Elton John: The 'Fresh Air' Interview

May 27, 2019
Originally published on May 30, 2019 12:07 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. The new Elton John biopic "Rocketman" opens Friday. We're going to listen back to Terry's interview with him. After announcing his retirement last year, Elton John embarked on what he says is his global three-year-long final tour, which he's named the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. It's a long and winding road that began some 50 years ago. In 1969, he recorded this demo of "Your Song," which became his first hit single when a fully produced version was released in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR SONG")

ELTON JOHN: (Singing) It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside. Well, I'm not one of those who can easily hide. I don't have much money, but, boy, if I did, I'd buy a big house where we both could live. If I was a sculptor - but then again, no - or a man who makes potions in a traveling show. I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do. My gift is my song, and this one's for you. And you can tell everybody...

BIANCULLI: Elton John co-wrote "Your Song" with lyricist Bernie Taupin. They wrote many other hits together, including "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Honky Cat," "Tiny Dancer," "Bennie And The Jets," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Candle In The Wind."

Terry Gross spoke with Elton John in 2013, right before he paid tribute to Liberace at the Emmy Awards. It was during the period he was performing at Caesar's Palace in Vegas doing a show he called The Million Dollar Piano. Elton John has a flair for the extravagant. But when he and Terry spoke, he had just recorded a new stripped-down album called "The Diving Board" featuring him performing reflective songs backed by piano, bass and drums with some extra instruments on several tracks. He wrote the songs on the album with Bernie Taupin. Terry began the interview with a song from that album called "Home Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME AGAIN")

JOHN: (Singing) The world had seven wonders once upon a time. It's sure enough the favored nations aided their decline. And all around me, I've seen times like it was back when. But like back then, I'd say amen if I could get back home again. If I could go back home, if I could go back home. If I'd never left, I'd never have known. We all dream of leaving, but wind up in the end spending all of our time trying to get back home again.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Elton John, welcome to FRESH AIR. What a great treat to have you on our show. Thank you so much for coming.

JOHN: Well, it's great to be here. Thank you.

GROSS: This album has, I think, a kind of different sound to it. You know, your voice is deeper. There's a sense in the songs of looking back, of reflecting on the past, both the historical past and the personal past.

JOHN: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if that mood and if that kind of lyrical cohesion was something that you and Bernie Taupin intended, or is it just the way it worked out?

JOHN: I think it's just the way it worked out. I think the album has its mood and its sound because T Bone Burnett, who produced the album, took me out to lunch, or we went to lunch. And we decided to talk about my solo album. I had done a record with Leon Russell before with him called "The Union." And T Bone suggested that I go back to my original lineup live on stage, which was just piano, bass and drums.

And he said, you know, you became a success with piano, bass and drums live, but you never recorded with piano, bass and drums as a template. And I (laughter) - I couldn't believe it because he was absolutely right. I'd - the sound that made me famous, I had never made a record using that sound. And I think the fact that we went in with just three musicians - piano, bass and drums - and put all of the tracks down like that made the sessions very relaxed.

I had no idea what the lyrical content would be, and I never have done with Bernie. But I think at our age - I mean, I'm 66, he's 62 - it's a reflection on we are - where we are in our lives. It's a very adult album. It's a very sparse album compared to the albums I've made before. And I'm very relaxed. I'm very happy with my personal life. When I started the album, I had one son. When I finished the album, I had two sons. I think subconsciously all that played into the end sound of the end product. The relaxed mood that - which I played and which I sang was just a joy. And I've never had that ever happen to me before when making a record.

GROSS: You know, I know you don't write the lyrics. But we know part of the lyric in "Home Again" is we all dream of leaving, but wind up in the end spending all our time trying to get back home again. So I know Bernie Taupin wrote that, not you. But does that express at all a sentiment that you share?

JOHN: Of course, because I'm a traveling gypsy. Every musician is a - you know, a wanderer. They spend their life traveling around. But it's not just about musicians or people in the armed forces who spend a long time away from home. It's about the casual worker who, you know, goes away for two three days and - you know, away from his family.

There's something about when you think about coming home, whether it's three days or three months. And you get excited about the fact that you are going to walk through your back door, sit at your kitchen table - because that's where everybody congregates, and that's where you spend most of your life, in the kitchen - and you can smell your family, and you can just be surrounded by your things. And no matter where I am in the world, I always look forward to coming home.

