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Me: Elton John Official Autobiography / . (by Elton John, 2019) -

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Me: Elton John Official Autobiography /    .     (by Elton John, 2019) -

Me: Elton John Official Autobiography / . (by Elton John, 2019) -

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Me: Elton John Official Autobiography / . (by Elton John, 2019) -
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2019
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Elton John
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Elton John, Taron Egerton
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/ / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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11:47:15
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96 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Me: Elton John Official Autobiography / . :

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: Me: Elton John Official Autobiography

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This book is dedicated to my husband, David, and to our beautiful sons Zachary and Elijah. Special thanks to Alexis Petridis, without whom this book would not have been possible. prologue I was onstage at the Latino club in South Shields when I realized I couldn_t take it anymore. It was one of those supper clubs that were all over Britain in the sixties and seventies, all virtually identical: people dressed in suits, seated at tables, eating chicken in a basket and drinking wine out of bottles covered in wicker; fringed lampshades and flock wallpaper; cabaret and a comp?re in a bow tie. It felt like a throwback to another era. Outside, it was the winter of 1967, and rock music was shifting and changing so fast that it made my head spin just thinking about it: The Beatles_ Magical Mystery Tour and The Mothers of Invention, The Who Sell Out and Axis: Bold As Love, Dr John and John Wesley Harding. Inside the Latino, the only way you could tell the Swinging Sixties had happened at all was because I was wearing a kaftan and some bells on a chain around my neck. They didn_t really suit me. I looked like a finalist in a competition to find Britain_s least convincing flower child. The kaftan and the bells were Long John Baldry_s idea. I was the organ player in his backing band, Bluesology. John had spotted all the other r_n_b bands going psychedelic: one week you_d go and see Zoot Money_s Big Roll Band playing James Brown songs, the next you_d find they were calling themselves Dantalian_s Chariot, wearing white robes onstage and singing about how World War Three was going to kill all the flowers. He_d decided we should follow suit, sartorially at least. So we all got kaftans. Cheaper ones for the backing musicians, while John_s were specially made at Take Six in Carnaby Street. Or at least, he thought they were specially made, until we played a gig and he saw someone in the audience wearing exactly the same kaftan as him. He stopped in the middle of a song and started shouting angrily at him _ _Where did you get that shirt? That_s my shirt!_ This, I felt, rather ran contrary to the kaftan_s associations with peace and love and universal brotherhood. I adored Long John Baldry. He was absolutely hilarious, deeply eccentric, outrageously gay and a fabulous musician, maybe the greatest 12-string guitarist the UK has ever produced. He_d been one of the major figures in the British blues boom of the early sixties, playing with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies and The Rolling Stones. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues. Just being around him was an education: he introduced me to so much music I_d never heard before. But more than that, he was an incredibly kind, generous man. He had a knack of spotting something in musicians before anybody else could see it, then nurturing them, taking the time to build their confidence. He did it with me, and before that he_d done it with Rod Stewart, who_d been one of the singers in Steampacket, John_s previous band: Rod, John, Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger. They were incredible, but then they split up. The story I heard was that one night after a gig in St-Tropez, Rod and Julie had an argument, Julie threw red wine over Rod_s white suit_I_m sure you can imagine how well that went down _ and that was the end of Steampacket. So Bluesology had got the gig as John_s backing band instead, playing hip soul clubs and blues cellars all over the country. It was great fun, even if John had some peculiar ideas about music. We played the most bizarre sets. We_d start out doing really hard-driving blues: _Times Getting Tougher Than Tough_, _Hoochie Coochie Man_. The audience would be in the palm of our hand, but then John would insist we played _The Threshing Machine_, a sort of smutty West Country novelty song, the kind of thing rugby players sing when they_re pissed, like __Twas On The Good Ship Venus_ or _Eskimo Nell_. John would even sing it in an ooh-arr accent. And after that, he_d want us to perform something from the Great American Songbook _ _It Was A Very Good Year_ or _Ev_ry Time We Say Goodbye_ _ which enabled him to do his impersonation of Della Reese, the American jazz singer. I don_t know where he got the idea that people wanted to hear him playing _The Threshing Machine_ or doing an impersonation of Della Reese, but, bless him, he remained absolutely convinced that they did, in the face of some pretty compelling evidence to the contrary. You_d look out at the front row, people who_d come to hear blues legend Long John Baldry, and just see a line of mods, all chewing gum and staring at us in complete horror: What the fuck is this guy doing? It was hilarious, even if I was asking myself the same question. And then, catastrophe struck: Long John Baldry had a huge hit single. Obviously, this would usually have been the cause of great rejoicing, but _Let The Heartaches Begin_ was an appalling record, a syrupy, middle-of-the-road, Housewives_ Choice ballad. It was a million miles from the kind of music John should have been making, and it was Number One for weeks, never off the radio. I_d say I didn_t know what he was thinking, but I knew exactly what he was thinking, and I couldn_t really blame him. He_d been slogging around for years and this was the first time he_d made any money. The blues cellars stopped booking us and we started playing the supper clubs, which paid better. Often we_d play two a night. They weren_t interested in John_s pivotal role in the British blues boom or his mastery of the 12-string guitar. They just wanted to see someone who_d been on television. Occasionally, I got the feeling they weren_t that interested in music, full stop. In some clubs, if you played over your allotted time, they_d simply close the curtains on you, mid-song. On the plus side, at least the supper club audiences enjoyed _The Threshing Machine_ more than the mods did. There was one other major problem with _Let The Heartaches Begin_: Bluesology couldn_t play it live. I don_t mean we refused to play it. I mean we literally couldn_t play it. The single had an orchestra and a female chorus on it: it sounded like Mantovani. We were an eight-piece rhythm and blues band with a horn section. There was no way we could reproduce the sound. So John came up with the idea of putting the backing track on tape. When the big moment came, he_d drag a huge Revox tape machine onstage, press play and sing along to that. The rest of us would just have to stand there, doing nothing. In our kaftans and bells. While people ate chicken and chips. It was excruciating. In fact, the only entertaining thing about the live performance of _Let The Heartaches Begin_ was that, whenever John sang it, women started screaming. Apparently overwhelmed by desire, they_d temporarily abandon their chicken and chips and run to the front of the stage. Then they_d start grabbing at the cord of John_s microphone, trying to pull him towards them. I_m sure this kind of thing happened to Tom Jones every night and he took it in his stride, but Long John Baldry wasn_t Tom Jones. Rather than bask in the adulation, he_d get absolutely furious. He_d stop singing and bellow at them like a schoolmaster: _IF YOU BREAK MY MICROPHONE, YOU_LL PAY ME FIFTY POUNDS!_ One night, this dire warning went unheeded. As they kept pulling at the cord, I saw John raise his arm. Then a terrible thud shook the speakers. I realized, with a sinking feeling, that it was the sound of a lust-racked fan being smacked over her head with a microphone. In retrospect, it was a miracle he didn_t get arrested or sued for assault. So that was the main source of amusement for the rest of us during _Let The Heartaches Begin_: wondering if tonight would be the night John clobbered one of his screaming admirers again. It was the song that was playing when I had my sudden moment of clarity in South Shields. Ever since I was a kid, I_d dreamed of being a musician. Those dreams had taken many forms: sometimes I was Little Richard, sometimes Jerry Lee Lewis, sometimes Ray Charles. But whatever form they had taken, none of them had involved standing onstage in a supper club outside of Newcastle, not playing a Vox Continental organ, while Long John Baldry alternately crooned to the accompaniment of a tape recorder and angrily threatened to fine members of the audience fifty pounds. And yet, here I was. Much as I loved John, I had to do something else. The thing was, I wasn_t exactly swimming in other options. I didn_t have a clue what I wanted to do, or even what I could do. I knew I could sing and play piano, but I clearly wasn_t pop star material. For one thing, I didn_t look like a pop star, as evidenced by my inability to carry off a kaftan. For another, I was called Reg Dwight. That_s not a pop star_s name. _Tonight on Top of the Pops, the new single by _ Reg Dwight!_ It obviously wasn_t going to happen. The other members of Bluesology, they had the kind of names you could imagine being announced on Top of the Pops. Stuart Brown. Pete Gavin. Elton Dean. Elton Dean! Even the sax player sounded more like a pop star than me, and he had absolutely no desire to be one: he was a serious jazz buff, killing time with Bluesology until he could start honking away in some free improvisational quintet. Of course I could change my name, but what was the point? After all, not only did I think I wasn_t pop star material, I_d literally been told I wasn_t pop star material. A few months before, I_d auditioned for Liberty Records. They had put an advert in the New Musical Express: LIBERTY RECORDS WANTS TALENT. But, as it turned out, not my talent. I_d gone to see a guy there called Ray Williams, played for him, even recorded a couple of songs in a little studio. Ray thought I had potential, but no one else at the label did: thanks but no thanks. So that was that. In fact, I had precisely one other option. When I_d auditioned for Liberty, I_d told Ray that I could write songs, or at least half write songs. I could write music and melodies, but not lyrics. I_d tried in Bluesology and the results could still cause me to wake up at night in a cold sweat: _We could be such a happy pair, and I promise to do my share_. Almost as an afterthought, or a consolation prize after rejecting me, Ray had handed me an envelope. Someone responding to the same advert had sent in some lyrics. I had a feeling Ray hadn_t actually read any of them before he passed them on to me. The guy who wrote them came from Owmby-by-Spital in Lincolnshire, hardly the pulsating rock and roll capital of the world. He apparently worked on a chicken farm, carting dead birds around in a wheelbarrow. But his lyrics were pretty good. Esoteric, a bit Tolkien-influenced, not unlike _A Whiter Shade Of Pale_ by Procol Harum. Crucially, none of them made me want to rip my own head off with embarrassment, which meant they were a vast improvement on anything I_d come up with. What_s more, I found I could write music to them, and I could write it really fast. Something about them just seemed to click with me. And something about him just seemed to click with me, too. He came down to London, we went for a coffee and we hit it off straight away. It turned out that Bernie Taupin wasn_t a country bumpkin at all. He was extremely sophisticated for a seventeen-year-old: long-haired, very handsome, very well read, a huge Bob Dylan fan. So we_d started writing songs together, or rather, not together. He would send me the lyrics from Lincolnshire, I_d write the music at home, in my mum and stepdad_s flat in Northwood Hills. We_d come up with dozens of songs that way. Admittedly, we hadn_t actually managed to get any other artists to buy the bloody things yet, and if we committed to it full-time, we_d be broke. But other than money, what did we have to lose? A wheelbarrow full of dead chickens and _Let The Heartaches Begin_ twice a night, respectively. I told John and Bluesology I was leaving after a gig in Scotland, in December. It was fine, no hard feelings: like I said, John was an incredibly generous man. On the flight home, I decided I should change my name after all. For some reason, I remember thinking I had to come up with something else really quickly. I suppose it was all symbolic of a clean break and a fresh start: no more Bluesology, no more Reg Dwight. As I was in a hurry, I settled for pinching other people_s names. Elton from Elton Dean, John from Long John Baldry. Elton John. Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Songwriting duo Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I thought it sounded good. Unusual. Striking. I announced my decision to my now ex-bandmates on the bus back from Heathrow. They all fell about laughing, then wished me the best of luck. one It was my mum who introduced me to Elvis Presley. Every Friday, after work, she would pick up her wages, stop off on the way home at Siever_s, an electrical store that also sold records, and buy a new 78. It was my favourite time of the week, waiting at home to see what she would bring back. She loved going out dancing, so she liked big band music _ Billy May and His Orchestra, Ted Heath _ and she loved American vocalists: Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, Nat King Cole, Guy Mitchell singing _she wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt_. But one Friday she came home with something else. She told me she_d never heard anything like it before, but it was so fantastic she had to buy it. As soon as she said the words Elvis Presley, I recognized them. The previous weekend I_d been looking through the magazines in the local barber shop while I was waiting to have my hair cut, when I came across a photo of the most bizarre-looking man I_d ever seen. Everything about him looked extraordinary: his clothes, his hair, even the way he was standing. Compared to the people you could see outside the barber shop window in the north-west London suburb of Pinner, he might as well have been bright green with antennae sticking out of his forehead. I_d been so transfixed I hadn_t even bothered to read the accompanying article, and by the time I got home I_d forgotten his name. But that was it: Elvis Presley. As soon as Mum put the record on, it became apparent that Elvis Presley sounded the way he looked, like he came from another planet. Compared to the stuff my parents normally listened to, _Heartbreak Hotel_ barely qualified as music at all, an opinion my father would continue to expound upon at great length over the coming years. I_d already heard rock and roll _ _Rock Around The Clock_ had been a big hit earlier in 1956 _ but _Heartbreak Hotel_ didn_t sound anything like that either. It was raw and sparse and slow and eerie. Everything was drenched in this weird echo. You could barely understand a word he was singing: I got that his baby had left him, after that I completely lost the thread. What was a _dess clurk_? Who was this _Bidder Sir Lonely_ he kept mentioning? It didn_t matter what he was saying, because something almost physical happened while he was singing. You could literally feel this strange energy he was giving off, like it was contagious, like it was coming out of the radiogram speaker straight into your body. I already thought of myself as music mad _ I even had a little collection of my own 78s, paid for with record tokens and postal orders I got on birthdays and at Christmas. Until that moment, my hero had been Winifred Atwell, a big, immensely jolly Trinidadian lady who performed onstage with two pianos _ a baby grand on which she played light classical and a battered old upright for ragtime and pub songs. I loved her sense of glee, the slightly camp way she would announce, _And now, I_m going to my other piano_; 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. I thought Winifred Atwell was fabulous, but I_d never experienced anything like this while listening to her. I_d never experienced anything like this in my life. As _Heartbreak Hotel_ played, it felt like something had changed, that nothing could really be the same again. As it turned out, something had, and nothing was. And thank God, because the world needed changing. I grew up in fifties Britain and, before Elvis, before rock and roll, fifties Britain was a pretty grim place. I didn_t mind living in Pinner _ I_ve never been one of those rock stars who was motivated by a burning desire to escape the suburbs, I quite liked it there _ but the whole country was in a bad place. It was furtive and fearful and judgemental. It was a world of people peeping around their curtains with sour expressions, of girls being sent away because they_d Got Into Trouble. When I think of fifties Britain, I think of sitting on the stairs of our house, listening to my mum_s brother, Uncle Reg, trying to talk her out of getting divorced from my dad: _You can_t get divorced! What will people think?_ At one point, I distinctly remember him using the phrase _what will the neighbours say?_ It wasn_t Uncle Reg_s fault. That was just the mindset of the times: that happiness was somehow less important than keeping up appearances. The truth is that my parents should never have got married in the first place. I was born in 1947, but I was effectively a war baby. I must have been conceived while my father was on leave from the RAF _ he had joined up in 1942 at the height of World War Two and elected to stay on after the war ended. And my parents were definitely a war couple. Their story sounds romantic. They met the same year my dad joined up. He was seventeen, and had worked in a boatbuilding yard in Rickmansworth that specialized in making narrowboats for canals. Mum was sixteen, her maiden name was Harris, and she delivered milk for United Dairies on a horse and cart, the kind of job a woman would never have done before the war. My dad was a keen amateur trumpet player, and while he was on leave, he apparently spotted my mum in the audience while he was sitting in with a band playing at a North Harrow hotel. But the reality of Stanley and Sheila Dwight_s marriage wasn_t romantic at all. They just didn_t get on. They were both stubborn and short-tempered, two delightful characteristics that it_s been my huge good fortune to inherit. I_m not sure if they ever really loved each other. People rushed into marriage during the war _ the future was uncertain, even by the time of my parents_ wedding in January 1945, and you had to seize the moment _ so maybe that had something to do with it. Perhaps they had loved each other once, or at least thought they had, in the time they snatched together. Now they didn_t even seem to like each other. The rows were endless. At least they subsided when my dad was away, which he often was. He was promoted to flight lieutenant, and was regularly posted abroad, to Iraq and Aden, so I grew up in a house that seemed to be filled with women. We lived with my maternal grandmother, Ivy, at 55 Pinner Hill Road _ the same house I was born in. It was the kind of council house that had sprung up all over Britain in the twenties and thirties: three bedrooms, semi-detached, red brick on the ground floor and white-painted render on the top floor. The house actually had another male occupant, although you wouldn_t really have noticed. My grandfather had died very young, of cancer, and Nan had remarried, to a guy called Horace Sewell, who_d lost a leg in World War One. Horace had a heart of gold, but he wasn_t what you would call one of life_s big talkers. He seemed to spend most of his time outside. He worked at the local nursery, Woodman_s, and when he wasn_t there, he was in the garden, where he grew all our vegetables and cut flowers. Perhaps he was just in the garden to avoid my mother, in which case I couldn_t really blame him. Even when Dad wasn_t around, Mum had a terrible temper. When I think back to my childhood, I think of Mum_s moods: awful, glowering, miserable silences that descended on the house without warning, during which you walked on eggshells and picked your words very carefully, in case you set her off and got thumped as a result. When she was happy she could be warm and charming and vivacious, but she always seemed to be looking for a reason not to be happy, always seemed to be in search of a fight, always had to have the last word; Uncle Reg famously said she could start an argument in an empty room. I thought for years that it was somehow my fault, that maybe she never really wanted to be a mother: she was only twenty-one when I was born, stuck in a marriage that clearly wasn_t working, forced to live with her mum because money was so tight. But her sister, my auntie Win, told me she was always like that _ that when they were kids it was as if a dark cloud used to follow Sheila Harris around, that other children were scared of her and that she seemed to like that. She definitely had some deeply weird ideas about parenting. It was an era when you kept your kids in line by clobbering them, when it was generally held that there was nothing wrong with children that couldn_t be cured by thumping the living daylights out of them. This was a philosophy to which my mother was passionately wedded, which was petrifying and humiliating if it happened in public: there_s nothing like getting a hiding outside Pinner Sainsbury_s, in front of a visibly intrigued crowd of onlookers, for playing havoc with your self-esteem. But some of Mum_s behaviour would have been considered disturbing even by the standards of the time. I found out years later that when I was two, she_d toilet-trained me by hitting me with a wire brush until I bled if I didn_t use the potty. My nan had, understandably, gone berserk when she found out what was going on: they didn_t speak for weeks as a result. Nan had gone berserk again when she saw my mother_s remedy for constipation. She laid me on the draining board in the kitchen and stuck carbolic soap up my arse. If she liked to scare people, she must have been overjoyed by me, because I was fucking terrified of her. I loved her _ she was my mum _ but I spent my childhood in a state of high alert, always trying to ensure that I never did anything that might set her off: if she was happy, I was happy, albeit temporarily. There were no problems like that with my nan. She was the person I trusted the most. It felt like she was the centre of the family, the only one who didn_t go out to work _ my mum had graduated from driving a milk cart during the war to working in a succession of shops. Nan was one of those incredible old working-class matriarchs: no nonsense, hard-working, kind, funny. I idolized her. She was the greatest cook, had the greenest fingers, loved a drink and a game of cards. She_d had an incredibly hard life _ her father had abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, so Nan was born in a workhouse. She never talked about it, but it seemed to have left her as someone nothing could faze, not even the time I came howling down the stairs with my foreskin caught in my trouser zip and asked her to get it out. She just sighed and got on with it, as though extracting a small boy_s penis from a zip was the kind of thing she did every day. Her house smelt of roast dinners and coal fires. There was always someone at the door: either Auntie Win or Uncle Reg, or my cousins John and Cathryn, or else the rent man, or the man from Watford Steam Laundry, or the man who delivered the coal. And there was always music playing. The radio was almost permanently on: Two-Way Family Favourites, Housewives_ Choice, Music While You Work, The Billy Cotton Band Show. If it wasn_t, there were records playing on the radiogram _ mostly jazz, but sometimes classical. I could spend hours just looking at those records, studying the different labels. Blue Deccas, red Parlophones, bright yellow MGMs, HMVs and RCAs, both of which, for reasons I could never figure out, had that picture of the dog looking at the gramophone on them. They seemed like magical objects; the fact that you put a needle on them and sound mysteriously came out amazed me. After a while, the only presents I wanted were records and books. I can remember the disappointment of coming downstairs and seeing a big box wrapped up. Oh God, they_ve got me Meccano. And we had a piano, which belonged to my nan. Auntie Win used to play it, and eventually so did I. There were a lot of family myths about my prodigious talent at the instrument, the most oft-repeated being that Win sat me on her lap when I was three, and I immediately picked out the melody of _The Skaters_ Waltz_ by ear. I_ve no idea whether that_s actually true or not, but I was definitely playing piano at a very young age, around the time I started at my first school, Reddiford. I_d play stuff like _All Things Bright and Beautiful_, hymns I_d heard in assembly. I was just born with a good ear, the way some people are born with a photographic memory. If I heard something once, I could go to the piano and, more or less, play it perfectly. I was seven when I started lessons, with a lady called Mrs Jones. Not long after that, my parents began wheeling me out to play _My Old Man Said Follow The Van_ and _Roll Out The Barrel_ at family gatherings and weddings. For all the records in the house and on the radio, I think an old-fashioned sing-song was the form of music my family loved the most. The piano came in useful when my dad was home on leave. He was a typical British man of the fifties in that he seemed to regard any display of emotion, other than anger, as evidence of a fatal weakness of character. So he wasn_t tactile, he never told you he loved you. But he liked music, and if he heard me playing the piano, I_d get a _well done_, maybe an arm around the shoulder, a sense of pride and approval. I was temporarily in his good books. And keeping in his good books was vitally important to me. If I was marginally less terrified of him than I was of my mother, it was only because he wasn_t around as much. At one point, when I was six, my mum had made the decision to move us away from Pinner and all her family, and go with my dad to Wiltshire _ he had been posted to RAF Lyneham, near Swindon. I can_t remember much about it. I know I enjoyed playing in the countryside, but I also recall feeling quite disorientated and confused by the change, and falling behind at school as a result. We weren_t there for long _ Mum must have realized she had made a mistake very quickly _ and after we came back to Pinner, it felt like Dad was someone who visited rather than lived with us. But when he did visit, things changed. Suddenly, there were all these new rules about everything. I would get into trouble if I kicked my football off the lawn into the flower bed, but I would also get in trouble if I ate celery in what was deemed to be The Wrong Way. The Right Way to eat celery, in the unlikely event that you_re interested, was apparently not to make too loud a crunching sound when you bit into it. Once, he hit me because I was supposedly taking my school blazer off incorrectly; sadly, I seem to have forgotten The Right Way to take off a school blazer, vital though this knowledge obviously was. The scene upset Auntie Win so much that she rushed off in tears to tell my nan what was going on. Presumably worn down by the rows over potty training and constipation, Nan told her not to get involved. What was going on? I haven_t got a clue. I_ve no more idea of what my father_s problem was than I have about my mother_s. Maybe it had something to do with him being in the forces, where there were rules about everything as well. Maybe he felt a bit of jealousy, like he was shut out of the family because he was away so much: all these rules were his way of imposing himself as the head of the household. Maybe that was the way he had been brought up, although his parents _ my grandad Edwin and grandma Ellen _ didn_t seem particularly fierce. Or maybe both my parents just found dealing with a child difficult because they_d never done it before. I don_t know. I do know that my dad had an incredibly short fuse and that he didn_t seem to understand how to use words. There was no calm response, no _now come on, sit down_. He would just explode. The Dwight Family Temper. It was the bane of my life as a kid, and it remained the bane of my life when it became apparent it was hereditary. Either I was genetically predisposed to losing my rag, or I unconsciously learned by example. Whichever it was, it has proved a catastrophic pain in the arse for me and everyone around me for most of my adult life. Had it not been for Mum and Dad, I would have had a perfectly normal, even boring fifties childhood: Muffin the Mule on TV and Saturday morning children_s matinees at the Embassy in North Harrow; the Goons on the radio and bread and dripping for tea on a Sunday night. Away from home, I was perfectly happy. At eleven, I moved up to Pinner County Grammar School, where I was conspicuously ordinary. I wasn_t bullied, nor was I a bully. I wasn_t a swot, but I wasn_t a tearaway either; I left that to my friend John Gates, who was one of those kids that seemed to spend their entire childhood in detention or outside the headmaster_s office, without the range of punishments inflicted on him making any difference at all to the way he behaved. I was a bit overweight, but I was all right at sport without any danger of being a star athlete. I played football and tennis _ everything except rugby. Because of my size, they put me in the scrum, where my main role involved being repeatedly kicked in the balls by the opposing team_s prop. No thanks. My best mate was Keith Francis, but he was part of a big circle of friends, girls as well as boys, people I still see now. I occasionally have class reunions at my house. The first time, I was really nervous beforehand: it_s been fifty years, I_m famous, I live in a big house, what are they going to think of me? But they couldn_t have cared less. When they arrived, it might as well have been 1959. No one seemed to have changed that much. John Gates still had a twinkle in his eye that suggested he could be a bit of a handful. For years, I lived a life in which nothing really happened. The height of excitement was a school trip to Annecy, where we stayed with our French pen pals and gawped at the sight of Citro?n 2CVs, which were like no car I_d ever seen on a British road _ the seats in them looked like deckchairs. Or the day during the Easter holidays when, for reasons lost in the mists of time, Barry Walden, Keith and I elected to cycle from Pinner to Bournemouth, an idea I began to question the wisdom of when I realized that their bikes had gears and mine did not: there was a lot of frantic pedalling up hills on my part, trying to keep up. The only danger any of us faced was that one of my friends might be bored to death when I started talking about records. It wasn_t enough for me to collect them. Every time I bought one, I kept a note of it in a book. I wrote down the titles of the A and B sides and all the other information off the label: writer, publisher, producer. I then memorized the lot, until I became a walking musical encyclopedia. An innocent enquiry as to why the needle skipped when you tried to play _Little Darlin_ by The Diamonds would lead to me informing everyone within earshot that it was because _Little Darlin_ by The Diamonds was on Mercury Records, who were distributed by Pye in the UK, and that Pye were the only label that released 78s made from new-fangled vinyl, rather than old-fashioned shellac, and needles made from shellac responded differently to vinyl. But I_m not complaining at all about life being dull _ I liked it that way. Things were so exhausting at home that a dull life outside the front door seemed oddly welcome, particularly when my parents decided to try living together full-time again. It was just after I started at Pinner County. My dad had been posted to RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire and we all moved into a house in Northwood, about ten minutes away from Pinner, 111 Potter Street. We were there for three years, long enough to prove beyond any doubt that the marriage wasn_t working. God, it was miserable: constant fighting, occasionally punctuated by icy silences. You couldn_t relax for a minute. If you spend your life waiting for the next eruption of anger from your mum, or your dad announcing another rule that you_d broken, you end up not knowing what to do: the uncertainty of what_s going to happen next fills you with fear. So I was incredibly insecure, scared of my own shadow. On top of that, I thought I was somehow responsible for the state of my parents_ marriage, because a lot of their rows would be about me. My father would tell me off, my mother would intervene, and there would be a huge argument about how I was being brought up. It didn_t make me feel very good about myself, which manifested in a lack of confidence in my appearance that lasted well into adulthood. For years and years, I couldn_t bear to look at myself in the mirror. I really hated what I saw: I was too fat, I was too short, my face just looked weird, my hair would never do what I wanted it to, including not prematurely fall out. The other lasting effect was a fear of confrontation. That went on for decades. I stayed in bad business relationships and bad personal relationships because I didn_t want to rock the boat. My response when things got too much was always to run upstairs and lock the door, which is exactly what I used to do when my parents fought. I would go to my bedroom, where I kept everything perfectly neat and ordered. It wasn_t just records I collected, it was comics, books, magazines. I was meticulous about everything. If I wasn_t writing down the details of a new single in my notebook, I was copying all the different singles charts out of Melody Maker, the New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Disc, then compiling the results, averaging them out into a personal chart of charts. I_ve always been a statistics freak. Even now, I get sent the charts every day, the radio chart positions in America, the box office charts for films and Broadway plays. Most artists don_t do that; they_re not interested. When I_m talking to them, I know more about how their single_s doing than they do, which is crazy. The official excuse is that I need to know what_s going on because, these days, I own a company that makes films and manages artists. The truth is that I_d be doing it if I was working in a bank. I_m just an anorak. A psychologist would probably say that, as a kid, I was trying to create a sense of order in a chaotic life, with my dad coming and going and all the reprimands and rows. I didn_t have any control over that, or over my mother_s moods, but I had control over the stuff in my room. Objects couldn_t do me any harm. I found them comforting. I talked to them, I behaved as if they had feelings. If something got broken, I_d feel really upset, as if I_d killed something. During one particularly bad row, my mother threw a record at my father and it smashed into God knows how many pieces. It was _The Robin_s Return_ by Dolores Ventura, an Australian ragtime pianist. I remember thinking, _How can you do that? How can you break this beautiful thing?_ My record collection exploded when rock _n_ roll arrived. There were other exciting changes afoot, things that suggested life might be moving on, out of the grey post-war world, even in suburban north-west London: the arrival in our house of a TV and a washing machine, and the arrival in Pinner High Street of a coffee bar, which seemed unimaginably exotic _ until a restaurant that served Chinese food opened in nearby Harrow. But they happened slowly and gradually, a few years between them. Rock _n_ roll wasn_t like that. It seemed to come out of nowhere, so fast that it was hard to take in how completely it had altered everything. One minute, pop music meant good old Guy Mitchell and _Where Will The Dimple Be?