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Sir Elton Hercules John. Photo/Getty Images

Me: Getting high as a kite with Elton John’s memoir

Singer-songwriter Elton John puts down in words how colourful life was when touring the world – his arrest in Auckland included – in an amusing autobiography.

Elton John’s autobiography is less a rock’n’roller-coaster ride than a three-day pass to an entire theme park dedicated to the mystery of his ongoing existence. It’s noisy, gaudy, stupidly entertaining and head-spinning. It’s hard not to feel a rush as his career accelerates after those career-defining early-1970s albums to his status as a stadium-filler. It’s difficult, also, not to feel some sort of comedown after the contact-high the book leaves when he writes about his years of cocaine addiction then, in the early-90s, sobers up.

The mirror this holds up to its author is both powder-streaked and – given his acquisitive nature – probably a priceless tasteless antique that he doesn’t remember buying.

It’s not the sort of music memoir that ever gets get bogged down in thoughts about why Bennie and the Jets sounds quite the way it does. Discussing what he does after Bernie Taupin hands him a lyric, John writes: “I can’t explain it and I don’t want to explain it. Actually, I love that I can’t explain it.”

While vice-president of Watford Football Club in 1973. Photo/Getty Images

Me is also an account of superstardom that is frank and frequently hilarious, especially as John beats himself up again and again for his self-destructive behaviour, his bad habits and how being a rock star made him, until fairly recently and the arrival of fatherhood, useless at just about everything else in life. Or when he chucks in the sort of anecdotes that, had they been included in recent jukebox biopic Rocketman, would have turned it into a bleak, black drugs comedy deserving an R18 certificate.

Or when he feels the need to voice his opinions about some of his peers, his late mother and father, his first lover and manager John Reid, or the editors of the Sun and other tabloids from which the libel payouts once arrived nearly as frequently as royalty cheques

His run-ins with the media go way back and right around the world. John writes about when in Auckland in 1974 to play at Western Springs for the second time, he and manager Reid were both arrested for assaults on journalists after incidents at two music industry parties in one day. Reid, who had kicked a Sunday News reporter on the floor who John had grabbed after he brought up the earlier incident, served a month in Mt Eden Prison. John was discharged without conviction (the book claims he was “acquitted”, which isn’t quite the same thing) and ordered to pay $50 costs. Given what possibly fuelled the whole sorry business, you could imagine it as an episode of Westside starring a visiting balding English pop star in a feather boa and outsized glasses.

With his mother, Sheila, and stepfather, Fred Fairebrother, in 1971. Photo/Getty Images

John does describe the actions of Reid, who he split up with the following year when he started punching the singer, as indefensible, adding, “But it was an era in which the line between tough-guy rock manager and thug was frequently blurred – look at Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin.” All of which sounds like one of the moments in the book where ghost-writer, Guardian music scribe Alexis Petridis, is hastily chucking in some context to John’s monologues. It happens a couple of times, but otherwise it’s a largely seamless feat of editing. You suspect he may have honed a few punchlines to John’s long-winded yarns, but Petridis has done a fine job of whittling the star’s memories into 350 well-paced and occasionally affecting – especially in chapters on the deaths of Princess Diana and Gianni Versace – pages. It also writes touchingly about his feelings for Watford Football Club, the team he’s supported since boyhood and bought, twice.

Of course, Me is it’s not John’s first big-reveal. With Rocketman, it’s not even the first this year. And there’s a hall-of-mirrors effect when he talks about his side of his previous big media moments: his coming out as bisexual in a Rolling Stone interview in 1976; the 1997 fly-on-the-wall documentary Tantrums & Tiaras, which he regrets may have inspired a wave of reality television.

“There’s a sense in which Keeping Up with the Kardashians might ultimately be my fault, for which I can only prostrate myself before the human race and beg their forgiveness.”

With husband David Furnish last year. Photo/Getty Images

Yes, well, elsewhere it’s apparent that sorry does seem to be the hardest word and that he doesn’t play well with others. That’s evident in his bitchy account of a planned tour with Tina Turner that never got past the rehearsal stage as his fellow wigged icon couldn’t get through a song without remonstrating with John and his band.

The roots of his long-time animosity with Keith Richards, who set the bar for rock autobiographies like this in 2010, may spring from the time in 1974 when a coked-up John was invited on stage at a Rolling Stones show in Colorado to play Honky Tonk Woman, only to decide to carry on.

“I thought Keith Richards kept staring at me because he was awestruck by the brilliance of my improvised contributions to their oeuvre. After a few songs, it finally penetrated my brain that the expression on his face wasn’t really suggestive of profound musical appreciation. Actually, he looked remarkably like someone who was about to inflict appalling violence on a musician who had out-stayed his welcome.”

The tale of John’s one-man stage invasion at a 1970s Iggy and the Stooges show while dressed in a gorilla suit, which left a tripping Iggy Pop a cowering mess and a costumed Elton propelled by one of the Stooges into the front rows, has possibly been told before. But it’s a moment of inspired slapstick you wish Rocketman had included more of. Me shows the film pretty much skimmed the surface and pulled its punches, especially when it came to his fraught relationship with his mother, who died in 2015.

“As the years passed, she had elevated sulking to an epic, awesome level. She was the Cecil B DeMille of bad moods, the Tolstoy of taking a huff.”

He keeps mum about his first marriage to Renate Blauel in Sydney in 1984 (and subsequent New Zealand honeymoon), which, unsurprisingly, ended in divorce four years later and about which, he writes, they have agreed never to talk publicly. But there’s much about his relationship with David Furnish (civil partnership in 2005; marriage in 2014) and enough to indicate that Furnish must have the patience of a saint.

If confession is good for the soul, then the long list of admissions in Me risk giving Sir Elton Hercules John his own set of wings, which may come in handy on his epic farewell tour, which lasts until the end of next year and arrives here in February. But, unlike the shows, you don’t have to like the Elton John songbook – or the man himself – to get a very peculiar kick out of this one.

ME, by Elton John (Macmillan, $39.99)

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.