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Duets for One

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Elton talks to David Frost, 1999
Wednesday 29 December 1999 @ 2:00 - GMT

Edited by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">George Matlock

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In a programme billed as One to One With Elton John on the U.K.'s Channel 4 TV on Dec. 26, 1999, Elton was interviewed by Sir David Frost, a patron of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and venerable broadcaster.

 

The programme's actual title was Elton John: My Gift Is My Song, and appears to have been made in March/April 1999. Duration was about 55 minutes.

 

Elton talks about: meeting partner David Furnish, the deaths of Gianni Versace and Diana, Princess of Wales, making of The Lion King film (but barely a mention of the Aida project), the Elton John AIDS Foundation, his continuing triumph over cocaine, a bad hair day at his 50th birthday bash, the split with manager John Reid (whom Elton is quick to call "ex-manager John Reid" even when recounting events from 20 years ago), his favourite concert venue, and future projects.

 

We spare you the 1991 snippets, and bring you only the most contemporaneous details here.

 

 

Elton wears a resplendent silver track suit, zipped up, and appears to have been interviewed in his Windsor mansion, the venue for an earlier interview with Frost in 1991. There's about 12 minutes from the original interview, cut with recent live performances.

 

Indeed, there are a number of flashbacks to that earlier interview, when a more youthful Elton, sporting a blue base ball cap, talked about his upbringing, and rehab from drugs.

 

The latest interview attempts to bring the viewer up to date with Elton in the 1990s. And there have been many defining events in Elton's decade gone past.

 

Elton talks about them all: meeting partner David Furnish, the deaths of Gianni Versace and Diana, Princess of Wales, making of the Lion King film (but barely a mention of the Aida project), the Elton John AIDS Foundation, his continuing triumph over cocaine, a bad hair day at his 50th birthday bash, the split with manager John Reid (whom Elton is quick to call "ex-manager John Reid" even when recounting events from 20 years ago), his favourite concert venue, and future projects.

 

We spare you the 1991 snippets, and bring you only the most contemporaneous details here.

 

First, Elton talks about the limiting nature of the piano: If I was a guitarist like Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend...I always hoped that maybe I could play in a band, or work in a record shop. Music was always an integral part of my childhood because I sometimes created my own little world when my parents were arguing."

 

Flashback to the 1991 interview. Then turns to "Skyline Pigeon" live. Looks like a recent show, with Elton in blue-purple chequered jacket, blue shades. Then back to the 1991 interview, followed by "Crocodile Rock" ala "The Muppets Show".

 

Back to 99:

 

David Frost: Talking of the 90s, your friends all say this has probably been the happiest decade of your life. Are they right?

 

EJ: I would probably say so. The 70s were pretty happy because one's career was doing really well. But from a personal happiness point of view, yes the 90s have been very happy. We did this interview [with Frost] a long time ago.

 

DF: Yes, and you'd just come out of rehab.

 

Flashback to 1991 interview.

 

Back to 99:

 

DF: You've been sober for the rest of the 90s.

 

EJ: Yes, it will be nine years, touch wood, on July 29th [1999]. The best thing I did with my life. A lot of good things have happened to me in the 90s, and it's all because of sobriety and I don't take cocaine anymore, and I value my friends.

 

DF: A decade of honours you probably could never have dreamt of, the Oscar. Your mother must have been so thrilled with the Knighthood.

 

EJ: Yes, my mother was more than thrilled when I actually got well again [in 1991 after drug abuse]. I mean that was the big thing for her. She could actually come back to England! Ha! I think for the first two or three years she was waiting for the other shoe to fall off. She thought it was too good to be true. But I have a great relationship with my mother and stepfather, and it's been nice to reward them with the Knighthood, and the fact we talk to each other.

 

DF: And splitting with your manager John Reid. That wasn't easy presumably.

 

EJ: It was a shock. But as I say to anyone I meet now, I was partly to blame for this with John Reid, because I never audited him in 28 years. It was a shame because he was my first relationship. There was that element of trust you think is so necessary, but which was above and beyond what it should have been. It's very difficult to go through something like that. As far as I'm concerned he [Reid] doesn't exist anymore. It's sad, but he doesn't.

 

DF: But on a more positive note, in terms of relationships, you said "It took me more than 40 years to meet someone like David, and now I have".

