What's eating Elton? He's a mega-rich songwriter, knight and gay icon; he runs an Aids foundation, loves shopping and has lavish homes in London, Windsor, Venice, Nice and Atlanta. He's got a long-term relationship, global fame and he's still a superstar after 30 years in the business. Yet, at 57, Sir Elton John still throws the most spectacularly childish tantrums. When he loses it, they are in keeping with his character: over the top, extreme - and very public. His temper makes headline news around the world. By Ariel leve.
There's Elton raging at the paparazzi at Taiwan airport last month. "Rude, vile pigs," he snarled, flicking the switch from cranky to outraged on the intrusion of the real world into his manicured life. Few would sympathise. It goes with the turf and the tiaras. And how much of an excuse is jet lag for someone with his own private jet?
A week on from Taiwan at a music-awards ceremony, and here's Elton again, this time laying into Madonna. "Best f***ing live act? F*** off! Anyone who lip-synchs at a show which you pay £75 for should be shot." Why? Since when is Elton John the consumer champion of the entertainment business? When was the last time he paid £75 for a ticket?
He wears his emotions on his sleeve, sobbing copiously at the funerals of his friends Princess Diana and Gianni Versace. He was addicted to cocaine and alcohol, but since he's been "sober" for the past 14 years, that's no longer an excuse. His friends say he is compassionate and generous, yet he remains impetuous and volatile, like an orphaned love child of Just William and Violet Elizabeth.
Cynics will say his outbursts are well timed to the upcoming release of his new album - there's nothing like the front pages to remind the public you're still in business. But his sporadic outbursts are not all crudely commercial. At the music-awards ceremony he was the playful William, speaking his mind and, according to backstage reports, enjoying every minute of the row he'd sparked. In Taiwan he was the petulant, out-of-control Violet Elizabeth. It's those hissy fits that make him ashamed, repentant. In these explosive moments, it's not public reaction that Elton is worried about afterwards, it is his own habitual plunge into the territory of irrational rage. Elton John has fought a lifelong battle with anger and self-loathing. He has high regard for his own talent, but when he looks in the mirror he can't sever his contract with low self-esteem.
"I know the bad sides are still there," he admits. He says he wants to conquer them, to make them better. Which is why, in a calm moment and, yes, with an album to sell, he's willing to throw the doors open and confess his sins.
On a sunny morning, 10 minutes' drive into the hills above Nice in the south of France, Elton opens the glass front door. He walks out onto the white marble steps in navy tracksuit trousers, spotless white trainers, a snug navy T-shirt and light-pink sunglasses that cover but don't shield his rested eyes. He looks good. Relaxed, more trim, with a diamond stud in his ear. His boyfriend, David Furnish, is in attendance - contrary to rumours of a split - and there is evidence of coupledom in abundance.
The house was built in 1925, and it is part Mediterranean villa, part palazzo, with modern lines and open spaces. Elton and Furnish bought it from an American family and have changed very little of the structure, but filled the house with art. In the marble foyer, three floors high, there is a swirling, cobalt-blue Dale Chihuly glass chandelier and a Damien Hirst polka-dot canvas. On a side table are stalks of white stargazer lilies and a bucket-sized Jo Malone candle. Elton offers a tour later, but for now we pass through the sitting room, a vast open space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a riot of white columns, drapes, marble floors, art and flawless bouquets. In the middle of the room, two iconic Allen Jones pop-art tables set the tone for the entire house. Glass tops rest on the backs of lifesize kneeling women on all fours - one topless, one in S&M gear. They are playful without being camp, expensive without being precious. Like Elton?
Today, Elton is low-key but approachable. We sit outside on a terrace overlooking the rooftops of Nice and his garden - classical, geometric French, sprinkled with modern sculpture and tended by four full-time gardeners. He makes small talk, easing into the conversation.
"I get as much pleasure out of redoing the house with David as I probably do making an album," he says, taking a sip of a cappuccino. "I'd love to be an interior designer, to buy and sell houses and gut them and do them up; it's great. It's a project and it's artistic as well. Using my eyes is something I've been doing a lot since I've been sober, because I use them in a completely different way." In exactly what way? Without hesitation he replies: "By being prepared to look." He credits Gianni Versace with opening his eyes, developing his taste for art and photography. "Drugs kill your sense of beauty, your sense of perception and reason. I've had good times on drugs but, from a creative standpoint, they dull your senses. They don't open up anything. You may think you're seeing God but you're not - you're seeing bullshit. "I've come to the realisation, at 57, that I have to do things that please myself, and if people like them that's a bonus."
