ARGUABLY one of the most significant acts of public liturgy of the 20th century, Elton John’s rendition of “Candle in the Wind” at the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales, reached a worldwide television audience estimated at 2.5 billion people.
He recalls the applause that it generated: “It seemed to start outside Westminster Abbey and sweep into the church itself, which I guess meant that Diana’s family had achieved their aim in getting me to sing it: it connected with the people outside.”
The charity single of this song sold “preposterously” well, causing him discomfort at what felt like people’s “wallowing in Diana’s death”. In the media furore of that time, he longed for his life to “return to some semblance of normality”.
In Me, John expresses surprise and wonder that “The great thing about Rock and Roll is that someone like me can be a star.” He portrays himself as an unconfident Pinner boy who responded to his parents’ constant fighting by retreating into his room and a world of neatly ordered collecting: of singles, comics, books, and music magazines. His fear of confrontation “went on for decades”, he reflects. “I stayed in bad business relationships and bad personal relationships because I didn’t want to rock the boat.”
Accompanying John’s current “farewell” world tour and the recent release of the biopic Rocketman, this book will be enjoyed for the show-business stories colourfully conveyed on every page. But there is depth to this memoir, as John describes his journey as a series of life-changing encounters and epiphanies.
The most significant “chance event” of his career followed a failed song-writing audition. As “a consolation prize after rejecting me”, the record company executive handed the young Reg Dwight (John’s real name) an envelope of song lyrics lying on his desk, seemingly unread. The lyricist was a Lincolnshire chicken-farm employee, Bernie Taupin. Since 1967, they have collaborated on more than 30 albums, composing songs that have sold more than 300 million records.
Similar encounters led him from the depths of addiction into recovery at the nadir of his career, and into founding the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which stemmed from his friendship with the family of an American teenager, Ryan White, who had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and whose subsequent indignities included the refusal of his entire church congregation to shake hands with him at the Peace.
John in maturity is a settled, happily married man and father, having learned through recent life-threatening illness to “slow down and live a different life”. He is honest about the terrible “Dwight family temper”, which he inherited from his parents, and he is funny about his misjudgements — “Bohemian Rhapsody”, he told Freddie Mercury, would never sell.
As “an artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously”, he accepted a request from Tim Rice to “write a song about a warthog who farted a lot” — and was delighted when “Hakuna Matata”, from the film The Lion King, “kept the Rolling Stones off the number one spot in America all through the summer of 1994”.
This engaging memoir portrays a man who has managed to stay grounded, through all the excesses of his show-business life. One thing in particular has helped him in this: his lifelong support of Watford FC. “If I hadn’t had the football club then God knows what would have happened to me. I’m not exaggerating when I say I think Watford might have saved my life.”
The Revd John Davies is Priest-in-Charge of Clapham with Keasden and Austwick with Eldroth, in the diocese of Leeds.
Me: Elton John
Pan Macmillan £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50