8 minute read
Richard Corliss

HE’S A GAME LAD, SO WHEN ELTON John was asked to write songs for The Lion King, he said why not. In a career that began 30 years ago with the band Bluesology and thus spans most of the rock era, John had worked and lived in the grand and sordid rock-star tradition: written hundreds of songs, sold albums in the hundred millions, cavorted onstage in tuxes and plumes, dared to announce his bisexuality, endured rehab for alcoholism, cocaine addiction, bulimia. Nothing human was alien to him. But as he began the task of composing melodies to Tim Rice’s words for the Disney animated adventure, John wondered whether he’d sunk too low. “I sat there with a line of lyrics that began, ‘When I was a young warthog … ‘ and I thought, ‘Has it come to this?'”

It came out fine. The Lion King album sold 7 million copies, and the hit single Can You Feel the Love Tonight? earned John a Grammy last week for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (one of three Lion King Grammys). He’s the prohibitive favorite to win an Oscar later this month: of the five nominees for Best Original Song, three are numbers from The Lion King. And he has a new generation of groupies: the six-year-olds who accost him in airports and tell him they love the movie’s songs. “That’s exactly what I wrote it for,” he says. “I wanted to write melodies that kids would like.”

These days, the Liberace of rock is on a roll. Made in England, his new album of songs with longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, is a strong set from an enlightened survivor: pungent, coherent, brimming with good tunes. This month John resumes his smash series of concerts with Billy Joel. Twelve of his old albums are about to be issued in remastered editions, with previously unreleased songs. He and Rice will soon begin writing the score for a new version of Aida, which Disney is planning to bring to Broadway. And he’s working on an animated film version of Belfast, a haunting and hopeful song about the Irish troubles that is the high point of his new album.

Best of all, the pop soap opera that has been John’s public life looks to have a happy third act. At 47, the star has emerged from his rehabs fit and creatively recharged. “For a decade or more,” says Taupin, “people have tended to view Elton John only as a commercial figure. You wouldn’t even know he made records. He was just this character from the tabloids. But now he’s totally alive. His rehab was more than fixing what was broken. It was an exorcism. He’s become stronger, and he wants to prove himself again. He wants that new respect.”

Respect, at least from the hip end of the rock establishment, has often eluded John. He lacks the anguish and ragged emotional edge of the existential rock star; he’s closer to Neil Sedaka than to Bruce Springsteen. And there’s something uncool-refreshingly so-about his naked need to be loved across the footlights. “Even if I had only one finger left,” he once said, “I’d play for you.” That’s the credo of the compulsive showman, who loves to get people to sing along with all the tunes (Your Song, Daniel, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, I’m Still Standing) that have snaked into the pop repertoire.

And sometimes he fools you. His new album’s title track perks and chirps along like a burger jingle. Not until you peel off the tinsel and listen to the lyrics–“You had a scent for scandal/ Well here’s my middle finger/ I had 40 years of pain/ and nothing to cling to”–do you hear John raging at his homeland and his fickle fans. “It’s sort of a ‘screw you’ song,” says Taupin. “I put myself in his shoes and heard him saying, ‘This is me, accept me for what I am.'”

John is the sum of what he has learned and, of course, borrowed. On the new album you’ll hear echoes of A Whiter Shade of Pale in the powerful ballad Man; a hint of mid-period Beatles in the benign Latitude and the jaunty Please; a great big blast of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil in the infectious, wondrously bleak Pain (“My name is pain/ You belong to me/ You’re all I ever wanted/ I’m all you’ll ever be”). But hey, 90% of everything is theft. John built these songs on solid, familiar pop-rock foundations and wedded his musical ingenuity–the other, crucial 10%–to Taupin’s brittle, Delphian lyrics.

“I don’t believe in artists,” said the hero of Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. “I believe in singles.” The joy and curse of Elton John’s music is that every song on every album has eyes to be a hit single. These are super-productions, aural Busby Berkeley numbers, ascending an oratorical mountain to the sky-rocketing crescendo. And, on Made in England, they sound swell; there’s heft and meaning in the songs–no throwaways. “Since I’ve been sober I’ve made three albums, and this is the best,” he says. “Getting adjusted to a new way of life takes time. You don’t go from 16 years of taking drugs to instant tranquillity.” But he’s not the sort to sit back and smell the royalties. “This album was a make-or-break thing for me,” he says, “because I had to get off my backside and do something. I don’t want to settle for a quiet life.”

These days, though, life is quieter. John has just renovated his home in Old Windsor. He gutted the building, filled the rooms with antiques, decked the walls with illustrations of naval battles, stocked the shelves with Meissen and Staffordshire. A gracious home for the Country Squire.

There’s enough of the old peacock in John that he still likes to buy things–“I can find a store in the desert”–but now he’s more interested in selling them off: the former contents of his house, at Sotheby’s last year, and cartloads of old clothes, with the proceeds going to aids charities. His own Elton John aids Foundation-to which he donates all profits from his singles-has raised $5.5 million for care and education.

In 1976, John became one of the few brave souls to emerge from the huge gay show-biz underground into the glare of publicity and opprobrium. If he suffered a bit less for his declaration than other entertainers might have, it’s because his appeal is not primarily sexual; the glitter and sartorial outrage conceal an ordinary, football-loving guy with an extraordinary love of the limelight. For all the tabloid titters, England realizes this; it has virtually made John its official Ambassador of Fun. He has performed for all branches of the Royal Family, and is a favorite dancing partner of Princess Diana. But John says he doesn’t enjoy going to most parties anymore “because people are off their face. I stand there holding my glass of water and realize that I used to be like that, or worse. I’d be in my room doing drugs instead of getting up in the mornings. There was a whole beautiful world I missed.”

But there was still the performing. “I sustained my success because I was always pretty good live,” John says modestly about his high-wire, haywire stage shows. “But I wasn’t very happy with some of the work I did. How could I be? I wasn’t there half the time, mentally or physically. All I cared about was coming offstage and finding out where the cocaine was. The first five years of my career weren’t like that; you could see the innocence, the spark in my eyes.”

You can still see it–and, on Made in England, hear it. The album is a declaration of renewal from an old master who will always have a lot of the kid in him. “Maybe I can’t recapture that old energy,” he says. “But I can recapture the spirit of that energy. I have a lot left in me. Rubinstein was playing brilliantly at 80; Picasso didn’t stop. Why should I?”

All right, he’s no Rubinstein, no Picasso. But even a Rocket Man can have a long trajectory. Bank on it: Elton will forever keep pumping the piano and cranking out the hits. Still standing. Still playing your song.

–Reported by Barry Hillenbrand/Old Windsor and David E. Thigpen/New York

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