2019 has been, without a doubt, the Year of Elton John. He has been playing sold-out shows all over the world following the kickoff of his massive farewell tour; his biopic Rocketman was released to critical acclaim over the summer; and now his tell-all memoir, Me, is flying off shelves faster than bookstores can stock it. The book’s popularity is well-deserved, for it offers an unflinchingly real and moving glimpse into the life of one of history’s shiniest stars.
Born Reginald Dwight to a working-class British family, the Rocket Man uses his memoir to chronicle the miraculous and star-studded journey that turned a shy, chubby boy from Pinner into Elton John, one of the most flamboyant and extravagant performers of all time. He holds nothing back; just as Tantrums and Tiaras (1997), directed by his now-husband David Furnish, showed the world the good, the bad, and the ugly of touring with Elton, Me shows readers the good, the bad, and the ugly of his life – and he had his fair share of ugly experiences.
A child abused by his temperamental mother and neglected by his absentee father, it is no wonder that the stage became Elton’s home and the fans his givers of emotional validation; he discloses in Me that he developed an unhealthy dependency upon his global popularity, for his breakout stardom was, in a sense, the first time anyone (aside from his dear grandmother) had shown an interest in him and the music he was making. Inevitably, the low self-esteem bestowed upon him by an abusive childhood led to abusive romantic entanglements and severe substance abuse issues – issues that, on more than one occasion, nearly resulted in his untimely death.
There is very little restraint used in Me; Elton speaks freely of his unhappy childhood, his unhealthy relationships, and his addictions, and he does so largely with the hope that hearing his story, gritty details and all, might help others in similar situations. Since getting clean nearly thirty years ago, he has been a champion for helping others, inside and out of Hollywood, do the same:
If someone is in a state and needs help, I call them, or leave my number with their manager, just saying, ‘Listen, I’ve been there, I know what it’s like.’ If they need to contact me, they can. Some of those people everyone knows about. […] I’m Eminem’s AA sponsor. Whenever I ring to check in on him, he always greets me the same way: ‘Hello, you cunt’, which I guess is very Eminem. And some of them no one knows about, and I’m not going to spill the beans now: they wanted to keep their problems private, and that’s fine. Either way, it’s incredibly rewarding. Helping people to get sober is a wonderful thing. (242)
His message of reaching out and offering help to those who need it is prevalent in Rocketman (2019), which preaches to viewers that “it’s not weak to ask for help.” As someone who has been in a bad place, dealt with a multitude of addictions and made it out safely to the other side, Elton John uses his voice and influence to encourage others to seek help and get better, too, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. His stories of AA meetings and how he turned his life around will touch readers’ hearts.
Equally heartfelt and enchanting to read about is his lifelong friendship with lyricist Bernie Taupin. There paths crossing is nothing short of a miracle; had a producer not handed Elton a packet of Bernie’s lyrics and asked him to put them to music, the world would never have been graced with classics like “Your Song”, “Rocket Man”, “Tiny Dancer”, or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. The two make magic together, and they share a bond that is rare and beautiful. Illustrative of the concept of found family, which many readers can relate to, Bernie is the brother that Elton never had, and the two are still writing songs together today.
A big selling point for all readers of Me is, of course, the stories Elton tells about his friendships with big-name celebrities. From the time Katharine Hepburn fished a dead frog out of his swimming pool to Gianni Versace trying to convince him to buy a million-dollar tablecloth, Elton John has stories to share that will leave you howling with laughter and tearing up in equal measure. Like so many others in the world, he was a fan of – and friends with – the Beatles; he did his fair share of cocaine with Ringo Starr and, in shopaholic solidarity, rewrote the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” about his good friend’s opulent spending habits: “Imagine six apartments, it isn’t hard to do, one is full of fur coats, another’s full of shoes” (138).
While these friendships provide many laughs throughout the pages of Me, they also come with their fair share of heartbreak. Elton has watched his friends die, one-by-one, some seemingly one right after the other. He attended Versace’s funeral with Princess Diana and then, that same summer, she fell victim to that horrific paparazzi-fueled car crash. John Lennon was assassinated just metres from his front door only a few weeks after he and Elton performed together in Central Park. Freddie Mercury, like so many of Elton’s friends, died of AIDS.
[Freddie] died at the end of November 1991. On Christmas Day, Tony arrived at my front door, carrying something in a pillowcase. I opened it up and it was a watercolour by an artist whose work I collected called Henry Scott Tuke, an Impressionist who painted male nudes. There was a note with it: ‘Darling Sharon – thought you’d love this. Love, Melina.’ While he was lying there, he’d spotted it in one of his auction catalogues and bought it for me. He was thinking about Christmas presents for a Christmas he must have known in his heart he wouldn’t see; thinking about other people when he was really too ill to think of anyone but himself. Like I said before: Freddie was magnificent. (240)
Between the pages lined with stories of friends famous and perfectly ordinary are glossy photographs, some of which have never been seen before the book’s publication. There are baby photos and photos of a young Elton with his old band, Bluesology; there are photos of Elton’s more outrageous stage costumes, such as the time he performed with George Michael dressed as Ronald McDonald, and an old black-and-white snapshot of Elton and Freddie Mercury backstage at Live Aid in 1985; and there candids taken in 2005 on the day when Elton and David became civil partners, along with photographs of them with their children (and a particularly funny picture of Zachary and Elijah making cupcakes with their godmother, Lady Gaga).
I had a special bond with Gaga. I loved her from the moment I clapped eyes on her: the music she made, the outrageous clothes, the sense of theatre and spectacle. We were very different people – she was a young woman from New York, barely into her twenties – but as soon as we met, it was obvious we were cut from exactly the same cloth: I called her the Bastard Daughter of Elton John. […] Gaga turned out to be a great godmother: she would turn up backstage and insist on giving Zachary his both while dressed in full Gaga regalia, which was quite an incredible sight. (323)
Just as Me shows addicts that they can seek help and life can get better, it also extends a hand to the LGBTQ+ community as Elton says, in the utmost heartfelt way, “You are not alone.” He struggled with coming to terms with his sexuality for years and spent even longer trying to find the right partner. Me details a string of love affairs wherein Elton declares he treated his boyfriends shamefully; a doomed marriage to a woman he cared deeply for but didn’t love; and how he eventually met and fell in love with his long-time partner and now-husband, David. The tumultuous ups and downs of his romantic life and fair share of heartbreak all show readers who feel finding love is a hopeless endeavor that, while the road is never easy, the endgame makes the ride worth it. Whether you find love early in life or later, it will find you when the time is right – but not until you learn to love yourself first.
In the psychedelic, flashy, absolutely-Elton biopic Rocketman, the adult rock star is haunted by the ghost of his abusive past in the form of his child-self following him around, repeatedly asking the question, “When are you going to hug me?” The audience first sees young Reggie Dwight ask that question to his father, who harshly tells him, “Don’t be soft.” The abuse he endured as a child, and later in his first romantic relationship with the hot-tempered and silver-tongued John Reid, ultimately resulted in a form of self-hatred that ran deep and stuck with him for the better part of his life, leading to much of his self-destructive behaviour. After a multiple failed suicide attempts and drug-prompted health scares, the true meaning of his child-self asking him “when are you going to hug me?” becomes clear; young Reggie Dwight might as well be asking Elton, “When are you going to love yourself? When are you going to stop punishing yourself for being who you are?”
The hug that follows is symbolic of Elton embracing who he was, who he is, and deciding to love himself for all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Both Rocketman and Me are Elton encouraging his fans to do the same; he leads by example and states, “Actually, I think I’m okay with [being] strange.”
Me offers readers a glimpse into the glamourous life of Elton John the Rock Star, but it also provides a look at Elton John the Family Man & Philanthropist, too. He explains early in the book that the reason Rocketman was made and Me was written were, ultimately, for his children; he and David want their sons, Zachary and Elijah, to be able to watch the film and read the book later in life to understand what Elton’s life was like before they were born. His children are also why the long-time performer is retiring from touring; unlike his absentee father, Elton wants to be present for every milestone in his sons’ lives.
[T]he responsibility was huge, but there is nothing about being a father that I don’t love. I even found the toddler tantrums weirdly charming. You think you’re being difficult, my little sausage? Have I ever told you about the time I drank eight vodka martinis, took all my clothes off in front of a film crew and then broke my manager’s nose? (324)
Elton ultimately realized that he wanted to be a father through his work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation. During his visits to South Africa and the Ukraine, he encountered numerous children who were orphaned and/or struggling because AIDS had ravaged their communities and torn their families apart. He also watched several friends, former boyfriends, and colleagues suffer and die during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. A passionate advocate in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, Elton’s charity has raised over $450 million since it was founded in 1992, and you can help, too; donations can be made to the charity here.
For fans of the Rocket Man, Me is a must have autobiography to add to your collection. As a child born in the 1990s who found Elton both through my mother’s love of his music but also through my own passionate love of his work on The Lion King soundtrack, I was especially fond of the brief section where he talks about composing the music for Tim Rice’s timeless lyrics:
I have many flaws, but being an artist who takes himself too seriously is something you could never accuse me of. Even so, there were days when I’d find myself sat at the piano, thinking long and hard about the path my career seemed to be taking. You know, I wrote ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’. I wrote ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’. I wrote ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’. And there was no getting around the fact that I was now writing a song about a warthog who farted a lot. Admittedly, I thought it was a pretty good song about a warthog who farted a lot: at the risk of appearing big-headed, I’m pretty sure that in a list of the greatest songs ever written about warthogs who fart a lot, mine would come in somewhere near the top. (249)
Full of Elton’s signature wit, humour, and unflinchingly honest personality, Me tells his life story in a way that only Elton John himself ever could. He is unapologetically real and unafraid to be himself, whilst also openly admitting that, at times, he has behaved like a real arsehole. We could all take a page out of his book – or, in my case, all 354 pages. I couldn’t put it down and will absolutely be picking it up again in the years to come. It shall sit proudly on my bookshelf next to my favourite big, rose-tinted sunglasses. Thank you, Elton; thank you for being you.
Read more of Jessica Raven’s reviews here.