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Elton Tones Up & Down

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A small, unprepossessing figure steps onto the front porch of the Colorado ranch house. For once, he is not dressed like Oliver Cromwell, or the Tin Woodman, or Marlene Dietrich. Instead, for Elton John, 28, multi-multimillionaire and the rock world’s most engaging enfant gauche, the uniform for the evening is Wyatt Earp hat, plain sunglasses and gem-studded western shirt. Lest he be mistaken as a rhinestone cowboy, however, Elton is also wearing track pants, silk evening socks and pastel Mary Janes. He shakes hands with a visitor perfunctorily, then retreats behind the comfortable shield of a close friend. He is neither rude nor haughty, only shy. He is also plain tired: working all night for a week, he sports a three-day stubble.

An honest-to-God dinner gong rings, and Marjorie Main is expected at any moment, bellowing, “Come and git it or I’ll throw it to the hawgs!” But this is not the basic B movie Circle H spread but the famous Caribou recording ranch in Nederland, Colo., owned by music impresario Jimmy Guercio of the jazz-rock group Chicago. It caters to the musical needs and frontier whims of rock’s most famous stars. Dinner is accompanied by Blue Nun wine and is served by comely Caribouettes. The food and ambience are Yankee dowdy, but the accents on this occasion are Anglo sassy. Elton John—new, refurbished and super-slim—has only a plum for dinner, then returns to his cabin to watch the sports news on TV and prepare for the night’s work. It is a mixing session with the tracks of Elton’s forthcoming album.

Cultures collide at the session. In an elaborate recording studio set down on the last slope of the Rocky Mountains, British boys and birds in western drag knock back Coors beer. The outsider is warned, “It may be rather loud.” BOOM! emphasizes the enduring English capacity for understatement. “Why so loud?” the visitor shrieks at producer Gus Dudgeon. “That’s the way Elton likes it. He wants to hear it the way the kids will listen to it.”

Heads start bobbing to the trip-hammer music; Elton simulates playing a guitar, an instrument he is just starting to pick up. He begins working on a fresh scotch and soda when CRASH!…comes the thunder of his piano playing on a new hard rock number, Yell Help Medley. Soon all around the room fingers are popping and knees are pumping. Lyricist Bernie Taupin throws rhythmic left hooks and engineer Jeff Guercio rocks and bops and suddenly Gus’s wife, Sheila, and Elton’s manager, John Reid, are doing the bump. Reid’s assistant, Connie Pap-pas, is boogeying solo while the thunderclap beat goes on and on, punctuated by shouts of “Dynamite!” and “Un-REAL!” and the more subdued, “My those vibes are tasty!” It’s over and everyone collapses in a sweaty flush and the visitor manages to pop open his ears. Elton John quietly observes, “That’s rock’n’roll.”

It is an art form that Elton John not only recognizes but pursues with the most extraordinary prodigality—not to mention profitability. In a $3 billion industry which almost monthly coughs up stars on the strength of a hit or two, Elton is, in marquee terminology, a colossal, stupendous superstar. He is also a strange one: whoever heard of a half-bald, half-blind rock hero who is shy with girls?

Starting out with lyricist Bernie Taupin in a dingy London flat, playing for fish-and-chips money on the semi-pro circuit in jeans and a beard, Elton has graduated into a meretricious celebrant of Art Deco gone amok. Draped in feather boas and lurking behind jeweled spectacles that cost as much as a car, garbed in mirrored jumpsuits that reflect tens of thousands of giddy supplicants, Elton stomps the piano with his feet in concert while bit players dressed as Queen Elizabeth and Godzilla wander about in baroque employment. Elton is having second thoughts about his wild act these days. “I guess it’s time to tone down the flamboyance a bit,” he says. “The garish routines just sort of evolved, and after a while people expect it of you. I sometimes look back on my performances and get a little embarrassed. But no one should take them too seriously. I’m very English, and I love that sort of black humor.”

That sense of humor may persuade him to call his new album Rock of the Westies, but it scarcely matters. He could call it Annette Funicello Sings Footlight Favorites and it would still blow the top off the record charts. His latest album, the autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy (he being Cap and sidekick Bernie Taupin, quondam chicken-farmer, the cowboy), turned “platinum”—the industry term for one million album sales—in advance orders before it even hit the music counters. That made the ninth of his twelve albums to sell more than a million in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, he has sold 42 million albums and 18 million singles. He is a director, as well as the star, of highflying Rocket Records and a director and part-owner of his hometown soccer club, the low-flying Watford Hornets. Last weekend his cherubic visage was all over CBS-TV as co-host (with Diana Ross) of the first annual Rock Music Awards and a nominee in four categories himself—which he found “dreadfully embarrassing.”

Embarrassment at $7 million per annum raises the question, naturally: has success spoiled the former Reginald Dwight? You bet your sybaritic specs it has, but in a curious and ultimately agreeable way. His spending is as compulsively lavish as Presley’s, and probably arises from the same insecurities. “I guess it’s gotten a little out of hand,” Elton admits. “People are starting to refer to me as ‘Old Moneybags.’ ” Truly, nobody but the hero of a 19th century romantic novel has ever lived his childhood fantasies as elaborately as the ugly duckling from Middlesex who, if he could not be transmogrified into a swan, could at least fashion himself as the most exotically plumed of parrots.

