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A More Reflective Leap On Elton John's 'Diving Board'
Originally published on Thu January 2, 2014 10:03 am
This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 23, 2013.
Elton John has a flair for the extravagant, to say the least. Sunday night at the Emmys, he paid tribute to Liberace in a sequined jacket. John is currently performing in Vegas, at Caesar's Palace, doing a show he calls The Million Dollar Piano. But his album, The Diving Board, is the opposite of flashy. The songs are reflective, and the music is stripped down to piano, bass and drums. It's a surprising return to a time when Elton John wasn't Captain Fantastic, when he wasn't one of the biggest rock stars in the world.
The songs on the T-Bone Burnett-produced album were written with John's longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Their many hits include "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Tiny Dancer" (yes, that one), "Bennie and the Jets" ... the list just goes on. Here, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the "Elton John excess," his fear of sex as a young man, and how Liberace's example encouraged John to make the piano a star instrument.
On the different sound of The Diving Board
"It's a reflection on where we [he and Bernie Taupin] are in our lives; it's a very adult album. It's a very sparse album compared to the albums I've made before. And I'm very relaxed. I'm very happy with my personal life. When I started the album I had one son, when I finished the album I had two sons, and I think subconsciously all that played into the end sound and end product. The relaxed mood [with] which I played and which I sang, it was just a joy. I've never had that ever happen to me before when making a record."
On his extravagant stage outfits
"As a child, as a teenager, I was kind of not allowed to wear fashionable clothes. I always wanted to. I've often said I lived my teenage years in my twenties. When I left home, [I] became Elton John success, and then it became Elton John excess. Everything I couldn't do when I was younger, I did 10 times over. I was having the time of my life. I was becoming the person I wanted to be."
On understanding his own sexuality
"I didn't sleep with anyone until I was 23. In the '50s, you weren't taught about sex whatsoever; it was never talked about. People used to sneak behind curtains and look at the neighbors, and if a girl became pregnant in your part of the world, she was shipped off to the countryside. I was never told a thing about sex, so I was very naïve — as were my friends, as well, but me especially.
"I didn't really know what I was until I came to America and I had sex [for the first time] in San Francisco in 1970. It was with someone of my own sex. I suspected my homosexuality, but I had never acted out on it because I was afraid of sex. It was awful to be afraid of sex, but that's what the '50s did to people. It was, 'Sex is disgusting, it shouldn't be talked about, nudity is disgusting, we just don't talk about those kinds of things.'"
On his support of the LGBTQ community in Russia
"On one hand, I want to say, 'I'm not going and you can go to hell, you guys.' But that's not helping anyone who's gay or transgendered over there. I've been going to Russia since 1979. I've been going quite frequently, and I've always had a wonderful rapport with the Russian audiences and with the Russian people. And you know there are a lot of great Russian people out there who are outraged by what's going on, but they don't have — I don't want to abandon them. Now, I'll probably get criticized for going, and I can understand that. It's just that I, as a gay man and a gay musician, cannot stay at home and not support these people who have been to lots of my concerts in the past. I'm aware of the situation and I will be diplomatic. I'm not going to go into Russia and tell [Vladimir Putin] to go to hell and things like that. That's not the way things are done. You chip away at something, and you hope there will be dialogue and that the situation can get better. You don't just go in there with guns blazing and say, 'Well, to hell with you.' Because they're going to say, 'To hell with you, and get out of the country.' That's not going to solve anything. But if I can go there, maybe I can talk to some people in the administration.
"You can make a statement and you can read it from the stage, but it would be nice, and it would be much more fulfilling to try and meet with people in Moscow and say, 'Listen, this is just, you know, this is silly. It's a reactionary knee-jerk thing. It's harming your reputation in the rest of the world. It's not doing you any good. There has to be some discussion here. What you're doing is outrageous.' [Pauses.] They can tell me to go to hell. I've gotta do it diplomatically, but I'm going to say what I think and what I feel."
On Liberace's inspiration
"He was so charming and so lovely and very, very funny and very, very intelligent. And he was a huge influence on me. He was being who he was — he wasn't publicly out — but he didn't give a flying monkey about what he was wearing; he just went for it. And that was who he was. That, of course, influenced me, when I started wearing the clothes and I subconsciously must've [thought], 'If you're stuck at a piano and you're not a lead guitarist or a lead vocalist, you're kind of at a nine-foot plank and you've got to do something about it.' So my thing was to leap on piano, do handstands and wear clothes that would draw attention to me because that's the focus for two and half hours. I'm not walking around the stage; I'm not moving. So [Liberace] gave me that idea, probably subconsciously, because before then I had never seen anyone dress like that.
"All my stuff was firmly tongue-in-cheek. I wasn't a heartthrob [like] David Bowie or Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart in those days. I was Elton at the piano. I had to turn the attention to something comedic or even more outrageous than it was."