 

EJ: We'll be together 6 years this year. In any relationship, you've been with Corrina a long time [Frost's wife], you have to be best friends. There are ups and downs, and David and I have our rows but they soon get sorted out because we have a lot of things in common. We're very supportive of each other. I think there are now certain things I will not do. I will not go to the "opening of an envelope" [social events]. I can't be bothered . Life's too short. There are more priorities in life. And with a partner [David Furnish] involved, it has to be a 50-50 thing. David does like to be social, and we do go out, but we spend our time with friends. I hate going into a room full of people and hardly knowing anyone there. And having to make idle chit-chat. I haven't got the time for it anymore.

 

DF: It was 1992 when you announced that all your singles sales were going to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. That was a major step.

 

EJ: It's an ongoing commitment, and will undoubtedly be for the rest of my life. Because there isn't a cure going to be found soon. There are vaccines being sorted out, but even these won't help the people who are infected. In Africa, the situation is so dreadful. There's no medicine, the stigma of AIDS is unbelievable. There are 35 million people with HIV in the world today. The virus is so clever it will mutate. In years to come, it will probably be airborne, unless something is done. Places like Africa will lose 40% of their workforce. Economically, it's a disaster.

 

DF: In 1976, Elton told Rolling Stone magazine that he was bi-sexual. After a short-lived marriage in the 1980s, he's much more direct, referring to himself as "a gay man". In general, you've witnessed less of a stigma than 20 years ago about being gay in the West.

 

EJ: I can't really say, because I'm a celebrity. For 'Joe Bloggs' living in a small town in America or England I think it's still very difficult. If you have role models, it's made easier, but in personal cases, it isn't easier. That harrowing process of telling your parents...

 

Flash to recent live version of "The Last Song"

 

DF: 1994 was the Lion King year. A new experience of working with [Sir] Tim Rice rather than [lyricist] Bernie Taupin.

 

EJ: I had worked with Tim before, on "The Legal Boys" on my album "Jump Up!". It was Tim's suggestion, in fact, to Disney. They asked him "who would you like to write the Lion King with?", and he said Elton John. Disney said "You're not going to get him". And Tim said "I think I can". So I have Tim to thank for that. [Producer] Jeffrey Katzenberg...involved us not only in the music but also the story line. The music happens quite early in an animated movie. They have slots where they want a song. So my part is relatively easy. I write the songs, but then the storyline changes and the melody stays the same, but Tim has to do re-writes. Ha!

 

DF: Can You Feel the Love Tonight was nearly not in the film, but for your intervention.

 

EJ: Tim and I were in Atlanta and [Disney] came to show the more-or-less finished movie. I was blown away. Up until that moment you hardly see more than clips and squiggles. I then said [after the screening] "But you've taken out the love song 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight'." Disney said "we couldn't find the right place to put it." I said "Jeffrey, you cannot have this film without this song in it. There's a need for this song. Tim and I were quite adamant, and to their credit, Disney put it back in. And they said "yes you're right". And that's what I loved about working on it. If you had an idea and they liked it, they would do it. So they reinstated it, and it won the Oscar. But in my view, "Circle of Life" should have won the Oscar because it's a song we remember more. Circle of Life is such a big thing in Disney theme parks. As a song, it has more lasting effect. But I'm not going to turn down an Oscar for "Can You Feel.."!

 

DF: What was the difference of working with Tim after Bernie?

 

EJ: None! Ha! Bernie writes the lyrics first, and when Tim worked with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Andrew wrote the music first. And that's how we did it [on Lion King and Aida].

 

DF: I don't think Bernie would do 100 re-writes, but he did that stunning re-write of "Candle in the Wind".

 

EJ: It was a 2-hour re-write. Richard Branson rang me up and said would I be prepared to play at the funeral? And I said of course. Then I thought about the consequences, the press questioning me playing at a grave ceremony. But that got worked out. The problem was what would I sing. I suggested something new, but Bernie said no, because people had come out of St. James's Palace signing [condolences] like Candle in the Wind, maybe he should re-write it. Which he did. I then faxed it to Richard Branson, and to the Prime Minister [Tony Blair], who then faxed it to Westminster Abbey and the Royal Family for approval. The [funeral] was so surreal.

 

DF: The recorded version has raised over $50 million for Diana's charities.

