Biographer doesn’t idolize the world’s biggest gay pop star. Instead, he probes the highs and lows of Elton’s destructive path
“Elton: The Biography,” by David Buckley, with a foreword by Gary Osborne. (Chicago Review Press, October, 2007) 416 pp., $24.95.
Although his excesses have occasionally overshadowed his successes, Sir Elton Hercules John is the biggest-selling openly gay musician in recording history. The public is familiar with his exuberant stage persona: his outrageous getups of the 1970s gradually giving way to a more understated panache. But few know the man behind the crazy eyewear, who began life as Reginald Kenneth Dwight.
David Buckley’s “Elton: The Biography,” will likely change this, however.
An engaging chronicle of an exceptional man, this book offers an objective, unflinching account of Elton’s ups and downs, including the first biographical discussion of Elton’s prodigious drug and alcohol abuse.
Although an admirer of Elton’s works, Buckley did not approach this project as a fan.
“Like many others, I suspect, I have in the past been guilty of sniffily dismissing his mawkish ballads, not realizing they were only one aspect of his musical story,” Buckley writes.
“Elton: The Biography” falls into three parts the rise, the fall and the recovery of Elton John. The book excels in its chronicling of Elton’s Reg Dwight days when he paid his dues as a jobbing musician/member of the group Bluesology. Back then, he toured obscure pubs and venues in a clapped-out van, and his encyclopedic musical knowledge served him well at his day job in London’s Tin Pin Alley (the heart of England’s music biz).
In one of the book’s more commented-upon moments, Elton/Reg stages a comedy suicide attempt involving a lit gas stove, a comfy pillow and wide-open windows for the amusement of Reg’s roommate, one Bernard Taupin.
Gradually, this unlikeliest of pop idols ascended the charts, helped in no small amount by his unexpected success in America.
As Elton once commented, “The only reason I had agreed [to my first U.S. tour] was because I thought that at least I’d be able to buy some records.”
His musical style tapped into America’s zeitgeist of the early ’70s, and he was off and running.
Within a few years, he’d hit his musical zenith with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and somehow kept up his brutally punishing schedule of non-stop touring and churning out album after album. Inevitably, it was only a matter of time before something gave. Unfortunately, that something would be Elton himself.
From 1975 to 1990, Elton John existed in a haze of cocaine and alcohol abuse that became his elephant in the living room known, but never discussed openly. As his self-loathing increased, so did a variety of other psychological disorders: an awful temper, “retail bulimia” (repeated binges and purges of all kinds of non-essential stuff) and promiscuity.
In a 1976 Rolling Stone interview, Elton proclaimed his “ambisexual” nature. In 1984, he married a woman, Renate Blauel to the shock and consternation of many. Few were surprised when marriage collapsed three years later.
Fortunately, Elton finally snapped out of his daze and got his life back on track, candidly discussing his foibles, struggling to rekindle his musical spark which had guttered like a candle in the wind for far too long and succeeding wildly with the soundtrack to Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Ultimately, one’s feelings for “Elton: The Biography” will depend on one’s opinion of Elton John himself. Those who don’t much care one way or another will probably wonder what all the fuss is about. Elton enthusiasts, on the other hand, will savor David Buckley’s attention to detail and willingness to examine every facet of the entertainer’s complex, often contradictory, personality, and the extraordinary life he’s led. For these people, plunking down $24.95 plus sales tax for this book will be no sacrifice at all.
MODERN DESIGN LECTURE
Modern architecture, like a spoken language, has its regional accents and adaptations. One of the very best “‘speakers’ in the Southwest, Wendell Burnette employs local climate, materials and configurations to inflect his designs like Burnette’s three-bedroom urban “Dialogue House” in Phoenix, Ariz, pictured.
On Thursday, Burnette is the Dallas Architecture Forum’s featured lecturer.
Magnolia Theater, in the West Village, 3699 McKinney Ave. Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. $15. 214-740-0644. DallasArchitectureForum.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 7, 2007
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