_ and Max Bygraves singing about toothbrushes. It was polite and schmaltzy and aimed at parents, who didn_t want to hear anything too exciting or shocking: they_d had enough of that to last them a lifetime living through a war. The next, it meant Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, these guys who sounded unintelligible, like they were foaming at the mouth when they sang and who your parents hated. Even my mum, the Elvis aficionado, bailed out when Little Richard showed up. She thought _Tutti Frutti_ was just a terrible noise. Rock and roll was like a bomb that wouldn_t stop going off: a series of explosions that came so thick and fast it was hard to work out what was happening. Suddenly, there seemed to be one incredible record after another. _Hound Dog_, _Blue Suede Shoes_, _Whole Lotta Shakin_ Goin_ On_, _Long Tall Sally_, _That_ll Be The Day_, _Roll Over Beethoven_, _Reet Petite_. I had to get a Saturday job to keep up. Luckily, Mr Megson at Victoria Wine was looking for someone to help out in the back of the shop, putting empty beer bottles in crates and stacking them up. I think there was a vague idea of my saving up some money, but I should have realized that idea was doomed to failure from the start: Victoria Wine was next door to another record shop. Mr Megson might as well have just put the ten bob he paid me straight into their till and cut out the middleman. It was an early example of what turned out to be a lifelong attitude to shopping: I_m just not very good at keeping money in my pocket if there_s something I want to buy. Sixty years on, it_s hard to explain how revolutionary and shocking rock and roll seemed. Not just the music: the whole culture it represented, the clothes and the films and the attitude. It felt like the first thing that teenagers really owned, that was aimed exclusively at us, that made us feel different from our parents, that made us feel we could achieve something. It_s also hard to explain the extent to which the older generation despised it. Take every example of moral panic pop music has provoked since _ punk and gangster rap, mods and rockers and heavy metal _ then add them all together and double it: that_s how much outrage rock and roll caused. People fucking hated it. And no one hated it more than my father. He obviously disliked the music itself _ he liked Frank Sinatra _ but more than that, he hated its social impact, he thought the whole thing was morally wrong: _Look at the way they dress, the way they act, swivelling their hips, showing their dicks. You are not to get involved._ If I did, I was going to turn into something called a wide boy. A wide boy, in case you don_t know, is an old British term for a kind of petty criminal _ a confidence trickster, someone who does a bit of wheeler-dealing or runs the odd scam. Presumably already alive to the thought that I might go off the rails thanks to my inability to eat celery in the correct way, he resolutely believed that rock and roll was going to result in my utter degradation. The mere mention of Elvis or Little Richard would set him off on an angry lecture in which my inevitable transformation into a wide boy figured heavily: one minute I_d be happily listening to _Good Golly Miss Molly_, the next thing you knew, I was apparently going to be fencing stolen nylons or duping people into playing Find-the-Lady on the mean streets of Pinner. There didn_t seem much danger of that happening to me _ there are Benedictine monks wilder than I was as a teenager _ but my father was taking no risks. By the time I started at Pinner County Grammar School in 1958, you could see the way people dressed was changing, but I was expressly forbidden from wearing anything that made me look like I had some connection to rock and roll. Keith Francis was cutting a dash in a pair of winkle-picker shoes that had pointed toes so long the ends of them seemed to arrive in class several minutes before he did. I was still dressed like a miniature version of my father. My shoes were, depressingly, the same length as my feet. The closest I got to sartorial rebellion was my prescription glasses, or rather, how much I wore my prescription glasses. They were only supposed to be used for looking at the blackboard. Labouring under the demented misapprehension that they made me look like Buddy Holly, I wore them all the time, completely ruining my eyesight in the process. Then I had to wear them all the time. My failing eyesight also had unexpected consequences when it came to sexual exploration. I can_t remember the exact circumstances in which my dad caught me masturbating. I think I was attempting to dispose of the evidence rather than engaged in the act itself, but I do remember I wasn_t as mortified as I should have been, largely because I didn_t really know what I was doing. I was a real late developer when it came to sex. I wasn_t really interested in it at all until I was well into my twenties, although I made an impressively concerted effort to make up for lost time after that. But at school, I_d listen to my friends talking about it, and it would just leave me really bemused: _Yeah, I took her to the cinema, got a bit of tit._ How? Why? What was that supposed to mean? So I think what I was doing was more about experiencing a pleasant sensation rather than a frantic expression of my burgeoning sexuality. Either way, when my dad caught me, he came out with the well-worn line about how if I kept Doing That, I would go blind. Obviously, boys across the country were given exactly the same warning, realized it was a load of rubbish and blithely ignored it. I, on the other hand, found it preying on my mind. What if it was true? I_d already damaged my eyesight with my misguided attempt to look like Buddy Holly; maybe this would finish it off. I decided it was better not to take the risk. While plenty of musicians will tell you that Buddy Holly had a massive impact on their lives, I_m probably the only musician that can say he inadvertently stopped me wanking, unless Holly happened to walk in on The Big Bopper doing it while they were on tour or something. But despite all the rules about clothes and warnings about my sure-fire descent into criminality, it was too late for my dad to tell me not to get involved in rock and roll. I was already in it up to my neck. I saw Loving You and The Girl Can_t Help It at the cinema. I started going to see live shows. A big crowd from school headed up to the Harrow Granada every week: me, Keith, Kaye Midlane, Barry Walden and Janet Richie were the most devoted, regular members, along with a guy called Michael Johnson, who was the only person I_d met who seemed just as obsessed as me about music. Sometimes, he even seemed to know things I didn_t. A couple of years later, it was he who came to school brandishing a copy of _Love Me Do_ by The Beatles, whoever they were, claiming that they were going to be the biggest thing since Elvis. I thought that was laying it on a bit thick until he played it to me, when I decided he might have a point: another musical obsession was sparked. A ticket for the Granada was two and sixpence or five bob if you wanted the posh seats. Either felt like good value, because they packed the shows with singers and bands. You would see ten artists in a night: two songs from each until the headlining act, who would do four or five. Everybody seemed to play there, sooner or later. Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Johnny And The Hurricanes. If by any chance someone declined to grace the Harrow Granada with their presence, you could get the tube up to London: that_s where I saw Cliff Richard And The Drifters at the Palladium, before his backing band changed their name to The Shadows. Back in the suburbs, other, smaller venues started putting on bands: the South Harrow British Legion, the Kenton Conservative Club. You could easily see two or three gigs a week, as long as you had the money. The funny thing is, I can_t recall ever seeing a bad gig, or coming home disappointed, although some of the shows must have been terrible. The sound must have been dreadful. I_m pretty certain that the South Harrow British Legion in 1960 wasn_t in possession of a PA system capable of fully conveying the brutal, feral power of rock and roll. And when my dad wasn_t around, I played Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis songs on the piano. They were my real idols. It wasn_t just their style of playing, although that was fabulous: they played with such aggression, like they were assaulting the keyboard. It was the way they stood up while they played, the way they kicked the stool and jumped on the piano. They made playing the piano seem as visually exciting and sexy and outrageous as playing the guitar or being a vocalist. I_d never realized it could be any of those things before. I was inspired enough to play a few gigs at local youth clubs, with a band called The Corvettes. It was nothing serious; the other members were all still at school too _ they went to Northwood, the local secondary modern _ and it only lasted a few months: most of the gigs we played, we got paid in Coca-Cola. But suddenly, I had an idea what I wanted to do with my life and it didn_t involve my father_s plans for me, which centred around either joining the RAF or working in a bank. I would never have dared say it aloud, but I quietly decided he could stick both those plans up his arse. Maybe rock and roll had changed me in the rebellious way Dad feared after all. Or maybe we never really had anything in common, except football. All the happy childhood memories of my dad are related to that: he came from a family of football fanatics. Two of his nephews were professional players, both for Fulham in south-west London _ Roy Dwight and John Ashen. As a treat, he would take me to watch them from the touchline at Craven Cottage, in the days when Jimmy Hill was their inside right and Bedford Jezzard was their highest scorer. Even off the pitch, Roy and John seemed like incredibly glamorous figures to me; I was always slightly in awe when I met them. After his career ended, John became a very astute businessman with a thing for American cars _ he_d turn up to visit us in Pinner with his wife, Bet, parking an unreal-looking Cadillac or a Chevrolet outside the house. And Roy was a fantastic player, a right-winger who transferred to Nottingham Forest. He played for them in the 1959 FA Cup Final. I watched it at home on TV, with a supply of chocolate eggs I_d saved from Easter in anticipation of this momentous event. I didn_t eat the chocolate so much as cram it in my mouth in a state of hysteria. I couldn_t believe what was happening on the screen. After ten minutes, Roy scored the opening goal. He was already on the verge of a call-up for England. Now he_d surely sealed his fate: my cousin _ an actual relative of mine _ was going to play for England. It seemed as unbelievable as John_s taste in cars. Fifteen minutes later, they were carrying him off on a stretcher. He_d broken his leg in a tackle and that was what sealed his fate. His football career was basically over. He tried, but he was never the same player again. He ended up becoming a PE teacher at a boys_ school in south London. My dad_s team were the substantially less glamorous and awe-inducing Watford. I was six when he first took me to see them play. They were toiling away at the bottom of something called the Third Division South, which was as low as you could get in the football league without being thrown out entirely. In fact, not long before I started going to Watford games, they had played so badly that they actually had been thrown out of the football league; they were allowed to stay after applying for re-election. Their ground at Vicarage Road seemed to tell you all you needed to know about the team. It only had two very old, very rickety, very small covered stands. It doubled as a greyhound racing track. If I_d had any sense, I would have taken one look at it, considered Watford_s recent form, and opted to support a team that could actually play football. I could have saved myself twenty years of almost unmitigated misery. But football doesn_t work like that, or at least it shouldn_t. It_s in your blood: Watford were my dad_s team, therefore Watford were my team. And besides, I didn_t care about the ground, or the hopelessness of the team, or the freezing cold. I loved it all straight away. The thrill of seeing live sport for the first time, the excitement of getting the train to Watford and walking through the town to the ground, the newspaper sellers that came round at half-time and told you the scores in other games, the ritual of always standing in the same spot on the terraces, an area by the Shrodells Stand called The Bend. It was like taking a drug to which you instantly became addicted. I was as obsessive about football as I was about music: when I wasn_t compiling my chart of charts in my bedroom, I was cutting football league ladders out of my comics, sticking them to my wall and making sure the scores on them were completely up to date. It_s one addiction I_ve never shaken, because I_ve never wanted to, and it was hereditary, passed on to me by my dad. When I was eleven, my piano teacher had put me forward for the Royal Academy of Music in central London. I passed the exam, and for the next five years that was my Saturday: studying classical music in the morning, Watford in the afternoon. I preferred the latter to the former. At the time, the Royal Academy of Music seemed to smell of fear. Everything about it was intimidating: the huge, imposing Edwardian building on Marylebone Road, its august history of turning out composers and conductors, the fact that anything that wasn_t classical music was expressly forbidden. It_s completely different today _ whenever I go there now, it_s a really joyful place; the students are encouraged to go off and do pop or jazz or their own writing as well as their classical training. But back then, even talking about rock and roll at the Royal Academy would have been sacrilege, like turning up to church and telling the vicar that you_re really interested in worshipping Satan. Sometimes the Royal Academy was fun. I had a great teacher called Helen Piena, I loved singing in the choir and I really enjoyed playing Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Chopin, the melodic stuff. Other times, it seemed like a real drag. I was a lazy student. Some weeks, if I_d forgotten to do my homework, I didn_t bother to turn up at all. I_d ring from home, putting on a voice and saying I was ill, and then _ so my mum didn_t realize I was dodging _ take the train up to Baker Street. Then I_d go and sit on the tube. I_d go round and round the Circle Line for three and a half hours, reading The Pan Book of Horror Stories instead of practising Bart?k. I knew I didn_t want to be a classical musician. For one thing, I wasn_t good enough. I don_t have the hands for it. My fingers are short for a piano player. If you see a photo of a concert pianist, they_ve all got hands like tarantulas. And for another, it just wasn_t what I wanted out of music _ having everything regimented, playing the right notes at the right time with the right feeling, no room for improvisation. In a way, it_s ironic that I ended up being made a Doctor and an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy years later _ I was never going to win an award for star pupil while I was there. But in another way, it isn_t ironic at all. I_d never, ever say the Royal Academy was a waste of time for me. I_m really proud to have gone there. I_ve done benefit gigs and raised money for a new pipe organ for them; I_ve toured with the Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra in Britain and America; I pay for eight scholarships there every year. The place was full of people I_d end up working with, years later, when I became Elton John: the producer Chris Thomas, the arranger Paul Buckmaster, harpist Skaila Kanga and percussionist Ray Cooper. And what I learned there seeped into my music: it taught me about collaboration, about chord structures and how to put a song together. It made me interested in writing with more than three or four chords. If you listen to the Elton John album, and virtually every album I made afterwards, you can hear the influence of classical music and of the Royal Academy on it somewhere. It was while I was studying at the Royal Academy that my parents finally got divorced. In fairness to them, they had tried to make their marriage work, even though it was obvious they couldn_t bear each other; I suspect because they wanted to give me stability. It was completely the wrong thing to do, but they made an effort. Then, in 1960, my father was posted to Harrogate in Yorkshire, and while he was there, Mum met someone else. And that was the end of that. My mum and I moved in with her new partner, Fred, who was a painter and decorator. It was a really hard time financially. Fred was a divorcee too; he had an ex-wife and four children, so money was really tight. We lived in a horrible flat in Croxley Green, with peeling wallpaper and damp. Fred worked really hard. He did window cleaning and odd jobs on top of his decorating: anything to make sure we had food on the table. It was tough on him and it was tough on my mum. Uncle Reg had been right _ there really was a stigma around getting divorced in those days. But I was so happy they_d got divorced. The daily friction of my mum and dad being together was gone. Mum had got what she wanted _ rid of my father _ and, for a while at least, it seemed to change her. She was happy, and that happiness trickled down to me. There were fewer moods, less criticism. And I really liked Fred. He was generous and big-hearted and easy-going. He saved up and got me a drop-handlebar bike. He thought it was funny when I started saying his name backwards and calling him Derf, a nickname that stuck. There weren_t any more restrictions on what I wore. I started calling Derf my stepdad years before he and Mum got married. Best of all, Derf liked rock and roll. He and Mum were really supportive of my music career. I suppose there was an added incentive for my mum, because she knew that encouraging me would infuriate my father, but, for a while at least, she seemed to be my biggest fan. And Derf got me my first paying gig, as a pianist in the Northwood Hills Hotel, which wasn_t a hotel at all, it was a pub. Derf was having a pint there when he learned from the landlord that their regular pianist had quit, and suggested they give me a try. I would play everything I could think of. Jim Reeves songs, Johnnie Ray, Elvis Presley, _Whole Lotta Shakin_ Goin_ On_. Al Jolson numbers: they loved Al Jolson. But not as much as they loved old British pub songs that everyone could sing along to: _Down At The Old Bull And Bush_, _Any Old Iron_, _My Old Man_, the same things my family liked to have a sing-song to after a couple of drinks. I made really good money. My pay was only a pound a night, three nights a week, but Derf would come with me and take a pint pot around and collect tips. Sometimes I could end up with ?15 a week, which was a massive amount for a fifteen-year-old kid to be making in the early sixties. I saved up and bought an electric piano _ a Hohner Pianette _ and a microphone so I could make myself better heard over the noise of the pub. As well as earning me money, the pub pianist_s job had another important function. It made me pretty fearless as a performer, because the Northwood Hills Hotel was by no stretch of the imagination Britain_s most salubrious venue. I played in the public bar, not the more upscale saloon next door, and virtually every night, when enough booze had been consumed, there would be a fight. I don_t mean a verbal altercation, I mean a proper fight: glasses flying, tables being pushed over. At first I_d try and keep playing, in the vain hope that music might soothe the situation. If a burst of _Bye Bye Blackbird_ failed to work the intended magic, then I would have to turn to a group of travellers who regularly came to the pub for help. I_d become friendly with one of their daughters _ she_d even asked me around to their caravan for dinner _ and they would make sure I was all right when the pub kicked off. And if they weren_t in that night, I would have to deploy my last resort option. This involved climbing out of the window next to the piano and coming back later when things had calmed down. It was terrifying, but at least it made me mentally tough when it came to playing live. I know artists who_ve been completely destroyed by the experience of playing a bad gig to an unappreciative audience. I_ve played bad gigs to unappreciative audiences as well, but they_ve never impacted on me too deeply. If I don_t actually have to stop performing and climb out of a window in fear of my life, it_s still an improvement on how I started out. Up in Yorkshire, my dad met a woman called Edna. They got married, moved to Essex and opened a paper shop. He must have been happier _ they had four more sons, all of whom adored him _ but he didn_t seem any different to me. It was like he didn_t know any other way to behave around me. He was still distant and strict, still moaning about the terrible influence of rock and roll, still consumed by the idea that I was going to turn into a wide boy and bring disgrace on the Dwight family name. Getting on the Green Line bus to Essex to visit him was the reliable low point of any week. I stopped going to Watford with him: I was old enough to stand on The Bend by myself. Dad must have gone berserk when he found out I was planning on leaving school before sitting my A-levels, to take up a job in the music business. He really didn_t think it was a suitable career for a boy with a grammar school education. To make matters worse, it was his own nephew who got me the job: my cousin Roy, he of the goal in the FA Cup, who had stayed on good terms with my mum after the divorce. Footballers always seemed to have links with the music industry and he was friends with a guy called Tony Hiller, who was the general manager of the Mills Music publishing company in Denmark Street, Britain_s answer to Tin Pan Alley. Via Roy, I found out that there was a job going in the packing department _ it wasn_t much, the pay was ?4 a week, but it was a foot in the door. And I knew I had no chance of passing my A-levels anyway. Somewhere between the Royal Academy, practising playing the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis and climbing out of the window of the Northwood Hills Hotel on a regular basis, my schoolwork had started to slide. I say he must have gone berserk, because I honestly can_t remember his reaction. I know he wrote to my mum demanding that she stop me, but you can imagine how that went down: she was absolutely delighted. Everyone else seemed pleased for me _ Mum and Derf, even my school headmaster, which seemed almost miraculous. Mr Westgate-Smith was a very stern, strict man. I was absolutely terrified when I went to see him, to explain about the job. But he was really wonderful. He said he knew how much I loved music, he knew about the Royal Academy, and that he would let me leave if I promised to work hard and give everything I had to the project. I was amazed, but he meant it. He could easily have refused; I would have gone anyway, but I would have left school under a cloud. Instead he was really supportive. Years later, after I became successful, he used to write to me telling me how proud he was of what I_d done. And in a perverse way, my dad_s attitude helped me, too. He never changed his mind about my career choice. He never said well done. Not long ago, his wife Edna wrote to me and told me that he was proud of me in his own way; it just wasn_t in his make-up to express it. But the fact that he never expressed it instilled in me a desire to show him that I_d made the right decision. It made me driven. I thought the more successful I got, the more it proved him wrong, whether he acknowledged it or not. Even today, I still sometimes think that I_m trying to show my father what I_m made of, and he_s been dead since 1991. two With perfect timing, I arrived at my first job in Denmark Street just as Denmark Street went into terminal decline. Ten years before, it had been the centre of the British music industry, where writers went to sell their songs to publishers, who_d in turn sell them to artists. Then The Beatles and Bob Dylan had come along and changed everything. They didn_t need the help of professional songwriters: it turned out they were professional songwriters. More bands started appearing with a songwriter in their ranks: The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones. It was obvious that was how things were going to be from now on. There was still just about enough work to keep Denmark Street going _ not every new band could write their own material and there was still an army of vocalists and easy-listening crooners who sourced their songs the old-fashioned way _ but the writing was on the wall. Even my new job at Mills Music seemed like a throwback to a bygone era. It had nothing to do with pop at all. My duties consisted of parcelling up sheet music for brass bands and taking the packages to the post office opposite the Shaftesbury Theatre. I wasn_t even in the main building: the packing department was round the back. That it couldn_t have been less glamorous was underlined when Chelsea_s star midfielder Terry Venables and a handful of his teammates unexpectedly turned up there one afternoon. They were being pursued by the press _ there was a scandal at the time about them going out drinking after a game against the manager_s orders _ and had opted to hide out in my new workplace. They knew Mills Music well _ they were footballing friends, like my cousin Roy _ and had clearly realized that the packing department was literally the last place in London you would look if you were searching for someone famous. But I had a ball. It was a foot in the door of the music industry. And even if Denmark Street was on its last legs, it still held a magic for me. There was a kind of glamour there, albeit fading glamour. There were guitar shops and recording studios. You would get your lunch at the Gioconda coffee bar or the Lancaster Grill on Charing Cross Road. You wouldn_t see anybody famous in there _ they were restaurants for people who couldn_t afford any better _ but there was a buzz about them: they were full of hopefuls, would-bes, would-never-bes, people who wanted to be spotted. People, I suppose, like me. Back in Pinner, my mum, Derf and I had moved out of the rented flat in Croxley Green, with the damp and the peeling wallpaper, into a new place, a few miles away in Northwood Hills, not far from the pub whose window I_d scrambled out of on a regular basis. Frome Court looked like an ordinary detached suburban house from the outside, but inside it was divided up into two-bedroom flats. Ours was 3A. It felt like a home, unlike our previous residence, which had felt like a punishment for Mum and Derf both getting divorced: you_ve done something wrong, so you have to live here. And I was playing the electric piano I_d bought with the proceeds from my pub gig in a new band, started by another ex-member of The Corvettes, Stuart A Brown. Bluesology were much more serious. We had ambition: Stuart was a really good-looking guy, convinced he was going to be a star. We had a saxophone player. We had a set full of obscure blues tracks by Jimmy Witherspoon and J. B. Lenoir that we rehearsed in a Northwood pub called the Gate. We even had a manager, a Soho jeweller called Arnold Tendler: our drummer, Mick Inkpen, worked for him. Arnold was a sweet little man who wanted to get into the music business, and had the terrible misfortune to pick Bluesology as his big investment opportunity after Mick convinced him to come and see a gig. He sank his money into equipment for us and stage outfits _ identical polo neck jumpers, trousers and shoes _ and got absolutely no return, unless you counted us constantly moaning at him when things went wrong. We started playing gigs around London, and Arnold paid for us to record a demo at a studio in a prefabricated hut in Rickmansworth. By some miracle, Arnold managed to get the demo to Fontana Records. More miraculous still, they put out a single, a song I_d written _ or rather, the only song I_d written _ called _Come Back Baby_. It did absolutely nothing. It was played a couple of times on the radio, I suspect on the less salubrious pirate stations where they would play anything if the record label bunged them some dosh. There was a rumour it was going to be on Juke Box Jury one week, and we duly crowded round the television. It wasn_t on Juke Box Jury. Then we put out another single, also written by me, called _Mr Frantic_. This time, there wasn_t even a rumour it was going to be on Juke Box Jury. It just vanished. Towards the end of 1965, we got a job with Roy Tempest, an agent who specialized in bringing black American artists over to Britain. He had a fish tank full of piranhas in his office, and his business practices were as sharp as their teeth. If he couldn_t get The Temptations or The Drifters to cross the Atlantic, he would find a handful of unknown black singers in London, put them in suits and book them on a nightclub tour, billed as The Temptin_ Temptations or The Fabulous Drifters. When anyone complained, he would feign ignorance: _Of course they_re not The Temptations! They_re The Temptin_ Temptations! Completely different band!_ So Roy Tempest effectively invented the tribute act. In a sense, Bluesology got off lightly in their dealings with him. At least the artists for whom we were employed as a backing band were the real thing: Major Lance, Patti LaBelle And The Blue Belles, Fontella Bass, Lee Dorsey. And the work meant I could stop parcelling up brass band music for a living and become a professional musician. I didn_t really have a choice. There was no way I could hold down a day job and work to the schedule of gigs that Tempest set up. Unfortunately, the pay was terrible. Bluesology got fifteen quid a week, out of which we had to pay for petrol for the van and food and lodgings: if you played too far away from London to drive home after the gig, you would book into a BandB at five bob a night. I_m sure the stars we were backing weren_t getting much more. The workload was punishing. Up and down the motorway, night after night. We played the big regional clubs: the Oasis in Manchester, the Mojo in Sheffield, the Place in Hanley, Club A Go Go in Newcastle, Clouds in Derby. We played the cool London clubs: Sybilla_s, The Scotch of St James, where The Beatles and the Stones drank whisky and Coke, and the Cromwellian, with its remarkable barman, Harry Heart, a man almost as famous as the pop stars he served. Harry was very camp, talked in Polari and kept a mysterious vase full of clear liquid on the counter. The mystery was solved when you offered to buy him a drink: _Gin and tonic, please, and have one for yourself, Harry._ He_d say, _Ooh, thank you, love, bona, bona, just one for the pot, then._ And he_d pour out a measure of gin, throw it into the vase and drink out of it between serving people. The real mystery was how a man who apparently drank a large vase full of neat gin on a nightly basis remained vertical as the evening wore on. And we played the most bizarre clubs. There was a place in Harlesden that was basically someone_s front room, and a place in Spitalfields where, for reasons I never quite established, they had a boxing ring instead of a stage. We played a lot of black clubs, which should have been intimidating _ a bunch of white kids from the suburbs trying to play black music to a black audience _ but somehow never was. For one thing, the audiences just seemed to love the music. And for another, if you_ve spent your teens trying to play _Roll Out The Barrel_ while the clientele of a Northwood Hills pub beat the living shit out of each other, you don_t scare that easily. In fact, the only time I felt uneasy was in Balloch, just outside Glasgow. We arrived at the venue to discover the stage was about nine feet tall. This, it quickly transpired, was a security measure: it stopped the audience trying to climb onstage and kill the musicians. With that particular avenue of pleasure closed off to them, they settled instead for trying to kill each other. When they arrived, they lined up on either side of the club. The opening note of our set was clearly the agreed signal for the evening_s festivities to begin. Suddenly, there were pint glasses flying and punches being thrown. It wasn_t a gig so much as a small riot with accompaniment from an r_n_b band. It made Saturday night in the Northwood Hills look like the State Opening of Parliament. We played two gigs a night, almost every night _ more if we tried to supplement our income by playing our own shows. One Saturday, Roy booked us to play an American services club in Lancaster Gate at 2 p.m. Then we got in the van and drove to Birmingham, and played two shows he had booked us there _ at the Ritz and then the Plaza. Then we got back in the van again, drove back to London and played a show he_d booked us at Count Suckle_s Cue club in Paddington. The Cue was a really cutting-edge black club that mixed soul and ska, one of the first places in London to book not just US artists but West Indian ones too. To be honest, my main memory of it isn_t its groundbreaking cocktail of American and Jamaican music, but the fact that it had a food counter that served fantastic Cornish pasties. Even the most obsessive music fan develops a slightly different sense of priorities when it_s six in the morning and they_re starving to death. Sometimes Roy Tempest got the bookings catastrophically wrong. He brought The Ink Spots over, apparently in the belief that, if they were a black American vocal group, they must be a soul band. But they were a vocal harmony group from a completely different era, pre-rock _n_ roll. They_d start singing _Whispering Grass_ or _Back In Your Own Back Yard_ and the audiences would just dissipate _ they were wonderful songs, but not what the kids in the soul clubs wanted to hear. It was heartbreaking _ until we got to the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. The audience there were such music lovers, so knowledgeable about black music_s history, that they completely got it. They turned up with their parents_ 78s for The Ink Spots to sign. At the end of the set they literally lifted them off the stage and carried them around the club on their shoulders. People talk about Swinging London in the mid-sixties, but those kids in the Twisted Wheel were so clued-up, so switched-on, so much hipper than anyone else in the country. In truth, I didn_t care about the money or the workload, or the occasional bad gig. The whole thing was a dream come true for me. I was playing with artists whose records I collected. My favourite was Billy Stewart, an absolutely enormous guy from Washington DC, signed to Chess Records. He was an amazing singer, who had turned his weight problem into a kind of gimmick. His songs kept alluding to it: _she said I was her pride and joy, that she was in love with a fat boy_. He had a legendary temper _ it was rumoured that when a secretary at Chess took too long to buzz him into the building he had expressed his irritation by pulling a gun and shooting the door handle off _ and, we quickly discovered, a legendary bladder. If Billy asked for the van to pull over on the motorway because he needed to pee, you had to cancel whatever plans you had for the rest of the evening. You were there for hours. The noise from the bushes was incredible: it sounded like someone filling a swimming pool with a fire hose. Playing with these people was terrifying, and not merely because some of them were rumoured to shoot things when they lost their temper. Their sheer talent was scary. It was an incredible education. It wasn_t just the quality of their voices, it was that they were fantastic entertainers. The way they moved, the way they spoke between songs, the way they could manipulate an audience, the way they dressed. They had such style, such panache. Sometimes they displayed some peculiar quirks _ for some reason, Patti Labelle insisted on favouring the audience with a version of _Danny Boy_ at every gig _ but you could learn so much about artistry by watching them onstage for an hour. I couldn_t believe they were just cult figures over here. They_d had big American hits, but in Britain, white pop stars had seized on their songs, covered them and invariably been more successful. Wayne Fontana And The Mindbenders seemed to be the chief offenders: they_d re-recorded Major Lance_s _Um Um Um Um Um Um_ and Patti LaBelle_s _A Groovy Kind Of Love_ and vastly outsold the originals. Billy Stewart_s _Sitting In The Park_ had flopped while Georgie Fame had the hit. You could tell this rankled with them, and understandably so. In fact, I got a good idea just how much it rankled with them when a mod in the audience at the Ricky-Tick club in Windsor made the mistake of shouting out _We want Georgie Fame!