GROSS: T Bone Burnett, as you mentioned, heard you. When you first started performing in America, he heard you at the Troubadour. And those shows that you did there have become, you know, kind of famous in rock history. Tell us what you did there and tell us a little bit about who you were then.

JOHN: Well, the "Elton John" album was a very orchestral album. The cover of the album was very dark - you know, very dark with a picture of myself on it. And I think most people in America that had heard the album up to that point didn't know what to expect live on stage. They thought maybe I was going to be some shy, introverted piano player, singer who came on and was very Randy Newman-esque (ph), whereas we'd been playing for over a year in Britain, year and a half, with the band - Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass - and we were far from that.

I - you know, I emerged on stage in hot pants and boots, like, Doc Marten (ph) boots with wings on them. We - you know, we were a rock outfit more than anything else. And then the songs from the "Elton John" album, like, 60 years on were given a radical different treatment live on stage. So I think that played in - to my advantage. So - because people didn't expect me to come on and be full pelt rock and roll. They thought it was going to be kind of a sedate evening of a nice new British singer-songwriter, and it wasn't the case at all.

And I think, as it has happened a lot in my career, it's kismet. It's luck. It's just being in the right place in the right time. And it certainly was then. And the Robert Hilburn review from the LA Times kind of took two years off my work schedule because it spread round the country like wildfire. And it meant that I didn't have to play second on the bill in LA or New York, but it made my name a household name in those kind of big cities.

However, you know, America is a large country, and I spent two years touring with other people - playing second on the bill - and paying my dues, which I loved because I was playing with people like Derek and the Dominos and Leon Russell and really getting a lot of experience. And that's the best thing to do. I wasn't ready to headline big stadiums or big arenas because I'd just, you know, come from playing to 500, 600 people in England and playing to 200 people at the Troubadour and then went straight into playing Anaheim Convention Center with Leon Russell, which was 5,000 or 6,000 people. So it was an incredible experience to happen so quickly.

GROSS: So the clothing that you described wearing at the Troubadour - that so surprised people because they were expecting something more Randy Newman-esque. Could you have done that in your hometown? Did you have to leave to be able to dress that way onstage?

JOHN: I was dressing that way in England anyway just for the stage purposes.

GROSS: Right.

JOHN: I mean, we're all fashion-conscious in those days - very much so. But for stage, there was a designer in London called Mr. Freedom who gave me all these clothes and said, you know, go for it. And as a child - as a teenager, I was kind of not allowed to wear fashionable clothes - winklepicker shoes or chisel-toed shoes - and I always wanted to. So I've often said I lived my teenage years in my 20s when I sort of left home. And I became Elton John success. Then it became Elton John excess.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN: If you get - you know, everything I couldn't do when I was younger I did 10 times over. You know, Hollywood Bowl - which was the biggest show that I've done up to that point in my career - was very, very funny when you look back at it. It's quite outrageous. I was introduced by Linda Lovelace. There was the Pope, the Queen coming down the stairs. And then I came out in this big marabou outfit. But I was having the time of my life. I was becoming the person that I wanted to be and no holds barred. It was very exciting and a lot of fun.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. He has a new album called "The Diving Board." And I want to play something else from the album. This is "Oceans Away." It's a song about men who fought in World War II and survived. Do you want to say a few words about the song before we hear it?

JOHN: I am - I get very moved when it's Armistice Day in England, which is November - or Veteran's Day in America - or anytime you see someone who's fought in a war marching to remember the ones that have fallen. Bernie wrote this song about his father, who didn't die in the war. My mother fought in the war - my dad didn't, but my mum did in the Second World War. And they fought so that I wouldn't have to. And this song is really about those people. They should never be forgotten. They should always be remembered. I'm a great believer in the old being very wise. And sometimes, they get treated very badly, and we discard them too readily. And this song is about paying tribute to what they did. And let's not ever forget them. Let's never forget these people and the countless people that died - millions who died on our behalf in World War I, World War II and subsequent wars after that.

