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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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