On using drugs to overcome shyness offstage
"I think performers are all show-offs anyway, especially musicians. Unless you show off, you're not going to get noticed. For me, music is so passionate, I have to give it my all every time I go onstage. Onstage, it was always comfortable for me, because that's where I felt at home. Offstage, it was a different situation. I was still shy offstage. Unfortunately, my shyness and my inability to communicate and really have great conversations or be part of the gang led me to the drug addiction, which blighted my life for 16 years because I thought by doing that, it would make me join in. And I did. Cocaine made me talk forever. The most nonsensical rubbish that you could ever think of. ... I had no balance in my life. I was this one person onstage and this one person offstage, but [someone] who really didn't know much about living. I had progressed as a performer, but I hadn't progressed as a human being.
"I had to learn how to function as a human being. And I really enjoyed that process. When people go to rehab and come out, they go through a difficult period, but I never had that. I was so glad to be rid of all that crap that for me, to learn again and to function as a human being and participate in the human race again was pure joy. And in 1993, I met my partner David and did The Lion King, so great things came my way.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. Today, we conclude our holiday week series featuring some of our more popular and entertaining interviews from 2013 with our Elton John interview. I spoke with him in September, when his latest album, "The Diving Board," was released. Elton John is famous for being extravagant, but that album is the opposite of flashy. The songs are reflective, and the music is stripped down to piano, bass and drums with some extra instruments on several tracks.
As Alan Light wrote in Rolling Stone, the album returns to the kind of spare, country-flavored narrative songs with which he made his name on early 1970s masterworks before he plugged in his electric boots, transformed into Captain Fantastic and became the biggest rock star in the world.
The songs on the new album were written with John's longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Their many hits include "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Honky Cat," "Tiny Dancer," "Bennie and the Jets," "Your Song" and "Candle in the Wind." Their song "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is featured in the new movie "American Hustle." Here's an excerpt of their song "Home Again," from the album "The Diving Board."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME AGAIN")
ELTON JOHN: (Singing) The world had seven wonders once upon a time. It's sure enough the favored nations aided their decline. And all around me I've seen times like it was back when, but like back then, I'd say amen if I could get back home again.
(Singing) If I could go back home, if I could go back home, if I'd never left, I'd never have known. We all dream of leaving, but wind up in the end spending all our time trying to get back home again
GROSS: Elton John, welcome to FRESH AIR. What a great treat to have you on our show. Thank you so much for coming.
JOHN: It's great to be here, thank you.
GROSS: This album has a - I think a kind of different sound to it. You know, your voice is deeper. There's a sense in the songs of looking back, of reflecting on the past, both the historical past and the personal past. And I'm wondering if that mood and if that kind of lyrical cohesion was something that you and Bernie Taupin intended, or is it just the way it worked out.
JOHN: I think it's just the way it worked out. I think the album has its mood and its sound because T-Bone Burnett, who produced the album, took me out to lunch or we went to lunch, and we decided to talk about my solo album. I'd done a record with Leon Russell before with him called "The Union." And T-Bone suggested that I go back to my original lineup live on stage, which was just piano, bass and drums.
And he said, you know, you became a success with piano, bass and drums live, but you never recorded with piano, bass and drums as a template. And I couldn't believe it because he was absolutely right. The sound that made me famous, I'd never made a record using that sound.
And I think the fact that we went in with just three musicians - piano, bass and drums - and put all the tracks down like that, made the sessions very relaxed. I had no idea what the lyrical content would be, and I never have done with Bernie. But I think at our age - I mean I'm 66, he's 62 - it's a reflection on where we are in our lives.
It's a very adult album. It's a very sparse album compared to the albums I've made before. And I'm very relaxed. I'm very happy with my personal life. When I started the album, I had one son. When I finished the album I had two sons. I think subconsciously all that played into the end sound and the end product. The relaxed mood which I played and which I sang was just a joy, and I've never had that ever happen to me before when making a record.
GROSS: You know, I know you don't write the lyrics, but, you know, part of the lyric in "Home Again" is we all dream of leaving but wind up in the end spending all our time trying to get back home again. So I know Bernie Taupin wrote that, not you, but does that express at all a sentiment that you share?
JOHN: Of course, because I'm a traveling gypsy. Every musician is a, you know, a wanderer. They spend their life traveling around. But it's not just about musicians or people in the armed forces who spend a long time away from home. It's about the casual worker who, you know, goes away for two or three days and, you know, away from his family.
There's something about when you think about coming home, whether it's three days or three months, and you get excited about the fact that you are going to walk through your back door, sit at your kitchen table, because that's where everybody congregates, and that's where you spend most of your life, in the kitchen, and you can smell your family, and you can just be surrounded by your things.
And no matter where I am in the world, I always look forward to coming home. I mean if I do a show in Chicago, I'll fly from Atlanta, where I have a home, and play the show and come back that night and sleep in my own bed. Even if I have two shows in a row in Chicago, I won't stay overnight. I'll come back home because that's where I want to be at this stage in my life. I want to be with my children. I want to be with my partner. It's just a sanctuary for me.
