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Reclaiming a `Fantastic' era

Elton John and Bernie Taupin's `The Captain & the Kid' puts the '70s in a new light, celebrating friendship and survival with artistic freedom.

October 08, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

ELTON JOHN didn't just become a pop sensation in the 1970s because he wrote some of the most gorgeous melodies since Lennon-McCartney. He and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin also gave us songs that seemed almost revolutionary in their refusal to stick to the rock 'n' roll rules of the '60s.

Rock in those days was exclusively a young man's game, a guitar-driven rebellion against adult rules, values, power and lifestyles, but even at the beginning John and Taupin's themes reached out. Piano man John opened his U.S. debut in 1970 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood with "Sixty Years On," which spoke about old age with a rare empathy. The graceful tune told of a military veteran who felt discarded by those around him:


Who'll walk me down to church when I'm sixty years of age.

When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave.

And senorita play guitar, play it just for you.

My rosary has broken, and my beads have all slipped through.


John turns 60 himself in March and Taupin will follow him three years later, but they seem as energetic and upbeat as they did in the Troubadour days. They are less innocent to be sure. They have gone through ups and downs in their careers and in their personal lives, and they address it all with remarkable candor in the new autobiographical album "The Captain & the Kid."

It's a sequel to 1975's "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy," one of John's seven consecutive No. 1 albums.

In one of the most moving new songs, "Blues Never Fade Away," they touch on questions of faith and fate, contrasting the loss of friends and loved ones with their own darkest times with addictions.


Who makes the call and who gets to choose?

Who gets to win and who gets to lose?

And how did we get so lucky?

It's like we're rolling dice in the belly of the blues

And blues never fade away.


"I've had two of my best friends shot on their doorsteps and murdered," John said, referring to the deaths of John Lennon and fashion mogul Gianni Versace. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of them and why they are gone and I'm still here. With the amount of drugs I did in the '80s, there's no way I should be here."

At the heart of the album is a topic as rare in pop music as old age: friendship.

"We'll be 40 years writing together next year, and it's great that we are closer as friends than ever, and I think we're doing some of our finest work," said John. "It is one of the things I'm most proud of, my relationship with Bernie."

John and Taupin are like brothers who are connected in spirit and admiration yet who fight fiercely to maintain their independence. John thrives on showbiz glamour. He's an entertainer in every sense of the world. He loves to pepper his guests with stories about his showbiz pals and his latest list of musical favorites (they include the Scissor Sisters and Ray LaMontagne).

He's got so many enthusiasms, including art and his charity foundation, that no day seems long enough. He has homes in four countries and hosts an annual Oscars-night charity gala. Loving to be onstage, John, who "wed" his longtime partner, David Furnish, in a civil ceremony in England last year, performs about 130 concerts most years.

Taupin shuns the showbiz life, rarely even showing up at John's concerts. He is probably the last person you'd notice at an industry gala because he keeps to himself, but he may well prove the most engaging. Taupin laughs easily and also lives each day to the full, though that can mean taking one of his cutting horses to a competition, which is as much a thrill for him as a concert. He lives on a 30-acre horse ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley with his fourth wife, Heather, and their 17-month-old daughter, Charley Indiana.

Both men have gone through many relationships because it's often hard for others to adjust to their life patterns -- John's fame and Taupin's solitude. But they both seem to be blessed these days with a balance that allows room for others.

For years, Taupin wrote lyrics and sent them to John, who, without even talking to his collaborator, set them to music, and Taupin said they always sounded just as he heard them in his head when he wrote them. One reason the approach worked so well was that they spent so much time together, talking about music and experiencing life.

But as they drifted into separate directions personally in the late '70s, they didn't have that everyday communication and, while their friendship never ended, you could sometimes feel a distance between Taupin's words and John's music and vocals. They have begun communicating more in recent years about the music, and that helps in the new album. Their private lives, however, are still quite different.


Like Dylan, liberated

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