_ in a sarcastic voice, as Billy Stewart sang _Sitting In The Park_. I_ve never seen a man that size move so fast. He jumped offstage, into the crowd, and went after him. The kid literally ran out of the club in fear for his life, as indeed you might if a trigger-happy twenty-four-stone soul singer had taken a sudden dislike to you. In March 1966, Bluesology went to Hamburg _ carrying our instruments on the ferry, then on a train _ to play at the Top Ten Club on the Reeperbahn. It was legendary, because it was one of the places The Beatles had played before they were famous. They were living in the club_s attic when they made their first single with Tony Sheridan. The set-up hadn_t changed in the intervening five years. The accommodation for bands was still in the attic. There were still brothels with prostitutes sitting in the windows just down the street, and at the club you were still expected to play five hours a night, alternating with another band: an hour on, an hour off, while the clientele drifted in and out. It was easy to imagine The Beatles living the same life, not least because it looked suspiciously like the bed sheets in the attic hadn_t been changed since John and Paul had slept in them. We played as Bluesology and we also backed a Scottish singer called Isabel Bond, who_d relocated from Glasgow to Germany. She was hilarious, this sweet-looking dark-haired girl who turned out to be the most foul-mouthed woman I_ve ever met. She_d sing old standards and change the words so they were filthy. She_s the only singer I_ve ever heard who could work the phrase _give us a wank_ into _Let Me Call You Sweetheart_. But I was so innocent. I barely drank and I still wasn_t interested in sex, largely because I_d managed to get to the age of nineteen without gaining any real knowledge or understanding of what sex actually was. Aside from my father_s questionable assertion that masturbating made you go blind, nobody had furnished me with any information about what you did or were supposed to do. I had no idea about penetration, no idea what a blow job was. As a result, I_m probably the only British musician of the sixties who went to work on the Reeperbahn and came back still in possession of his virginity. There I was, in one of Europe_s most notorious fleshpots, every conceivable kink and persuasion catered for, and the raciest thing I did was buy a pair of flared trousers from a department store. All I cared about was playing and going to German record shops. I was totally absorbed by music. I was incredibly ambitious. And, in my heart, I knew Bluesology weren_t going to make it. We weren_t good enough. It was obvious. We_d gone from playing obscure blues to playing the same soul songs that virtually every British r_n_b band played in the mid-sixties _ _In The Midnight Hour_, _Hold On I_m Coming_. You could hear The Alan Bown Set or The Mike Cotton Sound playing them better than us. There were superior vocalists to Stuart out there, and there were certainly far superior organ players to me. I was a pianist, I wanted to hammer the keys like Little Richard, and if you try and do that on an organ, the sound it makes can ruin your whole day. I didn_t have any of the technical knowledge you need to play an organ properly. The worst instrument was the Hammond B-12 that was permanently installed on the stage of the Flamingo club in Wardour Street. It was an enormous wooden thing, like playing a chest of drawers. It was covered in switches and levers, draw bars and pedals. Stevie Winwood or Manfred Mann would deploy all of them to make the Hammond scream and sing and soar. I, on the other hand, didn_t dare touch them because I had literally no idea what any of them did. Even the little Vox Continental I usually played was a technical minefield. One key had a habit of sticking down. It happened midway through a set at The Scotch of St James. One minute I was playing _Land Of A Thousand Dances_, the next my organ was making a noise that sounded like the Luftwaffe had turned up over London to give the Blitz another go. The rest of the band gamely continued dancing in the alley with Long Tall Sally and twisting with Lucy doing the Watusi while I attempted to fix the situation by panicking wildly. I was contemplating calling 999 when Eric Burdon, the lead singer of The Animals, got onstage. A man clearly blessed with the complex technical expertise I lacked _ The Animals_ keyboard player Alan Price was a genius on the Vox Continental _ he thumped the organ with his fist and the key was released. _That happens to Alan all the time,_ he nodded, and walked off. So we weren_t as good as the bands who were doing the same thing as us, and the bands who were doing the same thing as us weren_t as good as the bands who wrote their own material. When Bluesology were booked to play at the Cedar Club in Birmingham, we arrived early and found a rehearsal in progress. It was The Move, a local quintet who were obviously on the verge of big things. They had a wild stage act, a manager with the gift of the gab and a guitarist called Roy Wood who could write songs. We snuck in and watched them. Not only did they sound amazing, Roy Wood_s songs sounded better than the cover versions they played. Only someone who was clinically insane would have said that about the handful of tracks I_d written for Bluesology. To be honest, I_d only written them because I absolutely had to, because we had one of our very infrequent recording sessions coming up and needed at least some material of our own. I wasn_t exactly pouring my heart and soul into them, and you could tell. But I can remember watching The Move and having a kind of revelation. This is it, isn_t it? This is the way forward. This is what I should be doing. In fact, I might have left Bluesology sooner had Long John Baldry not come into the picture. We got the job with him because we were in the right place at the right time. Bluesology just happened to be performing in the south of France when Long John Baldry found himself without a backing band to play the Papagayo club in St-Tropez. His original idea was to form another band like Steampacket with himself, Stuart Brown, a boy called Alan Walker _ who I think got the job because Baldry fancied him _ singing, and a girl who had just arrived in London from the US, Marsha Hunt, taking the female vocalist_s role. Bluesology were to be his backing band, at least after he_d revamped the line-up slightly: a couple of musicians he didn_t like got the push and were replaced with ones he thought were better suited. It wasn_t really what I wanted to do. I thought that line-up was a real step down for John. I knew how good Julie Driscoll and Rod were. I_d seen Rod playing with John at the Kenton Conservative Club when the band were still called The Hoochie Coochie Men and I was still at school, and he_d blown me away. And Brian Auger was a real musician_s musician: he didn_t seem like the kind of organist who_d ever require the lead singer of The Animals to climb onstage and offer a helpful thump in the middle of a show. So I had my reservations. The line-up with Alan Walker and Marsha Hunt didn_t last long anyway: Marsha looked incredible, this gorgeous, tall black girl, but she wasn_t a great singer. Even so, I had to admit that, with Long John Baldry around, things suddenly got a lot more interesting. Indeed, if you ever feel your life is getting a little routine, a bit humdrum, I can wholeheartedly recommend going on tour in the company of a hugely eccentric six-foot-seven gay blues singer with a drink problem. You_ll find things liven up quite considerably. I just loved John_s company. He_d pick me up outside Frome Court in his van, which came complete with its own record player, alerting me to his arrival by leaning out of the window and screaming _REGGIE!_ at the top of his voice. His life seemed packed with incident, often linked to his boozing, which I quickly worked out was self-destructive: the big clue came when we played the Links Pavilion in Cromer and he got so pissed after the show that he fell down a nearby cliff in his white suit. But I didn_t realize that he was gay. I know it seems incredible in retrospect. This was a man who called himself Ada, referred to other men as _she_ or _her_ and continually gave you in-depth reports on the state of his sex life: _I_ve got this new boyfriend called Ozzie _ darling, he spins around on my dick._ But again, I was so naive, I honestly had no real understanding of what being gay meant, and I certainly didn_t know that the term might have applied to me. I_d just sit there thinking, _What? He spins around on your dick? How? Why? What on earth are you talking about?_ It was hugely entertaining, but none of it changed the fact that I didn_t want to be an organist, I didn_t want to be a backing musician and I didn_t want to be in Bluesology. Which is why I ended up at Liberty Records_ new offices, just off Piccadilly, prefacing my audition for the label by pouring out my woes: the stasis of Bluesology_s career, the horror of the cabaret circuit, the tape machine and its role in our legendary non-performance of _Let The Heartaches Begin_. On the other side of the desk, Ray Williams nodded sympathetically. He was very blond, very handsome, very well dressed and very young. As it turned out, he was so young that he didn_t have the power to give anyone a contract. The decision lay with his bosses. They might have signed me had I not chosen Jim Reeves_s _He_ll Have To Go_ as my audition piece. My logic was that everybody else would sing something like _My Girl_ or a Motown track, so I_d do something different and stand out. And I really love _He_ll Have To Go_. I felt confident singing it: it used to knock them dead in the Northwood Hills public bar. Had I thought twice, I might have realized that it wasn_t going to muster much enthusiasm among people who were trying to start a progressive rock label. Liberty signed The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Groundhogs and The Idle Race, a psychedelic band fronted by Jeff Lynne, who went on to form the Electric Light Orchestra. The last thing they wanted was Pinner_s answer to Jim Reeves. Then again, maybe singing _He_ll Have To Go_ was exactly the right thing to do. If I_d passed the audition, Ray might not have handed me the envelope containing Bernie_s lyrics. And if he hadn_t handed me Bernie_s lyrics, I don_t really know what would have happened, although I_ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, because it seems like such an incredible twist of fate. I should point out that Ray_s office was chaos. There were piles of reel-to-reel tapes and hundreds of envelopes everywhere: he hadn_t just been contacted by every aspiring musician and writer in Britain, but by every nutcase who_d seen Liberty_s _talent wanted_ advert too. He seemed to pull the envelope out at random, just to give me something to take away, so the meeting didn_t feel like a dead loss _ I can_t remember if he_d even opened it or not before he gave it to me. And yet that envelope had my future in it: everything that_s happened to me since happened because of what it contained. You try and figure that out without giving yourself a headache. Who knows? Maybe I would have found another writing partner, or joined another band, or made my way as a musician without it. But I do know my life and my career would have been very different, most likely substantially worse _ it_s hard to see how it could have turned out any better _ and I suspect you wouldn_t be reading this now. Liberty Records weren_t interested in the first songs that Bernie and I wrote together, so Ray offered to sign us to a publishing company he had set up. There was no money in it unless we actually sold some songs, but for the moment that didn_t seem to matter: Ray really believed in me. He even tried to set me up with a couple of other lyricists, but it didn_t work out with them the way it did with Bernie. The others wanted us to work together, writing the music and the lyrics at the same time, and I couldn_t do that. I had to have the words written down in front of me before I could write a song. I needed that kick-start, that inspiration. And there was just a magic that happened when I saw Bernie_s lyrics, which made me want to write music. It happened the moment I first opened the envelope, on the tube train home from Baker Street, and it_s been happening ever since. The songs were really flowing out of us. They were better than anything I_d written before, which admittedly wasn_t saying much. Actually, only some of them were better than anything I_d written before. We wrote two kinds of songs. The first were things we thought we could sell, to Cilla Black, say, or Engelbert Humperdinck: big weepy ballads, jaunty bubblegum pop. They were awful _ sometimes I shuddered at the thought that the weepies weren_t that different from the dreaded _Let The Heartaches Begin_ _ but that was how you made your money as a songwriting team for hire. Those big middle-of-the-road stars were your target market. It was a target we missed every time. The biggest name we managed to sell a song to was the actor Edward Woodward, who occasionally moonlighted as an easy-listening crooner. His album was called This Man Alone, a title that eerily predicted its audience. And then there were the songs we wanted to write, influenced by The Beatles, The Moody Blues, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, the kind of stuff we were buying from Musicland, a record shop in Soho that Bernie and I haunted so frequently that the staff would ask me to help out behind the counter when one of them wanted to get some lunch. It was the tail end of the psychedelic era, so we wrote a lot of whimsical stuff with lyrics about dandelions and teddy bears. We were really just trying on other people_s styles and finding none of them quite fitted us, but that_s how the process of discovering your own voice works, and the process was fun. Everything was fun. Bernie had moved to London and our friendship had really bloomed. We got on so well, it felt like he was the brother I_d never had, a state of affairs magnified by the fact that we were, at least temporarily, sleeping in bunk beds in my bedroom at Frome Court. We would spend the days writing _ Bernie tapping out lyrics on a typewriter in the bedroom, bringing them to me at the upright piano in the living room, then scurrying back to the bedroom again as I started to set them to music. We couldn_t be in the same room if we were writing, but if we weren_t writing, we spent all our time together, in record shops, at the cinema. At night, we would go to gigs or hang around the musicians_ clubs, watching Harry Heart drink his vase full of gin, chatting to other young hopefuls. There was a funny little guy we knew who _ in keeping with the flower-power mood of the times _ had changed his name to Hans Christian Anderson. The aura of fairy tale otherworldliness conjured by this pseudonym was slightly punctured when he opened his mouth and a thick Lancashire accent came out. Eventually he changed his first name back to Jon and became the lead singer of Yes. We recorded both our types of song in a tiny four-track studio in the New Oxford Street offices of Dick James Music, which administrated Ray_s own publishing company: it later became famous because it was where The Troggs were covertly recorded shouting and swearing at each other for eleven minutes while trying to write a song _ _you_re talking out the back of your fuckin_ arses!_ _Fuckin_ drummer _ I shit him!_ _ a recording that later got released as the notorious Troggs Tape. Caleb Quaye was the in-house engineer, a multi-instrumentalist with a joint permanently smouldering between his fingers. Caleb was very hip and he didn_t let you forget it. He spent half his life guffawing at things Bernie or I had said or done or worn that indicated our desperate lack of cool. But, like Ray, he seemed to believe in what we were doing. When he wasn_t rolling on the floor in hysterics or wiping tears of helpless mirth from his eyes, he was lavishing more time and attention on our songs than he needed to. Strictly against the company rules, we worked on them late into the night, calling in favours from session musicians Caleb knew, trying out arrangements and production ideas in secret, after everyone else from DJM had gone home. It was thrilling, until we got caught by the company_s office manager. I can_t remember how he found out we were there _ I think someone might have driven past and seen a light on and thought the place was being burgled. Caleb thought he was going to lose his job and, possibly out of desperation, played Dick James himself what we_d been doing. Instead of firing Caleb and throwing us out, Dick James offered to publish our songs. He was going to give us a retainer of ?25 a week: a tenner for Bernie and fifteen quid for me _ I got an extra fiver because I had to play piano and sing on the demos. It meant I could quit Bluesology and concentrate on songwriting, which was exactly what I wanted to do. We walked out of his office in a daze, too dumbfounded to be excited. The only downside of this new arrangement was that Dick thought our future lay with the ballads and bubblegum pop. He worked with The Beatles, administering their publishing company Northern Songs, but at heart he was an old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley publisher. DJM was a strange set-up. Half the company was like Dick himself: middle-aged, more from that old Jewish showbiz world than rock and roll. The other half was younger and more fashionable, like Caleb, and Dick_s son Stephen, or Tony King. Tony King worked for a new company called AIR from a desk he rented on the second floor. AIR was an association of independent record producers that George Martin had started after he realized how badly EMI paid him for working on The Beatles_ records, and Tony dealt with their publishing and promotion. To say Tony stood out in the DJM offices was an understatement. Tony would have attracted attention in the middle of a Martian invasion. He wore suits from the hippest tailors in London: orange velvet trousers, things made out of satin. He had strings of love beads around his neck and one or more of his collection of antique silk scarves fluttered behind him. His hair was dyed with blond highlights. He was an obsessive music fan, who_d worked for The Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison. He was friends with The Beatles. Like Long John Baldry, he was openly gay and he couldn_t care less who knew it. He didn_t walk so much as waft through the office: _Sorry I_m late, dear, the telephone got tangled up in my necklaces._ He was hilarious. I was completely fascinated by him. More than that: I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be that stylish and outrageous and exotic. His dress sense started to influence my own, with some eyebrow-raising results. I grew a moustache. I bought an Afghan coat, but opted for the cheaper kind. The sheepskin wasn_t cured properly and the ensuing stench was so bad my mother wouldn_t let me in the flat if I was wearing it. Unable to stretch to the kind of boutiques Tony shopped at, I bought a length of curtain fabric with drawings of Noddy on it and got a seamstress friend of my mum_s to make me a shirt out of it. For the adverts for my first single, _I_ve Been Loving You_, I wore a fake fur coat and a mock-leopardskin trilby hat. For some reason, the sight of me clad in this striking ensemble failed to galvanize record buyers into the shops when the single was released in March 1968. It was a total flop. I wasn_t surprised. I wasn_t even disappointed. I didn_t particularly want to be a solo artist _ I just wanted to write songs _ and my record deal had come about more or less by accident. Dick_s son Stephen had been shopping demos of our songs around various labels in the hope that one of their artists would record them, someone at Philips had said they liked my voice and the next thing I knew, I had a deal to put out a few singles. I wasn_t sure at all, but I went along with it because I thought it might be one way of getting some exposure for the songs Bernie and I were writing. We were really improving as songwriters. We had been inspired by The Band_s rootsy Americana, and by a new wave of US singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen, who we_d discovered in the imports section of Musicland. Something about their influence clicked with our writing. We_d started coming up with stuff that didn_t feel like pastiches of other people_s work. I_d listened to a song we_d written called _Skyline Pigeon_ over and over again and, thrillingly, I still couldn_t think of anyone else it sounded like _ we_d finally made something that was our own. But Dick James had picked out _I_ve Been Loving You_ as my debut single, apparently after a long but ultimately fruitful search to find the most boring song in my catalogue. He managed to unearth something completely nondescript that Bernie hadn_t even written the lyrics for, one that we_d earmarked for sale to a middle-of-the-road crooner. I suppose it was Dick_s old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley roots showing. I knew it was the wrong choice, but I didn_t feel like arguing. He was the Denmark Street legend who worked with The Beatles, and he_d given us a contract and got me a record deal when he should have thrown Bernie and me out on the street. The adverts claimed it was _the greatest performance on a _first_ disc_, that I was _1968_s great new talent_ and concluded, _YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED_. The British public reacted as if they_d been warned every copy was contaminated with raw sewage; 1968_s great new talent went back to the drawing board. There was one further, unexpected complication in my life at this point. I_d got engaged, to a woman called Linda Woodrow. We_d met in late 1967, at a gig Bluesology played at Sheffield_s Mojo club. Linda was friends with the club_s resident DJ, who was four foot eight and called himself the Mighty Atom. She was tall, blonde and three years older than me. She didn_t have a job. I don_t know where her money came from _ I assumed her family were wealthy _ but she was a woman of independent means. She was very sweet, interested in what I was doing. A post-gig conversation had turned into a meeting that felt suspiciously like a date, which had turned into another date, which had led to her coming down to visit Frome Court. It was an odd relationship. There wasn_t much in the way of physicality, and we certainly never had sex, which Linda took as evidence of old-fashioned chivalry and romance on my part, rather than a lack of interest or willingness: in 1968 it still wasn_t that unusual for couples not to sleep together before they were married. But sexual or not, the relationship started to develop a momentum of its own. Linda decided to move to London and find a flat. Linda could afford one, and so we could move in together. Bernie could be our lodger. I_d be lying if I said I didn_t feel a sense of unease at all this, not least because Linda had started expressing misgivings about the music I was making. She was a big fan of an American crooner called Buddy Greco, and made it fairly clear she thought I would be better off modelling myself on him. But my unease was surprisingly easy to drown out. I liked the idea of moving out of Frome Court. And I suppose I was doing what I thought I should be doing at twenty _ settling down with someone. And so we ended up in a flat in Furlong Road, Islington: me, Bernie, Linda and her pet Chihuahua, Caspar. She got a job as a secretary, and the conversation increasingly turned to getting engaged. By now, the sound of alarm bells was hard to ignore, because the people closest to me kept ringing them. My mother was dead set against the idea, and you can get a pretty good sense of what Bernie thought from the lyrics of the song he subsequently wrote about that period, _Someone Saved My Life Tonight_. It_s hardly a glowing appraisal of Linda_s multitude of good qualities: _a dominating queen_, _sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair_. Bernie didn_t like her at all. He thought she was going to screw up our music with all this stuff about Buddy Greco. He thought she was bossy _ he was furious that, for some reason, she_d made him take down a Simon and Garfunkel poster he_d put up in his room. A cocktail of stubbornness and my aversion to confrontation enabled me to blot the alarm bells out. We got engaged on my twenty-first birthday _ I can_t remember who asked who. A wedding date was set. Arrangements were being made. I started to panic. The obvious course of action was simply to be honest. But the obvious course of action didn_t appeal _ actually telling Linda how I felt was beyond me. So I decided to stage a suicide bid instead. Bernie, who came to my rescue, has never let me forget the exact details of my supposed attempt to end it all by gassing myself. Someone who really wants to kill themselves will commit the act in solitude, so as not to be stopped; they_ll do it at the dead of night, or in a place where they_re alone. I, on the other hand, did it in the middle of the afternoon in a flat full of people: Bernie was in his bedroom, Linda was having a nap. I_d not only put a pillow in the bottom of the oven to rest my head on, I_d taken the precaution of turning the gas to low and opening all the windows in the kitchen. It momentarily seemed quite dramatic when Bernie hauled me out of the oven, but there wasn_t enough carbon monoxide in the room to kill a wasp. I_d expected the reaction to be one of terrible shock, followed by a sudden realization on Linda_s part that my suicidal despair was rooted in unhappiness at our impending marriage. Instead the reaction was mild bemusement. Worse, Linda seemed to think that if I was depressed, it was because of the failure of _I_ve Been Loving You_ to light up the charts. Clearly, this would have been an ideal moment to tell her the truth. Instead, I said nothing. The suicide bid was forgotten, and the wedding remained in the diary. We started looking for a flat together in Mill Hill. It took Long John Baldry to spell out what I already knew. We_d stayed good friends after my departure from Bluesology, and I had asked him to be my best man at the wedding. He seemed quietly entertained by the idea that I was getting married at all, but agreed. We arranged to meet at the Bag O_ Nails club in Soho to talk over the details. Bernie tagged along. There was something strange about John_s mood from the minute that he arrived. He appeared preoccupied. I had no idea what with. I assumed something was going on in his personal life. Perhaps Ozzie had declined to spin around on his dick, or whatever it was they did in private. It took a few drinks until he told me what the problem was, in no uncertain terms. _Oh, fucking hell,_ he erupted. _What are you doing living with a fucking woman? Wake up and smell the roses. You_re gay. You love Bernie more than you love her._ There was an awkward silence. I knew he was right, at least up to a point. I didn_t love Linda, certainly not enough to marry her. I did love Bernie. Not in a sexual way, but he was my best friend in the world. I certainly cared far more about our musical partnership than I did about my fianc?e. But gay? I wasn_t sure about that at all, largely because I still wasn_t 100 per cent certain what being gay entailed, although thanks to a few frank conversations with Tony King I was getting a better idea. Maybe I was gay. Maybe that_s why I admired Tony so much _ I didn_t just want to emulate his clothes and his sense of urbane sophistication, I saw something of myself in him. It was a lot to mull over. Instead of doing that, I argued back. John was being ridiculous. He was drunk _ yet again _ and making a fuss about nothing. I couldn_t possibly cancel the wedding. Everything was arranged. We_d ordered a cake. But John wouldn_t listen. He kept on at me. I_d ruin my life and Linda_s too if I went through with it. I was a fucking idiot, and a coward to boot. As the conversation got more heated and emotional, it began attracting attention. People from adjoining tables became involved. Because it was the Bag O_ Nails, the people from adjoining tables all happened to be pop stars, which lent everything an increasingly surreal edge. Cindy Birdsong from The Supremes chipped in _ I_d known her back in the Bluesology days, when she_d been one of Patti LaBelle_s Blue Belles. Then, somehow, P. J. Proby became embroiled in the conversation. I_d love to be able to tell you what the trouser-splitting, ponytail-wearing enfant terrible of mid-sixties pop had to say regarding my impending wedding, its potential cancellation and, indeed, whether or not I was a homosexual, but by then I was incredibly pissed, and the exact details are a little hazy, although at some point I must have given in and conceded that John was right, at least about the marriage. In my memory, the rest of the night plays out in fractured images. Walking up the road to the flat as dawn was breaking _ arm in arm with Bernie, for moral support _ and the pair of us stumbling against cars and knocking dustbins over. A terrible row, during which Linda threatened to kill herself. A slurred conversation held through the locked door of Bernie_s room _ he_d made himself very scarce shortly after our arrival _ about whether or not we thought Linda was actually going to kill herself. Another conversation through Bernie_s door, asking if he_d mind unlocking it so I could sleep on the floor. The next morning there was another row, and a desperate phone call to Frome Court. _They_re coming in the morning with a truck to take me home,_ Bernie wrote in _Someone Saved My Life Tonight_. That was a bit of poetic licence. There was no _they_ and no truck: only Derf in his little decorator_s van. But Bernie and I did get taken home. Back to the bunk beds in Frome Court we went. Bernie stuck his Simon and Garfunkel poster on the wall. Neither of us ever saw Linda again. three In theory, Bernie and I were only back in Frome Court temporarily, until we found somewhere of our own. It slowly sank in that, in reality, we were going to be there for the foreseeable future. We wouldn_t be getting anywhere of our own, because we couldn_t afford anywhere of our own. We couldn_t afford anywhere of our own because Britain_s singers continued to prove implacably opposed to recording our songs. Occasionally, word would reach us that an artist_s manager or producer was interested in something we_d written. You would get your hopes up and then _ nothing. The rejections piled up. It_s a no from Cliff, I_m afraid. Sorry, Cilla doesn_t think it_s quite right for her. No, Octopus don_t want _When I Was Tealby Abbey_. Octopus? Who the hell were Octopus? Literally the only thing I knew about them was that they didn_t like our songs. We were being turned down by people we_d never even heard of. Nothing was moving. Nothing was happening. It was hard not to get dispirited, although one advantage of living at Frome Court was that my mum was always on hand, armed with her patent method of snapping me out of despair. This involved a straight-faced suggestion that I abandon my songwriting career and go and work in a local shop instead: _Well, you_ve got a choice, you know. There_s a job going in the launderette, if you like._ The launderette, you say? Hmm. Delightful as a career manning the tumble dryers sounds, I think I_ll stick with songwriting for a bit longer. So instead of moving out, we tried to make a bedroom with bunks in it look like an acceptable place for two grown men to live. I joined a Reader_s Digest book club and gradually filled up the shelves with leather-bound editions of Moby Dick and David Copperfield. We got a stereo and two sets of headphones out of the Littlewoods catalogue _ we could afford them because you paid in instalments. We bought a Man Ray poster from Athena in Oxford Street, then went next door to a shop called India Craft and bought some joss sticks. Lying on the floor, with our headphones on, our latest purchase from Musicland on the turntable and the air heady with incense smoke, Bernie and I could momentarily convince ourselves that we were artists living a bohemian existence at the cutting edge of the counterculture. Or at least we could until the spell was broken by my mum knocking on the bedroom door, asking to know what that bleedin_ smell was and, by the way, what did we want for our dinner? I had a little more money than Bernie, because Tony King had used his connections at AIR Studios and Abbey Road to get me work as a session musician. You got ?3 an hour for a three-hour session, paid in cash if you were working at Abbey Road. Better yet, if the session went even a minute over the allotted time, the Musicians_ Union rules meant that you got paid for a session and a half: nearly fifteen quid, the same as I earned in a week at DJM. The final bonus would be if I bumped into Shirley Burns and Carol Weston, the AIR Studios secretaries. They were so fabulous, always ready for a gossip, always happy to suggest my name if they heard of a job going. Something about me apparently brought out the maternal instinct in them, and they would quietly slip me their luncheon vouchers. So that meant a free meal on top of everything else _ I thought I_d died and gone to heaven. But forget the money: the session work was a fantastic experience. A session musician can_t afford to be picky. Whenever work came in, whatever work it was, you accepted it. You had to work quickly and you had to be on point, because your fellow session players were some of the best musicians in the country. Frightening isn_t an adjective you would normally associate with the Mike Sammes Singers, who did backing vocals for everyone _ they looked like middle-aged aunties and uncles who_d arrived at the studio direct from a golf club dinner dance. But if you had to sing alongside them, they suddenly struck the fear of God into you, because they were so good at what they did. And you had to be adaptable, because you were expected to play an incredible variety of music. One day you_d be singing backing vocals for Tom Jones, the next you_d be making a comedy record with The Scaffold, or arranging and playing piano with The Hollies, or trying to come up with a rock version of the theme from Zorba the Greek for The Bread and Beer Band, a project of Tony King_s that never really got off the ground. You constantly met new people and made new contacts: musicians, producers, arrangers, record company staff. One day, I was recording with The Barron Knights when Paul McCartney suddenly walked into the studio. He sat in the control room and listened for a while. Then he went to the piano, announced that this was what he was doing in a studio nearby, and played _Hey Jude_ for eight minutes. That certainly threw what The Barron Knights were doing _ making a novelty record about Des O_Connor taking part in the Olympic Games _ into quite stark relief. Sometimes a session was great because the music you were playing was incredible, but sometimes a session was great because the music you were playing was so terrible. I did a lot of covers albums for a label called Marble Arch: hastily knocked-out versions of current chart hits, released on compilations with titles like Top of the Pops, Hit Parade and Chartbusters, that were sold cheaply in supermarkets. Whenever my involvement in them comes up, people talk about it as a desperate low point in my career: the poor, undiscovered artist, reduced to anonymously singing other people_s songs in order to earn a crust. I suppose you could look at it like that with the benefit of hindsight, but it certainly didn_t feel that way at the time, because the sessions for the covers albums were screamingly, howlingly funny. The instructions you would get from the producer Alan Caddy were fantastic _ one completely insane request after another. _Can you sing _Young, Gifted And Black_?_ Well, that_s not a song that makes an enormous amount of sense sung by a white guy from Pinner, but I_ll give it a go. _We_re doing _Back Home_ next _ we need you to sound like the England World Cup Squad._ OK, there_s only three singers here and one of us is female, so it_s probably not going to sound indistinguishable from the original, but you_re the boss. On one occasion, I was required to sound like Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees, a great singer but a man possessed of a unique vocal style: a kind of eerie, tremulous, nasal vibrato. I couldn_t do it, unless I physically grabbed hold of my throat and wobbled it around while I was singing. I thought this was a real brainwave, but it caused absolute pandemonium among my fellow musicians. I stood there, wailing away, fingers clasped round my neck, desperately trying not to look across the studio, where the other session singers, David Byron and Dana Gillespie, were clinging on to each other and weeping with laughter. Here_s how much I enjoyed the sessions for the covers albums, this supposedly lamentable artistic nadir in my professional life: I went back and did one after my solo career took off. I assure you I_m not making this up. _Your Song_ was written, the Elton John album was out, I_d been on Top of the Pops, I was about to go to America for my first tour, and I went back into the studio and happily belted out shonky versions of _In The Summertime_ and _Let_s Work Together_ for some terrible album sold in a supermarket for fourteen and sixpence. It was, as usual, a hoot. But the session work was far from the most important thing about my friendship with Tony King. He had a great circle of friends, like a little gang, mostly made up of gay men who worked in the music business. They were record producers, men who worked at the BBC, promoters and pluggers, and a Scottish guy called John Reid, who was young, ambitious, very confident and very funny. He was advancing through the music industry at an incredible rate. Eventually he was made the UK label manager for Tamla Motown, dealing with The Supremes, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson, a prestigious appointment that Tony commemorated with suitable gravitas by always referring to John thereafter as Pamela Motown. Tony_s group weren_t particularly wild or outrageous _ they had dinner parties, or went out to restaurants and pubs together, rather than haunting London_s gay clubs _ but I just loved their company. They were sophisticated and smart and very, very funny: I adored that camp sense of humour. