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Recappin’ Fantastic: The Most Fascinating Reveals From Elton John’s Memoir

The deeply dishy book tells almost all about coming out, straight marriage, bad-hair decades, cocaine-fueled album disasters, refusing to play his biggest hit, fallen fellow celebs, rehab and rebirth.

Sir Elton JohnElton John AIDS Foundation party, Antibes, France - 24 Jul 2019
Laurent VU/SIPA/Shutterstock

How charming, and jaw-droppingly candid, is Elton John’s memoir, “Me”? Consider this: It’s a 350-page book that’s not so overly caught up in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — which, to be sure, it supplies in roughly equal, copious amounts  — that it won’t take a time-out to recount the party where Elton made the shocking discovery that Bob Dylan is really, really bad at charades.

Rock memoirs rarely have come as funny, utterly self-aware or bracing as “Me,” which is everything a pop fan could want in a wryly revelatory tell-all from a performer whose artistic brilliance and superfluous flamboyance have somehow not conspired to cancel each other out. Picking out highlights when there’s gold on nearly every page is a tough task, but here are some of the book’s most curiosity-satisfying moments:

John explains everything you ever wanted to know about his hair but were afraid to ask. After what he says was a toxic dye job that he says wrecked havoc on his hair, he had virtually none left on the top of his head in 1976. “Some people are blessed with the kind of face that looks good with a bald head,” he writes. “I am not one of those people. Without hair, I bear a disturbing resemblance to the cartoon character Shrek.” He resorted to a painful procedure called “strip harvesting,” and after that failed, an elaborate weave. “A writer noted that I looked like I had a dead squirrel on my head. He was mean, but, I was forced to concede, he also had a point.” Finally, after wearing hats full-time for about a decade, he just went with a wig — and was happy to learn that, after so many years of conjecture and ridicule about his hair, people suddenly stopped mentioning it.

His cocaine jag lasted for 16 years, before he went through rehab in 1990. “If you fancy living in a despondent world of unending, delusional bullshit, I really can’t recommend cocaine highly enough,” he writes. After he mistook Dylan for a trespassing hobo at a party, George Harrison said, “Elton, I really think you need to go steady on the old marching powder.” Lyricist Bernie Taupin slyly forced Elton to sing about his own drug habit. “Sometimes the lyrics he gave me were quite pointed. You didn’t have to be a genius to work out what he was driving at when he sent me a song called ‘White Lady White Powder.’ I had the brass balls to sing it as if was about someone else.”

He plans to never go into all the details of his four-year marriage to Renate Blauel. John does say that the first time he brought up marriage to Blauel (an engineer on two of his ‘70s albums), there’d never been a hint of romance between them. He leaves some of what happened later a mystery — the only time in the book he holds anything back: “Renate and I agreed when we divorced that we would never publicly discuss the intimate details of our marriage. And I am respecting that.” He’s quite open, though, about how he came to obsess on marrying her: “I found myself idly reflecting that she was everything that I would have wanted a woman to be, if I was straight. Obviously, that was a big if. In fact, it was an if so immense that it would have taken an astonishing amount of convoluted, irrational thinking to see it as anything other than completely insurmountable. Luckily, convoluted, irrational thinking was very much my forte in those days…” As for the nuptials, they were “as straightforward as any wedding can be at which one of the groom’s best men is his former lover, to whom he lost his virginity.” (That would be then-manager John Reid.)

John says his coming out in Rolling Stone in the 1970s was fairly easy and untraumatic. He was surprised when people continued to be more fixated on his hair than his sexuality … and took jokes about the latter in stride. ““One piece of advice I would give anyone planning on coming out publicly is this,” he writes. “Try and make sure you don’t do it immediately after being appointed chairman of a British football club, unless you want to spend your Saturday afternoons listening to thousands of away supporters singing — to the tune of ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’ — ‘Don’t sit down when Elton’s around, or you’ll get a penis up your arse.’ I suppose I should deliver a lecture here decrying the homophobia of football fans in the mid-‘70s, but I have to be honest: I thought it was funny.”

“Leather Jackets” is, in his estimation, far and away his worst album — even worse than an earlier disco album. The 1986 record “wasn’t an album so much as an exercise in trying to make music while taking so much cocaine you’ve essentially rendered yourself critically insane. … There was a terrible song I co-wrote with Cher called ‘Don’t Trust That Woman,’ the lyrics of which were beyond belief: ‘You can rear-end her, ooh, it’ll send her.’ You can tell what I thought of that by the fact that I declined to put my own name to it… ‘Leather Jackets’ had four legs and a tail and barked if a postman came to the door.”

