I love radio and grew up with it. It was a magical time where you had to use your imagination. My Sundays were built around Two-Way Family Favourites, The Billy Cotton Band Show, Round the Horn, Movie-Go-Round…” He reels off programme names – even the times they were broadcast.
“I regret it’s all gone. It’s part of my life, like the Queen, who has been a constant since I was born. One of the saddest images for me was when she said goodbye to Britannia and a tear rolled down her cheek. It was the first time I’d seen her show emotion, because she’s so stoic. I had to be stoic at Diana’s funeral, because I was doing a job on behalf of people. I didn’t want to be mawkish and, no, the odd Wincarnis did not pass my lips [to steady the nerves].” He smiles.
The Elton John Show displays his eclectic musical taste. He says, “I could have done a different programme every day for a year. I had to leave so much out – Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson. Where do you stop? It was like being a kid in a candy store.”
Although he trained as a classical pianist and chose Abide with Me and Elgar’s Enigma Variations for Desert Island Discs in 1986, there is no classical music in his show. “I don’t think it mixes with Radio 2. I was asked to go on Desert Island Discs again but found selecting the records so difficult. Today I’d choose mostly sad instrumental music. I’d sit on the beach crying.”
Crying. It’s become a hot topic, often criticised, since the Olympics, when 37.5 per cent of British winners cried on the podium. “They trained every day for four years – why shouldn’t they show emotion? We’re constipated, with a train of thought that it’s a weakness. Stiff upper lip. Pull yourself together. I hate it. I love to cry. It’s a human emotion, and very healthy to get all the crap out of you.
“It’s also joyous, part of who we are. I’ve sat on the terrace here in the moonlight listening to Cavalleria Rusticana, which reminds me of Gianni Versace, and I’m in floods. He was due to come here the Wednesday after we moved in, and was murdered the previous weekend. Every time we see a butterfly – he was crazy about them – we say, ‘It’s OK. Gianni’s here’.”
Elton’s programme is wide-ranging, from soul music from his early days with Bluesology to his latest, Good Morning to the Night, with the Australian electronic duo Pnau – the only song of his own that he plays on the show. “I embrace electronic music, but haven’t the foggiest how to make it. This is a record for kids who would never download an Elton John album. I had the sense to realise when I was at the height of my success in the mid-70s that it wouldn‘t last. Although I like having hits, I know it isn’t going to happen unless I collaborate with [people like] Pnau. I’ve always tried to keep modern.
“I’m still very competitive. I have to be, because my company manages so many people including James Blunt, Lily Allen and Grace Jones. Artists need good guidance. Three years ago I saw Grace perform in Monaco and told her we had to get her organised. We’ve all had problems, but she’s come out the other side. We tell our young acts not to put out a record until it’s ready, and there’s no hurry. James Blunt played to ten people in clubs when he started and it was invaluable, because he had backup when success came. People who win talent shows don’t have the wherewithal to perform live.”
Perhaps inevitably he’s a fan of Dusty Springfield and plays Goin’ Back, which he wants sung at his funeral. “The lyrics are so beautiful. I want people to be sad while I’m being pushed out of the church, and then to have a party.” The lyrics ‘I can play hide and seek with my fears’ are relevant. “I used to do that, but for 22 years I’ve learnt not to. Hopefully I’ll always have a bit of fear, because without that life is not worth living. You have to conquer it to get to another place. But it’s no longer fear about myself.
“Dusty was insecure, like a lot of female singers, including Amy Winehouse. It’s tragic – Back to Black will sound as good in 50 years as it does today. She was one of the greatest, but if someone doesn’t want to get well, they won’t. Look at Billie Holiday.
It’s hard for women in this business. Some aren’t good at handling their own careers. k.d. lang could be a much bigger star, but I don’t think she wants to be. Madonna took the industry by the scruff of the neck and made opportunities for other women, like Gaga and Katy Perry.