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was something odd about how completely at home I felt when I was with them. I_d never been a loner, I_d always had lots of friends _ at school, in Bluesology, in Denmark Street _ but this was different, more like a sense of belonging. I felt like one of the kids in Mary Poppins, suddenly being exposed to this magical new world. Twelve months after John Baldry had drunkenly announced that I was gay to everyone within earshot at the Bag O_ Nails, I decided he was right. As if to underline the point, my libido unexpectedly decided to show its face for the first time, like a flustered latecomer to a party that was supposed to have started ten years ago. At twenty-one, I suddenly seemed to be undergoing some kind of belated adolescence. There were suddenly a lot of quiet crushes on men. It clearly wasn_t just his sense of humour and extensive knowledge of American soul that made me find John Reid so captivating, for one. Of course, I never acted on any of them. I wouldn_t have known how. I_d never knowingly chatted anyone up in my life. I_d never been to a gay club. I had no idea how you picked someone up. What was I supposed to say? _Do you want to come to the cinema with me and maybe get your knob out later_? That_s the main memory I have of the reality of my sexuality dawning on me. I don_t recall feeling anxious or tormented. I just remember wanting to have sex, having absolutely no idea how to do it and feeling terrified that I might get it wrong. I never even told Tony I was gay. Besides, I had other things on my mind. One morning, Bernie and I were called into a meeting at DJM with Steve Brown, who_d recently taken over from Caleb as the studio manager. He told us he_d listened to the songs we had been recording and thought we were wasting our time. _You need to stop this rubbish. You_re not very good at it. In fact,_ he nodded, clearly warming to this disheartening theme, _you_re hopeless. You_re never going to make it as songwriters. You can_t do it at all._ I sat there reeling. Oh, wonderful. This is it. The Northwood Hills launderette beckons. Maybe not; there was always the session work. But what about Bernie? The poor sod was going to end up back in Owmby-by-Spital, pushing his wheelbarrow full of dead chickens around again, the only evidence that he_d ever had a career in music one flop single he didn_t actually write and a rejection note from Octopus, whoever they were. We hadn_t even paid off the HP on the stereo. As my mind raced, I became aware that elsewhere in the room, Steve Brown was still talking. He was saying something about _Lady What_s Tomorrow_, one of the songs we_d written that we hadn_t even bothered to try and sell. It was influenced by Leonard Cohen, and clearly Cilla Black wasn_t going to be interested. But Steve Brown apparently was. _You need to write more songs like that,_ he continued. _You need to do what you want to do, not what you think will sell. I_m going to talk to Dick and see if we can make an album._ Afterwards, Bernie and I sat in the pub, trying to process what had just happened. On the one hand, I didn_t have any great ambitions to be a solo artist. On the other, the opportunity to stop writing the weepies and bubblegum pop was too good to turn down. And we still thought releasing Elton John records was a good way of showcasing the kind of songs we liked. The more exposure our songs got, the more likely it was that another, more famous artist might hear them and decide to record one themselves. There was one problem. The deal with Philips was for singles: they wanted a follow-up to _I_ve Been Loving You_, not an album. So Steve Brown recorded a new song that Bernie and I had written, following his instruction to stop trying to be commercial and do what we liked. It was called _Lady Samantha_, and it felt like a breakthrough. Admittedly, at this stage of my career, making a single that I could listen to without emitting an involuntary yell of horror would have constituted a breakthrough, but _Lady Samantha_ was a pretty good song. It sounded completely different from _I_ve Been Loving You_: it was weightier, hipper, more confident. Released in January 1969, it became what used to be called a _turntable hit_, which was a polite way of saying it was a single that got played on the radio a lot but no one actually bought. In the aftermath of its failure, we discovered Philips weren_t interested in renewing our deal: for some inexplicable reason, they seemed very resistant to financing an album by an artist who_d so far done nothing but lose them money. Dick James vaguely mentioned putting it out himself, setting up a proper label, rather than just licensing recordings out to other record companies, but he seemed more keen on talking about the Eurovision Song Contest. Much to Dick_s delight, one of the attempts at middle-of-the-road songwriting we were supposed to have forgotten about had now been mooted as a potential UK entry. Lulu was going to sing six songs on her TV show and the British public were going to vote for a winner. To say Bernie greeted this news coolly was an understatement. He was appalled. Back then, Eurovision wasn_t quite the orgy of embarrassment it is now, but still, it wasn_t like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were queuing up to get involved. Worse, he hadn_t actually had anything to do with the song, even though it had his name on the credits. I_d knocked together the lyrics myself. It was _I_ve Been Loving You_ all over again. We were suddenly back where we started. Bernie_s worst fears were confirmed when we sat down in Frome Court to watch the Lulu show. Our song _ my song _ was completely undistinguished and forgettable, which was more than you could say for the rest of them. Every other songwriter seemed to have come up with an idea so horrendous you couldn_t forget it if you tried. One was like something drunk Germans would slap their knees to in a Bavarian beer hall. Another featured the appalling combination of a big band and a bouzouki. Another was called _March_. The title didn_t refer to the month. The song was literally about marching, with an arrangement featuring a military brass band to ram home the point. Steve Brown was right. We really couldn_t do this kind of thing at all, a fact underlined when our song came last in the public vote. The German oompah song won. It was called _Boom Bang-A-Bang_. The next day, we arrived at DJM to discover that the Daily Express had published an article helpfully explaining that our song had lost because it was self-evidently the worst of the lot. Dick wearily conceded that perhaps it might be better if we stopped wasting everybody_s time and made our own album instead. If Philips wouldn_t release it, then he would hire a press and promotions guy and start his own record label after all. So we were sequestered in the little DJM studio, with Steve Brown producing and Clive Franks operating the tape machine. Clive was the guy who recorded The Troggs Tape; years later, he ended up co-producing some of my albums, and he still works with me today, doing the sound engineering for my live shows. We collectively threw everything we could at the new songs. Psychedelic sound effects, harpsichords, backwards guitar solos courtesy of Caleb, flutes, bongos, stereo panning, improvised jazz interludes, trick endings where the songs faded out then suddenly back in again, the sound of Clive whistling. If you listened carefully, you could hear the kitchen sink being dragged into the studio. We might have been better off had we realized less is sometimes more, but you don_t think like that when you_re making your first album. There_s a faint voice at the back of your mind telling you that you might never make another, so you may as well try everything while you have the chance. But, God, it was so much fun, such an adventure. The album was called Empty Sky. It came out on Dick_s new DJM label on 6 June 1969. I can remember listening back to the title track and thinking it was the greatest thing I_d ever heard in my life. Empty Sky wasn_t a hit _ it only sold a few thousand copies _ but I could still sense things were starting to move, very gradually. The reviews were promising rather than great, but they were definitely an improvement on being told by the Daily Express that you couldn_t write a song as good as _Boom Bang-A-Bang_. Just as the album was released, we got a phone call to say that Three Dog Night had covered _Lady Samantha_ on their new album. Three Dog Night! They were American! An actual American rock band had recorded one of our songs. Not a light entertainer with a Saturday-night variety show on BBC1, not an entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest: a hip, successful American rock band. Bernie and I had a song on an album that was in the US Top Twenty. And Empty Sky gave me material, which meant I could play live. The first gigs were pretty tentative. They were little pop-up shows; I was playing with any musicians I could find _ usually Caleb and his new band Hookfoot _ and I was still nervous: the last time I had been onstage, Long John Baldry had his tape recorder out and I was in a kaftan, suffering a complete collapse of the will to live. But the gigs got better the more comfortable I felt, and they really took off when I assembled my own band. I had met Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray lurking around DJM. Nigel was playing with a band called Plastic Penny, who had a big hit single in 1968 and, incredibly, had actually bought one of the songs Bernie and I had been trying to sell the previous year. It somehow seemed symbolic of our luck that they recorded it on an album that was released just as Plastic Penny_s moment in the spotlight passed and their career went down the toilet. Dee, meanwhile, had been in The Mirage, a psychedelic band who released singles for years without getting anywhere. They were fantastic musicians and we clicked straight away. Dee was an incredible bass player. Nigel was a drummer from the Keith Moon and Ginger Baker school, a showman with a kit that took up most of our rehearsal space and had his name emblazoned across his twin bass drums. They could both sing. We didn_t need a guitarist. The sound the three of us made was already huge and raw. Plus, there_s something about performing in a trio that gives you a real freedom to play off the cuff. It didn_t matter that we couldn_t replicate the tricky arrangements of the album: instead we could stretch out and improvise, play solos, turn songs into medleys, suddenly launch into an old Elvis cover or a version of _Give Peace A Chance_. I started to think more about how I looked onstage. I wanted to be a frontman, but I was trapped behind a piano. I couldn_t strut around like Mick Jagger, or smash my instrument up like Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend: bitter subsequent experience has taught me that if you get carried away and try and smash up a piano by pushing it offstage, you end up looking less like a lawless rock god and more like a furniture removal man having a bad day. So I thought about the piano players I_d loved as a kid, how they had managed to communicate excitement while stuck behind the old nine-foot plank, as I affectionately called it. I thought of Jerry Lee Lewis kicking his stool away and jumping on the keyboard, how Little Richard stood up and leaned back when he played, even the way Winifred Atwell would turn to the audience and grin. They all influenced my performances. It turned out that playing the piano standing up like Little Richard is bloody hard work when you have arms as short as mine, but I persevered. We didn_t sound like anyone else, and now we didn_t look like anyone else either. Whatever else might have been happening in pop as the sixties turned into the seventies, I was fairly certain there weren_t any other piano-led power trios whose frontman was trying to mix the outrageousness and aggression of early rock and roll with Winifred Atwell_s bonhomie. As we toured around colleges and hippy venues like the Roundhouse, the gigs got wilder and the music got better, especially when we started playing the latest batch of songs Bernie and I had come up with. I confess, I_m not always the best judge of my own work _ I am, after all, the man who loudly announced that _Don_t Let The Sun Go Down On Me_ was such a terrible song that I would never countenance releasing it, of which more later _ but even I could tell that our new material was in a different league to anything we_d produced before. They were easy songs to write _ Bernie got the lyrics to _Your Song_ over breakfast one morning in Frome Court, handed them to me and I wrote the music in fifteen minutes flat _ because, in a way, we_d already done all the hard work. The way they sounded was the culmination of the hours we_d previously put in trying to write together, the gigs I_d been playing with Nigel and Dee that had boosted my confidence, the years I_d spent at the Royal Academy much against my will, the nights on the club circuit in Bluesology. Something like _Border Song_ or _Take Me To The Pilot_ had a sort of funk and soulfulness that I_d picked up backing Patti LaBelle and Major Lance, but they also had a classical influence that seeped in from all those Saturday mornings where I_d been forced to study Chopin and Bart?k. They were also the product of the bedroom at Frome Court. At the time we were writing, two artists were constantly on the Littlewoods stereo. One was the rock/soul duo Delaney and Bonnie. I was completely obsessed with the way their keyboardist, Leon Russell, played. It was like he_d somehow climbed into my head and worked out exactly how I wanted to play piano before I did. He_d managed to synthesize all the music I loved _ rock and roll, blues, gospel, country _ into one, perfectly natural style. And the other was The Band. We played their first two albums over and over again. Like Leon Russell_s piano playing, their songs felt like someone switching a torch on and showing us a new path to follow, a way we could do what we wanted to do. _Chest Fever_, _Tears Of Rage_, _The Weight_: this was what we craved to write. Bernie went crazy for the lyrics. Ever since he was a kid, he_d loved gritty stories about old America, and that was what The Band told: _Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train, _til Stoneman_s cavalry came and tore the tracks up again_. They were white musicians making soul music without covering _In The Midnight Hour_, or doing something that was just a pale imitation of what black artists did. It was a revelation. When we played Dick the demos of the new songs, he was knocked out. Despite the sales of Empty Sky, he said he wanted another album. What_s more, he was going to give us ?6,000 to make it. That was a remarkable leap of faith. It was an incredible amount of money to spend on an album in those days, especially one by an artist who had barely sold any records yet. There_s no doubting the belief Dick had in us, but I think his hand may also have been forced a little. Bernie and I had become friends with Muff Winwood, Stevie_s brother, who worked for Island Records and lived not far from Frome Court _ I think we literally bumped into him on a train back to Pinner one day. We would go round to his house a couple of nights a week with a bottle of Mateus Ros? and a box of chocolates for his wife Zena _ very sophisticated _ play table football or Monopoly and pump Muff for advice about the music business. When he heard the new songs, he was really enthusiastic, and wanted to sign us to Island, a much bigger and cooler label than DJM. Word of a competitor got back to Dick, which might have galvanized him into getting his chequebook out. Whatever the reason, the money meant we could move out of DJM into a proper studio, Trident in Soho. Steve Brown suggested we should get an outside producer: Gus Dudgeon, who_d produced David Bowie_s _Space Oddity_, a number one single that we all loved the sound of. We could afford strings and an arranger, Paul Buckmaster, who had worked on _Space Oddity_ too. Paul arrived looking like D_Artagnan _ he had long centre-parted hair, a goatee beard and a big hat. He seemed a bit eccentric, which, as it turned out, was a false first impression. Paul wasn_t a bit eccentric. He was so eccentric as to suggest he might be genuinely nuts. He would stand in front of the orchestra and make noises with his mouth to indicate what he wanted them to do: _I don_t know how to describe what I want, but I want you to make a sound like this._ They got it exactly right. He was a genius. But then everything about the sessions was weirdly magical. Me, Gus, Steve and Paul had planned everything out in advance _ the songs, the sound, the arrangements _ and it all just fell into place. I had barely touched a harpsichord before we hired one for _I Need You To Turn To_; it was a really hard instrument to play, but I did it. I was petrified about playing live with an orchestra, but I psyched myself up, telling myself that this was it, something was finally coming to fruition. All those crappy clubs with Long John Baldry and his tape recorder, all the session work, Derf carrying his pint pot round for tips at the Northwood Hills Hotel, Bernie and me escaping from Furlong Road and Linda_s dreams of turning me into Buddy Greco: it was all leading up to this. And it worked. The whole album was done in four days. We knew we_d made something good, something that would push us on to the next level. We were right. When it came out in April 1970 the reviews of Elton John were fantastic; John Peel played it and it crept into the bottom end of the charts. We started getting offers to play in Europe, although every time we went there something bizarre seemed to happen. In Paris, some genius booked us as the support act to S?rgio Mendes and Brasil _66. An audience expecting an evening of bossa nova showed their delight at having their musical horizons unexpectedly broadened by booing us off. We turned up in Knokke, Belgium to discover we weren_t playing a gig at all: it was a televised song contest. We went to Holland to appear on a TV show and instead of getting us to perform, they insisted on making a film of me in a park, miming _Your Song_ into a microphone while surrounded, for some reason, by actors pretending to be paparazzi taking my photograph. They still show it on TV sometimes. I look absolutely furious, like I_m about to punch somebody _ a fairly accurate representation of how I felt, but not really the ideal delivery for a tender ballad about blossoming love. Back at home, though, a buzz was definitely building. In August, we played the Krumlin Festival in Yorkshire, which should have been a disaster. It was in a field in the middle of the moors. It was freezing cold, pouring with rain and completely disorganized. The stage was still being built when the festival was supposed to start, which gave the bands who were supposed to play time to start squabbling over the running order. I couldn_t be bothered getting involved with that, so we just went on, handed out brandy to the crowd and tore the place apart while Atomic Rooster and The Pretty Things were still backstage, arguing about who was the biggest star. I started seeing famous faces in the audiences at our London shows, which meant that word was getting about in the music business that we were worth checking out. A couple of weeks before we played Krumlin, Pete Townshend from The Who and Jeff Beck had turned up to our show at the Speakeasy club, which had taken over from the Cromwellian and the Bag O_ Nails as London_s big music industry hang-out. We got invited on Top of the Pops to play _Border Song_: our appearance didn_t do much to help its sales as a single, but Dusty Springfield introduced herself to us in the dressing room and offered to mime backing vocals during our performance. My mouth just hung open. I_d travelled to Harrow to see her live with The Springfields when I was still at school, and hung around outside the stage door afterwards, just to get another glimpse of her: she walked past in a lilac top and mauve skirt, looking incredibly chic. I_d joined her fan club in the early sixties and stuck posters of her on my bedroom wall. The only obstacle to our progress was Dick, who had got it into his head that we should go to America and play there. He had managed to sell the album to a US label called Uni _ a division of MCA _ and kept talking about how enthusiastic they were about it, how they wanted us to play some club shows. I couldn_t see the point, and told him so. Something was starting to happen in Britain. The gigs were great, the album was selling OK and Dusty Springfield liked me. Bernie and I were writing song after song _ we_d already started working on demos for the next album. Why lose the momentum by leaving now and going to America, where no one knew who I was? The more I argued, the more adamant Dick became that we should go. But then I was handed a lifeline. After the Speakeasy show, Jeff Beck had invited me along to his rehearsal space in Chalk Farm to jam. Then his agent set up a meeting at DJM. Jeff effectively wanted to use me, Dee and Nigel as his backing band for an American tour. I would get a solo spot during the set, where I could play my own songs. It seemed like an incredible offer. Jeff Beck was one of the greatest guitar players I_d ever seen. His last album, Beck-Ola, had been a huge hit. Admittedly, we were only to get 10 per cent of the nightly earnings, but 10 per cent of Jeff Beck_s earnings was still a lot more than we were making now. And the important thing was the exposure. These would be big audiences, and I_d be playing my songs in front of them _ not as a completely unknown artist, but as part of Jeff Beck_s band; not as a support act that everyone could ignore, but in the middle of the main set. I was ready to ask them where to sign when Dick told Beck_s agent to stuff their 10 per cent. What was he doing? I tried to catch his eye, in order to wordlessly communicate that he should consider the wisdom of shutting up immediately. He didn_t look at me. The agent said the deal was non-negotiable. Dick shrugged. _I promise you now,_ he said, _that in six months_ time, Elton John will be earning twice what Jeff Beck does._ What? Dick, you fucking idiot. What did you have to say that for? It sounded remarkably like a statement that was going to follow me around for the rest of my career. I could see myself in five years_ time, still slogging around the clubs, The Guy Who Was Going To Earn Twice What Jeff Beck Does. The agent swiftly disappeared _ he was probably in a hurry to inform the rest of the music industry that Dick James had lost his marbles _ but Dick was completely unrepentant. I didn_t need Jeff Beck. I should go to America on my own. The songs on Elton John were great. The band was fantastic live. The US record label were behind us all the way. They were going to pull out all the stops to promote us. One day I_d thank him for this. Back at Frome Court, I talked it over with Bernie. He suggested we should think of it as a holiday. We could visit places we had only seen on TV or in films _ 77 Sunset Strip, the Beverly Hillbillies_ mansion. We could go to Disneyland. We could go record shopping. Besides, the US record label were going to pull out all the stops. We_d probably be met at the airport by a limousine. Maybe a Cadillac. A Cadillac! We stood blinking in the Los Angeles sunshine, a little cluster of us _ me and Bernie, Dee and Nigel, Steve Brown and Ray Williams, who DJM had appointed my manager, our roadie Bob and David Larkham, who_d designed the covers for Empty Sky and Elton John. We were befuddled by jet lag and trying to work out why there was a bright red London bus parked outside LAX Airport. A bright red London bus with my name painted on the side of it: ELTON JOHN HAS ARRIVED. A bright red London bus that our excited American publicist, Norman Winter, was currently urging us to get on board. Bernie and I exchanged a dismayed glance: oh, for fuck_s sake, this is our limo, isn_t it? You have no idea how slowly a London Routemaster bus goes until you_ve travelled on one from LAX to Sunset Boulevard. It took us two and a half hours, partly because the thing had a top speed of about forty miles an hour, and partly because we had to take the scenic route _ they wouldn_t allow a double-decker on the freeway. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Bernie gradually sliding down in his seat, until he couldn_t be seen from outside the window, presumably in case Bob Dylan or a member of The Band happened to drive past and laugh at him. This really wasn_t how I_d expected our arrival in California to pan out. Were it not for the fact that I could see palm trees out of the window and the bus was filled with Americans _ the staff of Uni Records _ I might as well have been on the 38 to Clapton Pond. It was my first experience of the difference between British record companies and US ones. In Britain, no matter how much your label loves you, no matter how passionate they are about working on your album, it_s always tempered by a certain reserve, a national tendency to understatement and dry humour. That clearly wasn_t the case in America: it was just non-stop enthusiasm, a completely different kind of energy. No one had ever talked to me the way Norman Winter was talking _ _this is gonna be huge, we_ve done this, we_ve done that, Odetta_s coming to the show, Bread are coming to the show, The Beach Boys are coming to the show, it_s gonna be incredible_. No one had ever talked to me as much as Norman Winter was talking: as far as I could tell, his mouth hadn_t actually stopped moving since he_d introduced himself in the arrivals lounge. It was simultaneously startling and weirdly exhilarating. And everything he said turned out to be completely true. Norman Winter and his promotions department had done this and done that: got LA record stores to stock the album and display posters, lined up interviews, invited umpteen stars to see the show. Someone had convinced my Uni labelmate Neil Diamond to get onstage and introduce me. I was headlining over David Ackles, which seemed completely ridiculous. _But David Ackles is on Elektra,_ protested Bernie weakly, remembering the hours we_d spent in Frome Court listening to his debut album and discussing the incomparable West Coast hipness of the label that had released it: Elektra, run by the great Jac Holzman, home to The Doors and Love, Tim Buckley and Delaney and Bonnie. It was fantastic work from a passionate and committed team who had used every bit of their expertise in creating hype. They had miraculously turned a show by an unknown artist at a 300-capacity club into an event. And it certainly had a profound knock-on effect on me. Before, I_d been dubious about the idea of playing in America. Now, I was absolutely terrified. When everybody else went on a day trip to Palm Springs, arranged by Ray, I wisely elected to remain at the hotel alone, in order to concentrate on the pressing business of panicking about the gig. The more I panicked, the more furious I got. How dare they all go to Palm Springs and enjoy themselves, when they should have been back at the hotel with me, pointlessly worrying themselves sick? In the absence of anybody to shout at in person, I rang Dick James in London and shouted at him. I was coming back to England. Now. They could stick their gig and their star-studded guest list and their onstage introduction from Neil Diamond up their arses. It took all Dick_s powers of avuncular persuasion to stop me packing my suitcase. I decided to stay, dividing my remaining time before the gig between record shopping and a little light sulking whenever anyone mentioned Palm Springs. I can remember two things very clearly about the first show we played at the Troubadour. The first is that the applause as I walked onstage had a slightly odd quality to it: it was accompanied by a kind of surprised murmur, as if the audience were expecting someone else. In a way, I suppose they were. The cover of the Elton John album is dark and sombre. The musicians on the back are dressed down and hippyish _ I_m wearing a black T-shirt and a crocheted waistcoat. And that_s the guy they assumed they_d see: a brooding, introspective singer-songwriter. But when I_d gone shopping for new clothes a couple of weeks before I left for the States, I_d visited a clothes shop in Chelsea called Mr Freedom, about which there was a real buzz developing: the designer Tommy Roberts was letting his imagination run riot, making clothes that looked like a cartoonist had drawn them. The stuff in the window was so outrageous that I hung around on the pavement outside for ages, trying to pluck up the courage to go in. Once I did, Tommy Roberts was so friendly and enthusiastic that he talked me into buying a selection of clothes not even Tony King would have countenanced wearing in public. Wearing them, I felt different, like I was expressing a side of my personality that I_d kept hidden, a desire to be outrageous and over-the-top. I suppose it all went back to chancing on that photo of Elvis in the barber_s in Pinner when I was a kid: I liked that sense of shock, of seeing a star who made you wonder what the hell was going on. The clothes from Mr Freedom weren_t outrageous because they were sexy or threatening, they were outrageous because they were larger than life, more fun than the world around them. I loved them. Before I went onstage at the Troubadour, I put them all on at once. So instead of an introspective hippy singer-songwriter, the audience were greeted by the sight of a man in bright yellow dungarees, a long-sleeved T-shirt covered in stars and a pair of heavy workman_s boots, also bright yellow, with a large set of blue wings sprouting from them. This was not the way sensitive singer-songwriters in America in 1970 looked. This was not the way anyone of sound mind in America in 1970 looked. And the second thing I remember very clearly is peering out into the crowd while we were playing and realizing, with a nasty start, that Leon Russell was in the second row. I hadn_t spotted any of the galaxy of stars that were supposed to be there, but you couldn_t miss him. He looked incredible, a vast mane of silver hair and a long beard framing a mean, impassive face. I couldn_t tear my eyes off him, even though looking at him made the bottom fall out of my stomach. The gig had been going well up to that point _ Dee and Nigel sounded tight, we_d started to relax and stretch out the songs a little. Now I suddenly felt as nervous as I had at the hotel on the day of the Palm Springs trip. It was like one of those terrible nightmares where you_re back at school, sitting a test, then realize that you_re not wearing any trousers or underpants: you_re playing the most important gig of your career, then see your idol in the audience, glaring at you, stony-faced. I had to pull myself together. I had to do something to take my mind off the fact that Leon Russell was watching me. I jumped to my feet and kicked my piano stool away. I stood there, knees bent, pounding at the keys like Little Richard. I dropped to the floor, balancing on one hand and playing with the other, my head under the piano. Then I stood up, threw myself forward and did a handstand on the keyboard. Judging by the noise the audience made, they hadn_t expected that either. Afterwards, I stood, dazed, in the fug of the packed dressing room. It had gone amazingly well. Everyone from Britain was elated. Norman Winter was talking with a speed and intensity that suggested that on the journey from LAX he_d actually been at his most laid-back and laconic. People from Uni Records kept bringing other people over to shake my hand. Journalists. Celebrities. Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones_s wife. Quincy Jones_s children. He seemed to have turned up with his entire family. I couldn_t take anything in. Then I froze. Somewhere over the shoulder of one of Quincy Jones_s umpteen relatives I could see Leon Russell in the doorway. He started pushing through the crowd towards me. His face was as impassive and mean as it had seemed from the stage: he didn_t look much like a man who_d just enjoyed the night of his life. Shit. I_ve been found out. He_s going to tell everyone what a fraud I am. He_s going to tell me that I can_t play piano. He shook my hand and asked how I was doing. His voice was a soft Oklahoma drawl. Then he told me I_d just played a great gig, and asked if I wanted to go on tour with him. The next few days passed like a strange, feverish dream. We played more shows at the Troubadour, all of them packed out, all of them fantastic. More celebrities came. Each night, I rummaged deeper in my bag of Mr Freedom clothes, pulling out stuff that was more and more outrageous, until I found myself facing an audience of rock stars and Los Angeles tastemakers wearing a pair of tight silver hot pants, bare legs and a T-shirt with ROCK AND ROLL emblazoned across it in sequins. Leon Russell appeared backstage again and told me his home-made recipe for a sore throat remedy, as if we were old friends. Uni Records took us all to Disneyland, and I bought armfuls of albums at Tower Records on Sunset Strip. The LA Times published a review by their music editor, Robert Hilburn. _Rejoice,_ it opened. _Rock music, which has been going through a rather uneventful period recently, has a new star. He_s Elton John, a 23-year-old Englishman, whose debut Tuesday night at the Troubadour was, in almost every way, magnificent._ Fucking hell. Bob Hilburn was a huge deal: I_d known he was at the gig, but I had no idea he was going to write that. Once it was published, Ray Williams was suddenly deluged with offers from American promoters. It was decided we_d extend our stay and play more shows, in San Francisco and New York. I did interview after interview. The Elton John album was all over FM radio. One station in Pasadena, KPPC, took out a full-page advert in the Los Angeles Free Press literally thanking me for coming to America. As everyone knows, fame, especially sudden fame, is a hollow, shallow and dangerous thing, its dark, seductive powers no substitute for true love or real friendship. On the other hand, if you_re a terribly shy person, desperately in need of a confidence boost _ someone who spent a lot of their childhood trying to be as invisible as possible so you didn_t provoke one of your mum_s moods or your dad_s rage _ I can tell you for a fact that being hailed as the future of rock and roll in the LA Times and feted by a succession of your musical heroes will definitely do the trick. As evidence, I present to you the sight of Elton John, a twenty-three-year-old virgin, a man who_s never chatted anyone up in his life, on the night of 31 August 1970. I am in San Francisco, where I_m due to play a gig in a few days_ time. I am spending the evening at the Fillmore, watching the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention _ fellow survivors of the sodden hell that was the Krumlin Festival _ and meeting the venue_s owner, legendary promoter Bill Graham, who is keen for me to perform at his New York concert hall, the Fillmore East. But I_m not really concentrating on Fairport Convention or Bill Graham. Because I have decided that tonight is the night I_m going to seduce someone. Or allow myself to be seduced. Definitely one or the other; either will do. I_d discovered that John Reid happened to be in San Francisco at the same time as me, attending Motown Records_ tenth anniversary celebrations. Since meeting him through Tony King, I_d casually dropped in on him at EMI a couple of times. Whatever feeble signals I was attempting to give off _ if indeed I actually was attempting to give any signals off _ went completely unnoticed. He seemed to think I was only visiting in order to ransack the pile of soul singles in his office, or to give him copies of my own records. But that was then. Emboldened by the events of the last week, I managed to find out where he was staying and rang him up. I breathlessly told him about what had happened in LA, and then, as nonchalantly as possible, suggested we should meet up. I was staying at the Miyako, a nice little Japanese-themed hotel near the Fillmore. Perhaps he could come over for a drink one night? The gig finished. I went backstage to say hello to Fairport, had a couple of drinks and a quick chat, then made my excuses and went back to the Miyako alone. I hadn_t been in my room long when the phone rang: there_s a Mr Reid to see you in reception. Oh God. This is it. four Things moved very quickly after that night in San Francisco. A week later, I was in Philadelphia, doing interviews, when I got a call from John, who_d gone back to England, telling me that he_d bumped into Tony King at the BBC. He_d told Tony what had happened, and what our plans were. Tony had gone from baffled _ _Reg? Reg is gay? You_re moving in together, as in moving in together?