GROSS: T-Bone Burnett, as you mentioned, heard you when you first started performing in America. He heard you at the Troubadour. And those shows that you did there have become, you know, kind of famous in rock history. Tell us what you did there, and tell us a little bit about who you were then.
JOHN: Well, the "Elton John" album was a very orchestral album. The cover of the album was very dark, you know, very dark with a picture of myself on it. And I think most people in America that had heard the album up to that point didn't know what to expect live on stage.
They thought maybe I was going to be some shy, introverted piano player, singer who came on and was very Randy Newman-esque, whereas we'd been playing for over a year in Britain, a year and a half, with the band, Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass.
And we were far from that. You know, I emerged onstage in hot pants and boots, like Doc Marten boots with wings on them. You know, we were a rock outfit more than anything else. And the songs from the "Elton John" album, like "60 Years On," were given a radical, different treatment live on stage.
So I think that played into my advantage so - because people didn't expect me to come on and be full-pelt rock 'n' roll. They thought it was going to be kind of a sedate evening, of a nice new British singer-songwriter. And it wasn't the case at all. And I think as it has happened a lot in my career, it's kismet, it's luck, it's just being in the right place and the right time. And it certainly was then.
And the Robert Hilburn review from the L.A. Times kind of took two years off my work schedule because it spread around the country like wildfire. And it meant that I didn't have to play second on the bill in L.A. or New York. But it made my name a household name in those kind of big cities.
However, you know, America is a large country, and I spent two years touring with other people, playing second on the bill and paying my dues, which I loved because I playing with people like Derek and the Dominos and Leon Russell and really getting a lot of experience. And that's the best thing to do.
I wasn't ready to headline big stadiums or big arenas because I'd just, you know, come from playing to 500, 600 people in England and playing to 200 people at the Troubadour and then went straight into playing Anaheim Convention Center with Leon Russell, which was five or six thousand people. So it was an incredible experience to happen so quickly.
GROSS: So the clothing that you described wearing at the Troubadour that so surprised people because they were expecting something more Randy Newman-esque, could you have done that in your hometown? Did you have to leave to be able to dress that way on stage?
JOHN: I was dressing that way in England anyway, just for the stage purposes. I mean we were all fashion-conscious in those days, very much so. But for stage there was a designer in London called Mr. Freedom, who gave me all these clothes and said, you know, go for it. And as a child, as a teenager, I was kind of not allowed to wear fashionable clothes. I - winklepicker shoes or chiseled-toe shoes. And I always wanted to.
So I've often said I lived my teenage years in my 20s when I sort of left home and became Elton John success, then it became Elton John excess, if you get...
JOHN: You know, everything I couldn't do when I was younger I did 10 times over. You know, Hollywood Bowl, which was the biggest show that I'd done up to that point in my career, was very, very funny. When you look back at it, it's quite outrageous. I was introduced by Linda Lovelace, there was the pope, the queen coming down the stairs, and I came out in this big marabou outfit.
But I was having the time of my life. I was becoming the person that I wanted to be and no holds barred. It was very exciting and a lot of fun.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. He has a new album called "The Diving Board." And I want to play something else from the album. This is "Oceans Away." It's a song about men who fought in World War II and survived. Do you want to say a few words about the song before we hear it?
JOHN: I get very moved when it's Armistice Day in England, which is November, or Veterans Day in America, or any time you see someone who's fought in a war marching to remember the ones that have fallen. Bernie wrote this song about his father, who didn't die in the war. My mother fought in the war; my dad didn't, but my mum did, in the Second World War.
GROSS: And they fought so that I wouldn't have to. And this song is really about those people. They should never be forgotten. They should always be remembered. I'm a great believer in the old being very wise, and sometimes they get treated very badly. And we discard them too readily. And this song is about paying tribute to what they did, and let's not ever forget them. Let's never forget these people, and the countless people who died, millions who died on our behalf in World War I, World War II, and subsequent wars after that.
So, this is Elton John from his new album "The Diving Board." This is "Oceans Away."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCEANS AWAY")
JOHN: (Singing) I hung out with the old folks, in the hope that I'd get wise. I was trying to bridge the gap between the great divide. Hung on every recollection, in the theater of their eyes picking up on this and that, in the few that still survive. Call 'em up, dust 'em off, let 'em shine, the ones who hold onto the ones they had to leave behind, those that flew, those that fell, the ones that had to stay beneath a little wooden cross oceans away.
GROSS: That's "Oceans Away," from Elton John's new album, "The Diving Board." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Elton John. He has a new album called "The Diving Board." You mentioned your mother fought in World War II. What did she do?
JOHN: She was a gunner. She was an Ack Ack Girl, as they say. She was on the guns, and she was - she loved every single minute of it, I can tell you. I think life was pretty amazing. I mean, it was frightening, but it was also, you know, camaraderie at its best. So, yes, she fought, and she fired the guns. And knowing my mother as I do, it was a perfect job for her.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Was she a tough mother?