He took recovery very, very seriously. John says that for years, on a daily basis, even while on tour, he would find AA or other support groups to attend. He estimates he went to 1,400 support-group meetings. Finally, “I got to a point where I didn’t want to talk about alcohol or cocaine or bulimia every day.” John writes that it’s been 28 years since he did a line of coke, but he still dreams about it every night — not out of desire, but remembering the bad taste in the back of his throat, while dreaming that people are walking in on him doing the drug.

He’s made a mission of getting other celebrities to follow his path into sobriety… but not always successfully. He is Eminem’s AA sponsor, and got Rufus Wainwright into rehab (“He was taking so much crystal meth that, at one point, he’d gone temporarily blind”). Some he refrains from mentioning, since they haven’t gone public. On the sadder side, Dionne Warwick called him asking to intervene with Whitney Houston, “but either the messages I left didn’t get through, or she didn’t want to know. And George Michael really didn’t want to know.” His former good friend wrote an open letter to a magazine “telling me at considerable length to f— off and mind my own business. I wish we hadn’t fallen out. But more than that, I wish he was still alive.” He helped stage an intervention for Donatella Versace, which seemed to be going poorly until she suddenly blurted out, “My life is like your candle in the wind! I want to die!” — and gave in and got help.

His joint tours with Billy Joel came to an end over differing attitudes toward sobriety. Although he loved co-headlining stadiums with Joel, John writes that “it ended badly, because Billy had a lot of personal problems at the time, and the biggest one was alcohol.” Joel, he said, would mix medication he was taking for a chest infection with booze, “then fall asleep in the middle of singing ‘Piano Man.’ Eventually, I suggested that he needed the kind of help that I had got, which didn’t make me very popular. … I just couldn’t stand to watch a nice guy doing that to himself any longer.”

A joint tour with Tina Turner never got off the ground because he found her to be a complete terror. “She rang me up at home, apparently with the express intention of telling me how awful I was and how I had to change before we could work together.” He agreed to at least start by doing a duet with her for a “VH1 Divas” special, but arrived at rehearsal with his band already threatening to quit, before Turner quickly laid into John’s own piano playing. “The subsequent debate about whether or not I knew how to play ‘Proud Mary’ became quite heated quite quickly, before I brought it to a conclusion by telling Tina Turner to stick her f—ing song up her arse and storming off.” Years later, they made up.

Elton had a very happy reunion with his old hero Leon Russell, with not many years to spare. Not having spoken with or even heard a mention of Russell in ages, John had a sudden whim to call him and propose a joint album, which delighted Russell — who alarmed Elton with his poor health when they went into the studio, although he was able to work in top form for a couple hours a day. “One day his nose started running; it was fluid leaking from his brain.” John was delighted that their work together resulted in Russell making a comeback and being able to tour in front of bigger crowds before he died.

He says Cameron Crowe’s use of “Tiny Dancer” in “Almost Famous” spurred him to get back more to his roots as an album maker. John points out that “Tiny Dancer” had never been a single or a real hit of any sort before Crowe’s movie popularized it, and the reaction spurred him to want to get back to that type of sound in the 2000s, starting with “Songs from the West Coast.” He’s hoping to re-engage with that sort of album-length artistry even more now, after retiring from the road.

Loyalty to Jeffrey Katzenberg put the kibosh on a lucrative Disney partnership. After the blockbuster success of “The Lion King,” Disney wanted to get further into the Elton John business with films, TV shows and books. “There was even talk about a theme park, which boggled the mind a little. There was just one problem: I’d agreed to make another film with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had been chairman of Disney when ‘The Lion King’ was made,” and Katzenberg was suing Disney for $150 million, so it had to be one or the other. “There wasn’t anything in writing with Jeffrey, but I’d given him my word … so I regrettably turned Disney’s deal down. At least the world was spared an Elton John theme park.” (John doesn’t say whether the film he subsequently worked on for Katzenberg, “The Road to El Dorado,” was worth it.)

He witnessed Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere nearly come to blows over the affections of Princess Diana at a dinner party. At the1981 dinner, after the two actors were separated in a hallway on the verge of fisticuffs, Diana went back to a seemingly flirtatious conversation with Gere, and Stallone stormed out, telling John, “I never would have come if I’d known Prince f—in’ Charming was gonna be here… If I’d wanted her, I would have taken her.”

John was stricken with a real dread in preparing to sing a rewritten version of an old hit at Diana’s funeral. “What if I went into autopilot and sang the wrong version? I’d performed ‘Candle in the Wind’ hundreds of times. It really wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that I might lose myself in the performance,” he writes. “You’d have a hard time bluffing your way out of singing about Marilyn Monroe being found dead in the nude, or how your feelings were something more than sexual, at a state funeral, in front of a global audience of two billion people.”

