Bernie Taupin Talks 53 Years with Elton John, ‘Rocketman’ Song: ‘You Do Get Nostalgic’
There’s no “we” in “I’m Still Standing,” but maybe there should be: The Elton John/Bernie Taupin songwriting collaboration is still on its feet after 53 years, which, in fickle, friendship-dismantling pop years, is about a millennium.
They’re nominated together for a best original song Oscar for “I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” and, since they’re the only ones connected with the much-loved “Rocketman” biopic that did get nominations, it’s easy to imagine this category becoming a repository for all the pent-up love Academy members might have for the movie. On top of that is the fact that the song is actually fun, existing in a specific Motown style that John has never quite claimed before in his decades of recording, bringing his doppelganger Taron Egerton along for the duet ride.
Taupin got on the phone with Variety to discuss what may become a milestone for them — winning a mutual Oscar before they’ve ever won a mutual Grammy, if it should come to pass. The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” could certainly be applied to his and John’s partnership, which recalls a lot of the great ampersands of old, from Rodgers & Hart to Goffin & King and Lennon & McCartney, except that theirs has outlasted just about anybody else’s of note about five times over at this point. And it’s not done yet: lyricist Taupin and music writer John are at work — separately, as always — on material for a new record.
At some point, it’s been said, it was possible Elton and Taron were going to sing one of your classic songs together over the end credits?
Yeah, the idea of doing an end title song really didn’t come till pretty much the end of everything else. There was an idea of Taron and Elton doing an existing song at the end; I can’t remember what was the song in question. But it was always at the back of everybody’s mind that there needed to be a song to continue on from “I’m Still Standing,” which wraps up the movie and obviously has a redemptive quality to it. The idea was to keep that momentum going through the end titles. Ultimately everybody looked at each other and said it makes sense to do something totally original, seeing that we’re supposed to be in the here-and-now, and we need something that sums up the movie and what we can expect from the arc of this character’s projection from here on out. It was sort of a no-brainer that the song had to continue with that redemptive quality about it — something that was uplifting that said, “I’m stretching out into the future with a fresh mind and a fresh outlook.” It’s about relying on the old friends you can trust, keeping your best friends close to you, keeping your devils away and keeping those bad influences out of your life, while continuing on with a strong mind, heart and soul.
And so you wrote what ended up being a very bouncy, Motown-flavored song as… a slow ballad, right?
I made the mistake of thinking that maybe we should take it down a notch and make it more reflective and low-key. That’s really what I had in mind when I wrote the original lyric for “I’m Gonna Love Me Again.” I saw it more as a stripped-down, reflective, waltz-like song. And usually Elton will call me back and discuss it with me, but I think he just got his teeth straight into it and went with the sort of Motown feel that the song has or ended up with. And when he sent me the demo … I don’t know if it got lost in translation, but it was kind of muddy and I couldn’t really get my head around it, so I kind of sat on it for a while. Then in the interim, it was decided that it made sense again for Taron to come on board and do it as a duet with Elton, so you’ve got basically the two Eltons, which was icing on the cake. They went in with Giles Martin and cut the track and sent it to me, and suddenly, a light went on in my head and I went, “Wow, okay, I get it now.” Ultimately. had we wrapped up the movie with “I’m Still Standing” and then dropped down into a ballad thing, we would have lost the momentum. With this song, you roar out on a high note.
Had Elton ever recorded in such a distinctly Motown style before? Certainly you’d had different things that were their own kind of pastiche, like “Philadelphia Freedom” evoking Philly soul.
Yeah, that’s one you could certainly point at. If you don’t want to say Motown necessarily, we’ve certainly done lots of tracks that have been treated in an R&B soul vein. In fact, there was a whole album we did that was very much in that vein, and I can’t for the life of me remember the title of it now, there’s been so many. But (R&B) is definitely a go-to feel for John and Taupin.
You have a line in “I’m Gonna Love Me Again” that goes, “But now the past lies sleeping in the deep.” That made me think of that album title of Elton’s, “Sleeping With the Past.”
Oh, well, that’s the album I’m talking about, by the way! “Sleeping With the Past” had a very R&B/soul feel to it. That’s the one I was thinking about. Thank you.
And was that “the past lies sleeping” line in the new song in any way an allusion to the title of that album?
Oh, no, no, absolutely not. In fact, until you mentioned it, I hadn’t even thought about it. So, no. “Sleeping in the deep” is literally: You’ve drowned your demons and left them at the bottom of the ocean.
To ask about another line: “No clown to claim he used to know me then.” Was that about just getting rid of toxic people in your life?
