Vegas Knights: A Conversation With Sir Elton John
I flew to Las Vegas to talk to Elton John about music, misery, his new show on Beats 1, flaming vaginas and watching Miley Cyrus in the nude.
Illustration by Dessie Jackson.
I’m going into The Colosseum at Caesars Palace through the back door, just like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Bette Midler and Cher have done before me. Maybe I am Cher? I feel like Cher. Cher is the sort of person who would sit down for an hour long chat with Elton John on a hot Wednesday afternoon in Las Vegas.
Fuck, what do you talk about with Elton John? A man that has been asked every question, whose life has been trawled over by countless biographers and filmmakers. What will it even be like to look him in the eye? What does he wear on an off day? Trackies? I try to remember what he looks like these days but can only recall his Madame Tussauds waxwork.
Will he even want to talk? Sure, most of his temper tantrum days are behind him - back when he would bark expletives at everyone around him, famously documented in David Furnishes documentary Tantrums and Tiaras - but he still has the occasional off day, surely? What if I catch Elton in a grump?
A few hours later, we are sitting in his dressing room talking about Miley Cyrus.
“I mean who would have thought that she’d do a record with The Flaming Lips?” says Elton. “I love that kind of thing. That on the spur of the moment, out of leftfield stuff like that. And they’re gonna perform the whole album nude. I’m booking my ticket now. It’s like ‘I wanna see this, this is interesting’.”
“You know the audience has to be nude as well?” I say. “That’s the stipulation.”
“Sure,” - having what can only be described as banter with Elton John here. “Save the date. I’ll get us a bunch of tickets.”
“I mean it’s fucking brilliant. It feels like something that would have happened during the 60s, something someone like Frank Zappa would have done. Good for Miley.” He gives a sassy hurumph. “Break the mould, girl.”
When Japanese tourists arrive in Paris, they sometimes have acute delusional states: hallucinations, depersonalization, dizziness, rapid heart rate and sweating. This severe form of culture shock is a recognised medical condition known as Paris Syndrome - Paris has been so idealised as a city of romance in Japanese culture that the drab reality makes them feel physically sick.
A few days before our interview, I arrive in Las Vegas, and walking around it’s a bit like Paris Syndrome in reverse. I’ve seen Ocean’s Eleven, The Hangover, watched the footage of Elvis, listened to the Cocteau Twins sing “this must be heaven or Las Vegas”. I imagine high-rolling glamour and fancy couples stepping out for evening shows, stag-dos and “what happens in Vegas” nights of unimaginable excess, people in tuxedos putting it all on red. What I’m really hoping for: hallucinations, depersonalisation, dizziness, rapid heart rate and sweating. But Vegas provides nothing of the sort. The whole strip is a series of weird air-conditioned malls interlinked so that you never have to step outside. The casinos are made up almost entirely of lurid slot machines, not that different from the ones you see in a British chip shop. There is drinking, sure, but nothing like the excess you’d see in any student union on a Monday night. Perhaps most surprisingly, in a country which has such a high legal drinking age and stringent ID checks, Vegas is full of families, whinging kids eating at Gordon Ramsay’s steak house. It is fascinating, as a sort of mecca for basicness, but it’s a long way from the Vegas you see on TV.
On my second night in town, I watch Elton’s show at Caesars Palace and it’s both spectacular and kitsch; John playing hit after hit behind a cast gold set including a huge mold of his own face. There are touching moments, like when he recounts his friendship with John Lennon and plays “Empty Garden” the song he wrote for him after his death, and there’s also balls-out showmanship, like when he invites the audience on stage for “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. In one sense he is the classic Vegas entertainer: all spectacle, classic songs and glitz. But on the other, Elton is still an incredibly virtuosic artist. His last couple of records, far from cheesy nostalgia, have been some of his most acclaimed and critically welcomed.
Beyond his own output, Elton is a connoisseur of popular music. For decades he’s mostly been just a quiet enthusiast, but earlier this year he’s started a show on Beats 1: Elton John’s Rocket Hour, a weekly hour-long journey of musical discovery, which he hosts from wherever he is in the world that week. For anyone who thinks of Elton as just a Magic FM artist, they’re in for a shock. In recent weeks he’s played James Blake, Fetty Wap, Netsky, Alessia Cara, Kwabs and Meek Mill, all interspersed with deeper cuts from across the history of popular music. Elton plays both the role of afficianado picking out unlikely elements from the songs, but also joins in on the discovery - playlisting tracks he’s been recommended by friends and other musicians.