GROSS: So this is Elton John from his new album, "The Diving Board." This is "Oceans Away."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCEANS AWAY")

JOHN: (Singing) I hung out with the old folks in the hope that I'd get wise. I was trying to bridge the gap between the great divide. Hung on every recollection in the theater of their eyes, picking up on this and that in the few that still survived. Call them up and dust them off. Let them shine - the ones who hold onto the ones they had to leave behind, those that flew and those that fell, the ones that had to stay beneath a little, wooden cross oceans away.

BIANCULLI: That's "Oceans Away" from Elton John's album "The Diving Board." We'll continue Terry's interview with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "SIXTY YEARS ON")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Elton John recorded in 2013. The new biopic about him, "Rocketman," opens Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You mentioned your mother fought in World War II. What did she do?

JOHN: She was a gunner. She was an ack ack girl, as they say. She was on the guns. And she was - she loved every single minute of it. I can tell you I think life was pretty amazing. I mean, it was it was frightening, but it was also, you know, camaraderie at its best. So, yes, she fought, and she fired the guns. And knowing my mother as I do, it was a perfect job for her.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Was she a tough mother?

JOHN: She was disciplined, yeah - and quite rightly so. She was a good mother and very disciplined and worked very hard for me and, you know, encouraged me to be who I am not just personally but professionally, whereas my father wasn't too keen on the idea of me becoming a rock 'n' roll musician. We grew up - or I grew up after the Second World War in the '50s in England. And times were bad. And times were tough. I think food was rationed. We never went without. But it was - you know, it was a very conservative era to be brought up in. And then Elvis Presley came along and kind of changed the world, which he did. And then, of course, it led to The Beatles and a whole revolution of music and a whole revolution of society, as well - social behavior, social acceptance, whatever. And so my mother encouraged me and was very great about me being gay. But she always encouraged me to follow my musical dreams, which I'm very grateful for.

GROSS: When you say your mother was great about being gay, at what age was she great about that?

JOHN: Well, I didn't really - now, I didn't sleep with anyone, Terry, till I were 23. So I really didn't know - in the '50s, you weren't taught about sex whatsoever. It was never talked about. People used to snoop behind their curtains and look at the neighbors and, you know, if a girl became pregnant in your part of the world, she was shipped off to the countryside. Things - I was never told a thing about sex. So I was, you know, very naive, as were my friends, as well. But me so, especially. And so I didn't really know what I was until I came to America and I had sex in America. That was the first time I had sex, was in San Francisco in 1970. And it was with someone of my own sex, and someone who I knew who was English who happened to be in San Francisco at the same time.

I suspected my homosexuality. But I'd never acted out on it 'cause I was afraid of sex. It's awful to be afraid of sex. But I'm afraid that's what the '50s did to people. That, you know, it was just, sex is disgusting, it shouldn't be talked about. Nudity is disgusting, and we just don't talk about those kind of things.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song from your album "The Diving Board." And if you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. And this is a song called "Oscar Wilde Gets Out." And it's very relevant to what we're talking about 'cause it's about him getting out of prison after serving two years for a conviction of gross indecency because he was gay. And again, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyric, but what does this song mean to you?

JOHN: Well, (laughter), whenever I got a set of lyrics, I'd go into a studio, Terry, with nothing planned. I get a set of lyrics when I go into the studio, and I look at them. And T Bone and I said, well, that looks like an interesting song, (laughter), with the title. And, yeah, we we recorded and wrote this one first on the album because it's such a great and interesting story about someone who was betrayed by his lover and became infamous because of this. And it was a no-brainer to write this one first.

GROSS: The opening piano line in this is very, I'd say, catchy. But it's a very sober line. Is that - did that come first for you?

JOHN: Yes. The intros - every song on the album has a piano intro. In fact, when you played "Oceans Away," that's the first time I'd ever recorded in my whole life a piano and vocal just on its own. Which sounds astonishing, seeing as I'm a piano player and a singer. And "Oscar Wilde" is the second track, and it has that intro. Goes (singing) da-da, da, da, da, da. Da-da, da, da, da, da. Just a very melancholic intro. And a sad intro. It has a sadness to it. Which, you know, is the story of Oscar Wilde.

And it's also part of my classical education when I went to Royal Academy of Music, that you can tell on this album that my classical roots or the education I received at the Royal Academy of Music bore a lot of fruit. I went there from 11 to 15, and it had such a huge influence on me. And I'm very grateful for that because it gives me a distinctive kind of style.