I think so. I think it’s a combination of hiding behind costumes, and getting rid of dead wood — people that are a bad influence. But the whole thing about my work in general is that I much prefer for people to draw their own conclusions than to lead them by the nose through it and tell them what each individual thing in the song is saying. I think the beauty of songs, like any form of art, is for people to draw their own conclusions. When you write songs, it’s like when children grow up and they leave home —they have to make decisions for themselves. They can’t rely on you. And I think releasing songs is like releasing children. As Paul Simon always said, other people’s impressions of your song sometimes are more interesting than the ones you initially drew up in the first place.
How often does it occurs that when you’re collaborating with that you sent him a lyric and then what he ends up coming back with is in a totally different genre or style than you imagined? And when that happens, is it often difficult to wrap your head around it like it was here?
No, after 53 years, not at all. Sometimes my preconceived idea of what something should sound like goes totally in tandem with his thinking. Sometimes he throws a curveball in there and takes it to a totally different place. But I don’t think that I’ve ever really been offended by him being misguided in how he treats a lyric of mine. He’s a much better musician than me, so his ideas are going to be far more interesting and intricate. When I write things, I don’t just sit there with a pen and paper and write. I write with a guitar; I write with chords, to give myself a sense of melody. But the melody is always fairly straightforward. It’s just to give it some sort of regimented, melodic feel, lyrically. But when he gets hold of it, his melodies change and work in so many different directions. They have changes in them that sometimes are very intricate, but then again, sometimes they’re very simple. This song in particular is pretty straightforward, with a joyous upbeat to it that’s particularly infectious.
When you were on the Golden Globes, accepting the best original song award there in January, there was the comment Elton made about it being the first kind of major award you guys had won as a duo — the distinction being that he meant contemporaneous award.
People jumped on that obviously, and I can see why. I think Elton was talking about singular songs winning awards. In particular, something like the Grammys — we’ve never won song of the year or whatever they have at the Grammys; I’m not sure of all of the categories because I’m not really that familiar with them. But we’ve won dozens of awards for other things. We’ve won Ivor Novellos in England for songs. We’ve been nominated into the Songwriters Hall of Fame twice, so we’ve definitely got our fair share of awards. I think maybe he was talking about the fact that he’d won an Oscar before with Tim (Rice) for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” And I’d won the Golden Globe before for writing a song for “Brokeback Mountain.”
But it did make people think about what was going on in the early ‘70s with the Grammys. Maybe they were sort of waking up to “Hey, this Elton John guy is actually as good as Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon” right around the time that first crest ended in the late ‘70s and you guys were beginning to work apart for a while.
Yeah, I know. I can’t even begin to comment on that. I’ve never been to the Grammys. I’ve never watched the Grammys. And that’s no slight on them. It’s just that, especially now, I can’t really relate to a lot of that. Half of the artists, I don’t even know who they are, unless they’re in the country field, which I’m more familiar with. But that’s just me. I have no bad feelings.
With “Rocketman,” since you’re a character in the film, did you have any concerns about you’d be portrayed on screen?
No, not at all. The thing is that this isn’t a movie that was made independent of us. It was made in-house, by our team, basically. And then obviously when Jamie (Bell) came on board, I was thrilled, to say the least, to have an actor of his talent and sensitivity to portray me. We met and hung out together; I think he did a stellar job, and I’m flattered by the whole process.
Did you think it was funny at all that your character would actually have a singing role in the movie?
No, because I figured if Elton’s grandmother can sing, I certainly can.
The film got a lot of Golden Globe love, and some people of course think it deserved at the Oscars. Your song is alone in representing it at the Oscars. Of course the song will be on the telecast, so that’s a big look to remind people about the movie, but you must wish you weren’t the only ones nominated.
Yeah, of course. I would have loved to have seen Taron get nominated because I think he did do an extraordinary job. He had another ace in the hole, which was the fact that he actually sang all the songs, which is extraordinary. Quite honestly, I think he deserved a nod. But, hey, you know, it’s a crapshoot, man. I’m happy that we’re there in some capacity, and we’ll just see what happens. Win or lose, I’m thrilled to be nominated. Of course you always wish and hope that you could get a little bit more, but you’ve got to be ultimately satisfied with what you finally end up with. You can’t complain.
You probably don’t want to jinx things by talking about odds, but let’s face it: this has popularly been declared a front-runner.
Well, don’t say that! I spoke to Elton the other day and I was saying, “People keep saying we’re the front-runners,” and he kept saying, “I don’t want to hear that, I don’t want to hear that, I don’t want to hear that.” So, we don’t want to hear that. We’ll have fun either way.
Elton’s recent memoir was, like, the most relentlessly readable rock book ever. Did you come away with any impressions you could share?