The day after the gig, I watch Elton record one of these shows, a special edition alongside Brandon Flowers. Brandon picks a few of the songs too, including a modern country track by Sturgill Simpson that Elton lights up about. "I could have sworn that was something from the 50s or 60s. I’ll be going out and buying that record and it’s great.”
Off-mic between songs the pair fervently discuss what the other have been listening to, and every time a song comes up in conversation Elton goes, "Oh yes we have to play that," and barks at someone in the corner of the room, “Write it down.” After they’ve finished recording, I take Brandon’s chair.
“Oh yeah I do that all the time,” he says as I bring up his urgent need to note songs down as they come up in conversation. “I get up in the middle of night, switch the fucking light on, remember songs and write them down on my notepad.”
Isn’t that strange for someone whose life is so heavily documented, to forget so much. Surely he’s being constantly reminded of every era of pop music by his own career, which has spanned pretty much all of them?
“I’m not a nostalgic person - in terms of my own music and in general. I can never watch a video I’ve done, I never watch anything. Doing this Beats 1 show has reconnected me to my life in a way. It’s kind of like a music biography, but that allows me to turn people on who necessarily haven’t heard this kind of music before. So I’ve been playing everything, from Ady Suleiman to Betty Wright to Neneh Cherry. Oh actually another one I haven’t played is Neneh Cherry and “7 Seconds” with Youssou N'Dour. Fuck. The video for that - ah!” He turns to someone behind us, “Write that down!”
The show is more than just a music appreciation society. Elton also opens up about the way certain songs have helped him in darker times. For many years he was an alcoholic, drug addict, and bulimic. In recent weeks he’s been talking about two songs in particular, “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and “Lost Soul” by Bruce Hornsby, as tracks that he would play when he had isolated himself from others. I ask him about how music has helped him, and suddenly we feel a long way from Vegas.
“I did used to sit there, on my own, doing lines of coke, smoking joints and drinking neat scotch and listen to ‘Don’t Give Up’ and ‘Lost Soul’. I used to sit there in tears thinking: Why am I doing this? And having another line straight away. I didn’t realise that I was an addict, I just thought I had a problem now and then. And actually that track we played today by Bonnie Raitt. ‘I’m blowing away/Waiting for love to find me/But I’m sitting here and it’s never found me’, I used to sit there and listen to that.”
For the first time since I’ve arrived, Elton slows down for a moment. “I never stopped working during the drug days, I never stopped touring. That’s what saved my life. I still recorded, I still went on tour, on stage, out of my mind. If I had just been sitting there at home for two years, just doing coke, I wouldn’t be here talking to you… But it took me a long time to just say those words: ‘I want help.’ Music, in a way, kept me going. I’d sit there listening to classical music and having the same thing - Elgar’s 'Enigma Variations'. What a queen, sitting there listening to all this misery!”
It reminded me of that line from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I say. “'Do I listen to pop music because I'm miserable? Or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?' Do you ever think about that? Is the plight of the musician an inherently more miserable one?”
“I love misery. Miserable songs are so great to write, I love writing them. It’s much harder for me to write an uptempo song than a misery song. We’re all afraid to admit that part of our soul: that we want to fall in love with someone and we hate having our heart broken. It’s a very masculine thing to soldier on in the face of adversity. But at the end of the day it’s like ‘Oh, I’m human, I do want to be loved, I do want to get well, I do want a happy life.’ And music has carried that through.”
While we’re talking about Elton’s difficult years, I wonder what his perception of the continual role drugs still play in music is. In almost every scene, in almost every city, becoming a musician or working in the music industry still seems to come part and parcel with heavy drug use. It’s a cliche - yet one that continues to ring true in 2015. What is the continued allure of cocaine, for people starting out in bands?
