For over 50 years, Bernie Taupin and Elton John have enjoyed one of the most fruitful and enduring partnerships in pop history. And while the latter artist may be the more flamboyant and fame-seeking of the pair, it’s Taupin who’s written the words we all sing along to when we cue up “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” or “Tiny Dancer.”
Now, Taupin, 73, has turned his pen inward. On Tuesday, the legendary lyricist released Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton & Me, a memoir that doesn’t skimp on wild rockstar revelations or touching tales of friendship and self-discovery. We meet Taupin as a curious boy growing up in Northern England, and follow along as he meets John and becomes a global star in his own right—albeit one who prefers to stand offstage (except when John Lennon drags him into the spotlight; more on that later).
Scattershot is a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening read, especially leading up to Taupin’s long-deserved induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame later this year. But if you just can’t wait, see below for a sampling of the book’s best bits, including Taupin’s embarrassing moment with Princess Margaret, his recollection of Elton’s first marriage, and the real inspiration behind “Candle in the Wind” (it’s not Marilyn).
He definitely faked his way into the music industry.
As the legend goes, Taupin’s decades-long collaboration with John (whom he refers to as Reg in the book’s early chapters, since John was still going by his birth name, Reggie Dwight, at the time) began by fluke in 1967, when they both responded to an advertisement seeking songwriters. Taupin describes the letter he sent in response to the ad as “fantastic codswallop,” given that he had no music experience to speak of.
“Unsure as to what songwriting consisted of, I covered my incompetence by way of flowery purple prose. It was something about my work having some probability in being the basis for a new kind of beat poetry. How it wasn’t tossed in the bin after a good chuckle is anyone’s guess.”
He also takes the opportunity to clear up a couple of misconceptions about the famous ad story: “Let’s bypass all the baloney and dispel myths here. Legend has it that I was reticent to answer the ad and my mother ultimately mailed my submission (I just forgot, OK?), and Ray randomly pulled my package of lyrics from a pile of contenders and handed them to Reg. How many lyricists do you honestly think responded to the advertisement? Er, me, that’s how many!”
He rejected an early pass from Elton.
Taupin writes gracefully about declining a flirtatious pass from John long before they’d made it big.
“It was pretty early on that Reg tested the waters. We were inseparable, joined at the hip, and completely the inhabitants of our own world. So it was only natural that he would add to the confusion that must have been raging in his psyche by placing his hand on my thigh. This was done almost clinically, as if he felt it necessary, but at the same time wanting to get it over with. Elton was still a long way from coming out, and even further from understanding it, the consummation of his chosen path being several years from this point. This innocent approach was done with zero aggression and lacked anything of a predatory nature. If anything, I think it made me laugh. It was easily deflected and immediately understood.”
Taupin goes on to predict that had he reciprocated, it would have “spelled disaster” for both their friendship and their working relationship, and that some of their enduring classics would have never happened.
Elton’s first marriage resulted in a hilarious intervention (and not an actual suicide attempt).
In the late ’60s, John got engaged to a woman named Linda Woodrow, and, according to Taupin, “It was extraordinary to watch him approach a traditional heterosexual dance. I truly don’t think he knew what hit him and was just swept up in the accepted normality of it all.”
The story of John’s supposed suicide attempt amid his unhappy relationship with Woodrow has been told before, but Taupin clears things up by writing about what really happened.
“It all changed with an intervention after Elton, in a staged cry for help, opened all the windows, stuck his head in the gas oven, and awaited a dramatic response. Perhaps due to the unorthodox nature of his attempt, gas on low and an embroidered pillow to rest his head on, sympathy was not forthcoming. Obviously not the reaction he craved, I laughed out loud while Linda merely looked down at him, rolled her eyes, and walked out.”
Taupin also acknowledges that much has been chronicled about John’s subsequent “intervention,” but, he says, “In reality it was just a drunken evening that changed everything… The gas oven episode, ludicrous as it appeared on the surface, was indeed a call to arms… At the culmination of the evening, after several stops, we staggered into the Bag O’Nails, a rock star habitat in the heart of Soho. It was here that [Long John] Baldry delivered the gay equivalent of the Gettysburg Address. Perhaps not quite so eloquent and fueled by brandy rather than political zeal, it nonetheless stirred its directee into his great awakening.”