Nina Simone is Elton’s favourite artist of the 20th century – “I was in awe of her” – but he’s lavish in praise of others. “Little Richard [Elton plays two of his records on the show] and Jerry Lee Lewis altered the way people played piano. Bob Dylan is still making joyous music, which you can’t stop tapping your feet to. It’s the same with gospel music: if you can’t move to it, you’re dead. Then there’s reggae, the West Indian version of gospel, which is so infectious. Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry gets to me because his voice is so full of pain, soul and joy at the same time.”
There’s also organ player Billy Preston – “I have a picture of him at 13, and he has enormous hands. Most piano players have long, bony fingers, which enable them to reach more notes.” He spreads his own on the table. Mine are tiny, and I can just about get an octave. I’d be a much better player technically if they were bigger. You cope with what you have.”
In the Radio 2 series that honours Elton’s work, Elaine Paige discusses his musicals. “Probably the finest I’ve done is Lestat, from Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, in 2006. But it closed very quickly. Vampires weren’t fashionable then. I should have waited two years. I’d had three successes – The Lion King, Aida and Billy Elliot – and this was my first clunker. You can’t expect to have a hit every time.”
In spite of his own aversion to technology, Elton has bought Zachary an iPod. “There’s a double CD of all the children’s stuff I grew up with. He sings ‘If you go down to the woods today…’ and Nellie the Elephant.”
And Chopin, I say, assuming I’m joking. “Oh yes. Chopin was one of the first things he had. It’s so soothing. And Mozart and Beethoven. I want music to be a huge part of his life. I sit him on my lap and he doesn’t bang the piano. He tries to copy me, but he’s not formed enough yet to know what I do, thank God. When he finds out, he’ll look at me as if I’m bonkers.
He plays a song he wanted to record but thought it might be too controversial: I Had a Talk with my Man by Mitty Collier. “I could do it now,” he says. “I don’t take myself seriously, which is one reason I’ve lasted. Irreverence is a great British trait. As much as I moan about the press – they love you for nine months, hate you for four – it’s better than America, where they revere celebrity. I went on Little Britain and they took the piss out of me something rotten. Nothing is sacred.”
Not even Paul McCartney, who has been criticised for a rambling performance at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. “That’s unfair. It’s a crap shoot – you don’t have your own sound system, wait five hours backstage. Paul won’t give up, and why should he? I would if I felt the voice had gone, but at 65 it’s getting better and I’m in the prime of life. People say Sinatra went on too long, and maybe he did, but it kept him alive for a few more years.”
“Being the child of someone famous is a huge ball and chain around your ankles. It’s going to be very difficult. At school other children will say, ‘You don’t have a mummy.’ We’ve come a long way, but there’s still homophobia and will be until a new generation of parents don’t instil it in their children. It’s natural for him. He calls me ‘Daddy’, and David ‘Papa’. I won’t push Zachary into anything. So far he just loves kicking a ball and watching people cook.”
Ever the optimist, and perhaps inspired by Zachary, Elton is making a sequel to his children’s film, Gnomeo & Juliet, a Shakespearean love story with garden gnomes, which made $100 million in America. “I’ve done pretty much everything, but there’s always something else. I’d like to win another Tony for an animated musical of Animal Farm, which is a huge challenge and will probably be the least commercial musical I’ve done. I want to do something that isn’t straightforward.
“But my real ambition since I was a child was to be a DJ. Now I’ve done it once, I’d like to do it again.” And again, probably.
Elton on Radio 2
On Saturday, Paul Gambaccini presents a special edition of America s Greatest Hits (8pm) with an Elton John theme.
On Sunday’s Weekend Wogan at 11am, Terry is joined by singer Kiki Dee, who will be performing her number one hit Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, just as she did with Elton back in 1976.
Elton’s theatrical career is the focus of Elaine Paige on Sunday (1pm), including hits from Billy Elliot and The Lion King.
Monday sees the star presenting his own programme, The Elton John Show (4pm), featuring a two-hour showcase of the music that has influenced him over the years.
Then, on Monday evening, Johnnie Walker will look back at the recording of the classic 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in Johnnie Walker’s Long Players (11pm), which includes archive interview with the key players.