In his versatile artistry, Elton John has no peer. His four-chord sound is unmistakable, but his albums are spiced with such diverse numbers as Daniel (about a blind Vietnam vet), Philadelphia Freedom (a salute to Billie Jean King’s onetime tennis team) and Candle in the Wind (a tribute to Marilyn Monroe), as well as hard-rockers like Crocodile Rock. To the criticism that he and Bernie purvey only commercial, “middle-of-the-road” music, Elton just shrugs. “That’s one of the things that made success difficult for me to adjust to emotionally,” he says. “But I’m immune to criticism now. Besides, I like that term. It means that my music appeals to a wide variety of people, which is what’s important.”

Elton’s formula for success is compounded of natural talent, an immense (if well-concealed) capacity for hard work and a perfectly pitched working relationship with Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon. Elton ascribes much of his versatility to Dudgeon. “Look at some of the other groups,” John says, “turning out album after self-same album. A good producer will keep you from such self-indulgence.” Still, Taupin is the key to Elton’s awesome production. “He’s a musician, I’m a writer,” says Taupin. “I have no musical talent, he has no drive to write. We feel if we work over a song too long, we’ll get on each other’s nerves.”

So they don’t. Bernie’s lyrics come first. Elton sits down at the piano, tries a few tentative chords. Soon he’s singing and humming, and within the hour the song will be wastebasket fodder or a highly marketable product. Once, for 10 days, Bernie wrote in the loft, Elton composed in the basement, and Bernie’s wife, Maxine, served as the runner. The result was Honky Chateau, an album that sold 2.5 million, which grosses out at earnings of about $1 million per day. Another time Elton and Bernie found themselves stranded in Jamaica for three days. By the time they left they had finished 24 songs, making Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, their only double album.

Elton and Bernie met at the end of Elton’s highly publicized and thoroughly disagreeable adolescence. His father, Squadron Leader Stanley Dwight, approved of virtually nothing his dreamy, adipose only child did—excepting young Reg’s delight in tagging along to the Watford soccer matches six miles down the road. Dwight had once been a trumpeter in a dance band; thus, when all over England tough young mods and rockers were digging Chuck Berry and Otis Redding, Elton was mooning and Juning with Harry James, Jo Stafford and Artie Shaw. “That’s why people think I’m 143 years old,” Elton says.

He kept up with his piano lessons and won a fellowship to the Royal Academy of Music at 11. With Mum’s intercession little Reg managed to divide his time between classics and pop. When his parents divorced, Reg took a job bobbing the piano at a nearby pub. He finally quit the Academy two weeks before final exams and latched onto a rhythm-and-blues group called Bluesology.

It wasn’t a bad start, but it didn’t send Ed Sullivan reaching across the sea for him, either. He borrowed the first names of saxophonist Elton Dean and bandleader John Baldry in a fervent effort to create a new persona. His efforts with the girls were, to be kind, unrewarding; his only serious romance would end in the late ’60s with a halfhearted suicide attempt. (Dumped by a 6’2″ blonde named Linda, with whom he was living, Elton put his head in a gas oven but left all the windows in the kitchen open.)

When Liberty Records in London advertised for new singers and composers, Elton sent in samples of his wares. So did a young Lincolnshire farmer who badly wanted out of the henhouse, Bernie Taupin. “Actually, I had never written a line seriously,” Taupin says, “but I was willing to try anything.” Liberty matched up Elton and Bernie, and they moved into a dive in Islington, in North London. Then the company decided against publishing any of their songs. The three years they spent working their way out of Islington is the subject of Captain Fantastic. Elton John was discovered in 1970, playing the musically important Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. Within a year he was rich, and within two years he was ridiculously rich.

Suddenly everyone loved the fey, tubby little fellow who had seemed (and indeed had thought of himself as) the most unlovable of God’s creatures. Parents regarded his freakiness as good, clean fun, thankfully lacking Jagger’s malevolent sexuality, David Bowie’s reptilian decadence or Alice Cooper’s shrieking sadomasochism. Elton John became the Truman Capote of the showbiz-sport world. He pops in for cocktails with David Frost, plays tennis with Billie Jean King and Jimmy Connors, parties at Cher’s, and works out with his beloved Watford team whenever he can. He owns two Rolls-Royces and a Ferrari, a new house in Benedict Canyon and is buying an English manor house in Windsor. He collects art; his prizes are several Magrittes and a few Rembrandt etchings. He has bought a Rolls-Royce for his agent, a fox fur for an assistant at Rocket Records, and enough gifts from Cartier for assorted friends to finance a Latin American air force. He has settled both his mother and father into houses in England, but says their sturdy middle-class values are not yet attuned to his wealth. “I bought my mum a handbag,” he says, “and when she found out how much it cost, she took it back and got a cheaper one.”

He is pleased that everyone comments on his new trimness. “I don’t know how much weight I’ve lost,” he says, “because I never weigh myself. But I know that none of my clothes fit.” He turns to talk of his future.

“I can only do this for so long, you know. I don’t feature myself singing Crocodile Rock when I’m 34. What I really want to do is get more involved in Watford football and English sports in general. Much of the sports administration in England is outdated and the facilities are terrible. I want to try to change all that.”

He takes a swig from a bottle of Canadian liqueur, his favorite drink at the moment.

“I’m music mad, and if I had it to do over, I’d still plump for a career in music,” says Elton John. “But I guess if I could really, really go back and do anything I wanted, I’d like to be the singles champion at Wimbledon.”