JOHN: She was disciplined, yeah, and quite rightly so. She was a good mother and very disciplined and worked very hard for me, you know, encouraged me to be who I am not just personally but professionally, whereas my father wasn't too keen on the idea of me becoming a rock-'n'-roll musician.
We grew up, or I grew up, after the Second World War, in the '50s in England. And times were bad, and times were tough. Food was rationed. We never went without, but it was, you know, it was a very conservative era to be brought up in.
And then Elvis Presley came along and kind of changed the world, which he did, and then of course it led to The Beatles and a whole revolution of music and a whole revolution of society as well, social behavior, social acceptance, whatever.
And so my mother encouraged me and was very great about me being gay, but she always encouraged me to follow my musical dreams, which I'm very grateful for.
GROSS: When you say your mother was great about being gay, at what age was she great about that?
JOHN: Well, I didn't really know, I didn't sleep with anyone, Terry, until I was 23, so I really didn't know. In the '50s you weren't taught about sex whatsoever. It was never just talked about. People used to snoop behind their curtains and look at the neighbors. And you know, if a girl became pregnant in your part of the world, she was shipped off to the countryside.
I was never told a thing about sex. So I was, you know, very naive, as were my friends as well. But I - me so especially. And so I didn't really know what I was until I came to America, and I had sex in America. That was the first time I had sex, was in San Francisco in 1970. And it was with someone of my own sex and someone who I knew, who was English, who happened to be in San Francisco at the same time.
I suspected my homosexuality, but I'd never acted out on it because I was afraid of sex. It's awful to be afraid of sex, but I'm afraid that's what the '50s did to people. You know, it was just sex is disgusting, it shouldn't be talked about. Nudity is disgusting, and we just don't talk about those kind of things.
GROSS: Well, I want to play another song from your album "The Diving Board," and if you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. And this is a song called "Oscar Wilde Gets Out." And it's very relevant to what we're talking about because it's about him getting out of prison after serving two years for a conviction of gross indecency because he was gay.
And again, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyric, but what does this song mean to you?
JOHN: Well, it - whenever I get a set of lyrics, I go into a studio, Terry, with nothing planned. I get a set of lyrics when I go into the studio, and I look at them, and T-Bone and I said, well, that looks like an interesting song with the title. And it - yeah, we recorded and wrote this one first on the album because it's such a great and interesting story about someone who was betrayed by his lover and, you know, became infamous because of this. And it was a no-brainer to write this one first.
GROSS: The opening piano line in this is very, I'd say catchy, but it's a very sober line. Is that - did that come first for you?
JOHN: Yes, the intros - every song on the album has a piano intro. In fact, when you played "Oceans Away," that's the first time I'd ever recorded in my whole life a piano and vocal just on its own, which sounds astonishing, seeing as I'm a piano player and a singer. And "Oscar Wilde" is the second track, and it has that intro. It goes (humming).
It's a very melancholic intro and a sad intro. It has a sadness to it, which, you know, is the story of Oscar Wilde. And it's also part of my classical education when I went to Royal Academy of Music, that you can tell on this album that my classical roots or the education I received at the Royal Academy of Music bore a lot of fruit.
I went there from 11 to 15, and it had such a huge influence on me. And I'm very grateful for that because it gives me a distinctive kind of style.
GROSS: OK, great, so let's hear "Oscar Wilde Gets Out," and this is from Elton John's new album, "The Diving Board."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OSCAR WILDE GETS OUT")
JOHN: (Singing) Freedom for the scapegoat leaving Reading Gaol, gloomy eyes just pierced his heart like crucifixion nails. Shaken fists and razors gleamed, you never stood a chance. When the ink ran red on Fleet Street, you turned your eyes to France.
(Singing) Humbled far from Dublin, chased across the waves, your biting wit still sharp enough to slice through every page, Destitute and beaten by the system of the crown, the bitter pill you swallowed tasted sweeter going down. And looking back on the great indifference, looking back at the limestone walls, thinking how beauty deceived you, knowing how love fools us all...
GROSS: That's Elton John. The song is called "Oscar Wilde Gets Out." It's from Elton John's new album, "The Diving Board." Before we heard that, you were talking about how we could hear on this the classical music education that you had and how influential that's been, how helpful that's been. On the other hand, you didn't stay a classical musician. Obviously that's not really what you wanted.
JOHN: I didn't want to be a classical musician, but I went to school Monday to Friday, and from the age of 11 to 15 I went to the Royal Academy on a Saturday morning in London on Marylebone Road, and I played classical music. I mean I'd played classical music before I went to the Royal Academy because you had to play classical music to get in there. And it was a great experience, even though it was - in the '50s it smelt of fear.
JOHN: I mean it has a whole new different feeling now. You have to realize that Elvis Presley kind of only just happened there. So there was - it was a really, really, very strict and severe place. But I went there, and I met a lot of friends who subsequently have had a huge impact on my recording career. Looking back on it now, those five years spent there were invaluable to me because I learned so much.