GROSS: OK. Great. So let's hear "Oscar Wilde Gets Out." And this is from Elton John's new album "The Diving Board."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OSCAR WILDE GETS OUT")

JOHN: (Singing) Freedom for the scapegoat leaving Reading Jail. Rheumy eyes just pierced his heart like crucifixion nails. Shaking fists and razors gleamed. You never stood a chance. When the ink ran red on Fleet Street, you turned your eyes to France. Humbled far from Dublin, chased across the waves. Your biting wit still sharp enough to slice through every page. Destitute and beaten by the system of the crown. The bitter pill you swallowed tasted sweeter going down. And looking back on the great indifference, looking back at the limestone walls, thinking how beauty deceived you, knowing how love fools us all.

BIANCULLI: That's "Oscar Wilde Gets Out" from the album "The Diving Board." We're listening to Terry's 2013 interview with Elton John. We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show. Elton John's biofilm "Rocketman" opens in theaters this week. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BENNIE AND THE JETS")

JOHN: (Singing) Hey, kids, shake it loose together. The spotlight's hitting something that's been known to change the weather. We'll kill the fatted calf tonight so stick around. You're going to hear electric music, solid walls of sound. Say, Candy and Ronnie, have you seen them yet? Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh Bennie and the Jets. Oh, but they're weird and wonderful. Oh, Bennie, she's real keen. She's got electric boots, a mohair suit, you know, I read it in a magazine. Oh, buh-buh-buh Bennie and the Jets. Hey, kids, plug into the faithless. Maybe they're blinded but Bennie makes them ageless. We shall survive. Let us take ourselves along.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2013 interview with Elton John. The new biopic about him, called "Rocket Man," opens Friday. Terry spoke with him in 2013, after the release of his album "The Diving Board," a collection of reflective songs written with John's longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. Some of their many hits include "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Honky Cat," "Tiny Dancer," "Benny And The Jets," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Your Song" and "Candle In The Wind." Elton John was trained as a classical pianist, but it wasn't what he really wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN: I didn't want to be a classical musician. But I went to school Monday to Friday, and from the age of 11 to 15, I was - went to the Royal Academy on a Saturday morning in London on Marylebone Road. And I had played classical music. I mean, I played classical music before I went to Royal Academy because you had to play classical music to get in there. And it was a great experience, even though it was - in the '50s it smelt of fear.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHN: I mean, it has a whole new, different feeling now. You have to realize that Elvis Presley kind of only just happened there. So there was - it was a really, really very strict and severe place. But I went there, and I met a lot of friends who subsequently have had a huge impact on my recording career.

Looking back on it now, those five years spent there were invaluable to me because I learned so much. It had a huge effect on the way I wrote, the way I constructed chord sequences, and it's just a wonderful place to be. And after all that time of being so fearful of being and afraid of going on a Saturday morning because if you got something wrong, you were told and rapped over the knuckles, that now, 40-odd years, 50 years later, it's the most wonderful place to be, and I have a wonderful relationship with it.

GROSS: We are recording this right before you perform at the Emmy Awards (laughter).

JOHN: Right.

GROSS: And our listeners will be hearing this after you've performed at the Emmy Awards. And you're doing a tribute to Liberace because the movie about him, Behind The Candelabra, is nominated for, like, 15 Emmys, and who knows how many, if any, it will have won by the time this was broadcast. But anyways, you know, he was - you could say, oh, you'd look at Liberace, and of course, you'd think he was gay, but, you know, he wasn't publicly out, and I think it was an era when it was, like...

JOHN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...It was OK to be gay, as long as you didn't mention it (laughter), as long as, like, they didn't have to hear it. Yeah?

JOHN: Well, of course, he - Liberace came to England, and there was a columnist in the Daily Mirror who said he was gay, a guy called Cassandra - well, that was his pseudonym. And Liberace sued and won. And you know, he said, I'm not gay. And he won the libel case. When I was young and I watched "The Liberace Show" or any show that came from America that, you know, was musical, it was pure magic. The Americans did things on a bigger scale. Liberace, because he played the piano, I was very much interested in. It was - he was a good pianist, but he was not a great pianist. And I was enchanted by him, and I loved him. You know, his dialogue with the audience was very, very funny, especially when he did live shows.