_ _ to uproariously amused when he heard about my desire that the relationship stay low-key. _What do you mean, Reg wants to keep it quiet? He_s with you! Everyone who_s set foot in a London gay club knows about you! He might as well hang a fucking neon sign out of the window with I AM GAY written on it._ I wanted to keep it quiet because I wasn_t sure how people would react if they knew. I needn_t have worried. None of my friends or the people I worked with cared at all. Bernie, the band, Dick James and Steve Brown: I got the feeling they were just relieved that I_d finally had sex. And outside of those circles, no one seemed to entertain the faintest possibility that I might be anything other than straight. It seems insane now that no one even raised an eyebrow, when you consider what I was wearing and doing onstage, but it was a different world then. Homosexuality had only been decriminalized in Britain for three years: the wider public_s knowledge or understanding of the subject was pretty sketchy. When we toured America, all the legendary groupies from that era _ the Plaster Casters and Sweet Connie from Little Rock _ would turn up backstage, to the evident delight of the band and road crew. I_d think, _Hang on, what are you doing here? Surely you_re not here for me? Surely someone_s told you? And even if they haven_t, I_ve just been carried onstage by a bodybuilder, while wearing half the world_s supply of diamant?, sequins and marabou feathers _ does that not suggest anything to you?_ Apparently not. I became quite adept at slipping away and locking myself in the toilet to escape their attentions. If anyone I knew felt it was odd that I was setting up home with John so soon, they didn_t mention it. And as it turned out, the speed with which my relationship with John progressed was just the first indication of what I was like. I was the kind of person who met someone, immediately fell head over heels and started planning our life together. Incapable of telling a crush from real love, I could see the white picket fence and an eternity of connubial bliss before I_d even spoken to someone. Later, when I was really famous, this became a terrible problem both for me and the object of my affections. I_d insist they gave up their own lives in order to follow me around on tour, with disastrous results every time. But that was in the future. I really was in love with John _ that intense, guileless, naive kind of first love. And I_d just discovered sex. It made sense to move in together. Under the circumstances, my current living arrangements were hardly ideal. Straight or gay, you_re going to struggle to conduct a meaningful sexual relationship with someone if you_re living in your mum_s spare room and your co-writer_s trying to sleep in the bunk bed under yours. When I got back from America we started looking for a flat to rent together. We found one in a development called the Water Gardens, near Edgware Road: one bedroom, a bathroom, a living room and a kitchen. Bernie temporarily moved in with Steve Brown. He_d fallen in love in California too, with a girl called Maxine, who_d been on the famous day trip to Palm Springs. No wonder he_d been so eager to go. The last people I told were my mum and Derf. I waited until a few weeks after I_d moved out. I suppose I was psyching myself up. I finally decided the moment was right the night John and I were supposed to go and see Liberace at the London Palladium. We had tickets, but I told John to go on his own, I had to ring Mum that night. I was nervous, but the phone call went OK. I told Mum I was gay and she seemed totally unsurprised: _Oh, we know. We_ve known that for a long time._ At the time I put her knowledge of my sexuality down to the intangible mystic power of a mother_s intuition, although, with the benefit of hindsight, she and Derf probably got an inkling what was going on when they helped move my stuff into the Water Garden and realized that I was living in a one-bedroom flat with another man. Mum wasn_t exactly thrilled by the idea that I was gay _ she said something about condemning myself to a life of loneliness, which didn_t seem to make a huge amount of sense, given that I was in a relationship _ but at least she hadn_t disowned me, or refused to accept it. And bizarrely, when he got home, I noticed that John looked like he_d had a much more stressful evening than I had. It turned out that midway through the show, Liberace had unexpectedly announced that he had a very special guest in the audience, a wonderful new singer who was going to be a big star: __ and I know he_s here tonight, and I_m going to make him stand up and wave to you all, because he_s so fabulous _ Elton John!_ Assuming that my reluctance to make myself known was down to modesty, Liberace had become progressively more solicitous _ _Come on now, Elton, don_t be shy, the audience want to meet you. Don_t you wanna meet Elton John, ladies and gentlemen? I tell you, this guy_s gonna be huge _ let_s give him a big hand and see if we can_t get him to say hello_ _ while a huge spotlight vainly circled the stalls. In John_s telling of the story, Liberace had carried on like this for about three weeks, during which time the audience had grown first restless, then audibly irritated at my churlish refusal to show myself. Meanwhile, the one person among them who actually knew Elton John_s whereabouts had grown concerned he was going to become the first person in history to literally die of embarrassment. Eventually, Liberace had given up. According to John, he was still smiling, but something about the way he launched into Liszt_s Hungarian Rhapsody suggested murderous fury. Ruining a Liberace concert while coming out to my parents notwithstanding, life was heaven. I was finally able to be who I was, to have no fear about myself, to have no fear about sex. I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say John taught me how to be debauched. As Tony had noted, John really knew the gay scene, the clubs and the pubs. We_d go to the Vauxhall Tavern to see Lee Sutton, this great drag queen _ _The name is Lee Sutton, DSM, OBE _ Dirty Sex Maniac, On the Bed with Everybody_ _ and to the Sombrero club on Kensington High Street. We would have dinner parties and other musicians would drop by. One night, after we went to see him play live, Neil Young came back home with us and, after a few drinks, elected to perform his forthcoming album in its entirety for us at 2 a.m. Already alerted to the fact that an impromptu party was going on by the nerve-jangling sound of my friend Kiki Dee drunkenly walking into a glass door while holding a tray containing every champagne glass we owned, the delight of the adjoining flats at Neil Young performing his forthcoming album was audible. So that_s how I heard the classic _Heart Of Gold_ for the first time, presented in a unique arrangement of solo piano, voice and neighbour intermittently banging on the ceiling with a broom handle and loudly imploring Neil Young to shut up. My career suddenly had real momentum. We weren_t as big in Britain as we were in the US, but the band and I had come back from America with a new sense of purpose. We_d been validated, ratified by so many people over there that we knew we were on to something. Word of what had happened in Los Angeles had filtered back to Britain and the press were suddenly interested. A hippy magazine called Friends sent a journalist to interview me. I played him two tracks we_d already recorded for the next album, Tumbleweed Connection, and in the subsequent article he went as nuts as Robert Hilburn had done: _I think that along with his lyricist he will possibly become the finest, and almost certainly the most popular songwriter in England, and eventually the world._ We played at the Royal Albert Hall, supporting Fotheringay, a band formed by Fairport Convention_s former lead singer Sandy Denny. Like the audience at the Troubadour, they thought they were getting a sensitive singer-songwriter _ the perfect complement to what they did, which was wistful folk rock _ and instead they got rock _n_ roll and Mr Freedom clothes and handstands on the piano keyboard. They couldn_t follow us: we had so much adrenalin and confidence. Of course, when the adrenalin wore off and I realized what we_d done, I felt terrible. Sandy Denny was one of my heroes, an amazing vocalist. It was meant to be their big showcase gig and I_d ruined it for them. I scuttled home, absolutely mortified, before they came onstage. But it felt like the time was right. The sixties were over, The Beatles had split up and there was a new wave of artists that were all starting to make it at the same time: me, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, David Bowie. Musically we were all very different, but in some ways we were birds of a feather. We were all working-class Londoners, we_d all spent the sixties with our noses pressed against the glass, toiling away on the same club circuit, never really getting where we wanted to go. And we all knew each other. Our paths had crossed backstage in r_n_b clubs and at gigs at the Roundhouse. I was never great friends with Bowie. I loved his music, and we socialized a couple of times, visiting the Sombrero with Tony King and having dinner together in Covent Garden while he was rehearsing for the Ziggy Stardust tour, but there was always something distant and aloof about him, at least when I was around. I honestly don_t know what the problem was, but there clearly was a problem. Years later, he_d always make snippy remarks about me in interviews: _the token queen of rock and roll_ was the most famous one, although in fairness, he was absolutely out of his mind on coke when he said it. But I adored Marc and Rod. They couldn_t have been more different. Marc seemed to have come from another planet: there was something otherworldly about him, as if he was just passing through Earth on his way to somewhere else. You could hear it in his music. _Ride A White Swan_ was never off the radio when we moved into the Water Garden, and it didn_t sound like anything else, you couldn_t work out where he was coming from. That_s what he was like in person. He was larger than life _ straight but very camp _ and incredibly kind and gentle at the same time. He clearly had a big ego, but he also never seemed to take himself seriously at all. He somehow managed to be simultaneously completely charming and absolutely, brazenly full of shit. He_d say the most outrageous things with a straight face: _Darling, I sold a million records this morning._ I_d think: Marc, no one in the history of music has ever sold a million records in a morning, let alone you. But something about him was so beguiling and endearing, you would never actually say that out loud. Instead, you_d find yourself agreeing with him: _A million, Marc? Congratulations! How fabulous!_ I_d known about Rod for years, because of the connection with Long John Baldry, but I only really got to know him after he covered _Country Comfort_, one of the new songs that I_d played the journalist from Friends. He changed the lyrics, something I complained about at length in the press: _He sounds like he made it up as he went along! He couldn_t have got further from the original if he_d sung _The Camptown Races_!_ That rather set the tone for our friendship. We_ve got a lot in common. We both love football and collecting art. We both grew up after the war in families that didn_t have a lot, so neither of us has ever been coy about enjoying the fruits of our success, shall we say. But the thing we really share is our sense of humour. For a man with a well-documented lifelong obsession with leggy blondes, Rod_s got a surprisingly camp sense of humour. He happily joined in when we started giving ourselves drag names back in the seventies. I was Sharon, John was Beryl, Tony was Joy and Rod was Phyllis. We_ve spent nearly fifty years constantly taking the piss out of, and trying to put one over, each other. When the press were speculating about my hair falling out, and whether or not I_d started wearing a hairpiece, Rod could be relied upon to send me a present: one of those old-fashioned, helmet-shaped hairdryers that old women used to sit under in salons. Keen to reciprocate his thoughtfulness, I sent him a Zimmer frame covered in fairy lights. Even today, if I notice he_s got an album out that_s selling better than mine, I know it_s only a matter of time before I_m going to get an email: _Hello, Sharon, just writing to say I_m so sorry that your record_s not even in the Top 100, dear. What a pity when mine_s doing so well, love, Phyllis._ It reached a kind of peak in the early eighties, when Rod was playing Earls Court. They had advertised the gig by flying a blimp over the venue with his face on it. I was staying in London that weekend and I could see it from my hotel room window. It was too good an opportunity to miss. So I called my management and they hired someone to shoot it down: apparently it landed on top of a double-decker bus and was last seen heading towards Putney. About an hour later, the phone went. It was Rod, spluttering about the disappearance. _Where_s my fucking balloon gone? It was you, wasn_t it? You cow! You bitch!_ A year later, I was playing Olympia and the promoters had hung a huge banner across the street. It was mysteriously cut down immediately after it was put up. The phone call that informed me of this sabotage came from Rod, who seemed curiously well informed about exactly what had happened. _Such a shame about your banner, love. I heard it wasn_t even up five minutes. I bet you didn_t even get to see it._ Not long after we moved into the Water Gardens, I was back in America for another tour. It_s a huge country and most of it couldn_t care less if the LA Times has called you the future of rock and roll. You have to get out there and show people what you can do. Besides, we had a new album to promote _ Tumbleweed Connection was already finished: recorded in March 1970 and released in the UK in the October. That_s just how it was then. You didn_t take three years to make an album. You recorded quick, you got it out fast, you kept the momentum going, kept things fresh. It suited the way I worked. I hate wasting time in the studio. I suppose it_s a legacy from my days as a session musician, or recording demos in the middle of the night at DJM: you were always working against the clock. So we criss-crossed the States, usually playing as a support act, for Leon Russell, The Byrds, Poco, The Kinks and Eric Clapton_s new band Derek And The Dominos. That was the idea of my booking agent, Howard Rose, and a really clever move: don_t play top of the bill, play second, make people want to come back and see you again in your own right. Every artist we supported was incredibly kind and generous to us, but it was hard work. Each night, we_d go onstage with the intention of stealing the show. We_d go down great, and come off thinking we_d blown the headliners offstage, and every night, the headliners would come out and play better than us. People talk about Derek And The Dominos being a real disaster area, strung out on heroin and booze, but you would never have known that if you_d seen them live that autumn. They were phenomenal. From the side of the stage, I took mental notes about their performance. Eric Clapton was the star, but it was their keyboard player, Bobby Whitlock, that I watched like a hawk. He was from Memphis, learned his craft hanging around Stax Studios and played with that soulful, Deep Southern gospel feel. Touring with them or Leon was like being on the road with Patti LaBelle or Major Lance when I was in Bluesology: you watched and you learned, from people who had more experience than you. If we still had a long way to go, it was clear on that tour that the word was spreading. In LA, we had dinner with Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night and he casually mentioned that Brian Wilson wanted to meet us. Really? I had idolized The Beach Boys in the sixties, but their career had tailed off, and Brian Wilson had turned into this mysterious, mythic figure _ according to some lurid gossip he was supposed to have become a recluse, or gone insane, or both. Oh no, Danny assured us, he_s a huge fan, he_d love you to visit. So we drove up to his house in Bel Air, a Spanish-style mansion with an intercom at the gate. Danny buzzed it and announced he was here with Elton John. There was a deathly silence at the other end. Then there was a voice, unmistakably that of The Beach Boys_ mastermind, singing the chorus of _Your Song_: _I hope you don_t mind, I hope you don_t mind_. As we approached the front door, it opened to reveal Brian Wilson himself. He looked fine _ a little chubbier than on the cover of Pet Sounds, perhaps, but nothing like the reclusive weirdo people gossiped about. We said hello. He stared at us and nodded. Then he sang the chorus of _Your Song_ again. He said we should come upstairs and meet his kids. It turned out that his kids were asleep in bed. He woke them up. _This is Elton John!_ he enthused. His daughters looked understandably baffled. He sang the chorus of _Your Song_ to them: _I hope you don_t mind, I hope you don_t mind_. Then he sang the chorus of _Your Song_ to us again. By now, the novelty of hearing the chorus of _Your Song_ sung to me by one of pop history_s true geniuses was beginning to wear a little thin. I was struck by the sinking feeling that we were in for quite a long and trying evening. I turned to Bernie and a certain look passed between us, that somehow managed to combine fear, confusion and the fact that we were both desperately trying not to laugh at the absolute preposterousness of the situation we found ourselves in, a look that said: what the fuck is happening? It was a look that we grew increasingly accustomed to using during the last months of 1970. I was invited to a party at Mama Cass Elliot_s house on Woodrow Wilson Drive in LA, famed as the leading hang-out for Laurel Canyon_s musicians, the place where Crosby, Stills and Nash had formed, and David Crosby had shown off his new discovery, a singer-songwriter called Joni Mitchell, to his friends. When I arrived, they were all there. It was nuts, like the record sleeves in the bedroom at Frome Court had come to life: what the fuck is happening? We passed Bob Dylan on the stairs at the Fillmore East, and he stopped, introduced himself, then told Bernie he loved the lyrics of a song from Tumbleweed called _My Father_s Gun_: what the fuck is happening? We were sitting backstage after a gig in Philadelphia when the dressing room door opened and five men walked in unannounced. You couldn_t mistake The Band for anyone else: they looked like they_d just stepped off the cover of the album we_d played to death back in England. Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel started telling us they_d flown in from Massachusetts by private plane just to see the show, while I tried to behave as if The Band flying in from Massachusetts to see me perform was a perfectly normal state of affairs, and occasionally stole a glance at Bernie, who was similarly engaged in a desperate attempt to play it cool. A year ago, we were dreaming of trying to write songs like them and now they_re stood in front of us, asking us to play them our new album: what the fuck is happening? It wasn_t just The Band who wanted to meet us. It was their managers, Albert Grossman and Bennett Glotzer. They were legendary American music business figures, particularly Grossman, a renowned tough guy who_d managed Bob Dylan since the early sixties. He had reacted to another client, Janis Joplin, becoming addicted to heroin not by intervening but by taking a life insurance policy out on her. Word must have reached them that I was currently without a manager. Ray Williams was a lovely man, I owed him a great deal and he was incredibly loyal _ he_d even named his daughter Amoreena, after another of the Tumbleweed Connection songs _ but after the first American trip, I_d talked it over with the rest of the band, and no one thought he was the right person to look after us. But nor were Grossman and Glotzer, as I realized the moment I met them. They were like characters from a film, a film that had been panned for its hopelessly cartoonish depiction of two aggressive, motor-mouthed American showbiz managers. Nevertheless they were real people, and their collective efforts to win me over succeeded in scaring me witless. As long as there was a vacancy, they were not going to leave me alone. _I_m going to follow you around until you sign for me,_ Glotzer told me. He wasn_t joking. There seemed to be no way of getting rid of him short of applying for a restraining order. Once again, the allure of locking myself in the toilet became hard to resist. It might have been while I was in hiding from Bennett Glotzer that I started thinking about getting John to manage me. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. John was young and ambitious and full of adrenalin. He_d grown up in working-class Paisley in the fifties and sixties, an experience which had left him tough enough to deal with anything the music business threw at him. We were already a couple, which meant he_d have my best interests at heart. He was a born hustler with the gift of the gab and he was brilliant at his job. He didn_t just know music, he was smart about music. Earlier in the year, he_d personally convinced Motown to release a three-year-old album track by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles as a single, then watched as _Tears Of A Clown_ went to Number One on both sides of the Atlantic. It sold so many copies that Smokey Robinson had to put his plans to retire from music on hold. Everyone agreed it was a good idea, including John. He quit EMI and Motown at the end of the year, got a desk in Dick James_s office _ initially, at least, he was effectively an employee of DJM, given a salary to act as a kind of liaison between me and the company _ and that was that. To celebrate, we traded in my Ford Escort for an Aston Martin. It was the first really extravagant thing I ever bought, the first sign I was actually making good money from music. We got it off Maurice Gibb from The Bee Gees and it was a real pop star_s car: a purple DB6, flashy and beautiful. And completely impractical, as we discovered when John had to meet Martha And The Vandellas off their flight at Heathrow Airport. It was one of his last jobs for Motown, and we proudly took the Aston Martin along. Martha And The Vandellas looked impressed until they realized they had to get into the back of it. The designers had clearly spent considerably more time on its sleek lines and poetic contours than they had worrying about whether the rear seats could house a legendary soul trio. Somehow they got in. Perhaps Motown_s famous Charm School had given classes on contortionism. As I drove back down the A40, I looked in the rear-view mirror. It was like a Tokyo tube train during rush hour back there. Hang on, Martha And The Vandellas were crammed into the back of my car, which was an Aston Martin. That would have seemed very strange twelve months ago, when I was driving a Ford Escort, its back seat noticeably devoid of Motown superstars. But after the year I_d had, strange was becoming a relative concept. I didn_t have too much time to ruminate on how my life had changed. I was working too hard. We spent 1971 touring: backwards and forwards between America and Britain, then down to Japan, New Zealand and Australia. We were headlining now, but we still followed Howard Rose_s advice and played venues that were slightly smaller than we could fill, or one night in a city when we could have sold out two. We did the same thing in Britain _ we kept playing the universities and rock clubs long after we could have filled theatres. It_s a really smart thing to do: don_t be greedy, build your career up gradually, and it was typical Howard. He was so bright and full of good advice: he_s still my agent today. I was really lucky with the people I worked with when I was just starting out in America. Young British artists could easily fall in with a bunch of sharks over there, but I got people who went out of their way to make me feel part of a family: not just Howard, but my publisher David Rosner and his wife Margo. If I wasn_t onstage, I was in the studio. I released four albums in America in 1971: Tumbleweed Connection didn_t come out there until January; the soundtrack to a movie called Friends in March _ which was only a minor hit, but still did better than the film, a complete flop _ a live album we_d recorded the previous year, 11-17-70, in May; and Madman Across the Water in November. We recorded Madman in four days. It was supposed to be five, but we lost a day because of Paul Buckmaster. He stayed up the night before the sessions began to finish the arrangements _ I suspect with a certain amount of chemical assistance _ then managed to knock a bottle of ink all over the only score, ruining it. I was furious. It was an expensive mistake to make, and we stopped working together for decades afterwards. But I was also quietly impressed when he wrote the whole score again, in twenty-four hours. Even when Paul screwed up, he screwed up in a way that reminded you he was a genius. And I love Madman Across the Water. At the time, it was a much bigger hit in America than in Britain: Top Ten over there, but only number 41 at home. It_s not particularly commercial; there were no huge smash singles, and the songs were much longer and more complex than I_d written before. Some of Bernie_s lyrics were like a diary of the last year. One song, _All The Nasties_, was about me, wondering aloud what would happen if I came out publicly: _If it came to pass that they should ask _ what would I tell them? Would they criticize behind my back? Maybe I should let them_. Not a single person seemed to notice what I was singing about. One other thing happened during the Madman sessions. Gus Dudgeon hired a guitarist called Davey Johnstone to play acoustic guitar and mandolin on a couple of tracks. I really liked him _ he was Scottish, lanky and very forthright, and he had really good taste in music. I took Gus aside and asked what he thought about Davey joining the band. I_d been thinking about expanding the trio to include a guitarist for a while. Gus thought it was a bad idea. Davey was a wonderful guitarist, but he only played acoustic: as far as Gus knew, he_d never even played an electric guitar. He was in a band called Magna Carta, who specialized in bucolic folk, and there wasn_t a lot of that in the Elton John repertoire. It was a very persuasive argument. I ignored it and offered Davey the job anyway. If I_d learned anything over the last few years, it was that sometimes a gut feeling is the most important thing. You can work as hard as you like, and plan as carefully as you want, but there are moments when it_s just about a hunch, about trusting your instincts, or about fate. What if I_d never responded to the Liberty advert? What if I_d passed the audition and they hadn_t given me Bernie_s lyrics? What if Steve Brown hadn_t showed up at DJM? What if Dick hadn_t been so certain I should go to America, when it seemed like such a stupid idea? So when we went to France to record the next album at the Ch?teau d_H?rouville, Davey was with us. I_d changed things around a lot _ it was the first time I_d tried to record an album with my touring band rather than crack session musicians; the first time that Davey had picked up an electric guitar; the first time we_d had the money to record abroad, in a residential studio _ but I was in a really confident mood. Just before we left for France I_d legally changed my name to Elton John. Elton Hercules John. I_d always thought middle names were slightly ridiculous, so I did the most ridiculous thing I could think of and took mine from the rag and bone man_s horse in the sitcom Steptoe and Son. Basically, I had got sick of the fuss in shops when the cashier recognized me but not the name on my chequebook. But it really seemed more symbolic than practical _ like I was finally, conclusively, legally leaving Reg Dwight behind, fully becoming the person I was supposed to be. As it turned out, it wasn_t quite as simple as that, but in that moment, it felt good. I loved the idea of working at the Ch?teau, even though it came with a reputation attached. It was supposed to be haunted, and the locals had apparently become wary of the studio_s clientele after The Grateful Dead had stayed there, offered to play a free concert for the villagers, then taken it upon themselves to expand the minds of rural France by spiking their audience_s drinks with LSD. But it was a beautiful building, an eighteenth-century mansion _ we ended up naming the album after it: Honky Ch?teau _ and I was excited about the idea of having to write songs on the spot. I_m not a musician who walks around with melodies in his head all the time. I don_t rush to the piano in the middle of the night when inspiration strikes. I don_t even think about songwriting when I_m not actually doing it. Bernie writes the words, gives them to me, I read them, play a chord and something else takes over, something comes through my fingers. The muse, God, luck: you can give it a name if you want, but I_ve no idea what it is. I just know straight away where the melody_s going to go. Sometimes a song only takes as long to write as it does to listen to. _Sad Songs (Say So Much)_ was like that _ I sat down, read the lyric and played it, pretty much the same as you hear on the record. Sometimes it takes a bit longer. If I don_t like what I_ve done after about forty minutes, I give up and move on to something else. There are words that Bernie_s written that I_ve never managed to come up with music for. He wrote a great lyric called _The Day That Bobby Went Electric_, about hearing Dylan sing _Subterranean Homesick Blues_ for the first time, and I just couldn_t get a tune I thought was right; I tried four or five times. But I_ve never had writer_s block, I_ve never sat down with one of Bernie_s lyrics and nothing has come out. I don_t know why. I can_t explain it and I don_t want to explain it. Actually, I love that I can_t explain it. It_s the spontaneity of it that_s beautiful. So Bernie brought his typewriter to the Ch?teau, and we set up some instruments in the dining room as well as the studio. Bernie would bash out his lyrics and leave them for me on the piano. I_d wake up early, go to the dining room, see what he_d come up with and write songs while I was having breakfast. The first morning we were there, I had three done by the time the band drifted downstairs looking for something to eat: _Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters_, _Amy_ and _Rocket Man_. Once Davey had been convinced that this wasn_t an elaborate prank at the expense of the new boy, that I really had written three songs while he was having a lie-in, he picked up his guitar and asked me to play _Rocket Man_ again. He didn_t add a solo or do anything that a regular lead guitar player might do. He used a slide and played odd, lonely notes that drifted around and away from the melody. It was great. Like I said, sometimes a gut feeling is the most important thing; sometimes you have to trust fate. The rest of the band were so used to playing together that there was something almost telepathic between us: they just intuitively knew what to do with a song without being told. It felt fantastic, sitting together in the Ch?teau_s dining room, hearing a song take shape around us, trying ideas and knowing straight away they were the right ideas. There_s times in my life when music has been an escape, the only thing that worked when everything else seemed broken, but at that moment I had nothing to escape from. I was twenty-four, successful, settled and in love. What_s more, tomorrow we had a day off and I was going to Paris, with every intention of absolutely looting the Yves Saint-Laurent store. five In 1972, John and I moved out of London to Virginia Water in Surrey, swapping the one-bedroom flat for something a little more grand: we bought a three-bedroom bungalow, with its own swimming pool, and a games room built in what had been the loft. I called it Hercules, to match my middle name. Bernie and Maxine, who had married in 1971, had a house nearby; Mum and Derf, who_d finally got married too, moved just down the road and kept an eye on the bungalow when we were away. They call that area of England the stockbroker belt, which makes it sound boring and suburban, but it wasn_t at all. For one thing, Keith Moon lived ten minutes away from me, which obviously lent daily life a certain unpredictability. Keith was fabulous, but his diet of chemicals seemed to have left him without any understanding of the concept of time. He_d turn up unannounced at two thirty in the morning, completely out of his mind _ usually with Ringo Starr, another local resident, in tow _ and seem genuinely surprised that he_d got you out of bed. Or he_d materialize without warning in your driveway at 7 a.m. on Christmas Day, in a Rolls-Royce convertible with the top down and The Shadows_ Greatest Hits playing at deafening volume. _Dear boy! Look at the new car! Come for a spin! No, now! No need to change out of your dressing gown!_ But the most interesting person I knew in Virginia Water had nothing to do with the music business. I met Bryan Forbes when I walked into the bookshop he owned in the town, looking for something to read. He came over and introduced himself and said that he thought he recognized me. That didn_t seem unlikely _ by now, my onstage flamboyance had seeped into my everyday wardrobe, so my idea of dressing down for an afternoon_s shopping in a Surrey commuter town involved wearing a bright orange fur coat and a pair of eight-inch platform boots. But it turned out that he didn_t recognize me at all: as the conversation progressed, it became increasingly apparent that he thought I was one of The Bee Gees. Once we_d established that I wasn_t a Gibb brother, we got on very well. Bryan was fascinating. He_d been an actor, and was now a screenwriter, a novelist and a director, and he would go on to become a studio boss. He was married to the actress Nanette Newman and the two of them seemed to know everybody personally: Hollywood legends, writers, TV stars. If you were in America and expressed a long-held desire to meet David Niven or Groucho Marx, Bryan could arrange it, which is how I ended up with a Marx Brothers film poster signed _to John Elton from Marx Groucho_: he couldn_t understand why my name was, as he put it, _the wrong way round_. It_s funny, I thought of Groucho years later at Buckingham Palace, when I got my knighthood, because that_s how the Lord Chamberlain announced me to the Queen: _Sir John Elton_. One summer Sunday afternoon, John and I were sitting outside the bungalow having a snack, when we noticed a sixty-something lady who looked a little like Katharine Hepburn cycling up our drive. It was Katharine Hepburn: _I_m staying with Bryan Forbes _ he said it would be OK if I used your pool._ John and I just nodded, dumbstruck. Five minutes later, she reappeared in a swimsuit, complaining that there was a dead frog in the pool. When I dithered about how to get it out _ I_m a bit squeamish about things like that _ she just jumped in and grabbed it with her hand. I asked her how she could bear to touch it. _Character, young man,_ she nodded sternly. If you were invited to the Forbes house for lunch you_d find yourself sitting between Peter Sellers and Dame Edith Evans, drinking in their stories, or you_d turn up to discover that the other guests included the Queen Mother. Bryan knew the Royal Family: he was president of the National Youth Theatre, and Princess Margaret was a patron. It turned out that Princess Margaret loved music and the company of musicians. She ended up inviting me and the band back to Kensington Palace for supper after a gig at the Royal Festival Hall, which turned out to be incredibly awkward. Not because of Princess Margaret _ she was really sweet and friendly to everybody _ but because of her husband, Lord Snowdon. Everyone knew the marriage was in trouble _ there were always rumours in the press about one or the other having an affair _ but even so, nothing could have prepared us for his arrival. He stormed in midway through the meal and literally snarled _Where_s my fucking dinner?