 

EJ: I probably would have released the song straight from the Abbey because it was a pretty good performance, but I wanted a proper recording just in case. He [producer George Martin] was scribbling the score for the string quartet which I think he's auctioning off this week for charity. And [the recording] was in France being pressed the next day. Then I went to watch the funeral again, and then I broke down. The boys behind their mother's coffin, and when people were throwing flowers at the hearse...

 

DF: Earlier there was also Gianni Versace's death.

 

EJ: We were like brothers. I miss him so much. As time goes by, time's supposed to heal. But with Gianni and Diana it doesn't. Gianni taught me so much.

 

[Elton talks about disagreement with Diana, how they resolved over Versace's death]

 

EJ: Gianni didn't have a funeral, he had a memorial. I broke down when his niece and nephew walked in in tears. I then asked whether Diana wanted a Polo Mint, as photographers caught my head bowed low. Diana was a great comfort. It was the most horrible summer.

 

DF: Earlier that year [1997] you'd turned 50. There must have been times you thought you wouldn't make 50.

 

EJ: I couldn't believe it. I didn't think about it when I was doing drugs. I have the constitution of an Ox, but it all catches up with you sometime. My 50th birthday party was a celebration, one of the great parties of the 90s or that London had seen in 20 years. The British love fancy dress. My wig weighed about 12 pounds. But the furniture truck driver went the wrong way, and there was an almighty traffic jam. Ha! My wig was getting heavier. And my wig would start leaning one way or the other as the driver took bends. It was stuck on with glue, knitting needles...I was getting a panic attack. Bob Halley, my dear beloved PA, radioed from the car in front "maybe we should get out and walk!" I said "I can't get out at Hammersmith Broadway and walk passed the Irish pub!" My smile wore thin. I went in, raced up the stairs [Hercules doubts that's possible!] and changed wigs. I said to David "don't you ever get me to do this again." It made the desired photos...but I could have killed that driver!

 

DF: Is there one concert you look back on as most invigorating and memorable?

 

EJ: The Troubadour in 1970.

 

DF: The other must have been with John Lennon.

 

EJ: 1974, yes. He first came to see the show in Boston, where I emerged wearing something like a tea-cosy, heart-shaped at that. He was shocked. I'll never forget the ovation he received [at Madison Square Garden, New York City], it was the night he reunited with Yoko Ono backstage. He was physically sick, from nerves, and came on for 10 minutes. The place cried. New Yorkers loved him. Madison is still the best venue to play in the world without question. It has this sprung floor, so that when the audience stomp, the stage moves and you see all these limousines moving! There never will be anyone like Lennon again.

 

DF: You became a godfather to Shaun [Lennon's son].

 

EJ: John asked me to be Shaun's godfather. I was flattered. I haven't seen Shaun for a long time, but bought his record, I follow him, and I look at what he's doing. I'm happy the way his career is going. After John and Yoko reunited we all went to the Pierre Hotel for a party. Sat there with Yuri Geller bending spoons! It was a magical evening.

 

DF: They had 6 years of happiness the second time. You were in Australia when you heard the news of Lennon's killing.

 

EJ: I was on a plane from Brisbane to Melbourne. We'd arrived at Melbourne and the announcement came "would the Elton John party please remain on the plane." I knew this must be bad news. While away I was worried it might be my elderly grandmother. My ex-manager John Reid came on the plane crying. He told us. None of us could believe it. Three things happened in my life. John Lennon's death, Gianni Versace's and Diana's death. I couldn't believe it was happening. Lennon was killed at a time he was so happy. He had Shaun, and was making up for the mistakes he had made with [other son] Julian.

 

DF: What about the New Millennium? What unfulfilled ambitions do you have?

 

EJ: I'd like to be in a film. a) I'd like to write a screen musical with Bernie, which earlier in the interview I said we'd plans to do. b) I'd like the stage musicals to be successful. I'd like to write more for the stage. c) I'd like to make a really great album with Bernie, produced by who knows who? There's plenty of things to do. And the biggest fear is that I take on too much, and I don't get any balance in my life. I just want to be as creative as possible for the rest of my life, while I'm enjoying it. I just find that when I am being turned back on a creative level, I get very frustrated.

 

DF: And the only addiction left in your life is shopping.

 

EJ: Yes, David. And now I'm going to take you out and buy you a fabulous ball-gown!

 

DF: Thank you very much!