Oh, I loved it, man. I thought I knew him well, but I told him there were some things in there that I wasn’t aware of. The thing that I loved about the book was it was so damn funny. I literally laughed out loud about six or seven times — I mean, gut-laughed out loud. And I think that’s because he’s so brutally honest — he hides nothing — but the way he worded things was so funny. I also love it because it is kind of a counterpoint to the movie, where the movie is obviously a total fantasy, and everything geographically and chronologically is all over the place, for good reason. So you can go see the movie and see the fantasy, and then read the book and see how it really was.
So you weren’t bothered by things in the movie that are chronologically way off, like how you’re in Dick James’ office in the ‘60s, and basically hand him a sheath with all your greatest hits you were writing well into the mid-‘70s?
No, that’s the whole point, you know? I mean, it wasn’t like it was just one part of the film that was that way. The whole movie was a mishmash of time travel. That was the intention of the movie all along. Well, actually, I don’t know if it was all along — probably not from day one. But when it became that, then that’s when I think the movie became special. Had it been (scrupulously factual), I don’t think it would have been so special.
In the memoir, Elton is as honest when it comes to your work together as he is about everything else. Did you always agree with him? Like, when he’s declaring “Leather Jackets” is one of the worst albums ever made?
Yeah, he’s got that right. I don’t know if our picks for best and worst are necessarily in tandem. I mean, he says “Leather Jackets” (from 1986). I would say “The Big Picture” (from 1997) was one of the worst records we ever made. I don’t think the songs were that bad; I just think it was incredibly cold as a production. I remember the sessions for that being very miserable. It was just so much sort of what I call icicle technology. It just did not benefit the songs. I’m not pointing any fingers, but it never worked for me. But our output has been so extraordinary… There isn’t one artist alive who every album they’ve made has been stellar. Everybody’s had their moments in the mud pit. Even the Beatles, with doing “Magical Mystery Tour” (the film) — not that the music was bad. But Dylan or anybody, they’ve all got their clunkers somewhere.
There’s a common belief, fostered by Elton himself, that starting around the time of “Songs from the West Coast” in 2001, there was kind of this renaissance where you guys found the path again. Is that how you think about it, and do you feel like you’ve been on a roll since?
Yeah, absolutely. I think we’ve really found a rejuvenated sense of spirit in our writing. Up to that point, for maybe a decade, we were sort of coasting. You think that you’re doing good work, but then you realize that in retrospect, probably your heart wasn’t in it, as there were probably musical changes taking place around you that were pushing you into a corner. Ultimately I think we kind of took a look at each other and said, “We’ve got to find the spark again, man. We need to rethink this whole game.” And I think we did that with “Songs from the West Coast,” which is one of my favorite albums that we’ve ever done. I love that record. And since then… One of my favorite albums we’ve done recently is “The Diving Board” (in 2013). I’m very proud of that record. It’s very literal. It’s very grown up.
It’s like old age is like a nice, comfortable glove. We’ve slipped into it and reassessed our songwriting. And I think what our songwriting is now, in general, has a much more adult take on it — something much more befitting gentleman of our age.
I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately because Elton is in Australia and wants to do some writing, because he’s got a rented house and he’s there for three months. The good thing is there’s no pressure on us. It’s not like we’re Taylor Swift where everybody’s waiting for our next record. We’re elder statesman, and we can take our time, and when we put a record out, we want to be really, really proud of it. I’m really enjoying writing right now. I think he’s looking forward to working in the way that we probably did in the first place, where he’s not writing in the studio. He’s not taping, you know, putting things down (as demos). He wants to write things that, if he remembers them, then we’ll know they’re good. If he doesn’t remember them, then they weren’t worth it in the first place.
We’re seeing a lot more of you guys together because of awards and things like that. Of course, traditionally you’ve had your “two rooms at the end of the world.” Do people overestimate or underestimate the amount of time that you actually spend together?
I’ve been to a lot of the farewell shows because I wanted to make a specific point of doing that. I want my kids to be able to see a lot of those shows I want them to know what their dad did and what their Uncle Elton did, so that’s very important to me. But I always spend like 10 or 15 minutes with him alone in his dressing room before he gets dressed for the show. And those are really, really special moments for me. It’s not like we’re terribly reflective. Neither one of us lives in the past by any means. But I think it’s the one time that it’s just me and him and we don’t even have to say anything. We’ll just hang out together. And it does kind of go all the way back. You reflect on the fact that this was us when we started — it was just me and him, literally; it was us against the world. And so to be in that situation where then 53 years on… Yeah, there’s something very heartwarming about that. And I guess that’s where you do get a little bit nostalgic. Because we’re both very proud of each other’s achievements. We’re both very much individuals; we have different ideology. But it’s that old thread of music, man. That’s what ties us together and always has.
It’s like I said at the Golden Globes: longest running marriage in Hollywood. It doesn’t come along every day.
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