_ at her. They had a huge row, and she fled the room in tears. Me and the band were just sitting there, aghast, not really knowing what to do. You know, how bizarre can life in the Elton John Band get? Other musicians relax after a gig by smoking a joint or seducing groupies or trashing hotel rooms; we end up watching Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon screaming at each other. But it wasn_t just who Bryan knew, it was what he knew, and the fact that he was a born teacher: patient and generous with his time, sophisticated in his tastes but completely unsnobbish, eager for others to love the things he loved. He taught me about art, and I started collecting under his influence. First it was art nouveau and art deco posters, which were very fashionable in the early seventies _ Rod Stewart collected them too _ then surrealist painters like Paul Wunderlich. I began buying Tiffany lamps and Bugatti furniture. Bryan got me interested in theatre, and recommended books to me. We became very close, and started going on holiday together: me and John, Bryan, Nanette and their daughters Emma and Sarah. We would hire a house in California for a month, and friends would come over and visit. Nanette turned out to be a great accomplice when it came to shopping, something I_d become extremely fond of since I started making a bit of money. Actually, that_s not strictly true. I_ve always loved shopping, since I was a kid. When I think of growing up in Pinner, I think of the shops: the different-coloured cotton reels in the wool shop where my gran used to get her knitting supplies; the smell of fresh peanuts as you walked into Woolworths; the sawdust on the floor of Sainsbury_s, where Auntie Win worked on the butter counter. I don_t know why, but something about those places fascinated me. I_ve always loved collecting things, and I_ve always loved buying people presents, more than I love receiving them. When I was a boy, my favourite thing about Christmas was working out what I was going to buy my family: some aftershave for my dad, a rain hat for my gran, maybe a little vase for my mum from the kiosk near Baker Street station that I used to pass on my way to the Royal Academy of Music. Of course, becoming successful enabled me to pursue this passion on a slightly different scale. We_d come back from LA with so much stuff that the excess baggage charge would be as much as the ticket home. I_d hear that my auntie Win was feeling down in the dumps so I_d call a dealership and get them to send her a new car to cheer her up. Over the years, I_ve had therapists tell me that it_s obsessive, addictive behaviour, or that I_m trying to buy people_s affection by giving them gifts. With the greatest of respect to the members of the psychiatric profession who have said that sort of thing to me, I think that_s a load of old shit. I_m not interested in buying people_s affection. I just get a lot of pleasure out of making people feel included or letting them know I_m thinking about them. I love seeing people_s faces when you treat them to something. I don_t need a psychiatrist to tell me that material possessions aren_t a replacement for love or personal happiness. I_ve spent enough miserable, lonely nights in houses filled with beautiful things to have worked that out for myself a long time ago. And I really don_t recommend going shopping in the depressing aftermath of a three-day cocaine binge, unless you want to wake up the next day confronted by bags and bags filled with absolute crap you don_t actually remember buying. Or, in my case, you wake up the next morning to a phone call informing you that you_ve bought a tram. Not a model tram. An actual tram. A Melbourne W2 class drop-centre combination tram, that the voice at the end of the phone is now informing you has to be shipped from Australia to Britain, where it can only be delivered to your house by hanging it from two Chinook helicopters. So I_d be the first person to admit that I_ve made some fairly rash decisions with a credit card in my hand. I probably could have struggled through life somehow without a tram in my garden, or indeed the full-scale fibreglass model of a Tyrannosaurus rex that I offered to take off Ringo Starr_s hands at the end of a very long night. Ringo was trying to sell his house at the time, and the presence of a full-scale fibreglass Tyrannosaurus rex in the garden was apparently proving to be a bit of a sticking point with potential buyers. But for as long as I can remember, I_ve always found collecting things oddly comforting, and I_ve always enjoyed learning about things by collecting them, whether that_s records or photographs or clothes or art. And that_s never changed, regardless of what has been going on in my personal life. I_ve found it comforting and enjoyable when I_ve felt lonely and adrift, and I_ve found it comforting and enjoyable when I_ve felt loved and contented and settled. Lots of people feel that way: the world_s full of model railway enthusiasts and stamp collectors and vinyl buffs. I_m just lucky enough to have the money to pursue my passions further than most people. I earned that money by working hard, and if people think the way I spend it is excessive or ridiculous, then I_m afraid that_s their problem. I don_t feel guilty about it at all. If it_s an addiction, well, I_ve been addicted to far more damaging things over the years than buying tableware and photographs. It makes me happy. You know, I_ve got 1,000 candles in a closet in my home in Atlanta, and I suppose that is excessive. But I_ll tell you what: it_s the best-smelling closet you_ve ever been in in your life. My shopping habit wasn_t the only thing that was ramped up a notch. Everything seemed to be getting bigger, louder, more excessive. Bernie and I hadn_t intended _Rocket Man_ to be a huge hit single _ we saw ourselves as album artists _ but that_s what it turned into: it was Number Two in Britain, much higher than any of our singles had reached before, and went triple-platinum in the States. We_d stumbled onto a different kind of commerciality, and its success changed our audience. Screaming girls started appearing in the front rows and outside the stage door, tearfully clinging on to the car as we tried to get away. It felt really peculiar, as if they_d gone to see The Osmonds or David Cassidy but taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up at our gig instead. I worked really hard, maybe too hard, but it felt like there was an unstoppable momentum behind me that carried me on no matter how exhausted I was, that drove me through any kind of setback. I contracted glandular fever just before we went into the studio to record Don_t Shoot Me, I_m Only the Piano Player in the summer of 1972. I should have cancelled the sessions in order to recuperate, but I just went to the Ch?teau d_H?rouville and ploughed through them, running on adrenalin. You would never have known I was ill from listening to the album: the guy singing _Daniel_ and _Crocodile Rock_ doesn_t sound unwell. A few weeks after we finished, I was back on tour again. I kept pushing the live show, trying to make it more over-the-top and outrageous. I started employing professional costume designers _ first Annie Reavey, then Bill Whitten and Bob Mackie _ and egging them on to do whatever they wanted, no matter how insane: more feathers, more sequins, brighter colours, bigger platforms. You_ve designed an outfit covered in multicoloured balls attached to pieces of elastic that glow in the dark? How many balls? Why don_t you add some more? I won_t be able to play the piano in it? Let me worry about that. Then I got the idea of bringing _Legs_ Larry Smith, who_d been in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, on tour with us. Legs was a drummer, but his other big talent was tap dancing. When we were making Honky Ch?teau, we had got him to come to the studio and tap-dance on a song called _I Think I_m Going To Kill Myself_, and now I got him to tap-dance onstage as well. His routine got more and more elaborate as the tour went on. Legs came onstage in a crash helmet and the vast train of a wedding dress. Then he started coming onstage accompanied by two dwarfs dressed as US Marines, while confetti rained from the ceiling. Then he came up with a routine where he and I would mime to _Singing In The Rain_, complete with dialogue. Larry would lean on my piano and sigh at me: _Gee, Elton, I wish I could play like you. I_ll bet you get all the boys._ As usual, no one even raised an eyebrow. I even invited Larry along when I was asked to do the Royal Variety Performance, which caused a huge row. Bernard Delfont, who organized the show, mystifyingly didn_t want a man in a wedding train and a crash helmet tap-dancing in front of the Queen Mother. I told him to fuck off, that I wouldn_t play unless Larry came on, and he eventually relented. I thought that it was the best thing about the whole evening, apart from the fact that I got to share a dressing room with Liberace. He_d clearly forgotten about, or forgiven me for, my failure to appear at his London Palladium performance a couple of years before and was just divine, like a living embodiment of showbiz. He turned up with trunk after trunk of clothes. I thought I looked pretty outrageous myself _ I was dressed in multicoloured lurex pinstripes with matching platform shoes and top hat _ but, by comparison with his side of the dressing room, mine looked like a particularly dowdy corner of Marks and Spencer. He had a suit covered in tiny bulbs that lit up when he sat at the piano. He signed an autograph for me _ his signature was in the shape of a piano _ then spent the afternoon reeling off one fantastic story after another in an impossibly camp accent. The month before, he said, the hydraulic platform that raised him up through the stage had broken midway through his grand entrance; nothing if not a trouper, he_d performed for forty minutes with only his head visible to the audience. I had become increasingly obsessed with making a big entrance onstage myself, because it was the one time that I was really mobile, when I wasn_t stuck behind the piano. It reached a peak when we played the Hollywood Bowl in 1973. The stage was hung with a huge painting of me in top hat and tails, surrounded by dancing girls. First Tony King came onstage and introduced Linda Lovelace, who was the biggest porn star in the world at the time. Then a succession of lookalikes walked down an illuminated staircase flanked with palm trees at the back of the stage: the Queen, Batman and Robin, Frankenstein_s Monster, the Pope. Finally I appeared, to the sound of the Twentieth-Century Fox theme, dressed in what I called the Incredible Cheese Straw Outfit: it was completely covered in white marabou feathers _ the trousers as well as the jacket _ and came with a matching hat. As I descended, the lids of five grand pianos sprang open, spelling out ELTON. For the benefit of anyone who felt this was too subtle and understated, 400 white doves were meant to fly out of the grand pianos. I don_t know whether they were asleep or too frightened to come out, but none appeared. As I jumped on top of my own piano, I found myself unexpectedly joined onstage by John Reid _ who, judging by his furious expression, seemed to have taken the doves_ non-appearance as a personal insult, as if they_d done it deliberately to challenge his managerial authority _ and a more sheepish-looking Bernie, running from one piano to the next, frantically grabbing doves and throwing them into the air. Dance routines, marabou feathers, doves flying _ or not, as the case may be _ out of grand pianos with my name on their lids: the band didn_t like this kind of thing much, and nor did Bernie. He thought it was distracting attention from the music. I thought I was forging myself into a personality that was like nobody else in rock. And, besides, I was having fun. We would have these preposterous disagreements about it. The biggest song-writing partnership of the era, locked in a dispute backstage at the Santa Monica Civic, not about money or musical direction, but about whether it was a good idea for me to go onstage with an illuminated model of Father Christmas hanging in front of my willy. Sometimes Bernie had a point. The costumes literally did affect the music. I had a pair of glasses made in the shape of the word ELTON, with lights all over them. The combined weight of the glasses and the battery pack that powered the lights squashed my nostrils, so that it sounded like I was singing while holding my nose. In fairness, that probably did undercut the emotional impact of his lovingly crafted lyrics. The Hollywood Bowl show was a huge event, a kind of launch for my next album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. By my standards at least, its making had been slightly torturous. We had decamped to Dynamic Sounds Studios in Kingston, Jamaica: it was considered very hip in those days to go and make your album somewhere more exotic than Europe. Dynamic Sounds had seemed like an obvious destination. Bob Marley had recorded there. So had Cat Stevens. It was where The Rolling Stones had made Goats Head Soup. But we arrived to find there was a record-pressing plant attached to the studio, and the pressing plant workers were on strike. When you arrived, they would pull open the windows of the minibus that brought us from our hotel, and spit crushed fibreglass at everyone inside with blowpipes, which brought you out in a rash. Once you got into the studio itself, nothing worked. You would ask for a different microphone and someone would nod slowly and say, _We can get one in maybe _ three days?_ It was hopeless. I_ve no idea how The Rolling Stones made an album there. Maybe Keith was so stoned that three days_ wait for a working microphone felt like twenty minutes. Eventually we gave up, went back to the hotel, and called to book recording sessions at the Ch?teau d_H?rouville. While we were waiting for a plane out of there, the band sat by the pool, occupying themselves with what appeared to be some kind of determined world record attempt involving the consumption of marijuana. By the time we got to the Ch?teau, we had so many songs that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ended up a double album. When it came out, it took off in a way that none of us expected. It_s quite a dark record in a lot of ways. Songs about sadness and disillusion, songs about alcoholics and prostitutes and murders, a song about a sixteen-year-old lesbian who ends up dead in a subway. But it just kept selling and selling and selling until I couldn_t work out who was still buying it. I don_t mean that flippantly: I really didn_t know who was buying it. The American record company kept pushing me to release _Bennie And The Jets_ as a single and I fought them tooth and nail: it_s a really odd song, it doesn_t sound like anything else I_ve done, it_s five minutes long; why don_t you just put out _Candle In The Wind_, like we_ve done in Britain? Then they told me it was being played all over black radio stations in Detroit. When they released it, it shot up the Billboard Soul Chart: an unreal thing, seeing my name in among the singles by Eddie Kendricks and Gladys Knight and Barry White. I may not have been the first white artist to do that, but I can say with some certainty I was the first artist from Pinner. I was now so successful that I toured America using the Starship, an old Boeing 720 passenger plane that had been converted into an opulent flying tour bus for the exclusive use of the seventies_ rock and roll elite. There were lurid tales about the parties Led Zeppelin had thrown on it. I was less bothered about what they_d done inside it than by what they_d done to the outside of it. The thing was painted purple and gold. It looked like a giant box of Milk Tray with wings. No problem: we could have it repainted to our specification. It was redone in red and blue with white stars. Much more tasteful. Inside, the Starship had a bar decorated in orange and gold foil, with a long mirror behind it, an organ, dining tables, sofas and a TV with a video recorder, on which my mother insisted on watching Deep Throat _ _Everyone_s talking about it, aren_t they? What_s it about, then?_ _ while she was eating her lunch. Whatever foul deeds Led Zeppelin had got up to on board, I_m pretty sure they never kept themselves amused for an hour watching a middle-aged lady shriek with horror while Linda Lovelace did her thing: _Oh gawd, no, what_s happening now? Oh! I can_t look! How_s she doing that?_ There was a bedroom at the back with shower, a fake fireplace and bedside tables made of plexiglass. You could hide yourself away in there and have sex. Or sulk, which is what I was doing one night when my American publicist, Sharon Lawrence, started knocking on the door and pleading with me to come out: _Come back to the bar, we_ve got a surprise for you._ I told her to fuck off. She kept coming back. I kept telling her to fuck off. Eventually she burst into tears _ _You have to come to the bar! You have to! You have to!_ _ so I angrily opened the door and did as she asked, with a lot of huffing and eye-rolling and _for fuck_s sake, can_t you leave me alone_-ing en route. When I got to the bar, Stevie Wonder was sitting at the organ, ready to play for me. He launched into _Happy Birthday_. Had I not been cruising at 40,000 feet, I_d have prayed for the ground to open and swallow me. From the outside, everything looked perfect: the tours were getting bigger and more spectacular, the records were selling so much that journalists had started to say I was the biggest pop artist in the world. John had taken over my management completely: the contract he had signed with DJM in 1971 had run out, and he had moved out of his offices and started his own management company. We had also started our own record company with Bernie and Gus Dudgeon called Rocket: not to release my records, but to find talent and give them a break. Sometimes we were better at spotting talent than developing it _ we couldn_t make a success of a band called Longdancer, despite the fact that their guitarist, a teenager called Dave Stewart, clearly had something about him, as was proven years later when he formed Eurythmics. But we had successes, too. We signed Kiki Dee, who John and I had known for years: she had been the only white British artist signed to Motown when John worked for them. She had been putting out singles since the early sixties, but never had a hit until we released her version of _Amoureuse_, a song by a French singer called V?ronique Sanson that had flopped in the UK, but that Tony King had noticed and suggested to Kiki. But beneath the surface, things were starting to go wrong. We spent the first weeks of 1974 recording at the Caribou Ranch, a studio up in the Rocky Mountains that gave its name to our new album: Caribou. It could be hard to sing at such a high altitude, which is how I ended up throwing a tantrum while we were recording _Don_t Let The Sun Go Down On Me_. After announcing that I hated the song so much we were going to stop recording it immediately and send it to Engelbert Humperdinck _ _and if he doesn_t want it, tell him to send it to Lulu! She can put it on a B-side!_ _ I was coaxed back to the vocal booth and completed the take. Then I yelled at Gus Dudgeon that I hated it even more now it was finished and was going to kill him with my bare hands if he put it on the album. Apart from that, it was great up at Caribou. The studio was much plusher than the Ch?teau. You stayed in beautiful log cabins, filled with antiques _ the bed I slept in was supposed to have belonged to Grover Cleveland, a nineteenth-century president of the United States. There was a screening room for movies, and musicians passing through Denver or Boulder would drop by to visit. Having obviously forgiven me for the incident on the Starship, Stevie Wonder turned up one day and took out a snowmobile, insisting on driving it himself. To pre-empt your question: no, I have absolutely no idea how Stevie Wonder successfully piloted a snowmobile through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado without killing himself, or indeed anyone else, in the process, but he did. One night we were finishing up, when I wandered into a room at the back of the studio and spotted John fiddling with something on a table. He had a straw and some white powder. I asked what it was, and he told me it was cocaine. I asked what it did and he said, _Oh, it just makes you feel good._ So I asked if I could have some, and he said yes. The first line I snorted made me retch. I hated the feeling in the back of my throat, that weird combination of numbness brought on by the drug itself and a sort of powdery dryness from whatever crap the coke had been cut with. I couldn_t get rid of it, no matter how often I swallowed. I went out to the toilet and threw up. And then I immediately went back into the room where John was and asked for another line. What the hell was I doing? I tried it, I hated it, it made me puke _ hello? Talk about God_s way of telling you to leave it at that. It_s hard to see how I could have been given a clearer warning that this was a bad idea unless it had started raining brimstone and I_d been visited by a plague of boils. So why didn_t I leave it at that? Partly because throwing up didn_t stop the coke affecting me, and I liked how it made me feel. That jolt of confidence and euphoria, the sense that I could suddenly open up, that I didn_t feel shy or intimidated, that I could talk to anybody. That was all bullshit, of course. I was full of energy, I was inquisitive, I had a sense of humour and a thirst for knowledge: I didn_t need a drug to make me talk to people. If anything, cocaine gave me too much confidence for my own good. If I hadn_t been coked out of my head when The Rolling Stones turned up in Colorado and asked me to come onstage with them, I might have just performed _Honky Tonk Women_, waved to the crowd and made my exit. Instead, I decided it was going so well, I_d stay on and jam along to the rest of their set, without first taking the precaution of asking the Stones if they wanted an auxiliary keyboard player. For a while, I thought Keith Richards kept staring at me because he was awestruck by the brilliance of my improvised contributions to their oeuvre. After a few songs, it finally penetrated my brain that the expression on his face wasn_t really suggestive of profound musical appreciation. Actually, he looked remarkably like someone who was about to inflict appalling violence on a musician who_d outstayed his welcome. I quickly scuttled off, noting as I went that Keith was still staring at me in a manner that suggested we_d be discussing this later, and decided it might be best if I didn_t hang around for the after-show party. But there was something more to cocaine than the way it made me feel. Cocaine had a certain cachet about it. It was fashionable and exclusive. Doing it was like becoming a member of an elite little clique, that secretly indulged in something edgy, dangerous and illicit. Pathetically enough, that really appealed to me. I_d become successful and popular, but I never felt cool. Even back in Bluesology, I was the nerdy one, the one who didn_t look like a pop star, who never quite carried off the hip clothes, who spent all his time in record shops while the rest of the band were out getting laid and taking drugs. And cocaine felt cool: the subtly coded conversations to work out who had some, or who wanted some _ who was part of the clique and who wasn_t _ the secretive visits to the bathrooms of clubs and bars. Of course, that was all bullshit, too. I already was part of a club. Ever since my solo career had begun, I_d been shown nothing but kindness and love by other artists. From the minute I turned up in LA, musicians I adored and worshipped _ people who_d once just been mythic names on album sleeves and record labels _ had fallen over themselves to offer friendship and support. But when it finally arrived, my success had happened so fast that, despite the warm welcome, I couldn_t help but still feel slightly out of place, as if I didn_t quite belong. As it turned out, doing a line of coke then immediately going back for another one was very me. I was never the kind of drug addict who couldn_t get out of bed without a line, or who needed to take it every day. But once I started, I couldn_t stop, until I was absolutely certain there was no cocaine anywhere in the vicinity. I realized quite quickly that I had to get someone else _ a PA or a roadie _ to look after my coke for me: not because I was too grand or too scared to be the stash holder, but because if you left me in charge of that evening_s supply of cocaine there would be none of it left by teatime. My appetite for the stuff was unbelievable _ enough to attract comment in the circles I was moving in. Given that I was a rock star spending a lot of time in seventies LA, this was a not inconsiderable feat. Once again, you might think this would have given me pause for thought, but I_m afraid the next sixteen years were full of incidents that would have given any rational human being pause concerning their drug consumption, as we shall discover. That was the problem. Because I was doing coke, I wasn_t a rational human being anymore. You might tell yourself you_re fine, using as evidence the fact that your drug use isn_t affecting your career. But you can_t take that amount of coke and think in a sane and proper way. You become unreasonable and irresponsible, self-obsessed, a law unto yourself. It_s your way or the highway. It_s a horrible fucking drug. I_d made the worst decision of my life, but I didn_t realize it then. By contrast, the problems in my relationship with John were staring me in the face. I said before that I was incredibly naive about gay relationships. One thing I didn_t know was that John thought it was perfectly acceptable to have sex with other people, behind my back. Open relationships are a lot more common among gay men than straight couples, but that_s not what I wanted. I was in love. When he realized that, it didn_t stop him being promiscuous, it just made him dishonest about it. That led to some really humiliating scenes. John vanished during a party at the director John Schlesinger_s house in LA. I went looking for him and found him upstairs, in bed with someone. My mum rang me up on tour to tell me that she_d popped round to the house in Virginia Water and discovered John was hosting a sex party in my absence. I_d confront him, there would be a huge row, things would calm down and then he_d go out and do exactly the same thing again. Or, worse, he_d come up with some new variant on sleeping around that seemed designed to send me even more hysterical. I found out he_d gone to a film premiere, picked up a famous TV actress and started an affair with her. Her. So now he was fucking women as well. What was I supposed to do about that particular twist in our relationship? It went on and on and on, and it was miserable. I seemed to spend half my life in tears over his behaviour, but it made absolutely no difference. So why didn_t I leave him? Partly it was out of love. I_d fallen head over heels for John, and when you_re like that with someone who cheats, you_ll make any excuse for them, over and over again, kid yourself that this time they really mean it and from now on it_s going to be OK. And, in his own way, John really did love me. He was just completely incapable of keeping his dick in his pants if left to his own devices. I also stayed because I was scared of him. John had a temper that could easily spill over into violence, especially if he_d been drinking or doing coke. Sometimes his rages were unwittingly funny. I_d ring the offices of Rocket and ask to speak to him: _Oh, he_s not here. He lost his temper and tried to throw an electric typewriter down the stairs. But it was still plugged in, so that didn_t really work. Which made him even more angry, so he fired the entire staff and stormed out. We_re just wondering whether we should go home or not._ But most of the time, they weren_t funny at all. I watched John threaten someone with a broken glass at a party hosted by Billy Gaff, Rod Stewart_s manager. He hit a doorman outside a hotel in San Francisco after an argument about parking a car. He punched a sound engineer in front of a room full of American journalists at the launch of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. When we were touring in New Zealand in 1974, he threw a glass of wine in the face of the local record label promotions guy when the party they_d thrown for me ran out of whisky. When a female reporter from a local paper tried to intervene, he punched her in the face. Later the same night, at a different party, I got into an argument with another local journalist over the earlier incident, which I hadn_t actually seen happen. John came flying across the room, knocked him to the floor and started kicking him. The next morning, we were both arrested and charged with assault. I was acquitted, charged $50 costs, paid up and got out of New Zealand as quickly as possible. I left without John, who had his appeal for bail turned down and was eventually sentenced to twenty-eight days in Mount Eden prison. I flew home without him. His behaviour was completely indefensible, but it was an era in which the line between tough-guy rock manager and thug was frequently blurred _ look at Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin _ and as I waited in on a Saturday night for his weekly call from prison, I somehow managed to construct a version of events in my head where he was the injured party, acting nobly in my defence, aided by his claim that the female journalist had called him a poof before he hit her, as if that justified it. It wasn_t until John hit me that I came to my senses. It happened the night we threw a fancy dress party at Hercules. I can_t even remember what the argument was about, probably the latest episode in John_s catalogue of cheating, but it started before the guests even got there and became more and more heated. There was shouting, doors were slammed, and a beautiful art deco mirror that Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones had given us got smashed. Then John dragged me into the bathroom and punched me in the face, hard. I reeled backwards. I was so shocked, I didn_t retaliate. He stormed out and I looked in the bathroom mirror. My nose was bleeding and my face was cut. I cleaned myself up and the party went ahead as if nothing had happened. Everyone had a great time _ Derf turned up in drag, Tony King arrived completely covered in gold paint, like Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger. But something had happened and, to me, it felt like a switch had finally been flicked off. I couldn_t make excuses for John_s behaviour any longer. I couldn_t stay with someone who hit me. I really don_t think John expected me to tell him it was over. Even after he moved out, to a house on Montpelier Square in Knightsbridge, and I asked my mum and Derf to help me find a place to live on my own _ I literally didn_t have time to go house-hunting myself _ I think he was still in love with me. I got the sense that if I_d asked him to come back, he would have been there like a shot. But I didn_t want him back. I wanted him to stay as my manager, but everything else about our relationship changed. The balance of power shifted: until then, he_d been the dominant personality, but after we broke up as a couple, I became more confident and assertive. He took on other acts as a manager _ not just musicians, comedians like Billy Connolly and Barry Humphries _ but our business relationship still worked, because I knew how astute he was, and how great his ear was for music. One morning, at the offices in South Audley Street, he said he wanted to play me something by one of his new clients that was going to be a huge hit all over the world. We listened to the song and I shook my head, incredulous. _You_re not actually going to release that, are you?_ He frowned. _What_s wrong with it?_ _Well, for one thing, it_s about three hours long. For another, it_s the campest thing I_ve ever heard in my life. And the title_s absolutely ridiculous as well._ John was completely unfazed. _I_m telling you now,_ he said, lifting the test pressing of _Bohemian Rhapsody_ off the turntable, _that is going to be one of the biggest records of all time._ But if Queen_s most famous song sailed over my head at first, I got Freddie Mercury straight away. From the minute I met him, I loved him. As was tradition, he got given a drag name: Melina, after Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress. He was just magnificent. Incredibly smart and adventurous. Kind and generous and thoughtful, but outrageously funny. Oh God, if you went out clubbing with him and Tony King _ they were great friends _ you_d spend the whole night howling. No one was spared, not even the other members of Queen: _Have you seen the guitarist, darling? Mrs May? Have you seen what she wears onstage? Clogs! Fucking clogs! How did I end up onstage with a guitarist who wears fucking clogs?_ And not Michael Jackson, who Freddie called Mahalia, a name I don_t think Michael found anywhere near as hilarious as Freddie did. He had incurred Freddie_s wrath by trying to interest him in his menagerie of animals, and Freddie had turned retelling the story into a tour-de-force performance that rivalled anything he did onstage. _Oh, darling! That dreadful llama! All the way to California to see Mrs Jackson and she leads me out into the garden and there_s the llama. Then she asks me to help get it back into its pen! I was wearing a white suit and I got covered in mud, and eventually I had to shout at her: _For fuck_s sake, Mahalia, get your fucking llama away from me!_ Oh,_ he would add, shuddering for comic effect, _it was a nightmare, darling._ six I first met John Lennon through Tony King, who had moved to LA to become Apple Records_ general manager in the US. In fact, the first time I met John Lennon, he was dancing with Tony King. Nothing unusual in that, other than the fact that they weren_t in a nightclub, there was no music playing and Tony was in full drag as Queen Elizabeth II. They were at Capitol Records in Hollywood, where Tony_s new office was, shooting a TV advert for John_s forthcoming album Mind Games, and, for reasons best known to John, this was the big concept. I took to him straight away. It wasn_t just that he was a Beatle and therefore one of my idols. He was a Beatle who thought it was a good idea to promote his new album by dancing around with a man dragged up as the Queen, for fuck_s sake. I thought: We_re going to get on like a house on fire. And I was right. As soon as we started talking, it felt like I_d known him my entire life. We began spending a lot of time together, whenever I was in America. He_d separated from Yoko and was living in Los Angeles with May Pang. I know that period in his life is supposed to have been really troubled and unpleasant and dark, but I_ve got to be honest, I never saw that in him at all. I heard stories occasionally _ about some sessions he_d done with Phil Spector that went completely out of control, about him going crazy one night and smashing up the record producer Lou Adler_s house. I could see a darkness in some of the people he was hanging out with: Harry Nilsson was a sweet guy, an incredibly talented singer and songwriter, but one drink too many and he_d turn into someone else, someone you really had to watch yourself around. And John and I certainly took a lot of drugs together and had some berserk nights out, as poor old Dr John would tell you. We went to see him at the Troubadour and he invited John onstage to jam. John was so pissed he ended up playing the organ with his elbows. It somehow fell to me to get him offstage. In fact, you didn_t even need to go out to have a berserk night in John_s company. One evening in New York, we were holed up in my suite at the Sherry-Netherland hotel, determinedly making our way through a pile of coke, when someone knocked at the door. My first thought was that it was the police: if you_ve taken a lot of cocaine and someone unexpectedly knocks at the door, your immediate thought is always that it_s the police. John gestured at me to see who it was. I looked through the spyhole. My reaction was a peculiar combination of relief and incredulity. _John,_ I whispered. _It_s Andy Warhol._ John shook his head frantically and drew his finger across his throat. _No fucking way. Don_t answer it,_ he hissed. _What?_ I whispered back. _What do you mean don_t answer it? It_s Andy Warhol._ There was more knocking. John rolled his eyes. _Has he got that fucking camera with him?_ he asked. I looked again through the spyhole and nodded. Andy took his Polaroid camera everywhere. _Right,_ said John. _And do you want him coming in here taking photos when you_ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?_ I had to concede that I did not. _Then don_t fucking answer it,_ whispered John, and we crept back to doing whatever we were doing, trying to ignore the continued knocking of the world_s most famous pop artist. But I genuinely never encountered that nasty, intimidating, destructive aspect of John that people talk about, the biting, acerbic wit. I_m not trying to paint some saintly posthumous portrait at all; I obviously knew that side of him existed, I just never saw it first-hand. All I ever saw from him was kindness and gentleness and fun, so much so that I took my mum and Derf to meet him. We went out to dinner, and when John went to the toilet, Derf thought it would be a great joke to take his false teeth out and put them in John_s drink: there was something infectious about John_s sense of humour that made people do things like that. Jesus, he was so funny. Whenever I was with him _ or even better, him and Ringo _ I just laughed and laughed and laughed. We became so close that when his ex-wife Cynthia brought their son Julian to New York to see him, he asked me and Tony to chaperone them on their voyage over. We travelled to America on the SS France, this gorgeous old ship, on its last voyage from Southampton to New York. Most of my band and their partners came too. The other passengers were quite snooty towards us _ these rich, enormous American women saying things like, _He_s supposed to be famous, but I_ve never heard of him,_ whenever I walked past them _ but in fairness, I had dyed my hair bright green and brought suitcases filled with suits by the designer Tommy Nutter that were so loud they could permanently damage your hearing. I could hardly complain about attracting attention, adverse or otherwise. They liked me even less when I won the bingo one afternoon, not least because I got overexcited and screamed _BINGO!