It had a huge effect on the way I wrote, the way I conducted chord sequences. And it's just a wonderful place to be. And after all that time of being so fearful of being there and afraid of going on a Saturday morning because if you got something wrong, you were told and rapped over the knuckles, that now, 40-odd years, 50 years later, it's the most wonderful place to be, and I have a wonderful relationship with it.
GROSS: Elton John will be back in the second half of the show. His new album is called "The Diving Board." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of the interview I recorded last September with Elton John, after the release of his album "The Diving Board." The songs are written with his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin.
Our interview was recorded at a time when he was being criticized for his decision to proceed with his planned concert in Russia, in spite of the law President Putin signed in June, making it a crime to give minors information about homosexuality - or as the bill described it: The Propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.
John gave his performance in Moscow last month. From the stage, he condemned the new law saying: In my opinion, it is inhumane and it is isolating. After the concert, he posted an article on the Elton John AIDS Foundation website, in which he said that while in Moscow, he spent hours with gay activists, federal doctors, human rights lawyers and people living with HIV.
When I spoke with him in September, I asked why he planned to perform in Russia in spite of the anti-gay law.
You've been active for LGBT rights, and you've said you're going to perform in Russia because you want to be there for the gay and transgender audiences, as opposed to not entertaining them and kind of punishing them further, you know, further punishing them.
GROSS: Was that a difficult decision? Because I'm sure you knew it was going to be like controversial decision. You kind of can't win in...
GROSS: ...with that one.
JOHN: Well, it is a conundrum. I mean, on one hand I want to say I'm not going and, you know, you can go to hell, you guys. But that's not helping anybody who is gay or transgender over there. I've been going to Russia since I was - in 1979. I've been going quite frequently and I've always had a wonderful rapport with the Russian audiences and with the Russian people. And, you know, there are a lot of great Russian people out there who are outraged by what is going on, but they don't have - I don't want to abandon them.
JOHN: Now I'm going to - I'll probably get criticized for going and I can understand that. It's just I, as a gay man, and a gay musician, cannot stay at home and not support these people who have been to lots of my concerts in the past. I'm aware of the situation and I will be diplomatic. I'm not going to Russia and, you know, tell them to go to hell and think - that's not the way things are done. You chip away at something and you hope that there will be dialogue and that the situation can get better. You don't just go in there with guns blazing and say well, to hell with you because they're going to say to hell with you and get out of the country. That's not going to solve anything. But if I can go there and maybe I can talk to some people in the administration and, you know, I was...
GROSS: Oh, you're going to try to do that?
JOHN: I hope so. Yeah. I mean, there's no point in going otherwise. You see, you can make a statement and you can read it from the stage, but it would be nice and it would be much more fulfilling to try and meet with people in Moscow and say listen, this is just, you know, this is silly. It's a reactionary knee-jerk thing. It's harming your reputation in the rest of the world. It's not doing you any good. There has to be some discussion here. It's what you're doing is outrageous. But I'm not going, you know, they can tell me to go to hell. I've got to do it diplomatically.
But if I don't do it and I think I am the acceptable face of homosexuality, as far as entertainers go in the world, and I've got to use that to my advantage and go there and say, listen, come on, I've been coming here since 1979, I adore Russia. Russia has always been so great to me. What is this all about? Can I help solve this situation? Can I help improve it? And that's what you do.
GROSS: We are recording this on Thursday, September 19th, right before you perform at the Emmy Awards.
GROSS: And our listeners will be hearing this after you've performed at the Emmy Awards. And you're doing a tribute to Liberace because the movie about him, "Behind the Candelabra," is nominated for like 15 Emmys and who knows how many - if any - it will have won by the time this is broadcast. But anyways, you know, he was you could say, oh, you can look at Liberace and, of course, you'd think he was gay. But, you know, he wasn't publicly out. And I think it was an era when it was like it was OK to be gay as long as you didn't mention it. As long it's like you don't have to hear it.
JOHN: Well, of course...
JOHN: Liberace came to England and there was a columnist in The Daily Mirror who said he was gay - a guy called Cassandra. Well, that was his pseudonym. And Liberace sued and won. And, you know, he said I'm not gay and he won the libel case. When I was young and I watched the Liberace show, or any show that came from America that, you know, was musical, it was pure magic. The Americans did things on a bigger scale. Liberace, because he played the piano, I was very much interested in. He was a good pianist but he was not a great pianist and I was enchanted by him and I loved him. You know, his dialogue with the audience was very, very funny, especially when he did live shows. And I did get to meet him. I did the Royal Variety Show with him in London, at the London Palladium and I planned my two big outfits. And I thought, well, Liberace, I've got to do something special, so I had two fabulous Lurex suits made in red, white and blue. And they were hanging up, you know, very proudly in the dressing room. And then Lee - who he liked to be called, Liberace - Lee walked in with trunk after trunk, he wore that outfit with the light bulbs in it.