“Well there’s certain people I’ve known, young musicians who are beginning to make it and they’ve disappeared into the bathroom come and I’ve gone, ‘Are you doing coke?’ and they’re going, ‘Yeah!’ I said, ‘Well that’s not a very good idea’ and they say, ‘Well it’s what I’m supposed to do, isn’t it?’ No, you’re not supposed to do it, it’s a fucking horrible drug. It brings out the worst side of your soul, you don’t need it, you’ve got so much talent. Stop it. It’s alright to have a drink but as soon as you go down that path it’s a path to…eugh.” He trails off for a moment.
“It’s crazy but it’s a cliché and a fucking horror story! You’re supposed to be making music. Just because Amy Winehouse died at 27 and Jim Morrison died at 27 and Jimi Hendrix died at 27 it doesn’t mean you have to as well. It’s bullshit and it’s so sad when you see that happen to someone. When you’re a drug addict and an alcoholic, you’re a completely lying, devious rat. It makes you so deceitful. It’s all about deceit, lies. ‘No I didn’t do that, no I didn’t do a line of coke, no I didn’t do this, I’m quite healthy, I’m very good, I’ve been out for a walk’. Bullshit. When you’re an addict, it’s all about bullshit.”
In the back of the room, a publicist interrupts for the first time. I had forgotten anyone else was even there. She says something like - “Maybe we should get back to the music” and I nod.
Ok, I say, let’s talk about Young Thug.
Have you listened to him? I feel like he’s someone bringing a real sense of the outlandishness to hip-hop.
I love that record! I actually asked [Universal Music CEO] David Joseph about it. I heard a track on Beats 1 and I loved it so much. But he’s got himself into trouble, hasn’t he?
Kind of, he was alleged to have plotted to assassinate Lil Wayne, but I think he’s fine now. Within the hip-hop community he gets stick for his outfits because he’ll wear Gucci leather dresses and leopard print two-pieces. I thought you could identify with that a bit.
I love all of that, it’s unexpected. I remember when Blind Faith came out, with a nude girl and John & Yoko, you had to buy it in a black plastic bag. And you should be able to do things like that but we don’t live in that kind of world anymore.
Do you think the music world has got a lot more PC?
Oh it’s ridiculous. So ridiculous. I fucking hate PC. You can’t say anything about anything anymore. I’m not really for censorship at any level. I think you should be able to say what you think but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a lightning rod for that and I’ve got myself into trouble and I can’t anymore. People just will attack you, it’s crazy. If Miley actually does go ahead and does it naked in front of all those people, that’s one of the greatest performance art things that’s happened since the 2000s, or since Marina Abramovic. It's the sort of thing that would have happened back in the late 60s when there was so much bravado around. I hate censorship in any form. Jason Sellards from the Scissor Sisters, when they did Nightwork, they had the very famous Warhol picture of the guy with the crack up his tight trousers and I said, ‘It’s a fucking great cover but it will hurt your album sales,’ and it did. It shouldn’t but it does. It drives me crazy. I’m not a conservative guy at all when it comes to things like that, I think people should have freedom of speech. It’s like when Pisschrist first came to England or the Chris Ofili dung in the Brooklyn Museum. Fuck off! This is an artist saying something. Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy? It’s a wonderful pouring out of the soul. He’s been persecuted, he’s been imprisoned, not allowed to sleep. They’re my heroes. The people who’ve pushed the envelope.
We talk about other envelope pushers, like being in the studio with Kanye. Elton talks about his production style as “like modern jazz”. We talk about him working with Timbaland and how much he’s learnt from him. I say it’s hard to put these two Eltons together. On the one hand the musical auteur and champion of free speech and boundary pushing, the man who listens to Young Thug and James Blake and is learning from Kanye. On the other, is the glitzy Vegas showman, playing the hits night after night for the most casual of music fans. He’s the guy who did the music for The Lion King. (“The Lion King has introduced my music to a whole lot of different people and people criticize the music. I wrote it for a fucking animation movie, get a life.”)
But if he’s such a fan of these groundbreaking artists, has he never been tempted to throw out the rule book in his own music? Is it now the time for Elton to go punk?