John felt conflicted about the record-shattering success of the Diana-themed “Candle in the Wind” single, feeling it contributed to a kind of grief porn, and he has avoided it in every way since the funeral. “I started feeling really uncomfortable with the charity single’s longevity. It success meant there was footage of Diana’s funeral week after week on ‘Top of the Pops’ — it felt as if people were somehow wallowing in her death,” he writes. I really didn’t think it was what Diana would have wanted. I thought the media had gone from reflecting the public mood to deliberately stoking it…” In fact, he says he only ever sang that version of the lyrics three times: twice in the studio when he recorded it and once live at the funeral — and never since. He refused to allow it to appear on a Diana-themed charity album ad has never included it on his own best-ofs. He even nixed singing the original, Monroe-themed version for years.

Michael Jackson unnerved him when he came to one of John’s dinner parties. “God knows what was going on in his head, and God knows what prescription drugs he was being pumped full of, but every time I saw him in his later years I came away thinking that the poor guy had totally lost his marbles. I don’t mean that in a light-hearted way. He was genuinely mentally ill, a disturbing person to be around…. off in a world of his own, surrounded by people who only told him what he wanted to hear.” John describes him as showing up “wearing makeup that looked like it had been applied by a maniac.” After Jackson disappeared for hours, Elton eventually found him playing videogames in the housekeeper’s nearby cottage with her 11-year-old son. “For whatever reason, he couldn’t seem to cope with adult company at all.”

In defending Lady Gaga, he lost a friendship with MadonnaHe laid into Madonna for disparaging Gaga, but didn’t expect it to go public. “I used to make fun of her for lip-synching on stage, but the problem really started when she ran Gaga down on an American chat show. I got that Gaga’s single ‘Born This Way’ definitely sounded similar to ‘Express Yourself,’ but I couldn’t see why she was so ungracious and nasty about it, rather than taking it as a compliment… particularly when she claims to be a champion for women.” He assumed his interstitial remarks during a TV taping were off the record, but “they broadcast it anyway, which brought that particular old friendship to a very swift conclusion. Still, I shouldn’t have said it. I apologized…” As for Gaga, she “turned out to be a great godmother: she would turn up backstage and insist on giving Zachary his bath while dressed in full Gaga regalia, which was quite an incredible sight.”

His mother seemed determined to spoil his civil partnership ceremony with David FurnishAnything dour about Elton’s parents in the biopic “Rocketman” seems positively whitewashed compared to the disdain both of them show for John and/or his career in the book. There’s a laugh, at lest, when his mum, who frequently lived at his estate over the years, is described as having a disturbing tendency to interrupt moments of post-coital contentment by walking in waving bills and demanding to know why he’d spent so much money on, say, a dress for Kiki Dee. “As the years passed, she had elevated sulking to an epic, awesome level. She was the Cecil B. DeMille of bad moods, the Tolstoy of taking a huff.” At the 2005 ceremony, “when David and I exchanged our vows, she started talking very loudly, over the top of us: rattling on about how she didn’t like the venue and how she couldn’t imagine getting married in a place like this.” At the reception, Sharon Osbourne said to John, “I know she’s your mother, but I want to kill her.” Eventually he learned that, although she’d earlier seemed supportive of his coming out, she disapproved of same-sex unions after all.

Watching himself in the 1997 documentary “Tantrums and Tiaras” helped him clean up his anger issues. But he fears he helped create reality TV. “Watching it was cathartic, and I think the shock of seeing myself changed the way I behave,” he writes. “The only thing I regret about ‘Tantrums and Tiaras’ is how influential it became. … It’s not the most edifying thing having ‘Being Bobby Brown’ and ‘The Anna Nicole Show’ on your conscience. There’s a sense in which ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ might ultimately be my fault, for which I can only prostrate myself before the human race and beg their forgiveness.”

He had his prostate removed a few years ago amid a bout with cancer, which led to some first-time situations on stage. Reviving his residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2017, he had a burst of enthusiasm and paced the stage waving to the audience — not the only burst he was experiencing. “Pissing myself in front of an audience while wearing a giant nappy: this was definitely hitherto uncharted territory,” he writes.

Taron Egerton, who starred as John in “Rocketman” (and narrates the audio version of the memoir), came later in the movie’s casting process than another famous actor, whom Elton nixed for reasons of musical verisimilitude.“Tom Hardy was going to play me,” John says, “but he couldn’t sing.”

One of the biggest highlights of his many Elton Johns AIDS Foundation benefits: Aretha Franklin’s public swan song. He was shocked by her diminished stature when she showed up at St. John the Divine Cathedral, then equally shocked by Franklin’s undiminished prowess. “I think she must have known that this was the last time she would perform, and she liked the fact that it was for the charity and that the gala was in a church … However sick she was, it hadn’t affected her voice — she sounded astonishing. I stood at the front of the stage watching the greatest singer in the world sing for the final time, crying my eyes out.”