I was at the top of a volcano. I was either going to be the lava that dribbles down the side, or the phoenix arising from the top. I won’t say I came out totally full-feathered, but I fluttered back.” The lead-winged metaphor came not from a geologist contemplating Mount St. Helens but from another kind of rock authority. For 13 years Bernie Taupin had been Elton John’s lyricist and thus one-half of Britain’s most celebrated songwriting team since Lennon & McCartney. But after sharing in the glory with Captain Fantastic (Bernie toured with Elton and was occasionally dragged onstage)—not to mention the profits from an incredible 100 million sales—Taupin went into an emotional tailspin.
“We’d filled the biggest stadiums and sold the most records,” he explains. “Once we started acquiring palatial mansions, the meaning went out of rock ‘n’ roll.” Hits came so easily that he and Elton dashed off one whole album in 10 days and, says Bernie, “There was nothing to do the rest of the year. I was bored and depressed.” After two straight LPs entered the Billboard charts at No. 1 (a feat unequaled), Taupin began to wonder, “Where do we go from here?” So when their 1977 Blue Moves LP hit the charts “only” at No. 3, “We thought we were finished,” he reports. Bernie was 27. That proved to be his last complete LP with Elton. Meanwhile Taupin’s other partnership, a five-year marriage to Maxine Fiebelman, had also broken up. “I had no straws left to grab onto,” he remembers. “So I turned to the bottle.”
His bender lasted two months before a shaken Taupin “mellowed out and dried out” in Acapulco. He also swore off music: “I figured that rock ‘n’ roll had destroyed me.” Instead, he tried acting, appearing on ABC’s Hardy Boys, of all things. Then Alice Cooper, who had just gotten over his own drinking problem, convinced Bernie to help write another album—From the Inside—about alcoholism. In the process, Bernie discovered, “I’d always been part of someone else. But there were ideas I wanted to do all by myself.” The result, released in April, is his first record doubling as a performer, He Who Rides the Tiger. “Nobody is more surprised than Elton,” chuckles Bernie. “With him, I was afraid to say, ‘It should sound like this,’ because that was his job. But this time music that had been in me came out.”
It may even turn out that John needs Taupin’s lyrics more than the other way around. While Bernie was working on Tiger, Elton’s career floundered. Hence, a year ago, Elton asked him to write the lyrics to eight new songs, three of which are on his upcoming LP 21 at 33. “I’ll write songs for Elton as long as he breathes and wants me,” pledges Bernie.
Still, the once-inseparable pair is divided by geography and interest. While John lives in England to be near his beloved soccer club, Bernie, an L.A. Dodgers freak, plans to become a U.S. citizen. Then there’s the matter of sexual preference. The two of them had once been rumored to be an item, a notion that Bernie now says “amuses” him. “I’ve loved women and I always will,” he declares. “We’re so opposite in that respect, it’s funny.” For the past two years he has lived with model Toni Russo. He’s also still friends with his ex-wife, though he reports, “She’s very happy with my bassist.”
Taupin grew up in England’s potato-farming district of Lincolnshire, where his father was a cattle stockman and his mother raised three kids. Thanks to a school system he sardonically calls “a garbage disposal,” Taupin ended up working in a printing plant “right out of David Copperfield.” Then he switched to a farm, “carting huge mountains of dead chickens to furnaces, and shoveling them in. It was like Dante’s Inferno.” But when he had to work on Christmas Day, he told his boss to “stuff it.” A London newspaper ad for a songwriter caught Bernie’s eye and, though only 16, “I thought I could fake it, and I didn’t want to go back to the farm and have 12 kids.” He wound up meeting Elton, three years his senior, and together they took a basement apartment in “the Watts of London.” “We were really scraping,” Bernie recalls, until Elton decided to sing. Their first LP produced the hit Lady Samantha, and their second launched Border Song and Your Song.
Over the next decade Taupin and John traveled their Yellow Brick Road, trashing hotel rooms (Bernie once fired a .45 magnum at John Wayne on a TV set), dumping Ajax into a friend’s meal and once throwing a dog out a window. “If it has anything to do with rock ‘n’ roll,” Bernie says brazenly, “I’ve done it.” Cocaine? “There’s no way I’m going to put it down; it’s part of the lifestyle.” Now, though, Taupin thinks the punks lack imagination. “It takes flair to drive a car into a swimming pool,” he cracks.
Bernie is comparatively housebroken in his eight-room, Spanish-style place in the Hollywood Hills. It boasts six TV sets, “so I don’t miss anything,” and his sybaritic bedroom has twice been the backdrop for Playboy centerfolds. The walls are decorated with satanic art (“The occult fascinates me”), and a glass case holds Marilyn Monroe’s dressmaking form from Some Like It Hot—a gift from Elton.
Taupin restricts his drinking now to Mouton-Cadet wine, but loves rich food. “All the health nuts I know look pale and drawn,” he insists. He lifts weights, but jokes, “The times I was abusing myself, I had more energy.” Bernie and Toni hang out in San Fernando Valley drive-in theaters or dine with chums like Cheryl Ladd, Rod and Alana Stewart and Peter Frampton. He dresses casually, except for a gold hoop in his right ear, which he pierced with an icepick at 16. “In a group I’m a total ham,” he says. “But I can be very rude to people I don’t like.”
Professionally, Taupin admits, “I’m lazy, but I don’t want people to think I’ve gone under.” So he’s done two screenplays, just co-wrote Cher’s next single, Julie, and is planning his first solo concert tour at age 30. “Once you’ve got rock ‘n’ roll in your blood, you can never get it out,” reckons Taupin. “I do have a slightly insane side, and when I feel that flame going out, I immediately ignite it again. I never want to lose the craziness.”