JOHN: And, you know, so my attempt to, you know, go one up on Liberace failed absolutely miserably. But he was so charming and so lovely and very, very funny and very, very intelligent. And he was a huge influence on me. It's like he was being who he was. He wasn't publicly out, but he didn't give a flying monkey about what he was wearing, he just went for it. And that was who he was. And that, of course, influenced me when I started wearing the clothes and, you know, it subconsciously must've, you know, if you're stuck at piano and you're not a lead guitarist or a lead vocalist, you're kind of at a nine-foot plank then and you have to do something about it. So my thing was to leap on the piano, do handstands and wear clothes that would attract attention to me because that's the focus for two-and-a-half hours or two hours. I'm not walking around the stage, I'm not moving. So he gave me that idea probably subconsciously because before then I'd never seen anyone dressed like that.
GROSS: You know, I was reading a 1973 Rolling Stone interview with you in which you said that your act is going to become a little more Liberace-ized. And I thought, wow, 1973, you were thinking about making your act more Liberace-ish.
JOHN: Well, it was, all my stuff has been done with firmly tongue-in-cheek. I'm, you know, I wasn't a heartthrob David Bowie or Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart in those days. I was, you know, I was Elton at the piano. And, you know, I just had to turn the attention onto something comedic or even more outrageous than it was. Of course, with those kind of things - as is my wont in everything I do - I took it too far and it, you know, became - in the beginning it was natural, I didn't think about it. It was like, oh, yeah, let's do this, let's do that. And then it became like oh, what am I going to do next? And that's the dangerous side. It's like you think about it too much. In the end it became tired and it became too much, and it became less fun. I think a lot of the critics; the costumes put people off me. They weren't listening to the music. It was more or less looking at what I was wearing. I was singing great songs but I was also wearing, you know, a giant chicken outfit at the time...
JOHN: ...and being helped on stage by Mr. Universe...
...on his shoulders. So, you know, anything like that it was, you know, it was all down to me. It was my fault if anything, you know, if they didn't like what I was wearing then I couldn't really do much about it. But...
GROSS: But this is such a...
JOHN: ...you know, I had to take responsibility for it.
GROSS: This is an interesting moment in your life because you have this new album, "The Diving Board," that's very stripped down. You know, it's basically, you know, piano, bass, drums and then some extra instruments on some tracks. But at the same time, you're playing at Caesars in Vegas with your million-dollar piano show and that sounds like quite an extravaganza. I mean, you literally have a million-dollar piano, which I'm going to ask you to describe.
JOHN: It lights up. You can show films on it. You can show video. It was a suggestion from Yamaha - who made my pianos - said, you know, we're coming up with an idea for you. And, you know, out the first show I did in Las Vegas was a red piano, I had a red piano. And then we had to think, well, if we're going to go back, what can we do? And they came up with this idea before we ever thought of going back to Vegas. And I thought well, if I go back to Vegas it sounds like a great idea. You know, and it's, it's, I introduce. The piano has a name. She's named Blossom after Blossom Dearie.
GROSS: Oh I love Blossom Dearie.
JOHN: I love Blossom Dearie too. She was such a big influence on me and I think a great, great pianist.
GROSS: Really? I'd never ever would've guessed that. I never ever would've guessed that.
JOHN: Yeah. People like her and Mose Allison, you know, they had that kind of little voice that sang like that. Blossom Dearie was a big thing for me. She was just, you know, no one sounded like Blossom Dearie, she was incredible. So those people - you have to realize our English people were so - or British people were so attuned to those kind of musicians because we didn't have any of those kind of musicians in our country.
GROSS: My guest is Elton John. He has a new album called "The Diving Board." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Elton John. He has a new album called "The Diving Board."
You've described yourself as being shy when you were growing up. And you're certainly not shy on stage, not in how you dress, not in how you perform, not in anything. So what's the connection between the extravagance on stage and the extroversion on stage and the shyness that described you as a boy before you became a performer?
JOHN: Well, initially, I mean, I think performers are all showoffs anyway - especially musicians. You have to, unless you show off you're not going to get noticed and you can stay there and just, you know, play and you won't get noticed. But for me music is so passionate. I have to give it my all every time I go onstage and that comes from seeing performers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, you can, you know, you look at those performers and they gave you the - Frank Sinatra - same thing. Great performers gave great performances and that's the way I've always thought.
Onstage it was always comfortable for me because that's where I felt at home. Offstage it was a different situation. I was still shy offstage and unfortunately, my shyness and my inability to communicate and really have great conversations or be part of the gang - in inverted commas - led me to the drug addiction, which, you know, blighted my life for 16 years because I thought by doing that it would make me join in. And I did. And, you know, cocaine made me talk forever. You know, the most nonsensical rubbish that you could ever think of. But for me I thought, well, that's going to open me up and it did. And it led to 16 years of drug abuse which, you know, I put to rights in 1990.