_ at the top of my voice. I subsequently discovered that the correct way to signify that you_d won on board the SS France was to graciously and demurely murmur the word _house_. Well, that_s not how they teach you to play bingo in Pinner, baby. I didn_t care. I was having a blast: playing squash, going to the terrible cabaret shows, which for some reason always ended with a rousing singalong of _Hava Nagila_. Midway through the journey, I got a ship-to-shore call telling me that my latest album, Caribou, which had been released in June 1974, had gone platinum. And I was writing its follow-up. Bernie had come up with a set of songs about our early years together: they were all in sequence and they kind of told our story. They were beautiful lyrics. Songs about trying to write songs. Songs about no one wanting our songs. A song about my stupid failed suicide attempt in Furlong Road and a song about the weird relationship we had developed. The latter was called _We All Fall In Love Sometimes_. It made me well up because it was true. I wasn_t in love with Bernie physically, but I loved him like a brother; he was the best friend I_d ever had. The lyrics were even easier than usual to write music for, which was just as well, because they_d only let me use the music room for a couple of hours a day during lunch. The rest of the time it was occupied by the ship_s classical pianist. When I turned up, she would leave with a great display of weary altruism, then head to a room directly above it and immediately strike up again. Sometimes she_d have an opera singer with her, who was the star turn at the aforementioned terrible cabaret. So I_d spend two hours trying to drown them out. That was how Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was written. I_d write a song _ or sometimes two _ every day during lunch break, to the accompaniment of an aggrieved pianist hammering away through the ceiling. And I_d have to remember them. I didn_t have a tape recorder with me. In New York, we stayed at the Pierre hotel on Fifth Avenue. John Lennon was in the suite above mine, and called down. He wanted to play us the rough mixes of his new album. Moreover, he wanted me to play on two of the songs, _Surprise Surprise_ and _Whatever Gets You Thru The Night_. The second track sounded like a hit, even more so a couple of nights later when we went to the Record Plant East studio, just off Times Square. The overdub engineer was Jimmy Iovine, who ended up becoming one of the biggest music moguls in the world, but John produced it himself and he worked really quickly. Everyone thinks of John as someone who spent ages in the studio experimenting, because of Sergeant Pepper and _Strawberry Fields_, but he was fast, and he got bored easily, which was right up my street. By the time we were finished, I was convinced it was going to be Number One. John wasn_t: Paul had had number one solo singles, George had had number one solo singles, Ringo had had number one solo singles, but he never had. So I said we_d have a bet _ if it got to Number One, he had to come onstage with me. I just wanted to see him play live, which he_d hardly done at all since The Beatles split up; a couple of appearances at benefit gigs and that was it. To his credit, he didn_t try to shirk the bet when _Whatever Gets You Thru The Night_ did make Number One, not even after he travelled up to a show in Boston with Tony to see what he was getting himself into. I came onstage for the encore wearing something that basically resembled a little heart-shaped chocolate box with a tunic attached to it, and John turned to Tony, looking a bit aghast, and said, _Fucking hell, is this what rock and roll_s all about nowadays, then?_ But he still played with us at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving 1974, on the condition that we made sure Yoko didn_t come: they were still estranged. Of course, Yoko turned up anyway _ which I have to say is very Yoko _ but Tony made sure her tickets were out of the sightline of the stage. Before the show, she sent John a gardenia, which he wore in his buttonhole onstage. I_m not sure whether that was what made him so nervous beforehand, or if it was just because he didn_t know what to expect when he walked out. But either way, he was suddenly terrified. He threw up before the show. He even tried to get Bernie to come onstage with him, but to no avail: Bernie always hated the limelight, and not even a desperate Beatle could convince him to change his mind. In my whole career, I_ve honestly never heard a crowd make a noise like the one they made when I introduced him. It just went on and on and on. But I knew how they felt. I was as giddy about it as they were, so were the rest of the band. It was probably the highlight of our careers to that point, to have someone like that share a stage with you. The three songs flew by, and he was off. He came back for the encore, this time with Bernie in tow, both of them playing tambourines on _The Bitch Is Back_. It was fabulous. After the show, Yoko came backstage. We all ended up back at the Pierre hotel _ me, John, Yoko, Tony and John Reid. We were sat in a booth having a drink and _ as if the whole situation wasn_t peculiar enough _ Uri Geller suddenly materialized out of nowhere, came over to our table and started bending all the spoons and forks on it. Then he began doing his mind-reading act. It had been a bizarre day. But ultimately it led to John reuniting with Yoko, having Sean _ my godson _ and retreating into a life of domestic contentment in the Dakota Building. I was happy for him, even if I could think of better places to retreat into domestic contentment in than the Dakota. There was something really sinister about that building, the architecture of it. Just looking at it gave me the creeps. You know, Roman Polanski chose to film Rosemary_s Baby there for a reason. Recording Captain Fantastic had turned out to be as easy as writing it. The sessions were a breeze: we had gone back to Caribou in the summer of 1974 and taped the songs in the order they appear on the album, as though we were telling the story as we went along. We had knocked out a couple of singles, too, a cover of _Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds_ that John played guitar and sang backing vocals on, and _Philadelphia Freedom_, which is one of the few songs I ever commissioned Bernie to write. Normally, I just let him write lyrics about whatever he wanted _ we_d learned we couldn_t really write to order back in the days when we kept trying to write singles for Tom Jones or Cilla Black and failing miserably _ but Billie Jean King had asked me to write a theme song for her tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. I couldn_t refuse; I adored Billie Jean. We_d met at a party in LA a year before, and she_d become one of my best friends. It seems a strange comparison, but she and John Lennon reminded me of each other. They were both really driven, they were both kind, they both loved to laugh, they both felt really strongly that they could use their fame to change things. John was politically engaged, Billie was a huge pioneer for feminism, for gay rights, for women_s rights in sport, not just tennis. All today_s huge female tennis stars should get on their knees and thank her, because she was the one who had the guts to turn round when she won the US Open and say, _You have to give women the same prize money as men, or I_m not playing next year_. I just love her to death. Perhaps understandably, Bernie wasn_t hugely enamoured with the idea of writing about tennis _ it_s not exactly the ideal topic for a pop song _ so instead, he wrote about the city of Philadelphia. That worked perfectly, because the song_s sound was influenced by the music that was coming out of the city at the time: The O_Jays, MFSB, Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes. That was the music I heard when I went out to gay clubs in New York: Crisco Disco, Le Jardin and 12 West. I loved them, even though Crisco Disco once refused to let me in. I was with Divine, too, the legendary drag queen. I know, I know: Elton John and Divine getting turned away from a gay club. But he was wearing a kaftan, I had on a brightly coloured jacket and they said we were overdressed: _Whaddaya think this is? Fuckin_ Halloween?_ You didn_t go to those places to pick up guys, or at least I didn_t. I just went there to dance, and if there was someone there at the end of the night, then great. No drugs, except maybe poppers. You didn_t need them. The music was enough: _Honey Bee_ by Gloria Gaynor, _I_ll Always Love My Mama_ by The Intruders. Fabulous records, really inspiring, brave music. We got Gene Page, who arranged all Barry White_s records, to do the strings on _Philadelphia Freedom_ and we got the sound and style right. We must have done _ a few months after it came out, MFSB covered it and named an album after it. _Philadelphia Freedom_ went platinum in America, then a few months later, Captain Fantastic became the first album in history to go straight into the US charts at Number One. I was everywhere in 1975. Not just on the radio: everywhere. I was in amusement arcades _ Bally made a Captain Fantastic pinball machine. I was on black TV: one of the first white artists ever to be invited to appear on Soul Train. I was interviewed by the exceptionally laid-back Don Cornelius, who took a shine to yet another Tommy Nutter creation I was wearing, this time with huge lapels and brown and gold pinstripes: _Hey, brother, where did you get that suit?_ But I was still keen to keep moving. I decided to change the band and let Dee and Nigel go. I rang them myself. They took the news quite well _ Dee was more upset than Nigel, but there wasn_t a huge row or a feeling of bad blood from either of them. I feel worse about it now than I did at the time. It must have been devastating for them _ they_d been integral for years and we were at the peak of our careers. Back then, I was always looking forward, and I felt in my gut that I needed to revamp our sound: make it funkier and harder-driving. I brought in Caleb Quaye on guitar and Roger Pope on drums, who_d played on Empty Sky and Tumbleweed Connection, and two American session musicians, James Newton Howard and Kenny Passarelli, on keyboards and bass. I auditioned another American guitarist as well, but it wasn_t a success. For one thing, it didn_t gel musically, and for another he freaked out everyone else in the band by telling us that he liked fucking chickens up the arse, then cutting their heads off. Apparently when you do that their sphincters contract and it makes you come. I couldn_t work out whether he had an absolutely horrendous sense of humour or an absolutely horrendous sex life. There aren_t many rules in rock and roll, but there are some: follow your gut musical instincts, make sure you read the small print before you sign and, if at all possible, try not to form a band with someone who fucks chickens up the arse and decapitates them. Or even talks about it. Whichever it is, it_s going to wear on your nerves after a while if you have to share a hotel room with them. There was one other complication. Bernie_s marriage to Maxine had broken up, and she_d started having an affair with Kenny Passarelli. So my new bass player was sleeping with my songwriting partner_s wife. It was obviously really hurtful for Bernie, but I had enough going on in my own life without getting embroiled in other people_s relationships. I took the new band to Amsterdam to rehearse. The rehearsals were fantastic _ we were an absolutely shit-hot band _ but the days off were bedlam: it turned out we were absolutely shit-hot at taking drugs, too. Tony King turned up with Ringo Starr and we all went on a boat trip along the canals, which swiftly degenerated into a mammoth drug fest. It was completely debauched. I_m afraid the aesthetic loveliness of the Grachtengordel went entirely unnoticed that day. Everybody was too busy doing coke and blowing spliff smoke into each other_s mouths. Ringo got so stoned that, at one point, he asked if he could join the band. At least, that_s what people told me afterwards _ I didn_t hear him. If he did, he probably forgot he said it about ninety seconds after the words came out of his mouth. One of the reasons I was taking so many drugs was because I was heartbroken. I_d fallen in love with someone who was straight and didn_t love me. I spent so much time in my hotel room weeping and listening to 10CC_s _I_m Not In Love_ that Tony eventually had a gold disc made up and presented me with it: to Elton John for a million plays of _I_m Not In Love_. In fact, since I had broken up with John, my personal life had been, more or less, a disaster. I_d fall in love with straight men all the time, chase after the thing I couldn_t have. Sometimes it went on for months and months, this madness of thinking that today was the day you_d get a phone call from them saying _oh, by the way, I love you_, despite the fact that they_d told you it was never going to happen. Or I_d see someone I liked the look of in a gay bar and before I_d actually spoken to them, I_d be hopelessly in love, convinced this was the man I was fated to share the rest of my life with and mentally sketching out a wonderful future. It was always the same type of guy. Blond, blue eyes, good-looking and younger than me, so I could smother them with a kind of fatherly love _ the sort of love I suppose I thought I_d missed out on myself as a kid. I didn_t pick them up so much as take them hostage. _Right, you have to give up what you_re doing, come on the road, fly round the world with me._ I_d buy them the watch and the shirt and the cars, but eventually these boys had no reason to be, except to be with me, and I was busy, so they_d be left on the sidelines. I didn_t realize it at the time, but I was taking their existence away from them. And after three or four months they_d end up resenting it, I_d end up getting bored with them, and it would end in tears. And then I_d get someone else to get rid of them for me and start again. It was absolutely dreadful behaviour: I_d have one leaving at the airport at the same time as the new one was flying in. It was a decadent era, and plenty of other pop stars were behaving in a similar way _ Rod Stewart occasionally let girls know he_d finished with them by just leaving a plane ticket on their bed, so he wasn_t going to win any awards for chivalry either. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew this can_t be right. I had to have some arm-candy, though, someone to talk to. I couldn_t stand being on my own. There was no solitude, no reflection. I had to be with people. I was incredibly immature. I was still the little boy from Pinner Hill Road underneath it all. The events, the shows, the records, the success were all great, but when I was away from that, I wasn_t an adult, I was a teenager. I had been completely wrong when I thought that changing my name meant I_d changed as a person. I wasn_t Elton, I was Reg. And Reg was still the same as he_d been fifteen years ago, hiding in his bedroom while his parents fought: insecure and body-conscious and self-loathing. I didn_t want to go home to him at night. If I did, the misery could be all-consuming. One night, while I was recording with the new band up at Caribou studios, I took an overdose of Valium before I went to bed. Twelve tablets. I can_t remember what exactly prompted me to do that, although it was probably some catastrophic love affair gone wrong. When I woke up the next day, I panicked, rushed downstairs and called Connie Pappas, who worked with John Reid, and told her what I_d done. While I was talking to her, I blacked out. James Newton Howard heard me collapse and carried me back upstairs to my room. They called a doctor, who prescribed me pills for my nerves. With the benefit of hindsight, that seems quite an odd thing to do to someone who_s just tried to finish himself off with a load of pills for his nerves, but they must have helped, at least in the short term _ the sessions got finished. The new band_s first show was at London_s Wembley Stadium on 21 June 1975. It was more like a one-day festival than a gig, called Midsummer Music. I_d picked the bill myself: a band signed to our label, Rocket, called Stackridge, Rufus with Chaka Khan, Joe Walsh, The Eagles and The Beach Boys. They were all great. The audience loved them. For my headlining set, I played Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in its entirety, all ten songs, from start to finish. It was the biggest show I_d ever played. Everything was perfect _ the sound, the support acts, even the weather. And it was an unmitigated disaster. Here_s something I learned. If you_ve elected to come onstage immediately after The Beach Boys _ whose set has consisted of virtually every hit from one of the most incredible and best-loved catalogues of hits in the history of pop music _ it_s a really, really bad idea to play ten new songs in a row that no one in the audience is particularly familiar with, because the album they come from was only released a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I learned this vital lesson about three or four songs into the Wembley performance, when I sensed a restlessness in the crowd, the way schoolkids get restless during a particularly long assembly. We ploughed on. We sounded wonderful _ like I said, we were a shit-hot band. People started to leave. I was terrified. It was years since I_d lost an audience. The feeling I used to get onstage in the clubs when Long John Baldry insisted on playing _The Threshing Machine_ or doing his Della Reese impersonation came flooding back. The obvious thing to do would be to turn it around and start playing the hits. But I couldn_t. For one thing, it was a matter of artistic integrity. And for another, I_d made a big speech when we came onstage about performing the album in full. I couldn_t just suddenly strike up with _Crocodile Rock_ halfway through. Fuck. I_d have to stick with it. I could already imagine what the reviews were going to be like, and I was only half an hour into the show. We kept going. The songs still sounded wonderful. More people left. I started thinking about the big celebratory post-gig party that was planned. It was going to be filled with stars who were supposed to have been dazzled by my performance: Billie Jean, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr. Great. This is just fucking wonderful. I_m screwing up in front of 82,000 people and half The Beatles. We eventually got round to the hits, but it was too little, too late, as the reviews quite rightly pointed out. We went back to America, having been taught both a lesson in the perils of artistic integrity and that you_re never too successful to fall flat on your arse. I was spending more and more time over in the States, so much that it made sense to rent a house in LA. I found one at the top of Tower Grove Drive, which I eventually bought. It was a Spanish Colonial-style house that had been built for the silent movie star John Gilbert. He_d lived there while he was having an affair with Greta Garbo. There was a hut in the garden by a waterfall, and that was allegedly where Garbo slept when she wanted to be alone. It was a nice neighbourhood, although a house nearby did burn down shortly after I moved there. The fire allegedly started because the owner was freebasing cocaine, something I very much frowned on. Cooking up drugs meant that you were a druggie, which _ with the help of some remarkably convoluted internal logic _ I had worked out that I definitely wasn_t, despite some pretty compelling evidence to the contrary. I would stay up all night on coke, then not touch it for six months. So I wasn_t an addict. I was fine. It was a beautiful house, and I employed a housekeeper called Alice to look after the place and nurse me through my hangovers. I filled it with all the stuff I was collecting _ art nouveau, art deco, Bugatti furniture, Gall? lamps, Lalique, incredible posters _ but I only really lived in three rooms: my bedroom, the TV room and the snooker room. Actually, I mostly used the snooker room to seduce guys. Strip snooker! It usually seemed to do the trick, especially after a couple of lines of coke. That was another reason I took a lot of coke: I found it was an aphrodisiac, which is strange, because for most people it kills the erection side of things completely. Never a problem for me, I_m afraid. Quite the opposite. If I took enough coke I could stay hard for days. And I liked the fantasy of it: I did things on coke that I would never have had the courage to do or try if I hadn_t been. It takes all the inhibitions out of people. Even straight guys sometimes. You gave them a couple of lines and they_d do stuff they wouldn_t ordinarily do in a million years. Then regret it in the morning, I suppose _ or occasionally come back for more. But I was never actually into fucking that much. I was an observer, a voyeur. I_d kind of set up my perversion, have two or three guys doing things for me to watch. That was where my sexual pleasure came from, getting a bunch of people who wouldn_t normally have sex with each other, to have sex with each other. But I didn_t really participate. I just watched, took Polaroids, organized things. The only problem was that I was incredibly houseproud, so they_d end up having sex on the snooker table with me shouting, _Make sure you don_t come on the baize!_ which tended to puncture the atmosphere a bit. Not being that interested in having sex myself is the reason I never got HIV. If I had been, I_d almost certainly be dead. Tower Grove Drive turned into a big party house, the place everyone came back to after a night out. LA was the centre of the music industry in the mid-seventies. Plus, LA had amazing gay clubs: the After Dark and Studio One. The first was a disco, quite underground; the second had cabaret. It was where I saw Eartha Kitt, who I_d loved when I was a kid, although strictly speaking I didn_t actually see Eartha Kitt perform. I went backstage to meet her before the show and her opening words to me were: _Elton John. I never liked anything you did._ Oh, really? Well, thanks for your frank and honest appraisal. I think I_ll go home. If Dusty Springfield was around, we_d go to the roller derby to see the LA Thunderbirds. It was so camp and fabulous, all scripted, like wrestling, but lesbians loved it _ it was basically a load of dykes whizzing round on skates and fighting each other. And we_d have fantastic lunch and dinner parties. Franco Zeffirelli came for lunch and revealed that his close friends called him Irene. Simon and Garfunkel had dinner one night, then played charades. At least, they tried to play charades. They were terrible at it. The best thing I can say about them is that they were better than Bob Dylan. He couldn_t get the hang of the _how many syllables?_ thing at all. He couldn_t do _sounds like_ either, come to think of it. One of the best lyricists in the world, the greatest man of letters in the history of rock music, and he can_t seem to tell you whether a word_s got one syllable or two syllables or what it rhymes with! He was so hopeless, I started throwing oranges at him. Or so I was informed the next morning, by a cackling Tony King. That_s not really a phone call you want to receive when you_re struggling with a hangover. _Morning, darling _ do you remember throwing oranges at Bob Dylan last night?_ Oh God. There was a strange, dark undercurrent to LA, too. The Manson murders still hung over the place six years on. They_d left this weird sense that you were never really safe there, even in a big house in Beverly Hills. These days, everyone has security guards and CCTV, but no one did then, not even the former Beatles, which is why I woke up one morning to find a girl sitting on the end of my bed, staring at me. I couldn_t get up, because I never wore anything when I slept. All I could do was sit there screaming at her to get the fuck out. She didn_t say anything back, she just kept staring, which was somehow worse than if she_d spoken. Eventually the housekeeper came down and got her out of there. It scared the shit out of me _ we couldn_t work out how the hell she_d got in. But you didn_t need a stalker to alert you to LA_s dark side. One night, I went to see the Average White Band play at the Troubadour. They were so fantastic that I got onstage and jammed with them, dragging Cher and Martha Reeves up with me. After the gig, I took the band out to a place called Le Restaurant, which served great food and didn_t frown on outr? behaviour: the management hadn_t even blanched at John Reid_s birthday party, which was extremely tolerant of them, given that a friend had brought the horse he bought John as a present into the restaurant and it had immediately shat on the floor. We stayed out until 6 a.m. There was something lovely about spending time with them, a young British band just on the verge of becoming huge, playing a residency at the Troubadour and boggling at the prospect of making it in America: they reminded me of me five years before. But two days later, I got a phone call from John Reid, telling me the Average White Band_s drummer, Robbie, was dead. They_d gone to another party the following night, up in the Hollywood Hills, and taken heroin some creep had given them, thinking it was cocaine. He died in his hotel room a few hours later. I suppose it could have happened anywhere, but his death seemed to sum up LA. It could feel like a place where the tired old line about dreams coming true wasn_t a tired old line but a statement of fact. It was the city where, more or less, I_d become a star; where I_d been feted by my idols; where I_d somehow ended up taking tea with Mae West (to my delight, she swanned in with a lascivious smile and the words, _Ah, my favourite sight _ a room full of men_, which, given that the men present were me, John Reid and Tony King, suggested she was in for an evening of disappointment). But if you didn_t keep your wits about you _ if you took a wrong turn or kept the wrong company _ LA could just as easily swallow you up. The mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Watson, declared the 20_26 October 1975 Elton John Week. Among other things, I was to have a star unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right outside Grauman_s Chinese Theatre. There were two gigs booked at Dodger Stadium, an audience of 55,000 at each. I_d played to larger crowds than that _ there were 82,000 people at Wembley Stadium, or at least there had been before they decided they_d had enough and started storming the exits _ but the Dodger gigs still seemed like a zenith. I was the first artist who_d been allowed to play there since The Beatles in 1966, when the promoter hadn_t booked enough security staff. There had been a kind of mini riot at the end of The Beatles_ set, and the stadium_s owners had subsequently banned rock gigs. And there was a peculiar sense of homecoming about them, given that my career had really taken off at the Troubadour five years previously. So I chartered a Boeing 707 plane through Pan Am and flew my mum and Derf, my grandma and a load of my friends over from England, along with the staff of Rocket, journalists and media and a TV documentary crew fronted by the chat show host Russell Harty. I met them on the runway with Tony King and a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Cadillacs: the kind of welcome I_d been expecting the first time I got to America, instead of that fucking double-decker bus. I suppose it was quite an outrageous thing to do, but I wanted my family to see it; I wanted them to have the time of their lives; I wanted them to be proud of me. Elton John Week passed in a blur. My family went on trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios. There was a party on John Reid_s yacht, Madman, to celebrate the release of Rock of the Westies. The grand unveiling of the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame turned out to be a bit naff. I was wearing a lime-green Bob Mackie suit, covered in the names of other Walk of Fame stars, and matching bowler hat. I had to travel there on a gold-painted golf cart with an enormous pair of illuminated glasses and a bow tie stuck to the front of it. I_m aware that I was hardly the model of shy understatement onstage, but there were limits. There_s footage of it on YouTube, and if you look at the expression on my face, it_s pretty clear what a wonderful idea I thought that was. I don_t know if you_ve ever been driven very slowly through a crowd of screaming fans, in full view of the world_s media, on a gold-painted golf cart with a pair of enormous illuminated glasses and a bow tie on the front, but if you haven_t, I can tell you that it_s a pretty excruciating experience. I felt incredibly awkward and tried to defuse the situation by pulling faces during the speeches and making jokes when my turn came to speak _ _I now declare this supermarket open!_ _ but I couldn_t wait for it to be over and done with. Afterwards, they told me that it was the first time in the history of the Walk of Fame that so many fans had turned up to an unveiling, they had to close Hollywood Boulevard completely. The next day, I invited my family over to lunch at Tower Grove Drive. Like Captain Fantastic, Rock of the Westies went straight into the US album charts at Number One. No one had ever done that before _ not Elvis, not The Beatles _ and now I_d done it twice, in the space of six months. I was twenty-eight years old and I was, for the moment, the biggest pop star in the world. I was about to play the most prestigious gigs of my career. My family and friends were there, happily sharing in my success. And that was when I decided to try and commit suicide again. Again, I can_t remember exactly what provoked me to do it, but as my family were eating I got up from the table by the swimming pool, went upstairs and swallowed a load of Valium. Then I came back down in my dressing gown and announced that I_d taken a bunch of tablets and that I was going to die. And then I threw myself in the pool. I can_t remember exactly how many tablets I swallowed, but it was fewer than I_d taken that night at Caribou studios _ a sign that, deep down, I had absolutely no intention of actually killing myself. This fact was brought very sharply into focus when I felt the dressing gown start to weigh me down. For someone who was supposed to be in the process of trying to end it all _ who was apparently convinced that life had nothing more to offer him and was filled with a longing for death_s merciful release _ I suddenly became surprisingly keen not to drown. I started frantically swimming to the side of the pool. Someone helped me get out. The thing I remember most clearly is hearing my grandmother_s voice pipe up. _Oh,_ she said. And then, in a noticeably aggrieved tone _ unmistakably the voice of an elderly working-class lady from Pinner who_s realized her wonderful holiday in California is suddenly in danger of being cut short _ she added: _We might as well bleedin_ go home, then._ I couldn_t stop myself laughing. That might have been exactly the response I needed. I was looking for _oh, you poor thing_, but instead I got _why are you behaving like such a twat?_ It was a good question: why was I behaving like such a twat? I suppose I was doing something dramatic to try and get attention. I realize that, on one level, it sounds nuts, given that I was living in a city that had declared it was Elton John Week, I was about to play in front of 110,000 people, and there was an ITV camera crew in the process of making a documentary about me. How much more attention can a man need? But I was looking for a different kind of attention from that. I was trying to make my family understand that there was something wrong, however well my career was going: it might seem that it_s all great, it might seem that my life is perfect, but it_s not. I couldn_t say to them, _I think I_m taking too many drugs_, because they would never understand; they didn_t know what cocaine was. I hadn_t got the guts to tell them, _Look, I_m really not feeling very good, I need a bit of love_, because I didn_t want them to see any cracks in the facade at all. I was too strong-willed _ and too afraid of her reaction _ to just take my mum aside and say, _Listen, Mum, I really need to talk to you _ I_m not doing very well here, I need a bit of help, what do you think?