In the early going of his magnificent new memoir Me (out Tuesday), Elton John rhapsodizes about a piano player named Winifred Atwell, “a big, immensely jolly Trinidadian lady” who came to popularity in the ’50s. He describes her “sense of glee” and “the way she would lean back and look at the audience with a huge grin on her face while she was playing, like she was having the best time in the world.”
Anyone who has ever seen John perform live over the course of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s epic career can picture exactly what he’s talking about since this is essentially his factory setting during certain numbers — “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” “The Bitch is Back,” and “Burn Down the Mission” come to mind. The joy radiates off of him still, 50 years on, as he makes his way around the globe on his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.
The man born Reg Dwight, in the unremarkable London suburb of Pinner in 1947, imbues his remarkable life story with that same sense of exuberance in Me, traveling from his childhood woes to worldwide fame to the throes of addiction into the arms of love and family.
While Me is as colorful as you’d expect from an artist famous for his outlandish stage costumes and outsize temper tantrums, it is also so much more than simply a dishy sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll tell-all. (Although it is, deliciously, that too.) The scenes are by turns fantastical — the image of him geared up as Donald Duck in front of half a million people in Central Park — and poignant — the pitiable vision of a little boy treading on eggshells to avoid the rage of two wildly unhappy parents — and shot through with an uproarious sense of humor.
It cannot be overstated that John is a scream, with Me boasting many gasping-for-air moments of comedy. Just two examples of John’s flair for description include his appraisal of his dear friend Versace — “There were leather bars on Fire Island less obviously homosexual than Gianni” — and the estimable roar of R&B singer Billy Stewart relieving himself — “It sounded like someone filling a swimming pool with a fire hose.”
He is at his best when taking the piss out of his own, well-earned, reputation for obstinance and ill-advised decisions. The singer-songwriter is acutely aware of how ridiculous he, and by extension much of his life, is and the reader benefits from that awareness. A decades-long prank war with Rod Stewart is a gift that keeps on giving throughout a book that features dozens of one-off comical moments in the form of tales tall and true, from the time Stevie Wonder piloted a snowmobile to discovering that Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel were terrible at charades. (Apparently the “how many syllables” bit was Dylan’s downfall.)
Unsurprisingly, darkness is here in ample measure as well, including the brutality of his substance abuse to the string of deaths of those close to him — from Versace to Princess Diana to Ryan White. A steady stream of remembrances (Freddie Mercury, John Lennon) and revelations (including a bout with prostate cancer — means keeping a box of tissues handy advisable.
In its blue moods and happy highs, Me is both deeply relatable and specifically alien in the way all memoirs of the rich and famous can be with a sense of voyeurism. But John suffuses the proceedings with a refreshing sense of humanity, not just a laundry list of songs and shows, deeds and misdeeds.
Speaking of those songs, for the deeper fan, the one who loves “Skyline Pigeon” as much as (if not more than) “Crocodile Rock” and treasures “Gone to Shiloh” like “Levon,” Me is illuminating in ways expected and surprising.
The well-documented process by which he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin crafted all those beloved songs — with Taupin writing the lyrics in one room and John putting music to them in another — isn’t exactly explored in depth. Not because John skirts the topic, but because of the nature of how he writes. It is truly stunning how much of the process was impromptu for John, who says he did not walk around humming tunes or collecting musical ideas but instead took Taupin’s lyrics to his piano and used them as his sole inspiration. (A pause here to say something that cannot be said enough: how crucial Taupin, to whom John expresses repeated gratitude, was to John’s success. While John certainly put in the work as the composer and spread the gospel with his grueling worldwide tours and took the heat as the artist in the spotlight, it is Taupin with whom we are also singing along when we raise our voices to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Tiny Dancer” and “Candle in the Wind” and “A Word in Spanish” and on and on.) But inspirations, recording sessions and memories of the music do abound — from early albums to soundtrack triumphs like The Lion King — in ways that are deeply satisfying. As is the scope of John’s own music fandom. This man loves music and whether it’s taking cues from Winifred Atwell, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Leon Russell or keeping up with contemporary artists like Mary J. Blige and Lady Gaga his dedication to the alchemy of song remains an admirable part of his legacy.
Elton John fans who think seeing Rocketman was enough and can “eventually” read his memoir, we can tell you: do not wait a long, long time. Me is a riveting, laugh-til-you-cry, heartfelt page-turner. While the story of “Captain Fantastic” truly is a spectacle, ultimately, for anyone who has ever geeked out over a favorite artist, it is the earnest, sweet, damaged “music mad” kid at the heart of Me that will stick with you. A-