And I had no balance in my life, Terry. I was, you know, this one person onstage and this person offstage, who really didn't know much about living. I had progressed on stage as a performer, but I hadn't progressed as a human being. And I was, you know, fame makes you very self-absorbed. I was very, very famous all around the world because I was a global artist. I went all around the world, and that leads you into a little bubble and it leads you to become very insular. I had people around me who were very controlling. So I didn't like confrontation so I just fell into drug addiction and alcohol addiction. And until I got sober in 1990, I really hadn't grown up at all. So when I did get sober at that point, I had a lot of catching up to do with the personality onstage with the real person offstage. And to attain the balance in my life - I had to learn to walk again, basically. I had to learn how to function as a human being, and I really enjoyed that process. I mean, when people go to rehab and come out, they go through a difficult period, a lot of people. I never had that. I was so glad to be rid of all that crap that for me, to learn again and to function as a human being and learn how to participate in the human race again was just pure joy. And in 1993, I met my partner, David; in 1993, I did "The Lion King." So great things came my way. And I met someone who was willing to be in a relationship but only if it was a 50-50 relationship. Before I had the relationship with David, you know, I tended to take hostages because they had to fit in with what I did.
JOHN: And, you know, you take them around the world, you buy them a Versace shirt and a Cartier watch and then within six months they hate your guts because they have no life. And I did that repeatedly, time and time again. I had to learn how to share, how to take part in a proper relationship. And since that, I've been 23 years now clean and sober, and the most amazing things have happened to me. So it was just, it was a - the '90s were a great time, it was like I became alive again, I functioned and it was terrific. And I haven't stopped since then and I've never regretted getting sober. And I would never, even though I don't take it, you know, lightly, I can tell you, I won't have a drink again and I won't have a drug again because my life is so brilliant that, you know, I regret wasting those 16 years. But it was necessary to go through those 16 years to come out as the person I am now.
GROSS: You seem to be the kind of person who, when you do something, you go all the way. So like with clothing it's going to be, you know, extravagant. You're not going to have like one pair of great glasses, you're going to have like probably hundreds. And, you know, with drugs, you know, and with songs like, you write so many songs and you do so many performances...
GROSS: ...and with drugs it was probably hard for you to just do it partway. I mean you could go all the way with that.
JOHN: Oh, you know, I could...
JOHN: Of course it was. I mean, I can't have one tie. I can't have one car. I can't have one of anything. I'm just an addict in everything. And, you know, I had the appendicitis happen to me this year, which was six weeks of having a burst appendix and doing 24 flights, nine shows and a summer ball at the House for AIDS.
GROSS: I don't even understand how you survived that, a burst appendix...
JOHN: I don't know how, either. But it's...
GROSS: ...and you're still touring.
JOHN: I should actually be dead, because if my body hadn't have been such a good - had protection and it stopped me getting peritonitis, I would've been on a flight, and I wouldn't be here. And so that was another sign. You know, as soon as that happened, David and I said I don't have to work 12 months a year.
I'm the sort of person - and you nailed it just now by saying if I had done 100 shows last year, I want to do 120 this year. Why? I don't know. I'm afraid that's part of my Achilles heel, is the way I think like that. I'm so kind of driven, that you think, stop it.
You know, and so we - David and I sat down after the appendix thing had happened and said, you know, I don't have to work. I don't have to - I'm going to maybe work six months a year and take my kids to school. The work became like the drug addiction, the clothes, anything in my life. It became - it's become an addiction. I'm addicted to working.
GROSS: Well, you know, the discussion about your burst appendix earlier this year kind of leads me to the next song I want to play from your new album, "The Diving Board." And this album is called "New Fever Waltz."
And I think the lyrics are literally about those Depression Era dance marathons in the United States where couples would dance until they collapsed, and the last couple standing would win a cash prize. It was a really cruel spectacle. But I hear the song, and I just think of fever and illness and everything...
GROSS: ...that means. And what do you think of when you're singing it?
JOHN: This is probably my favorite song on the album. It's just so beautiful, and yet so harsh. The melody is so beautiful and the piano interlude and the orchestral interlude with the horns is so - it's moving. And it's just about pain and agony and, you know, desperation. And so while I'm singing it, it's this beautiful little melody and the lyrics are, as you say - whew. It's from a desperate time.
And, you know, I love miserable songs. I love - it's so easy to write songs about misery and hard times and sadness. It's much more difficult to write songs about happy and chirpy stuff. And this, for me, is, I'd say, my favorite track on the record.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "New Fever Waltz" from Elton John's new album "The Diving Board."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW FEVER WALTZ")
JOHN: (Singing) Forgotten scars remind us of too much war, too little love. Beneath the fault-line truth to burn, within the page so much to learn. Wounded birds look to us. Who can heal? Who to trust? Bring down the giants old and new, strike up the band and waltz on through.