They got home, and, “Immediately, I ducked for cover while Elton, fueled by alcohol yet slapped sober by the reality of it all, sailed forth to administer Linda’s Waterloo. It was, of course, ugly.”
The infamous Troubadour gig didn’t turn them into overnight sensations.
When John and Taupin ventured for the first time to Los Angeles for the singer’s historic gig at the Troubadour, Taupin had just turned 20. He and John were still living in John’s mother’s apartment at the time, and Taupin had never stayed in a hotel or even used a shower before. He writes innocently of their introduction to L.A., including their record label sending them to Disneyland, and dispels any notions of the Troubadour gig turning them into overnight stars.
“So much has been written about Elton’s debut at the Troubadour that I’m loath to repeat the obvious. The celebrity turnout has been touted, but in all honesty I can’t recall it being excessive,” he writes. “In the years following, if everyone who claims to have been present during that week was actually there, we could have played Dodger Stadium instead of waiting until 1975.”
He and Kris Kristofferson once propped up a drunk John Prine on live TV.
In one amusing story, Taupin recalls going out to a London bar called the Speakeasy in 1972, where he met up with Kristofferson and a young John Prine. Prine was set to appear that evening on the late-night live studio TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, but had had way too much to drink, so it was up to Taupin and Kristofferson to help the then-newcomer.
“The way I remember it is that there was black coffee and a great deal of keeping him sandwiched upright between the two of us,” Taupin writes. “Kris tuned his guitar, stuck it in his hands, and we maneuvered him into the studio. By the time he’d regained a little more confidence in his equilibrium, and providing he remained stationary, there was less likelihood of him pitching forward. It was the falling backward that concerned us. In an effort to avert this, it was decided we should remain with him in the studio. Crouched out of camera sight, like Elvis on Ed Sullivan, he was shot from the waist up as we, at intervals, placed reassuring hands on his ass to keep him vertical. He made it through surprisingly well, and with business conducted we repaired to the Speakeasy where any further recollection of the evening ends.”
He totally botched an animated film based on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy—but ended up writing a major Elton hit instead.
After the release of John’s chart-topping ninth studio album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Taupin and illustrator Alan Aldridge—who’d made all the album’s original artwork—were dispatched to Barbados by Universal Pictures to write a script for a proposed animated movie based off the LP. Taupin recalls staying in a fully staffed oceanfront villa and then partying the entire time—with the exception of one productive burst that resulted in a hit song.
“We both proceeded to get no work done at all. We just couldn’t focus,” he writes. “In fact in the entire time, the only profitable moment came when Elton called me from Toronto one evening to play me a backing track he’d just cut with the band. Half cut myself by this point in the day, the afternoon’s poolside cocktails having muddied my brainwaves, I listened and took note. Elton was in need of a lyric that could be done as a duet. I listened, told him I’d give it a shot, hung up, and stuck my head in the ice bucket. In ten minutes, I’d thrown something together that was simplistic without being overly trite, and that is how ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ came about… Not bad for ten minutes of drunken scribbling.”
He spills the tea on so many celebrities.
As with any proper rock memoir, Taupin has plenty of stories and anecdotes involving the rich and famous. He recalls, for example, Bob Dylan being “completely obsessed” with the possibility of winning an Oscar for a song he wrote for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (which didn’t happen); getting viciously high with Bob Marley and John Lennon in West Hollywood; punching John Belushi after the comedian insulted his girlfriend; and learning about Stevie Wonder’s party trick involving a $20 bill: “He’d stand next to you and say, ‘I think you dropped a Jackson’ and, of course, one would be there right between your feet.”
In one particularly amusing slight, he writes of Andy Warhol: “Unfortunately, while Warhol’s work was groundbreaking and captivating, his personality, most certainly, was not. Talking to Andy was like conversing with an eight-year-old girl… If dull is how he wanted to be perceived, he came through with flying colors.”
