Victim of the trapping of fame, Elton John is turning his back on the “game” TALK’s Jenny Baxter recently met the pop star in his London hotel to discuss the alcohol abuse, bulimia and promiscuity which have pervaded his past.
“I spent 10 days in Indianapolis watching someone die, a young kid. Watching Ryan die of Aids which he got from a blood transfusion. He was a hemophiliac. I was in an intensive care unit with children who were dying gradually, but had so much hope and so much dignity.” Hope and dignity. Two qualities which the now poignantly speaking Elton John desperately lacked.
So obnoxious was the pop star that ordinarily he would have checked out of the opulent hotel room we’re sitting in because the wallpaper’s a lousy color! So self-opinionated that this time last year he phones his manager from a nearby London flat to demand that something be done to stop the wind blowing. It was irritating him! And when the manager couldn’t oblige, Elton left for his apartment in Paris “but the people upstairs made too much noise, so I went to Phoenix, Arizona. But I only stayed there four hours because it was too hot. So I ended up in Los Angeles,” he reveals, admitting now that that was not normal human behavior. Elton John was definitely going crazy.
“My sense of values had gone completely out the window. None of my friends knew where they stood with me. I would say to them ‘I’m coming around to dinner tonight,’ and they would say ‘cor blimey, what’s he going to be like, is he going to eat, is he going to stay, is he going to insult anybody?’ I was really, really an obnoxious pig!”
This is NOT the kind of confession you would’ve got out of Elton a few months ago. Notorious for storming out of interviews often reticent, and regularly drunk… it’s a pleasant shock (akin to the tremors of a minor atom bomb) to meet the present-day Elton was extremely enthusiastic to talk about the past he’d rather put to bed than ever have to sleep with. A past in which the melody maker created mayhem in his own personal life. He was on a kind of self-induced self-destruct program. Let him tell you about it.
“Before I made it as a ‘star’, I always felt inadequate and timid, but I was never self-destructive. I think drink did that to me, and made me lose all sense of self-esteem. The more I drank, the fatter I got, and being overweight is very visible. I couldn’t fathom why I was always trying to drown my feelings.
“And I was bulimic too. Since I was eating so much, I thought the only way that I could keep my weight fairly constant was to throw up. I did that for five years. I knew how dangerous it was, but I didn’t realize just how dangerous. I was in a mess!
“When I’ve been happy, drunk or sad I’ve eaten. My emotions were never good enough, you know. Like whenever I’ve been happy, I’ve wanted to feel happier. So I’ve always had to ‘fix’ myself more. And I’ve done that for so long now and it didn’t make me any happier. I just went off on a tangent, until I realized I didn’t have any idea who I was, or what I’d become… and I was very, very unhappy,” he says softly.
The sun had long gone down on the early days of Elton’s naive enthusiasm and happiness for all the success he was enjoying. From being “like a kid in a candy story”, Elton had regressed to being like a bull in the china shop of his own personal life. He started dipping his fingers in so many pies – music, art collection, football – “but never had enough fingers in my own personal life. It’s important to spend time for yourself, otherwise you just get wrapped up in your career, and I guess that’s what’s happened to me over the last 15 years. I’ve really lost where I’ve been going personally.”
He humbly admits that it was the priority he gave his career which resulted in the divorce from his wife in 1987, an extremely traumatic year for him. “That year I split up with my wife, had an operation on my voice in Australia which worried me a great deal, had a lawsuit with Rupert Murdoch and the biggest selling tabloid newspaper in England (referring to the “rent boy” scandal) which was very, very exhausting and upsetting.
EASIER TO TALK AWAY
The more Elton’s problems accumulated, the more he would run away from them by either delving deeper into melancholy melody-making, or flying off to a new city. “I was running away all the time. Instead of staying in one place and trying to sort it out, I was running to a new place to fix it, thinking that then everything would be okay, but that wasn’t the case because I was still going with myself,” he says, and them adds rather philosophically, “Yeah, so I went on holiday, but unfortunate thing was that I went with me!”
For the star “help” seems to be the hardest word to say. “I could not say three words: I need help. Nobody who’s that unhappy doesn’t know there’s something wrong with them, but it’s just admitting that you’re fallible, vulnerable and that you’ve made a mistake. That was terribly hard for me to do. I always used to look down on people who actually sorted their lives out by asking for help. I thought: can’t they do it on their own? And there was me who couldn’t do anything on my own. Everything I did, I was stuffing up!” he says remorsefully. It was therefore a tremendous relief for Elton when a friend sat him down and said: “By the way, you’re going to be dead in five or six months if you keep drinking like this, if you keep eating like this.” And so, as a consequence of the “brave” friend’s remark, Elton entered a treatment facility in June 1990 to “stop drinking and stop filling my body with crap”.
And since cutting alcohol, sugar and white flour out of his diet Elton’s gained more self-respect instead of weight. Elated with his new inner and outer being, he’s quite to jump up from his seat and demonstrate how he’s now able “to take my jacket off and not be afraid that my stomach’s showing”! (And I can vouch for that -there are no buttons bursting to pop off his red shirt.) This is a guy who can now look “forward to getting up every day. I know what sort of mood I’m to be in because I’m not going to be hungover!” he states so emphatically that he almost knocks over his glass of mineral water.