_ Instead of doing that, I bottled it up and bottled it up and then eventually I went off like Vesuvius and staged this ridiculous suicide bid. That_s who I am: it_s all or nothing. It wasn_t my family_s fault at all, it was mine. I was too proud to admit that my life wasn_t perfect. It was pathetic. They called a doctor. I refused to go to hospital and have my stomach pumped, so he gave me this hideous liquid that made me vomit. And as soon as I threw up, I felt all right: _OK, I_m better now. So, anyway, I_ve got these two gigs to do._ It sounds ridiculous _ it was ridiculous _ but I bounced back very quickly from my deathbed: right, I_ve tried to commit suicide, done that, what_s next? If anyone around me thought that was strange, they kept it to themselves. And twenty-four hours later I was onstage at Dodger Stadium. The shows were a complete triumph. That_s the thing about playing live, for me at least. Even now, whatever turmoil I might be going through just gets pushed aside. Back then, when I was onstage I just felt different from when I was offstage. It was the only time I really felt in control of what I did. They were huge events. Cary Grant was backstage, looking incredibly beautiful. I had gospel singers, James Cleveland_s Southern California Community Choir, performing with me. I had Billie Jean King come out and sing backing vocals on _Philadelphia Freedom_. I had the security guards dressed in ridiculous lilac one-piece jumpsuits with frills. I had California_s most famous used-car dealer, a man called Cal Worthington, come on with a lion _ Christ knows why, but I suppose it all added to the general gaiety. Even Bernie put in an appearance in front of the audience, which was almost unheard of. I wore a sequinned Dodgers uniform and cap, designed by Bob Mackie. I climbed on top of the piano and swung a baseball bat around. I hammered at the piano keys until my fingers split and bled. We played for three hours and I loved it. I know how to pull off a show because of all those years I spent in clubs, backing Major Lance or playing with Bluesology to twenty people; I_ve got the experience, so my gigs are never really below a certain standard. But sometimes, something else happens onstage: from the minute you start playing you just know you can do no wrong. It_s as if your hands are moving independently of your brain; you don_t even have to concentrate, you just feel as free as a bird, you can do anything you want. Those are the gigs you live for, and Dodger Stadium was like that, on both days. The sound was perfect, so was the weather. I can remember standing onstage, feeling the adrenalin coursing through me. It was a pinnacle, and I was smart enough to know that it couldn_t last, at least not at that pitch. Success on that level never does; it doesn_t matter who you are, or how great you are, your records aren_t going to enter the charts at Number One forever. I knew someone or something else was going to come along. I was waiting for that moment to happen, and the thought of it didn_t scare me at all. It was almost a relief when the second single from Rock of the Westies, _Grow Some Funk Of Your Own_, wasn_t a huge hit. For one thing, I was exhausted: exhausted from touring, exhausted from giving interviews, exhausted by the ongoing catastrophe that was my personal life. And for another, I_d never really set out to have hit singles. I was an album artist, who made records like Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water, and I_d inadvertently become this huge singles machine, having smash after smash after smash, none of which had been intentionally written to be hit singles. In fact, one of the few times I ever sat down and tried to write a hit single was at the end of 1975. I was on holiday in Barbados with a big group of friends: Bernie was there, Tony King, Kiki Dee, lots of people. I thought we should write a duet for Kiki and me to sing. Bernie and I came up with two. One was called _I_m Always On The Bonk_: _I don_t know who I_m fucking, I don_t know who I_m sucking, but I_m always on the bonk_. The other was _Don_t Go Breaking My Heart_. I wrote the melody on the piano, came up with the title and then Bernie finished it off. He hated the end result, and I can_t really blame him _ Bernie was not, and is not, a fan of anything he thinks is shallow pop music. But even he had to admit it had substantially more commercial potential than _I_m Always On The Bonk_. seven I only agreed to do an interview with Rolling Stone because I was bored out of my mind. The 1976 Elton John world tour was supposed to be a journalist-free zone. I didn_t need to do any press to promote it, because every date had sold out instantly. But I_d been stuck in a suite at the Sherry-Netherland in New York for two weeks _ we were playing a run of shows at Madison Square Garden _ and I_d completely run out of things to do when I wasn_t onstage. It was hard to get out of the hotel. It was August, and Manhattan was unbearably hot, but there was a crowd of fans permanently stationed outside the entrance. If I managed to get past them, wherever I went, there was chaos. I_d literally seen little old ladies get knocked over and trampled by people who were trying to get a look at me, not a sight designed to make you feel good about your celebrity. Still, I_d tried to keep myself occupied. I_d been to see, or been visited by, everyone I knew that was in town. I_d been out clubbing to 12 West and visited a radio station called WNEW. They_d given me champagne, an act of generosity they swiftly came to regret when I went on air immediately afterwards and offered listeners my full and frank appraisal of a rock critic called John Rockwell, who_d given me a bad live review: _I bet he_s got smelly feet. I bet he_s got bogeys up his nose._ I went shopping, although I realized I might have exhausted the possibilities of retail therapy when I found myself buying a cuckoo clock that, instead of a cuckoo, had a large wooden penis that popped in and out of it every hour. I gave it to John Lennon when I went to visit him. I thought it was a good present for a man who had everything. John and Yoko were as bad as me when it came to shopping. The various apartments they owned in the Dakota were so full of priceless artworks, antiques and clothes that I once sent them a card, rewriting the lyrics to _Imagine_: _Imagine six apartments, it isn_t hard to do, one is full of fur coats, another_s full of shoes_. They owned herds of cows, for God_s sake _ prize Holstein cattle. Years later, I asked what had happened to them. Yoko shrugged and said: _Oh, I got rid of them. All that mooing._ But, having delivered a penis-themed cuckoo clock to John Lennon, I had nothing else to do, or at least nothing that I wanted to do enough to see a little old lady get hospitalized in the process. I just mooched around the hotel. The band certainly weren_t in the mood to hang out with me, because I_d fired them all the night before last, just before we went onstage. It had been a weird tour. Commercially, it had been a huge success, and, on one level, it had been fun. Kiki Dee had come along with us to sing _Don_t Go Breaking My Heart_, which, despite Bernie_s profound misgivings, went to Number One on both sides of the Atlantic that summer. In Britain, we_d travelled around by car, visiting the tourist sites between shows, stopping off for ice creams and ducking into pubs for lunch. In America, the shows had been massive events _ Hollywood stars backstage; a big performance in Massachusetts for the American Bicentennial on 4 July, where I dressed up as the Statue of Liberty; a guest appearance from Divine, who shimmied away around the band despite the fact that one of his high heels broke off the minute he got onstage. And I met Elvis Presley, backstage at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, a couple of nights before I played there myself. I took Bernie with me, and my mum. It seemed to make sense: Mum had introduced me to Elvis_s music; now I was going to introduce her to Elvis himself. We were ushered into a dressing room full of people: I was used to rock stars who went everywhere mob-handed, but I_d never seen anything like Elvis_s entourage. He was surrounded by cousins, old buddies from back home in Memphis, people who seemed to be employed specifically to hand him drinks and towels. When I squeezed past them to shake his hand, my heart broke. There was something desperately, visibly wrong with him. He was overweight, grey and sweating. There were expressionless black holes where his eyes should have been. He moved like a man coming round from a general anaesthetic, weird and sluggish. There was a trickle of black hair dye running down his forehead. He was completely gone, barely coherent. Our meeting was short and painfully stilted. I was simultaneously starstruck and horrified, which is hardly a recipe for sparkling conversation. And Elvis _ well, I couldn_t work out whether Elvis just had no idea who I was _ there seemed every chance he had no idea who anyone was _ or whether he knew perfectly well and wasn_t very pleased to see me. Everyone knew that Elvis wasn_t keen on competition _ there was a crazy rumour going around that when he visited Richard Nixon in the White House, he had literally complained to the US president about The Beatles _ and, a couple of years before, I_d been contacted by his ex-wife Priscilla, saying that their daughter Lisa Marie was a huge fan, and asking if I would meet her as a birthday treat. We had tea together at my house in LA. Maybe he was angry about that. I asked him if he was going to play _Heartbreak Hotel_ and he grunted in a way that strongly implied he wasn_t. I asked for his autograph and saw his hands shaking as he picked up the pen. The signature was just about legible. Then we went to watch the show. Occasionally, you would see something spark, a flash of the incredible artist he had been. It would last for a couple of lines of a song and vanish again. My main memory is of him handing out scarves to women in the audience. In the past he_d been famous for giving away silk scarves onstage, a grand gesture befitting the King of Rock and Roll. But times had clearly changed, and these scarves were cheap, nylon things: they didn_t look like they would last long. Nor did Elvis, as Mum pointed out. _He_ll be dead next year,_ she said, as we left. She was right. But for weeks afterwards, I couldn_t stop turning over our meeting in my mind. It wasn_t just that he was in such a bad way, although that was incredible in itself _ the last thing I_d expected to feel when I finally met Elvis was pity. It was that I could understand a little too easily how he ended up like that, closeted away from the outside world. Maybe he_d just spent too much time trapped in expensive hotels with nothing to do. Maybe he_d just seen one little old lady too many stretchered away and decided the outside world wasn_t worth the bother. For all its success, the tour had felt very familiar: the stadiums, the Starship, the celebrities, even the set we played. We had a new album recorded, a double called Blue Moves, but it wasn_t due out until the autumn, and I_d learned my lesson about inflicting new material on an unsuspecting audience at Wembley the year before. Especially if the material was like the stuff on Blue Moves. I_m very proud of it, but the music was complex and hard to play, quite experimental and jazz-influenced. And its mood was very sombre and reflective: Bernie pouring his heart out about his divorce from Maxine and me writing music to match. I even wrote some lyrics myself, the opening lines of _Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word_, the fallout from another disastrous infatuation with a straight guy: _What can I do to make you love me? What can I do to make you care?_ It_s a great album, but it_s not exactly the work of two people who are cartwheeling down the street, overflowing with the joys of life. And that was the real problem with the tour. The holiday in Barbados had been great, but it seemed like a distant memory. I was back in exactly the same place emotionally as I had been when I threw myself into the swimming pool in LA. My mum and Derf had found me a new home, called Woodside. It certainly sounded nice _ a huge mock-Georgian house in Old Windsor, with thirty-seven acres of land _ but I couldn_t tell you for sure how nice it was, because I had hardly been there since I moved in. I_d had enough time to ask Derf to build some shelves for my record collection, and to install a small menagerie of pets: a rabbit called Clarence, a cockatoo called Ollie and Roger, a mynah bird that someone had taught to say _piss off_, a phrase he later disgraced himself by using in front of Princess Margaret when I invited her for lunch. But no sooner had Roger arrived and told everyone present to piss off than I took his advice: there were always recording sessions to do, tours to go on. I still loved playing live, but I was physically spent. I_d started having seizures, almost like epileptic fits; not often, but often enough to scare me. I_d had a brain scan, but the neurologist I saw couldn_t find anything wrong with me, although I_m sure if I_d told him what was going up my nose on a regular basis, he could have made an accurate diagnosis on the spot. Bernie didn_t look in much better shape than me. Since his divorce, the only time you saw him without a beer in his hand was when he put it down to do a line of coke. I started suggesting to him that he try writing with other people as well as me _ not that there was anything wrong with our relationship, either professionally or personally, but maybe a change of scenery would do us both good. Everything came to a head on the penultimate night of the Madison Square Garden residency. Backstage, I told the band that I couldn_t do it anymore. They could have another year_s wages as severance pay, but there would be no more tours for the foreseeable future. Towards the end of the show, I mumbled something non-committal about going away for a while. The minute I said it, I couldn_t work out whether I really meant it or not. On the one hand, I clearly couldn_t carry on like this, schlepping around the world. I_d convinced myself it was the root of all my problems. It was why I was so knackered, it was why my relationships never worked out, it was why I was unhappy. On the other, I still loved playing live. And I had been on the road since I was eighteen. It was my job. I didn_t really know adult life without it. What was I going to do all day? Watch Derf put shelves up and listen to a mynah bird telling me to piss off every ten minutes? So I was in a thoughtful mood when the journalist from Rolling Stone arrived at my hotel. He was called Cliff Jahr and he_d been pestering for an interview for weeks. I had no idea that Cliff was an out-and-proud gay man who_d turned up determined to find out the truth about my sexuality. I don_t think he saw it as a political thing _ outing people wasn_t really viewed as striking a blow against a repressive society back then. I think he was just a hungry freelancer after a scoop. I later learned that Cliff had an elaborate plan to wheedle the information out of me. It involved a secret code word that he was going to drop into the conversation as a signal for the photographer to leave the room, at which point he would deploy his journalist_s guile to get me to confess my darkest secret to him. Bless him, he didn_t get the chance to put his meticulous plan into action. I brought the subject up before he did. He asked me if I was in love with anyone, which was very much the wrong question to ask me in those days, unless you had a few hours to spare and a burning desire to fill them listening to me moaning about the terrible state of my personal life. I started telling him how desperate I was to find someone to love. I despairingly wondered aloud if relationships with women might not be longer-lasting than the relationships I_d had with men. He looked a little taken aback and _ to his immense credit _ asked if I wanted him to turn his tape recorder off and speak off the record. I said no. Fuck it. It honestly didn_t seem like that big an issue. Everyone around me had accepted I was gay years before. Everyone in the music business knew about my relationship with John Reid. And it really can_t have been that much of a shock for Cliff Jahr, given that I_d previously told him the story of Divine and me being turned away from Crisco Disco. Let_s look at the circumstantial evidence: I_d been trying to get into a gay club, named after a famous anal lubricant, with the world_s most famous drag queen. The news that I wasn_t heterosexual could hardly have come as a bolt from the blue. He asked me if I was bisexual and I said yes. You can see that as fudging the issue if you want, but in fairness I_d had a relationship with a woman before, and I had a relationship with a woman afterwards. He asked if Bernie and I were ever a couple and I told him we weren_t. John Reid_s name came up and I fibbed and said I_d never had a serious affair with anyone. It certainly wasn_t my business to start outing anyone in Rolling Stone. I told him I thought everyone should be able to go to bed with whoever they wanted. _But they should draw the line at goats,_ I added. At that moment, John Reid suddenly stuck his head round the door and asked if everything was all right. I don_t know whether it was just perfect timing, or whether he_d been listening at the door in a state of mounting panic and finally, when I started making jokes about bestiality, couldn_t stand it any longer. Perhaps he drew the line at goats, too. I told John everything was fine. And I meant it. I didn_t feel relieved, or nervous, or proud, or any of the things you might expect to feel when you publicly come out. I didn_t feel anything really. I_d done all the fretting I had to do about my sexuality and what people might think about it years ago. I didn_t care. This was not an attitude that was shared by those around me. Not that anyone said anything directly to me. Respectful of the amount of money I was earning everyone, and wary of encouraging our old friend the Dwight Family Temper to put in one of its show-stopping guest appearances, they wouldn_t have dared. But around the time the feature came out, I got the feeling that John Reid and my American record company were in a state of anxiety, waiting to see what disastrous impact its revelations were going to have on my career. Eventually, the dust settled and the full, staggering extent of the damage I had caused became clear. There wasn_t any. A couple of nutcases wrote into Rolling Stone and said they were praying that my perverted soul be spared God_s wrath and eternal damnation. A few radio stations in the US announced they weren_t going to play my records anymore, but that didn_t bother me in the slightest: at the risk of sounding arrogant, I strongly suspected my career would limp on somehow without their help. People have said the Rolling Stone piece caused a dip in my record sales in the States, but my album sales had started to dip long before then. Rock of the Westies may have got to Number One, but it had sold far less than Captain Fantastic. In Britain, meanwhile, the Sun cancelled a competition to win copies of Blue Moves, on the grounds that its cover _ a beautiful Patrick Procktor painting I owned of people sitting in a park _ didn_t feature any women, and thus, presumably, constituted terrifying homosexual propaganda from which the public must be protected. Their logic seemed to be that if a Sun reader saw a painting of some men sitting in a park, they might immediately rip off their wedding ring, abandon their wife and children and race to the nearest gay bar singing _I Am What I Am_ as they went. But that was about it as far as adverse reactions went. Actually, the British press seemed less interested in what was happening in my sex life than what was happening on top of my head. In one sense, I couldn_t blame them: I_d been pretty gripped by what was going on up there myself for the last year or so. My hair had started thinning a little in the early seventies, but a bad dye job in New York had suddenly caused the stuff to stage a mass walkout. Impressed by the way the fashion designer Zandra Rhodes seemed to change her hair colour to match her outfits, I had been getting mine dyed every shade imaginable at a salon in London for years with no apparent ill-effects. I_ve no idea what the New York hairdresser had put on it but, not long afterwards, it started coming out in chunks. By the time of the 1976 tour, there was virtually nothing left on top. I hated how I looked. Some people are blessed with the kind of face that looks good with a bald head. I am not one of those people. Without hair, I bear a disturbing resemblance to the cartoon character Shrek. But salvation was apparently at hand. I was directed to a man called Pierre Putot in Paris, who was supposedly a great pioneer in the art of hair transplants. At that point in history, hair transplants were so new that any doctor who could be bothered to do them counted as a great pioneer, but I was assured he was the best. Undergo a simple procedure, I was told, and I would leave his Paris clinic a changed man, to cries of incroyable! and sacre bleu! from onlookers dazzled by my new, leonine coiffure. It didn_t quite work out like that. For one thing, it wasn_t a simple procedure at all. It went on for five hours. I had it done twice, and both times it hurt like hell. The technique they used had the unappetizing name of _strip harvesting_: they took strips of hair from the back of my head with a scalpel and attached them to the crown. The sound of the hair being removed was disconcertingly like a rabbit gnawing its way through a carrot. I left the clinic after the first procedure reeling in agony, lost my footing as I tried to get into the back of a waiting car and hit the top of my head on the door frame. It was at that moment I discovered that however much a hair transplant hurt, it was a mere pinprick compared to the sensation of hitting your head on a car door immediately after having a hair transplant. Frantically dabbing my now-bleeding scalp with a tissue, I did the one thing I could think of that might take my mind off the pain I was in. I told the driver to take me shopping. To make matters worse, the hair transplant just didn_t work. I_m not sure why, but it didn_t take. It wasn_t the doctor_s fault. Perhaps it had something to do with the amount of drugs I was taking. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the one thing they told me I must not do in the weeks after the procedure was wear a hat, advice I chose to completely ignore on the grounds that, without a hat, I now looked like something that turns up towards the end of a horror film and starts strip-harvesting teenage campers with an axe. My head was covered in scabs and weird craters. I suppose I could have split the difference and worn something lighter than a hat, like a bandana, but appearing in public dressed as a gypsy fortune teller seemed a look too far, even for me. When news of recent events at Monsieur Putot_s clinic reached the press, they went crazy. Nothing I_d done in my career to date seemed to fascinate them in quite the way that having a hair transplant did. The paparazzi became obsessed with getting a photo of me without a hat on. You would have thought I was hiding the secret of eternal life and happiness under there rather than a bit of thinning hair. The paparazzi were out of luck _ I kept a hat on in public more or less permanently for the next decade or so. In the late eighties, just before I got sober, I decided I_d had enough, dyed what was left of my hair platinum blond, and appeared that way on the cover of my album Sleeping with the Past. After I got sober, I had a weave done, where they take what_s left of your hair and attach more hair to it. I debuted my new look at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. A writer noted that I looked like I had a dead squirrel on my head. He was mean, but, I was forced to concede, he also had a point. Eventually I gave up and got a hairpiece, made by the same people who make wigs for Hollywood movies. It_s the strangest thing. People were absolutely obsessed with my hair, or lack of it, for years. Then I started wearing a wig and virtually no one_s mentioned it since. That said, a wig is not without drawbacks of its own. A few years back, I was sleeping at my home in Atlanta, when I woke up to the sound of voices in the apartment. I was convinced we were being burgled. I pulled on my dressing gown and started creeping out to see what was happening. I was halfway down the corridor when I realized I didn_t have my hairpiece on. I rushed back to the bedroom, reasoning that if I was going to be bludgeoned to death by intruders, at least I wouldn_t be bald when it happened. Wig on, I went into the kitchen to find two workmen, who had been sent up to fix a leak. They apologized profusely for waking me up, but despite my relief, I couldn_t help noticing they were staring at me. Perhaps they were starstruck, I thought, as I headed back to bed. Stopping off in the bathroom, I realized that the workmen weren_t bedazzled by the sight of the legendary Elton John appearing before them. They were bedazzled by the sight of the legendary Elton John appearing before them with his wig on back to front. I looked completely ridiculous, like Frankie Howerd after a heavy night in a strong wind. I took the thing off and went back to sleep. If the world at large seemed to take the news about my sexuality very well, I did start to wonder if I could perhaps have timed the announcement a little better. One piece of advice I would give anyone planning on publicly coming out is this. Try and make sure you don_t do it immediately after being appointed chairman of a British football club, unless you want to spend your Saturday afternoons listening to thousands of away supporters singing _ to the tune of _My Old Man Said Follow The Van_ _ _Don_t sit down when Elton_s around, or you_ll get a penis up your arse_. I suppose I should deliver a lecture here decrying the homophobia of football fans in the mid-seventies, but I have to be honest: I thought it was funny. Mortifying, but funny. I didn_t feel threatened or frightened by it, it was obviously good-humoured, you had to take it on the chin. They_d sing it and I_d just smile and wave at them. In fact, when it came to Watford FC, I had far bigger problems to deal with than whatever the opposition supporters were singing. It was a Watford-supporting journalist who came to interview me back in 1974 who first mentioned that the club was in trouble, and not just on the pitch. I still followed them avidly, still went and watched them whenever I could, still stood on The Bend, the same place on the terrace at Vicarage Road where I_d stood with my dad as a kid. Standing there wasn_t the only thing about watching them that brought back childhood memories. Watford were still just as hopeless a team as they had been in the fifties, permanently stuck at the bottom of the football league. Supporting them sometimes made me think of being a member of Bluesology: I loved them to bits, but I knew we were going absolutely nowhere. Thanks to the journalist, I now learned that the club was in financial trouble, too. They had no money, because no one was interested in coming to watch them lose every week. They were desperately looking for ways to make some. I rang them up and suggested I could play a benefit gig at the ground. They agreed, and in return, offered me the chance to buy shares in the club and become vice-chairman. For the gig, I dressed up in a bee outfit _ the closest thing I could find to the club_s mascot, a cartoon hornet called Harry _ and brought Rod Stewart along to perform with me. If nothing else, this provided Rod with an afternoon of unceasing hilarity at the awfulness of Watford_s ground _ which admittedly was a crumbling dump, still with a greyhound track running around the pitch _ the abysmal nature of the team_s results in contrast to his beloved Celtic and, especially, my new role as vice-chairman. _What the fuck do you know about football, Sharon?_ he asked. _If you knew anything, you wouldn_t support this lot._ I told him to fuck off. The rest of the board couldn_t have been more welcoming. If they were bothered about having the only vice-chairman in the football league who turned up to meetings with green and orange hair, towering over everyone else because of his platform soles, they never mentioned it. But my presence didn_t seem to be making much difference to Watford itself: the team was still hopeless, and the club was still broke. A thought kept playing on my mind. If supporting Watford was as frustrating as being in Bluesology, then maybe, as in Bluesology, it was down to me to do something about it. So when the chairman, a local businessman called Jim Bonser, offered to sell me the club outright in the spring of 1976, I said yes. John Reid was furious, going on and on about what a drain on my finances owning a football club was going to be. I told him to fuck off, too. I really wanted to do this. I_ve always had a competitive streak, whether it was squash or table tennis or Monopoly. Even today, if I play tennis, I don_t want to just knock a ball about and get some exercise. I want to play a game, and I want to win. So taking on the chairman_s job appealed to that aspect of my character. I liked the challenge. What_s more, I was sick of having my weekends ruined because Watford had lost. And I loved the club. Supporting Watford was something that ran through my whole life, while everything else had changed beyond recognition. Vicarage Road was five or six miles from where I was born. It connected me to my roots, reminded me that no matter how successful I was, or how famous, or how much money I made, I was still a working-class boy from a council house in Pinner. But there was something else, too. I loved being around the club, because everything about it was different from the music world I usually inhabited. There was no glamour, no luxury, no limousines, no Starship. You got on the train to Grimsby with the players, you watched the game, listened to the opposition supporters sing about your allegedly insatiable desire to stick your penis up the arse of anyone nearby, and then you got the train home, carrying a box of local fish the Grimsby directors had presented you with as a gift at the end of the match. There was no bullshit. Once you reach a certain level of success in the music business, you realize that a lot of people around you have started telling you what they think you want to hear, rather than what they actually think. No one wants to upset you, no one wants to rock the boat. But at Watford, it wasn_t like that. The staff and players were friendly, they were respectful, but they weren_t interested in massaging my ego. They would happily tell me if they didn_t think much of my new album _ _Why don_t you do a song like _Daniel_ again? I liked that one_ _ or if they thought the coat I was wearing looked ridiculous. That I wasn_t getting any kid glove treatment because I was Elton John was brought home quite forcefully whenever I elected to join in a five-a-side game with them. I_d get the ball, see a Watford player on the opposite team coming in to tackle me and the next thing I knew, they_d have possession and I_d be flying through the air at high speed, backwards, as a prelude to landing flat on my arse. And there was no bad behaviour, no diva tantrums from me. I had to learn to be a good loser, to shake the hands of the opposition_s directors when they beat us. I couldn_t lose my temper, or sulk, nor could I get drunk or take drugs, because I wasn_t there as a huge star whose every whim had to be catered for, I was there as a representative of Watford Football Club. I broke the rules once. I turned up at a Boxing Day game hungover after a mammoth coke bender and started helping myself to the boardroom Scotch. The following day, I was given a real dressing down, the kind of telling-off no one ordinarily had the balls to deliver to me. _What the fuck do you think you_re doing? You_re letting yourself down and you_re letting the club down._ The man delivering the talking-to was Graham Taylor, the new manager I_d personally convinced to join Watford in April 1977. He was thirty-two years old when I met him _ young for a football manager _ and he reminded me of Bernie. Like Bernie, he came from Lincolnshire. Like Bernie, he took a chance on me. Graham was paid very well for a manager of a team as lowly as Watford, but taking the job was definitely a step down for him. He had already taken his last team, Lincoln City, out of the fourth division and was supposed to move on to somewhere much bigger, not go back to the bottom. But, like Bernie, I clicked with him immediately, and like Bernie, I didn_t interfere with what he did, I just let him get on with doing his job. And, like Bernie, when things took off for us, they took off in a way beyond anything we could have imagined. Graham was an incredible manager. He assembled a fantastic back-room team around him. Bertie Mee came from Arsenal to be his assistant, a veteran who_d been a player in the thirties and knew the game inside out. Eddie Plumley arrived from Coventry as chief executive. Graham bought new players and encouraged amazing young talent. He signed John Barnes, aged sixteen: one of the greatest players England_s ever seen, and Graham got him for the price of a new football kit. He turned club apprentices like Luther Blissett and Nigel Callaghan into star players. He made them all train harder than they_d ever trained before, and he got them to play exciting football _ two big centre-forwards, two fast wingers, a great attack, lots of goals, which meant that people wanted to come and watch us. He got rid of the greyhound track and built new stands and a family enclosure, a place specifically designed for parents to bring their kids to watch the game in safety. Every team has one now, but Watford were the first. All of this cost money, which meant more moaning from John Reid. I didn_t care. I wasn_t a businessman, pouring cash into the club as a financial investment. Watford were in my blood. I was obsessed to the point that I became superstitious _ if we were on a winning streak, I wouldn_t change my clothes or empty my pockets _ and so insanely enthusiastic, I could literally talk people into becoming Watford fans. I converted my old friend Muff Winwood from a West Brom supporter to a member of the Watford board. I went to local council meetings and tried in vain to convince them to let us build a new stadium on the outskirts of the town. After matches, I_d go to the Supporters_ Club, a little building up on the main stand, meet with Watford fans and listen to what they had to say. I wanted them to know that I really cared about the club, that we weren_t taking them for granted, that without the supporters Watford was nothing. I threw huge parties for the players and staff and their families at Woodside, with five-a-side games and egg and spoon races. I bought an Aston Martin, had it painted in Watford_s colours _ yellow, with a red and black stripe down the middle _ and drove to away games in it; I called it the Chairman_s Car. I didn_t realize how much attention it had attracted until I was introduced to Prince Philip. We were making polite conversation, when he suddenly changed the subject. _You live near Windsor Castle, don_t you?_ he asked. _Have you seen the bloody idiot who drives around that area in his ghastly car? It_s bright yellow with a ridiculous stripe on it. Do you know him?_ _Yes, Your Highness. It_s actually me._ _Really?_ He didn_t appear particularly taken aback by this news at all. In fact, he seemed quite pleased to have found the idiot in question, so that he could give him the benefit of his advice. _What the hell are you thinking? Ridiculous. Makes you look like a bloody fool. Get rid of it._ If the Chairman_s Car couldn_t get me to the game on time, I_d charter a helicopter. If I couldn_t make it because I was abroad, I would phone the club and they would plug my call into the local hospital radio broadcast of the match: backstage somewhere in America, the band would listen to me in my dressing room, alone, screaming my head off because we_d beaten Southampton in a cup tie. If it was the middle of the night in New Zealand, I_d get up to listen. If it clashed with the start of a gig, I_d delay the start of the gig. I loved it: the excitement of the games, the feeling of camaraderie, of being part of a team where it felt like everyone was working towards the same end, from the players to the tea ladies. I couldn_t have bought the personal happiness that Watford brought me at any price. Besides, I wasn_t throwing money into a bottomless pit. I could see the results of my spending. Watford started winning and kept winning. After one season, we were into the Third Division. After two, we were in the Second. In 1981, Watford were promoted to the First Division for the first time in their history. The next year we were runners-up, the second most successful football team in Britain. It meant we would be playing in the UEFA Cup, against the biggest teams in Europe: Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan. That was what I_d told Graham I_d wanted the club to achieve at our first meeting. He had looked at me like I was out of my mind and started telling me how we_d be lucky to stay in the Fourth Division with the team we had _ _you_ve got a fucking giraffe for a centre-forward_ _ before realizing I was deadly serious and prepared to put my money where my mouth was. We decided it would probably take ten years. Watford had done it in five. And then, in 1984, we made the FA Cup Final. It_s the oldest and most prestigious football competition in Britain: Wembley stadium, 100,000 fans. I was used to Watford doing well by now _ it_s funny how easily you become accustomed to success after decades of failure _ but just before the match started, it suddenly hit me how far we had come, from a hopeless little club that no one went to watch, that people laughed at, to this. The brass band struck up with _Abide With Me_, the traditional FA Cup hymn, and that was it: I burst into tears in full view of the BBC_s cameras. As it turned out, that was the highlight of the day. We were beaten 2_0 by Everton. It should have been a much closer game _ one of their goals should have been disallowed _ but ultimately they played better than we did. I was distraught, but we still threw a party for the team: it was a fantastic achievement. Looking out at the crowd at Wembley before the game began, I_d felt like I had onstage at Dodger Stadium. And, like the Dodger Stadium gigs, I think I knew that this was a sort of pinnacle, that it didn_t get any better than this. I was right. A couple of years later, Graham left to become manager at Aston Villa. I appointed a manager called Dave Bassett as his replacement, but it didn_t work out; the chemistry wasn_t right, he didn_t gel with the team. I started thinking that I should have left Watford when Graham did. I still loved the club, but there had been a serendipity, a magic, about the two of us together, and I couldn_t conjure up that same magic without him. Eventually I sold Watford to Jack Petchey, a multimillionaire who_d made his money in cars. Seven years later, I bought back a load of shares in the club and became chairman again _ a businessman rather than someone who put his heart into the club, I felt Jack was making a terrible mess of things, and Watford had slipped back into the Second Division. I only did it because Graham agreed to come back as manager. The team did well, but it wasn_t the same as the first time around; there wasn_t that incredible challenge of rising from the bottom. Finally, Graham left again, and this time, so did I. I resigned as chairman for good in 2002. In a weird way, our partnership quietly continued. Right up until he died in 2017, I still rang Graham all the time to talk about the team: how they were playing, what we thought of the latest manager. Whatever else Graham Taylor achieved in football, nothing took his heart away from Watford. I_m incredibly proud of what we achieved together, but I owe Watford far more than Watford owe me. I was chairman throughout the worst period of my life: years of addiction and unhappiness, failed relationships, bad business deals, court cases, unending turmoil. Through all of that, Watford were a constant source of happiness to me. When I didn_t feel I had any love in my personal life, I knew I had love from the club and the supporters. It gave me something else to concentrate on, a passion that could take my mind away from everything that was going wrong. For obvious reasons, there are chunks of the eighties I have no recollection of _ I struggled to remember what had happened the next day, let alone thirty years later _ but every Watford game I saw is permanently etched on my memory. The night we knocked Manchester United out of the League Cup at Old Trafford, when we were still a Third Division side: two goals by Blissett, both headers, the newspapers that never normally bothered writing about Watford calling them Elton John_s Rocket Men the next morning. The night in November 1982 when we were away to Nottingham Forest in the Milk Cup. They beat us 7_3, but I thought it was one of the greatest games of football I_d ever seen in my life and Forest_s legendary manager Brian Clough agreed with me, before turning to Graham and telling him he would never allow his chairman to sit on the bloody touchline the way I did. If I hadn_t had the football club then God knows what would have happened to me. I_m not exaggerating when I say I think Watford might have saved my life.

  • Toy Story 2 /   2 (Disney, 2012)    Toy Story 2 /
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