He tried to alleviate John Lennon’s nerves before performing with Elton at MSG.
Taupin recalls that in 1974, John Lennon lost a bet to John that subsequently “found the former Beatle in the unavoidable position of having to join Mr. Big Glasses on stage eight days hence at Madison Square Garden.”
Fast-forwarding to that fateful night, Taupin recalls of Lennon: “It’s Thanksgiving night, November 28, and the reality of performing live after such a lengthy absence from the stage has our hero purging his nerves into the porcelain throne… As countdown becomes inevitable, his insecurities resurface and he relapses into a state of faltering paranoia, his black Telecaster shaking in his hands. I know this because I’m standing next to him in the wings, ready to propel him physically onto the stage should he book out and attempt a runner. As Elton begins his introduction, John begins to plead. ‘You have to come out with me.’”
Of course, Lennon’s performance with John was deemed a total triumph, and the ex-Beatle ended up dragging the spotlight-resistant Taupin out onstage for the encore: “Adrenaline pumping and with his arm wrapped around my submissive shoulders, I was extracted from the wings and dragged before the massed and mesmerized crowd.”
He once split his pants in front of Princess Margaret.
Recalling a dinner he attended at Kensington Palace, Taupin writes about waiting in line to greet the princess while wearing a “well-tailored but snug white velvet suit that screamed pop star chic.” Unfortunately, the poshness ended there.
“You can imagine my surprise to witness the nicotine-addicted princess, Countess of Snowdon, and second in line to the throne, turn to the nearest footman available and proclaim in a voice loud enough to cut glass, ‘Where are my fucking Winstons?’ This unrefined demand happened to coordinate itself to the exact moment of my introduction which, as fate would have it, included me bowing low and splitting my pants from crotch to shirttail.”
Princess Margaret, Taupin writes, “homed in on my fashion malfunction like a buzzard on a gut wagon. ‘Did we have an accident?’ she inquired dryly.’”
Ultimately, the princess got one of her assistants to sew his trousers back together while he waited in Margaret’s private study while wearing a bathrobe and trying to resist the temptation to snoop around.
He never wanted to write “Candle in the Wind” about Marilyn Monroe.
Taupin doesn’t recall where he wrote the lyrics to the iconic song “Candle in the Wind,” which opens with the line, “Goodbye, Norma Jean,” but he does know one thing: “Marilyn Monroe wasn’t my first choice.”
Taupin says the song’s inspiration came from the 1961 drama The Misfits, which starred Clark Gable, Monroe, and Montgomery Clift. He says, “Clift was my first choice for ‘Candle in the Wind’ simply because he was more appealing to me… After some consideration, though, I switched gears. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I just decided that Marilyn was more iconically recognizable. More sympathetic in the minds of the masses, she was inconsolably vulnerable, the perfect metaphor for the song’s title, a fragile flame flickering away into immortality.”
He added: “To be honest, I’d preferred to eulogize someone I had more empathy for, but then that would no doubt have diminished the commerciality of the song and ultimately the lyrical agenda. This, in turn, could have hijacked the melody, which is in my mind one of Elton’s finest. Am I searching for shock value by overemphasizing my indifference to Marilyn Monroe? Could be, but the celluloid nirvana she inhabits was never my thing.”
He regrets the Cher dig in “Snow Queen.”
Taupin insists his relationship with Cher never amounted to anything romantic. He concedes that they may have flirted and he may have had a crush on her, and while he doesn’t recall a falling-out with her, “the proof of some imagined slight still lives on in a disparaging lyric” in John’s song “Snow Queen.”
“‘Snow Queen’ wasn’t a very good song, and it wasn’t a very good idea,” Taupin writes. “There was no real purpose for it, the lyric portraying a version of Cher that didn’t exist. I’m still embarrassed by it now, ‘Arms are spread like icicles.’ It wasn’t warranted, and even though both Elton and I apologized for it long ago, it was still dumb, dumb, dumb.”