“I mean, when the punk thing happened, and I’m lying in bed watching Janet Street Porter and Johnny Lydon slag me off, I was thinking: if I was young now I probably wouldn’t be making that kind of music but I’d certainly be dressing like that because it’s fucking great. It was a feeling. What they were saying was music should be energetic and old fuckers like me and Rod Stewart were lying in our beds - which I was. Punk is a feeling; music’s all about being kicked in the gut or being kicked emotionally in the head. If you get one of those two things to happen and it’s full of energy - fuck, that’s so powerful.”
But it wasn’t something he ever wanted for himself? “I’m not a kind of kick music in the gut guy, I grew up as a songwriter who wanted to write nice songs and I was influenced by all sorts of music. I’m not a game-changer, not musically. The only way I was a game-changer was that I wore ridiculous clothes and changed the game plan for me because I wanted to sit at a piano and have a little bit of irony. But musically, I wasn’t a leader of a movement.”
Perhaps that was true at the time, but if you think of the way modern music has coalesced, Elton John has become the touchstone by which so much pop is based - his style of songwriting has become the cornerstone for so much of what music is now: would we have Kate Bush, Adele, Sam Smith, Scissor Sisters, Mika, Rufus Wainwright without Elton? Even the whole idea of the singer/songwriter seems to begin with him.
“You know what? I think we’ve got a lot to answer for, us singer/songwriters, because it took a lot of the joy out of music and replaced it with a lot of earnestness. Having listened to so much 60s music, buying vinyl here for the last few days and just seeing how joyous it was. Maybe music isn’t as much fun anymore. Not to me, anyway.”
We start to talk about the power of voice in music and how that can convey so much more than a simple song. All throughout our conversation, Elton does this thing, where he’ll take the beginning of a question and then start bouncing it off the history of modern music, he’ll do runs up and down the decades, tinkling across the years like they were keys on the piano - playing in the key of whatever question you asked him.
“‘Retrograde’ by James Blake - that’s the voice, the human voice and what it conveys. All sorts of different voices like the guy from Question Mark and the Mysterians, that kind of pop music where you can’t really sing but it doesn’t matter. Like the Kingsmen with Louie Louie - it’s the sound. There are certain artists like that; Lou Reed is a prime example of someone who didn’t have the greatest voice but could convey so much. John Grant does it - he has a great voice though. Dylan doesn’t have a great voice, and Leonard Cohen, but they conveyed so much emotion. They get into you. I’m not a snob saying, ‘You have to have a great voice,’ that’s bullshit. You don’t have to have a great voice to get a message across. It’s the feeling you put into it and the emotion you put into it.”
We go on like this for ages, the history of music according to Elton, but our time is running out and I still have one question I still can’t get my head around: Why are we here? Vegas is no passing fad for Elton, he’s played hundreds of shows here over the last few years. But what is the allure of this town where time has stopped in this kind of cultureless vacuum to a man so fascinated by the past and the future? He could be headlining arenas around the world, playing to ten times as many people in each venue, or he could be in New York or London or Paris or somewhere with soul. Why Vegas?
“Let me tell you, the first time I came to Vegas it was called The Red Piano Tour and it was done by David LaChapelle. I go ‘David, here’s the list of songs, you go away and make the films.’ I came in the day before the show was due to start and he’d done exactly what he wanted. I wanted to make sure that when I did this show it was really pushing the envelope and we had people complaining. So he had Amanda Lepore sitting in an electric chair with her vagina on fire while I sang 'Someone Save My Life Tonight'. We had naked boys sniffing lines of coke off the 'Yellow Brick Road'. People were horrified. We had people walking out. But there’s no point in coming here and doing ‘the hits’.”
For the first time I start to see the appeal of Vegas. In a town where everything is so fake and facile, doing something real breaks through. “Everyone who comes to this show isn’t particularly my fan, Vegas is a walk up town. Maybe 50% of people here are fans and 50% are ‘Oh, Elton’s in town, we’ll go and see the show.’ Everyone said ending up in Vegas was the death knell for an artist, I thought that, I had to be persuaded. But actually Vegas didn’t really know what it was letting itself in for. I love people going ‘I didn’t like that’. I’m glad you didn’t like that, that’s the whole point of it.”
Follow Sam on Twitter.