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Q&A / ELTON JOHN

Amid All of His Sorrows, He's Still Standing

September 26, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

As Elton John prepares to begin his first U.S. concert tour in more than two years, the question many fans are asking is whether he is going to sing the eulogy to Diana, Princess of Wales, that is a sales phenomenon around the world.

"Absolutely not," the singer-composer says quickly and firmly when asked during an interview about performing the special version of "Candle in the Wind" that he and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote for Princess Diana's funeral Sept. 6.

"The only way I'll ever sing it again is if the children [Princes William and Harry] ask me. Otherwise, it would be totally inappropriate."

John, 50, feels so strongly about the matter that he is uncertain about even singing the original version of "Candle in the Wind" again. That song, which he and Taupin wrote in 1973 about Marilyn Monroe, is one of the most popular of the British performer's more than 50 U.S. Top 40 hits, a total surpassed only by Elvis Presley.

"I don't know how I'll eventually feel about that," he continues. "To me, that's a totally different song, but it may be that the [feelings] will be too closely connected. I think I'm just going to put it to one side now, . . . just drop it for a while and then see how I feel."

John is astonished at the reaction to the version, officially titled "Candle in the Wind 1997," that has been released as a charity single. Retail orders in the U.S. alone are11 million, an unprecedented number.

"What is happening, I think, is that people want a memento of her and they've found that in the single," he says.

John's invitation to sing at the funeral symbolizes the way he has in recent years become such a respected figure.

Greatly affected in 1990 by the heroic struggle of teenage AIDS victim Ryan White, John overcame his own cocaine problems and in 1992 started the nonprofit Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised more than $13 million.

To avoid appearing as if he is exploiting the new "Candle" single or the deaths of his friends, Diana and fashion designer Gianni Versace, John announced this week that he will not make any further public comments to the media about the deaths. He even canceled an appearance on NBC's "Today" show after the network aired promotions stating that John would be appearing on the program to discuss the deaths.

But the singer agreed to document his feelings about the deaths and other matters because the interview had been scheduled before Princess Diana's death, and because it is the latest in a series with The Times that dates back to 1970.

On the eve of the two-month tour, which begins Oct. 10 in Winston-Salem, N.C., John talks about the events of recent months and the changes in his life in the '90s.

*

Question: Many people might assume you simply met Princess Diana a few times at charity events, but the relationship was much closer, wasn't it?

Answer: Yes, I got to know her quite well and, of course, we had some things in common. We were both bulimic for a start and we both had marriages that failed and we were both extremely interested in AIDS. You could talk about those and other issues with her in a way that you probably couldn't with any other member of the royal family. That's why she was such a special person.

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Q: How did the invitation to sing at the funeral come about?

A: It all happened quickly. I got a call from Richard Branson [the British entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Records], who said, "You might have to get prepared to sing at the funeral," but I really didn't know until Thursday of that week that I was definitely going to sing. I think it was a matter of protocol, whether everyone involved felt it was appropriate.

*

Q: It was such an emotional moment. How did you avoid breaking down during the song?

A: Basically, I just had to switch off mentally. When the coffin came into Westminster Abbey I cried and when it went out I cried, but the only time I came close to it during the song was at the beginning of the third verse. I just had to grit my teeth.

*

Q: In some ways, people looked on you as their representative, don't you think?

A: I felt very much like a representative at that moment. It was an honor just to be invited to the funeral, but to also be able to sing that song. It's probably the biggest honor of my life. I don't think anything will ever match it for me.

I was so touched by the way people reacted to Princess Diana's death. . . . The way they waited 11 to 12 hours in the rain to sign the [memorial] books. Their dignity, their generosity, their genuine outpouring of grief. I've never seen anything like that.

People say that's what it was like after the Second World War in England when people just got together and shared their emotions. It was just a wonderful feeling for a week in England. . . . The hope that maybe something positive could come out of this awfulness.

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Q: What about your relationship with Gianni Versace [who was slain July 15 outside his home in Miami]? That even had deeper ties than Princess Diana, didn't it?

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