Earlier this year, the Elton John biopic, Rocketman, hit multiplexes. The movie took huge liberties telling Elton’s story: showing him performing songs years or even decades before they were written; taking his stage name from John Lennon instead of his mentor, little-known English rocker Long John Baldry; levitating high above the piano while belting out “Crocodile Rock”; and even singing “Rocket Man” at the bottom of a swimming pool while his childhood self played the piano dressed as an astronaut.
It was a fantasy musical that went for the emotional truth, making this the perfect time to get the actual story in his long-awaited autobiography, Me. This is the warts-and-all reality, starting with a painful childhood marked by his mother’s extreme emotional neglect and his father’s long absences and bouts of intense rage over seemingly anything young Elton did. “I [got] in trouble if I ate celery in what was deemed The Wrong Way,” Elton writes. “The Right Way to eat celery, in the unlikely event that you’re interested, was apparently not to make too loud of a crunching sound when you bit into it. Once, he hit me because I was supposedly taking my school blazer off incorrectly.”
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Elton found salvation in rock & roll, though only after years of struggling on the British pub circuit and backing American R&B greats like Patti LaBelle and Lee Dorsey. Fame came very quickly after “Your Song” exploded across the world in 1970, but Elton is much more interested in writing about all the wild adventures he had in the Seventies rather than the incredible music he created. Landmark albums like Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, and Honky Château breeze by in a few scant paragraphs, while his first encounter with cocaine gets dissected at length. “The first line I snorted made me retch,” he writes. “I went out to the toilet and threw up. And then I immediately went back . . . and asked for another line.”
The moment marks the start of an extremely dark period of about 16 years in his life, when Elton battled cocaine addiction, alcoholism, bulimia, bouts of uncontrollable anger, and extravagant shopping expeditions. The latter two vices remain problems to this day, but he kicked the other ones in 1991 after checking into a no-frills rehab facility in the suburbs of Chicago, where he was forced to clean toilets, do his own laundry, and even share his bedroom with another patient. “[That] didn’t go down very well until I saw my roommate,” Elton writes. “His name was Greg, he was gay and very attractive. At least there was something nice to look at around here.”
The final third of the book is devoted to his post-rehab life, including a sad chapter about the back-to-back losses of his good friends Gianni Versace and Princess Diana, in which he reveals that the huge success of “Candle in the Wind 1997” made him very uncomfortable, especially when it stayed at the top of the charts for 14 weeks. “It felt as if people were somehow wallowing in her death,” he writes, “like the mourning for her had got out of hand and they were refusing to move on. It seemed unhealthy to me — morbid and unnatural. I really don’t think it was what Diana would have wanted.”
Near the end of the book, Elton reveals that he recently survived a frightening bout with prostate cancer right before the start of his ongoing farewell tour. He managed to keep the entire thing secret, even though treatment for the disease briefly left him unable to control his bladder; in one vivid passage, he finds himself urinating into a diaper while singing “Rocket Man” on a Las Vegas stage, in front of 4,000 fans. That’s not a tale many would want to share with anyone, let alone include in their memoir, but Elton has never been one to hold back difficult truths, and Me — while a little skimpy on revelations about his brilliant, groundbreaking music — is essential reading for anyone who wants to know the difficult road that he walked while creating it.
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