I was shaking with a fever when the last good horse went down. We were just a couple dancing where a thousand kings were crowned. Shaking with a fever before the white flag flew, and the ballroom opened up to us, and the dancers danced on through.
GROSS: That's the "New Fever Waltz" from Elton John's new album "The Diving Board." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Elton John. He has a new album called "The Diving Board." The songs were written with his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin.
Earlier in your career - this is the story the way I've read it, you know, that you auditioned for Liberty Records. They didn't like your singing well enough to sign you, but they thought, well, maybe you could write songs. And they gave you lyrics that were written by Bernie Taupin, which is how you got hooked up with him.
JOHN: Yeah. I was in a band. I didn't like playing in the band. I didn't like where we were musically. I was very shy. I was a little overweight. But I answered this advertisement, and I went to see the guy in the office. And I said I can sing and I can write songs, and I said but I can't write lyrics.
And he said, well, here's somebody who writes lyrics. He's just - you know, he had piles of stuff on his desk, tapes, lyrics. But it was in a brown envelope, and I took it home, and that was Bernie. And if I hadn't have had the courage or the leap of faith to make - answer that advertisement when I was very shy, it's just one of the most incredible things that's ever happened to me.
That changed my life, that whole thing, that advertisement in the New Musical Express, the fact that I had the courage to do it. When I look back now, I can't really understand how I had the courage to do it, knowing how timid I was at that point and how, you know, I just - my self-esteem wasn't very good. But I - anything rather than play to people eating food when I was playing.
So, you know, I took the leap of faith. It changed my life. Forty-six years on, I'm still writing songs with the guy. And it just - without that, I would probably still be working a record store or - well, there aren't any record stores now. So I'd probably be doing something else.
GROSS: So would it have ever occurred to you to look for a lyricist to collaborate with?
JOHN: Because I knew I couldn't write lyrics.
JOHN: And people would say, well, you're very verbose. You're very articulate. How come you can't write your own lyrics? Well, that is a very great disservice to people who write brilliant lyrics. Some people can actually write their own lyrics and their own songs. I can't.
I realized at an early age - or when I tried to write songs, that I wasn't very good at it. And, you know, I enjoy the process of writing to his lyrics, and the weird process of him giving me a lyric, me going into a studio, and never writing with him in the same room. It's a magical event.
He's a very - always been a very cinematic storyteller in his lyrics. There's a visual side. As soon as I look at the lyrics, visually, I can see what's going on. And I don't know how it works, Terry. It's kind of a bit "Twilight Zone"-ish, to say the least.
But it has worked, and it's as interesting now and as fun now as it was when I first wrote the first song to his lyric, because that excitement of writing something, say, off "The Diving Board" like "The Diving Board" or "My Quicksand," or whatever, and then seeing his reaction has never, ever dimmed. It's always been as exciting as it was in the first - when I wrote the very first song.
So it's an odd - it's a really odd relationship. And maybe the fact that we don't live in each other's back pockets is why we've lasted. And we're two totally different people. He actually wrote the album "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" many, many years ago, in the '70s. And that - I have become Captain Fantastic, and he's become the Brown Dirt Cowboy. And that's who we are. And he had the foresight to know that back then.
GROSS: Well, let's close with another song. In fact, let's close with the title song from your new album "The Diving Board." And I'm going to ask you to introduce it.
JOHN: This is a song, the last song on the album. It's called "The Diving Board." It's also the title of the album. It's a song about the pitfalls of fame and how much you want it and how much you're willing to sacrifice to get it, to sell your soul. And then when you get it, you have to repay what you sold your soul for. And some people survive it, and some people don't. But it's a dangerous place to be.
It could've been written about me in the early days, because, you know, once I had a hint of success, I wanted more success. But I wasn't, you know, I didn't have to be on a reality television program to do it. And at least I had the talent to back it up with. And I didn't have, you know, people around me who were going to ruin my life. So it's a song about the dangers of wanting fame, and when you get it, what to do with it.
GROSS: Well, Elton John, I'm so grateful you were on our show. Thank you so much for doing it.
JOHN: Thank you. I've really enjoyed it.
GROSS: I really enjoyed it, too. And it occurs to me, should I have been calling you Sir Elton?
JOHN: No, no, no. No one calls me Sir. Thank you.
GROSS: I feel better already.
JOHN: No, no. Don't worry about that, for God's sake.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
JOHN: No, I get called much worse things than that.
GROSS: OK. Well, thank you so much, and be well.
JOHN: Well, thank you, and give my love to Philly, OK?
GROSS: Will do. My interview with Elton John was recorded in September. Here's the title track of his album "The Diving Board."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DIVING BOARD")
JOHN: (Singing) Took a high dive arcing out wide into the crowd, out to the sound of their wild applause. But you've heard it before. And you've seen it all from up there on the diving board. You'd freefall into the ether above the people, out on a limb fragile and adored, but who below knows that? You're still a mystery, way up on the diving board. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.