This anthem of moderation coming from a man of such extremes could seem contrived. Even though he says he is, and appears to be, in a "better place" than he's ever been, he is still never too far from the past and is willing to acknowledge his fragility.
"I know the bad sides are still there," he says. "I know I'll never take cocaine again, but the other things - the rage and the temper, and I think the irrationality is still there... but it's part of being creative. There are still times, especially when I'm tired, when the bad temper and the irrationality come out. And I hate that. Because I'm trying to change it."
It surprises him that he is unable to control his emotions. "The chink in my armour is still there. It's not as prolific as it used to be, but it's still there. I don't seem to have anger -
I have rage. David can talk to me, while I'm screaming my head off, in the most rational, calm way about the solution, and I would love to have the ability to rationalise something and talk things through. I can't. I'm very emotional. And when I do, it throws me. Being unreasonably emotional makes me feel like I've had a line of coke or something."
This admission is key to Elton: he is referring to a feeling of shame and regret, the way he'd feel if he ever weakened and resorted to drugs again. He sees rage as something that he must eradicate, as he eradicated his dependency on cocaine. He cites an example of this rage, which is much like the Taiwan incident. He tells the story of an incident at Elizabeth Hurley's Chelsea house after she'd given birth to her son, Damian. Elton was there with Furnish, and she couldn't get out of the house because there were hundreds of photographers outside, and he says he just lost it. "It was what I said to them. The venom that comes out." He giggles. "It's a bit like The Exorcist." He believes it's possible for someone to change their life, but that they're rarely able to change their self-image. "Looking in the mirror and not liking what I see - that's been with me all my life and probably will be until the day I die. The physical self-loathing. I like myself as a person very much, but physically..." He trails off. Does he mean even in a loving relationship? "David accepts me for who I am - but it's still within me from when I was a kid. I don't think it will ever change." He says that without Furnish, his life wouldn't be anywhere near the success it is. They have been together for 11 years. "It's been the best 11 years of my life. It is a 50-50 partnership, with its ups and downs, and the arguments are usually to clear the air on something. I am lucky. It's a great feeling to share your life with someone you love on a physical and emotional level. It's the icing on the cake." Airport spats apart, Elton is enjoying himself these days. Not just in his life but in his career too. Professionally, Las Vegas - 40 shows over three years - was a risk. Elton John on the Vegas strip? It could have sent him spinning perilously close to Liberace territory. But he says that the point of doing it was to raise the bar and do something different. Another professional risk was self-producing his latest album: it was the first time he had ever done that. People he worked with advised against it, saying that he was too close to the process. "I said, 'Listen, give me two weeks.' So I was surprised not that I could do it - I knew I could - but by the fact that I enjoyed it so much."
Later, after lunch, he will play the new album on a sound system that he has rented for the day specifically for this purpose. Astonishingly, there is no piano in the house, because he doesn't play on his own, and when he's in Nice he's not working. He says he is nervous about hearing the finished record. For this album, Peachtree Road (his previous one was Songs from the West Coast, in 2001), he has gone back and written songs to the lyrics of his longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin, "to do what I do best - write melodies and play piano". He still feels wounded sometimes when he reads stories about himself in the press. "That can hurt - even though I should know by now that it's par for the course. There is an unnecessary amount of spite in the tabloid press. It's that Daily Mail thing - they can't be nasty enough about anybody. I hate that. Someone has a pimple, someone else has cellulite - I mean, for f***'s sake! People slag me off because I'm a larger-than-life character, and that's part of my thing from the past - I lived my life very excessively. I'm not happy being in the limelight much. I don't want it any more. I don't want to be at every f***ing party - I hate it. I used to love it. I hate it now. My life's changed. I don't want it."
Perhaps that's why Elton has become an elder statesman for the pursued, providing a haven for his friends under siege. Liz Hurley, Geri Halliwell, Victoria and David Beckham, in times of public trouble, have all been given sanctuary here in Nice, or in Windsor. Elton, in emotional rehab himself, is a Good Samaritan to the famously rich. ) ) ) ) ) Our perceptions of Elton John are landscaped in our consciousness. He was born on March 25, 1947, as Reginald Dwight, and changed his name to Elton John in the late 1960s. The piano-playing singer has given us some of the most poignant songs - Rocket Man, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Your Song - and he has also been a flamboyant and fearless symbol of excess. But now, how different is the perception of who he is from the reality?