He almost wrote the Flashdance theme song—but got too creeped out by one of the movie’s producers.
As Taupin tells it, he was asked by a Paramount exec about possibly writing some lyrics for a new movie called Flashdance that was being produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. He went to see a rough cut of the film and “the whole thing was clumsy and manipulative, soft-core porn masquerading as a fairy tale while pandering to a demographic of horny teens and lecherous middle-aged men. Enter Don Simpson.”
“It was as obvious as the nose on your face that he was vain, egotistical, and brash,” Taupin writes of the producer. “He may just have been the crudest man I’ve ever met. Everything that came out of his mouth was either sexual innuendo or just blatant filth. It was unsettling enough to see him so aroused by the female actors, but this doubled with his observations as to their anatomy and sexual capabilities was nauseating.”
Taupin ultimately took a stab at a song for film, “but it was half-hearted,” and the studio ended up going with a lyric by Keith Forsey and Irene Cara, whose “Flashdance…What A Feeling” went on to a win a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe. “But I’m not sure even that would have been worth running into Don Simpson again,” Taupin says.
He clears up the meanings behind plenty of hit songs… sort of.
Taupin repeatedly makes it clear in Scattershot that he loves when listeners have their own ideas and notions about what his lyrics are about. However, he does clear up the following: “Madman Across the Water” is not about Richard Nixon; he didn’t write “I’m Going to be a Teenage Idol” about British glam rock star Marc Bolan; and “Idol” wasn’t written about Elvis Presley.
As far as the actual meanings behind some of his songs: He wrote “Empty Garden” while confining himself to his office for two days after John Lennon’s assassination; “Two Rooms at the End of the World” was “an olive branch” about him and John reuniting after their temporary split; and “Tiny Dancer” is a song “inhabited by fragments of a handful of LA females: a Whisky a Go Go waitress, a girl who worked in a Beverly Hills shoe store, and a hitchhiker in cutoffs on Pacific Coast Highway.”
And he wrote “I’m Still Standing” about his ex-girlfriend, and not Elton’s rehabilitation.
Taupin has hinted about as much over the years, but “I’m Still Standing” was written in the aftermath of his breakup with Loree Rodkin, who’d previously dated Don Henley of the Eagles and had inspired the band’s “Wasted Time” and parts of “Hotel California.”
“Did I write a song about it? Yes, in something I’m ashamed to say is fired up with more venom than ‘Hotel California,’” Taupin writes of his and Rodkin’s split. “I’ll fess up that ‘I’m Still Standing,’ a song that has become synonymous as an anthem for Elton’s steely quest for survival (and quite rightfully so), was originally written in response to Loree’s and my failed love in a time of impossibilities. My exercise in bittersweet black humor was certainly something she didn’t deserve given my previous disasters. What she did get out of both mine and Don’s relationships were three good songs. As they say, all’s well that ends well, and Loree and I are now the very best of friends, as are Don and I.”
He defends the undying phenomenon that is “We Built This City.”
The chart-topping smash “We Built This City”—written by Taupin and Martin Page in 1985 for the band Starship—is one of the most divisive pop songs in history, which Taupin is well aware of. “Derided by Blender magazine as ‘the most awesomely bad song of all time’ (a compliment I wear as a badge of honor), it has refused to die, steamrolling on long after Blender magazine bit the dust,” the lyricist writes.
He then goes on to rail against Grace Slick, who shares lead vocal duties on the song with Mickey Thomas: “Even Grace Slick chose to trash talk it once she was sure the success it afforded her group had dissipated. In later years she even took time to step up the heat by trashing the absurdity of the lyrics, which coming from someone whose earlier career included its own quota of songs riddled with unfathomable mumbo jumbo should get her equal billing in cheesy detritus. When you spend the best part of your adult life painting pictures of white rabbits because it references the only song of yours that anyone remembers, I wouldn’t go knocking one that people are doing to remember long after the rabbit’s dead.”
He continues: “Do I like the song? It’s a moot point. If I hadn’t written it, no, but I did, so I stand by it.”