And I did get to meet him. I did the "Royal Variety" show with him in London at The London Palladium. And I planned my two big outfits, and I thought, well, Liberace, I've got to do something special. So I had two fabulous Lurex suits made in red, white and blue. And they were hanging up, you know, very proudly in the dressing room. And then Lee - who he liked to be called, Liberace - Lee walked in with trunk after trunk. He wore that outfit with the lightbulbs in it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHN: And you know, so my attempt to, you know, go one up on Liberace failed absolutely miserably. But he was so charming and so lovely and very, very funny and very, very intelligent. And he was a huge influence on me. It was like, he was being who he was. He wasn't publicly out, but he didn't give a flying monkey's about what he was wearing; he just went for it. And that was who he was, and that, of course, influenced me when I started wearing the clothes.

And you know, it, subconsciously, must've - you know, if you're stuck at a piano and you're not a lead guitarist or lead vocalist, you're kind of at a nine-foot plank, and you have to do something about it. So my thing was to leap on the piano, do handstand and wear clothes that would attract attention to me because that's the focus for 2 1/2 hours or two hours. I'm not walking around the stage. I'm not moving. So he gave me that idea, probably subconsciously, because before then I'd never seen anyone dressed like that.

GROSS: You know, I was reading a 1973 Rolling Stone interview with you in which you said that your act is going to become a little more Liberace-ized (ph). And I thought, wow, in 1973, you were thinking about making your act more Liberace-ish (ph).

JOHN: Well, it was - all my stuff has been done with firmly tongue-in-cheek. You know, I wasn't a heartthrob - David Bowie or Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart in those days. You know, I was Elton at the piano. And I, you know - I just had to turn the attention on to something comedic or even more outrageous than it was. Of course, with those kind of things, as is my want in everything I do, I took it too far, and it - you know, it became - in the beginning, it was natural; I didn't think about it. It was like, oh, yeah, let's do this, let's do that. And then it became, like, oh, what am I going to do next? And that's the dangerous side. It's like, you think about it too much.

In the end, it became tired, and it became too much, and it became less fun. I think a lot of the critics of the costumes put people off me. They weren't listening to the music as more or less looking at what I was wearing. I was singing great songs, but I was also wearing, you know, a giant chicken outfit at the time.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHN: And being helped onstage by Mr. Universe, on his shoulders. So you know, anything like that, it was - you know, it was all down to me. It was my fault if anything - you know, if they didn't like what I was wearing, then I couldn't really do much about it. But...

GROSS: But this is such an...

JOHN: ...You know, I had to take responsibility for it.

GROSS: This is an interesting moment in your life because you have this new album, "The Diving Board," that's very stripped down, you know. It's basically, you know, piano, bass, drums and then some extra instruments on some tracks. But at the same time, you're playing at Caesars in Vegas with your million-dollar piano show, and that sounds like quite an extravaganza. I mean, you're - literally, have a million-dollar piano, which I'm going to ask you to describe.

JOHN: It lights up. You can show films on it. You can show video. It was a suggestion from Yamaha, who made my piano, said, you know, we're coming up with an idea for you. And you know, the first show I did in Las Vegas was a red piano; I had a red piano. And then we had to think, well, if we're going to go back, what can we do? And they came up with this idea before we ever thought of going back to Vegas. And I thought, well, if I go back to Vegas, this sounds like a great idea. You know, and it's - I introduce - the piano has a name. She's named Blossom, after Blossom Dearie.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, I love Blossom Dearie.

JOHN: I love Blossom Dearie, too. She was such a big influence on me...

GROSS: Really?

JOHN: Great, great pianist.

GROSS: I never would have guessed that. I never, ever would have guessed that.

JOHN: Yeah. People like her and Mose Allison, you know, they had (singing) that kind of little voice that sang like that.

Blossom Dearie was a big thing for me. She was just - you know, no one sounded like Blossom Dearie. She was incredible. So those people - you have to realize that English people were so - or British people were so attuned to those kind of musicians because we didn't have any of those kind of musicians in our country.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 2013 interview with Elton John. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "HONKY CAT")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with Elton John. His bio film "Rocket Man" opens in theaters this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You've described yourself as being shy when you were growing up. And you're certainly not shy onstage, not in how you dress, not in how you perform - not in anything. So what's the connection between the extravagance onstage (laughter) and the extroversion onstage and the shyness that described you as a boy, before you became a performer?