"It depends what country you're in, I suppose. In England I have a fairly good ride. I moan about the press in England and I moan about the spitefulness of it all, but I wouldn't swap it for the vapidness of America, where if you're successful you don't seem to be accountable for anything. In England they can shoot you down and then they love you, but they don't treat anything as sacred, and I would rather have that than the other way."
He adds: "Elvis Presley would not have died at 42 years old if he'd lived in England. They don't breed that reverence. I love America very much and it's been really responsible for my career - that's where I had my first hit, my first tour.
I loved America and I still do, but I'd rather be treated with less reverence than get treated with the royalty you get in America. And I think money can get you out of anything in America. I adore America - I don't adore what's happening there politically, but then I don't really want to get into that."
That comment leads to a weary and resigned sigh; he can't stop himself. "Here I am, getting myself in hot water, but... it just seems when you go to America and you watch what's actually happening compared to what you would be reading in an English newspaper, you don't get the same reporting in America - you get a bias. And that upsets me. Because America is a truly great country and I get so angry when I'm there now sometimes. The stupidity of it all - orange alert and all this crap. I find it a divided country at the moment. It's black or white. There's no middle ground."
Here in Nice, people don't mob Elton when he goes into town. "Except that one time on New Year's Eve," says Furnish, referring to a night when they were out having dinner and everyone who had ever wanted to meet Elton John was drunk enough to have the courage to go up to him. The couple will make trips to buy CDs, and friends - the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, Lulu, Liz Hurley - will come to visit. Tonight they're having Sir David Frost and his wife to dinner, and the Osbournes are due to come and stay within the next few weeks. On the way to lunch, Elton and Furnish casually begin to point out different works of art and, unofficially, the tour has begun. The home is an amalgamation of their tastes. The artist and director Julian Schnabel, a close friend, made them a dining table as a gift. It is poured concrete, antique ceramic tiles, bronze, seats 12, and it is a centrepiece for the room. There are several of Schnabel's works in the house, including a portrait of Elton in smashed plates, and one of Furnish that takes up an entire wall in the bedroom.
We move upstairs - stopping at the base of the marble staircase for Elton to point out an antique green Venetian-glass palm tree that he bought with Gianni Versace. Occasionally, Elton and Furnish will pause to discuss a painting, but there are so many - one leads to another to another, like a museum - that some exhibits have to be passed by. There is Hockney, Cecily Brown, more Schnabel, Warhol, Basquiat, more flowers, more art, more candles - several guest rooms, including the Versace bedroom; the late designer's influence is ever present, on bedspreads, pillows and, most notably, a striking Irving Penn photograph of him peers down, like a fashion angel watching over the clothes in Furnish's walk-in closet.
As soon as Elton made some money, he started collecting art - art deco and art nouveau. But then, in 1989, he got sober, sold that collection and started collecting anew. His taste has changed. Things he collected then, he doesn't like now. "I know immediately when I see something I like," he says. He is not a fan of pre-Raphaelite nor impressionist art, calling the latter "chocolate-box. I don't like it. I like classic art or modern paintings".
With every opened door, Elton leads the way into the room and fixes something. He is unfailingly fastidious. He'll plump up a pillow, smooth out a bedspread, turn on a light, turn down the air conditioning. Even with a quick peek into a guest bathroom, he'll pause for a second to straighten the bottles of liquid hand soap. There are photographs hanging everywhere, but in one guest room every inch of wall space is covered with Penn, Parkinson, Mapplethorpe. The air in this room is much cooler, so that the prints don't warp or moulder. Still on the second floor, the master bedroom is, as to be expected, masterful. There is the hallmark of successful couples: separate bathrooms, and they have separate closets as well. In Elton's closet is a photograph of Gianni Versace. A glance at his palatial bathroom reveals Aboriginal art hanging over the loo.
Walking through Elton's closet is like a tour of Versailles. The splendour, the magnificence and the order. Row after row of white tennis shoes sit upright on foot spikes like pristine, obedient soldiers standing to attention. Silk Versace robes hang unwrinkled. Elton tweaks a jacket that is hanging slightly askew and, turning off the light, he shrugs, saying: "I know where everything is." He heads up another flight of stairs. "Might as well give the whole tour." The TV room has a 360-degree view of the city and a skylight. It is the sunniest room - all glass - and fitted with white sofas and looming white blackout drapes. Next to it is the roof deck, where, when they have house guests, they meet for cocktails at dusk.