Elton’s thrown as much effort into getting well, as he used to into drinking alcohol. “I’m really trying to enjoy every single minute of the day that’s I’m living now,” he says enthusiastically, “because you know, I was living in a hell and not many people knew that. I think it’s important for me to say that, in order to help anybody by letting them know everybody goes through problems and there is help available.
“You think it’s impossible for anyone else to be as unhappy as you, but you go to your doctor or therapy group, and you find that’ you’re not the only one with problems. You just think yours are more valuable and more important than everyone else’s, and of course there’s not. You can work at these things. I found that out. And… it’s been such a relief to find out that I’m not the only lunatic in the world!” he laughs and throws back his head allowing the gold earring to bop merrily in his right ear-lobe.
Another major catalyst in the transformation from the bizarre-living Elton the “star”, back to the decent human being who was lost inside of him, was the experience of being with Ryan while he was dying of Aids.
“I spend time with Ryan’s family who had no bitterness. They were just so incredible. And in watching his family, and watching Ryan die with so much dignity of this awful disease, I just suddenly thought: my life has to change! I cannot go through this bloody awful charade, how I’m behaving, what I’ve become. It’s about time that I got myself together!”
REG STRIKES BACK!
With the blessing of his record company, Elton John is taking a break from his musical career for a year to rediscover himself, Reginald Kenneth Dwight. He owes it to himself. He owes it to his family and friends. Watching Ryan’s family deal with the tragedy of their son’s death made Elton realize that “it’s okay to donate things and stuff like that, but what’s special is the time you give us, is pending time with us… and I never did. I had gotten so far off base,” he smiles sadly.
So before Elton cavorts around the world again or makes an album, he wants to stabilize his feelings “figure out who I am and have a bit of happiness, spend time with my family, kind of like walk the dog, move back into my house, have time with my friends and just do as normal things as possible in this lifestyle of mine.”
“I don’t think I’ve been put on Earth just to play music and write songs. I have a feeling that I’ve got to do something else in life as well. I don’t know what but I would like to do more philanthropic things because I get enjoyment out of it. I liked being in there every morning and seeing those kids, but before I can do more of that stuff I have to slow down my way of life,” he professes.
Throughout the interview, Elton makes constant references to Ryan and to Aids, a cause for which he has much concern. Already, he’s “lost so many of my friends” to this disease, while his own personal sex life – once very active – has had to be curtailed.
“I’ve had tests and I don’t have Aids,” he reveals, “I don’t have the virus, but I’m just very careful in what I do. I have regular check-ups and I’m not promiscuous like I used to be. I think it’s very important for people to take an educational stand on Aids, to show some responsibility.” Apart from time spent visiting Aids patients, Elton has also generously donated all the royalties from his UK singles to four different Aids organisations.
For the next few months though, Elton’s visits to the hospitals will be put on hold while he takes stock of his life and decides “what I’m going to do next”. Could that possibly mean we won’t be hearing any more melodies from Elton?
Fortunately, he reassures that he definitely will get back into his musical career and will possibly record a new album in February next year. Although it’s the longest break he’s ever taken he’s not daunted by the thought of ‘writers block’ because that’s never affected him. He is certain though that his music will sound different.
“My feelings have always come out in my melodies,” he explains, “I mean there’s been a lot of kind of gloom and doom, but a lot of happy ones too. My life wasn’t all gloom and doom… but in the last few years it’s far outweighed the happy times. So I just figure that whatever I do next, it will be a change. Who knows? I do know that I spiritually new it’s going to be fairly special. I really think so, because there’s a much happier person there.
“You know, because you’re artistic, people think you need pain and stuff to write, but I don’t think that’s necessarily correct. I’d rather write without having to go through all that mental anguish, thank you very much!” he declares adamantly, meeting my gaze directly, his eyes challenging anyone to disagree with him.
Although Elton hasn’t stopped talking during the past hour, words have merely been accessory to his story-telling. His perfectly rounded eyes say it all. The acute pain and anguish of his past, the relief and elation at leaving it behind, his compassion for Aids sufferers and new-found passion in being sober rather than sombre. All those feelings and memories. They’re all there – visibly reflected, like an emotional cocktail, in Elton’s bespectacled eyes. Eyes which are no longer greedily looking ahead to the future…
“I can’t predict the future. I don’t want to project any more. I’m just happy to live from one day to the next, and just be happy with what I’ve got. I’m actually very grateful just to be alive!” he grins optimistically.
Well, maybe he can’t predict the future… but I can safely predict that tonight Elton will be raving at Billy Idol’s concert, while Sue (Ternent) and I will be tucking into the champagne and special Harrod’s chocolates he’s just given us! (And maybe, since we’ve just heard the worst of Elton, we’ll even give “The Very Best of Elton John” a listen!)