NEW YORK — If you’re thinking of checking out the new memoir by Elton John’s lyricist to learn more about the Rocket Man, you’re out of luck. This is Bernie Taupin’s song to sing.
“Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton & Me” is a fascinating read for the pictures it paints of the music scene of the 1970s, ’80s and ‘90s but if John is what you seek, he writes, the singer-pianist is “in absentia for much of this narrative.”
“What people don’t realize is that we were joined at the hip at the beginning. It was sort of me and him against the world,” Taupin said in a recent interview. “But I think once that we gained a modicum of success, it was natural that we would sort of separate and find our own lives.”
“Scattershot” is the story of an Englishman bewitched by country music and the American West who grows up to supply lyrics to one of rock n ’roll’s all-time superstars and later in life embraces art and becomes a bona fide cowboy.
“It was a great sort of psychological adventure, in a way,” he says. “It was like being on the couch and remembering things, being prodded by myself rather than a psychiatrist.”
Readers will learn that “Bennie and the Jets” was inspired by Fritz Lang’s landmark film “Metropolis,” “Tiny Dancer” actually describes a handful of Los Angeles women, and “I’m Still Standing” was based on a breakup suffered by Taupin.
They’ll learn he was buzzed and poolside in Barbados when John called him for lyrics to a new duet he was working on. Taupin threw something together that was “simplistic without being overly trite.” It became “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” their first U.K. No. 1 and winner of an Ivor Novello Award. “Not bad for 10 minutes of drunken scribbling,” he writes.
Of meeting John the first time, he writes: “I like him tremendously because he’s not condescending. I sense a kindred spirit; we’re outsiders looking for a way in, and I’m willing to play along, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.” He also writes about gracefully declining an early pass from John, paving the way for 50 years of friendship.
Taupin reveals he once punched John Belushi, ate a half block of opium on a flight from New York, split his pants at a reception at Kensington Palace and that Marilyn Monroe was not the initial choice to anchor “Candle in the Wind.”
When he and John revisited the song to honor Diana, Princess of Wales, Taupin spent just half an hour and acknowledges in his memoir that “if you put a gun to my head right now and threatened to kill me if I didn’t recite the lyric, I’d be a dead man. I don’t remember a word of it.” It would become the highest selling single of all time.
Taupin doesn’t avoid spilling tea. Of Andy Warhol, he writes: “Talking to Andy was like conversing with an 8-year-old girl” and he wasn’t a fan of Hugh Hefner: “He was the possessor of a perpetual, passive smirk that I found unsettling.”
“I always find that people tend to tiptoe around in autobiographies. But you have to call people out,” he said in the interview. “I call out a few people, some more than others. But I also compliment the ones that deserve to be complimented.”
He also isn’t shy about criticizing his own work. He and John’s first album, “Empty Sky,” was “an acceptable debut, but more importantly, a harbinger of growth and improvement.” Later, the album “Jump Up!” was “definitely subpar.”
Ben Schafer, an executive editor at Hachette Books who worked with Taupin on the memoir and is thanked in the acknowledgements, said “Scattershot” benefits from a writer living in two worlds.
“He got to live like a rock star, but he didn’t have to be one and that gives him a certain kind of clarity,” said Schafer, who has worked on books by Brian Wilson, Lou Reed and Buddy Guy. “He’s totally inside, but, in a way, he’s outside and can live something of a normal life in the way Elton John can’t.”
Taupin rejected writing a linear memoir, instead taking a page from Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” and collecting his thoughts in themes or locations. His feelings and encounters with the royal family get one chapter, as does his trips to Mexico.
There are unusual sections, like a chapter that compares the prominent surrealist artist Salvador Dali, who got on Taupin’s nerves, with Taupin’s driver, Ralphie, an unknown guy whose company he enjoyed.
“The chapter was to say there are people that are there for a short time in our life that don’t leave a great legacy, but they do in your own mind,” said Taupin. “In my mind, Ralphie was every every bit as important to me as running and hanging with Salvador Dali.”
The John-Taupin collaboration has created some of modern music’s most lasting hits, like “Your Song” and “Rocket Man.” But Taupin is not precious about the meaning of his lyrics.
“I think it’s far more interesting to let people come up with their own conclusions as to what this song is about. I think it’s fascinating. It’s like looking at contemporary modern art or abstract art. ‘Now, what was he trying to say with this?’” he said.
“I never take for granted that our songs have stood the test of time. I’m completely complimented by that. And I never take it for granted.”
Though associated closely with John, Taupin has also co-written such hits as “We Built This City” by Starship,“These Dreams” by Heart and “Breakfast in Birmingham” by Tanya Tucker.
“I like writing in a country vein and the Americana vein because it suits my sensibility better than anything else. So I’m just lucky to be able to find the people that are able to put my stories into the right framework,” he said.
Later in life, he embraced making expressionist art and the sport of cutting, an equestrian competition in which a horse and rider are judged on their skill separating cows. It’s full circle for the boy who once played cowboy.
The book comes out a few months before Taupin’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — almost 30 years after John got in and, to many, a long-overdue honor for the man who wrote “My gift is my song, and this one’s for you.”
“I’m probably going to be the first lyricist that’s actually in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, because, quite honestly, there aren’t many others,” he said. “I think I only got considered when they realized that I actually wasn’t in there.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits