9 Sep 2023

Bernie Taupin: Elton, music and me

From Saturday Morning, 8:20 am on 9 September 2023

Fifty-five years ago Bernie Taupin was incinerating decomposing chickens and breaking into condom machines for the loose change. Five years after that, he co-wrote Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Elton John's musical other half, the famously private man behind many millions of record sales and countless hits, lyricist Taupin opens up about his life in a new memoir.

Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton, and Me charts his childhood in provincial Lincolnshire, his fascination with country music and cowboy culture, the heady star-studded LA of the 1970s and '80s to encounters with John Lennon, Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra and Graham Greene.

Photo: Hachette NZ/Ed Caraeff / Iconic Images

The song that launched him on his career path was 'El Paso' by Marty Robbins, he says.

“It told a realistic story. I think pop music of the day back then didn't interest me tremendously, because it didn't have any cinematic quality to it.

“And that's why I gravitated so much to country music and narrative country music in particular. People like Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash, who told stories of the mythical West and told them in a very dusty, realistic sense, that didn't have anything to do with the kind of television cowboys like the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

“They were much more realistic in their storytelling. And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a storyteller. So that's why I definitely gravitated towards narrative country music.”

The story behind the writing of ‘Your Song’ the first bonafide John-Taupin classic is mundane, Taupin tells Kim Hill.

“I think I dispel an urban legend somewhere at the beginning of the book, you can never trust the internet because in certain places on the internet it claims that I wrote it either sitting in a tree or sitting on the roof of a music publishers' in Denmark Street which is Tin Pan Alley in London - or was at the time.

“When in fact I wrote it at the breakfast table at Elton's mother's apartment in Northwood Hills, which is a suburb of London in a flat that both Elton and I shared with his mother and his stepfather.

“And the story is quite boring, in fact, because I sort of just jotted it down in about 10 minutes while we were having breakfast and then Elton took it into the other room. And hence ‘Your Song’ was born.”

‘Your Song’ “tickled the charts” on both sides of the Atlantic and allowed John to launch himself in the US where he played a famous residency at the The Troubador, Taupin again debunks some myths surrounding those shows.

“If everybody who says that they were there, was there, we could have played Dodger Stadium the first week we were there.

“So quite honestly, I don't remember seeing any of those people there. The only the only people I ever remember seeing was Quincy Jones, Leon Russell, Neil Diamond, and a couple of the minor members of Buffalo Springfield outside of that I don't remember seeing any Beach Boys there, or David Crosby or anybody of that nature. So, I mean, if they were there, maybe they were there later in the week. And they snuck they certainly weren't there on the first night.”

The series of shows were, however, the first step in John’s career in the US, he acknowledges.

“It was just a stepping stone though, we still had to conquer the rest of the country and the rest of the world. So, it wasn't as monumental as I think it's been made out to be.”

By the mid-1970s, Taupin and John were the biggest news the music business and the book recalls many of those heady moments.

Taupin says it is quite true that he punched John Belushi out cold after he insulted Taupin’s girlfriend.

Belushi soon forgave him, he says.

“He called me the next day because I was staying with Alice Cooper at the time. And he had Alice's number. And he called up to see if I was there.

“That’s the kind of guy he was, I mean, he loved that sort of confrontation. So, he kind of was appreciative of the fact that I did what I did.”

Other anecdotes take in Brian Wilson flashing back on acid at a Bel Air party and hanging with John Lennon when Bob Marley and the Wailers engulf them and Marley produces a spliff “the size of a baby’s arm”.

The success brought with it the opportunity to indulge in refined hobbies. Taupin was a collector of rare first editions but sold his collection to stock his ranch in the US.

“The problem with rare books is you can sort of take them out and sort of look at them occasionally.

“But you can't really engross yourself in them. If you want to read them. You might as well get a modern-day copy of the book so that you don't mess up the first edition.

“You're not going to read the first editions. So, they were basically just like artwork really, they were there to look at.

“I mean, I still read voraciously and I have hundreds and hundreds of books in my house, but they're not rare first editions like I had back then.”

The selling the collection allowed him to afford “some pretty good horses”, he says.

Taupin is an accomplished horse man and competes in rodeos.

His back catalogue is much sampled, but he rarely listens to pop music these days, he says.

“I don't really listen to pop music anyway, all I listen to is jazz. I don't mind writing it, [but] it doesn't mean I have to listen to it.”

Now is the perfect time to write his memoirs, Taupin says.

“The weird thing is several people have said to me, Oh, why write a book now? Well, that's a pretty dumb question.

“I mean, you’re not going to write a book at the beginning of your career. It's not much sense writing it halfway through your career.

“I’m 73 years old. I think this is probably the perfect time to write the book."