Heading down the back stairs past three Jeff Koons paintings, past Chinese pots from the Han dynasty, we get to the kitchen. Several of the staff (there are 13 full-time members) are hanging out there. They are not dressed in uniforms: they seem more like friends. Above the stove and lining the shelves are Picasso plates and vases. There seems to be more art in Elton's kitchen than in most cities. But, as Furnish says, referring to the Picassos, they are plates, so why shouldn't they be in the kitchen?
Down the final flight of stairs is a wine cellar (for the benefit of guests), a laundry room with half a dozen machines, a porcelain room and two of the "most coveted" guest bedrooms, each with sliding glass doors that lead out to the pool. Just as we are leaving one of them, Elton notices a tiny smudge on the glass. He taps Furnish's shoulder and points it out. "What's this?" he asks, baffled. Furnish shrugs. Elton lingers for a moment, then moves on. Letting it go like this couldn't have happened just a couple of years ago.
Lunch is "Moroccan salmon", and Elton passes on the bread. He eats quickly, with a combination of melancholy (not being able to eat with abandon) and pleasure (being able to stick to the regimen). Furnish, who has been working on an animated film in London, mentions that when they are not together they speak to each other at least 20 times a day. One of their favourite things to do together is rent an entire season of a show like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, and get into bed and watch it all in one sitting. They try to spend as much time together as possible but, right now, Elton is booked until December 2005. In September alone his schedule was packed. "After Boston, I have a 300-year-anniversary thing in Gibraltar, then go to Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Taiwan, back to England for a few days in September [for the music awards], then Atlanta to pick my dog up and sort out the post and the apartment. Then go to LA to promote the album, do a Ray Charles tribute show, then do Vegas for three weeks." And that only gets him as far as this weekend.
As he speaks, what comes to mind is the packing, once a source of his irritation. It is rumoured that he once screamed "f***" 20 times into the face of an aide who forgot one of his costumes. "I have someone to do that for me," he says. "I have a valet. We choose. He always travels a day before so that everything's ready for me. If I'm going to New York, he'll fly a day or two before - so when I get there it's all unpacked and ready. That is luxury. I don't really travel with luggage at all. We plan our life like an army regiment."
How adjusted would the new Elton be if things went awry now? "I always say to David, 'You know, if you and I had to live in a trailer park, I could do it.'" When challenged, he laughs. "Well, it's never going to happen, so that's a hypothetical question. No, it's never going to go away. I know that. I'm a very wealthy man. It won't end tomorrow - it just doesn't happen that way. You don't put that amount of work in for 30 or 40 years - it doesn't just disappear."
Lunch has ended and he is eager to play his new album. We are seated on the sofa, Elton at the far end so that he can be near the mixing board and adjust the levels. He admits that he is anxious but excited too. He closes his eyes and sits, bone-straight, hands resting on his thighs, both feet on the ground, as though he is wearing an aeroplane seat belt and is about to take off for the very first time.
As the first song begins at thundering volume, an uplifting number called The Weight of the World, Elton's left toe is tapping gently. He is singing along, eyes shut, absorbed, deep inside himself. The song ends and he opens his eyes. He is nodding, relieved. "It sounds good," he says, smiling. He is pleased. With the next track, Porch Swing in Tupelo, his voice grows louder and more soulful and his movements become more animated. He is tapping both feet now and his hands are midair and playing an invisible piano. By the third song, Answer in the Sky, he is pumping his arm on air guitar and singing along as though he was in front of a live audience. The enjoyment he spoke about earlier comes through. The songs are full of emotion and energy, and they are touching and rousing.
An hour has passed and the light is starting to fade. Elton disappears upstairs to prepare for the photo shoot. He returns, make-up and hair fixed, still dressed in his tracksuit trousers and T-shirt. He will spend the next few hours with the photographer, and then he will play a few games of tennis before having dinner with friends.
It is a strangely ordinary evening in an extraordinary life. After the controversy surrounding his outburst against Madonna, which was applauded in many quarters, since few performers have the guts to cross her - he is once again settled. As he says, he's working hard on liking himself, leaving the rage in his wake. He's not there yet. But when you consider the sheer entertainment he provides, let's hope that he doesn't arrive too soon