JOHN: Well, initially, I mean - I think performers are all show-offs, anyway, especially musicians. You have to - unless you show off, you're not going to get noticed. And you can stay there and just, you know, play, and you won't get noticed. But for me, music - it's so passionate. I have to give it my all every time I go onstage, and that comes from seeing performers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Elvis Presley. You know, you look at those performance, and they gave you the - Frank Sinatra, same thing. Great performers gave great performances, and that's the way I've always thought.

Onstage, it was always comfortable for me because that's where I felt at home. Offstage, it was a different situation; I was still shy offstage. And I've - fortunately, my shyness and my inability to communicate and really have great conversations or be part of the gang - in inverted commas - led me to the drug addiction, which, you know, blighted my life for 16 years. Because I thought by doing that, it would make me join in, and I did. And you know, cocaine made me talk forever. It - the most nonsensical rubbish that you could ever think of. But it - for me, I thought, well, that's going to open me up, and it did, and it led to 16 years of drug abuse, which, you know, I put to rights in 1990.

And I had no balance in my life, Terry. I was, you know, this one person onstage and this person offstage who really didn't know much about living. I'd progressed onstage as a performer, but I hadn't progressed as a human being. And I was - you know, fame makes you very self-absorbed. I was very, very famous all around the world because I was a global artist; I went all around the world, and that leads you into a little bubble, and it leads you to become very insular. I had people around me who were very controlling. So I didn't like confrontation, so I just delved into drug addiction and alcohol addiction.

And until I got sober in 1990, I really hadn't grown up at all. So when I did get sober, at that point, I had a lot of catching up to do with the personality onstage, with the real person offstage. And to attain the balance in my life, I had to learn to walk again, basically. I had to learn how to function as a human being, and I really enjoyed that process. I mean, when people go to rehab and come out, they go through a difficult period, a lot of people; I never had that. I was so glad to be rid of all that crap, that, for me, to learn again and to function as a human being and learn how to participate in the human race again was just pure joy.

And in 1993, I met my partner, David. In 1993, I did "The Lion King." So great things came my way. But I met someone who was willing to be in a relationship, but only if it was a 50-50 relationship. Before I had the relationship with David, you know, I tended to take hostages.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHN: Because they had to fit in with what I did. And I - you know, you take them around the world, you buy them Versace shirt and a Cartier watch, and then within six months, they hate your guts because they have no life. And I did that repeatedly, time and time again. I had to learn how to share, how to take part in a proper relationship. And since that, I've been 23 years now, clean and sober, and the most amazing things have happened to me. So it was just - it was a - the '90s were a great time. It was like I became alive again. I functioned, and it was terrific. And I haven't stopped since then, and I've never regretted getting sober.

And I would never - even though I don't take it, you know, lightly, I can tell you, I won't have a drink again, and I won't have a drug again because my life is so brilliant that, you know, I regret wasting those 16 years. But it was necessary to go through those 16 years to come out as the person I am now.

GROSS: You seem to be the kind of person who, when you do something, you go all the way. So, like, with clothing, it's going to be, you know, extravagant. You're not going to have like one pair of great glasses; you're going to have, like, probably hundreds. And you know, with drugs - you know, and with songs, like, you write so many songs, and you do so many performances. And with drugs, it was probably hard for you to just do it part-way (ph), and you went all the way with that.

JOHN: Oh, yeah. I could - (laughter) of course, it was. I mean, I can't have one tie, I can't have one car - I can't have one of anything. I'm just an addict in everything. And you know, I had the appendicitis happen to me this year, which was six weeks of having a burst appendix and doing 24 flights, nine shows and a summer ball at the house of AIDS (ph).

GROSS: I don't even understand how you survive that, a burst appendix and you're still touring.

JOHN: I don't know how, either. But it's - I should actually be dead because if my body hadn't have been such a good - had protection, and it stopped me getting Peritonitis, I would have been on a flight, and I wouldn't be here. And so that was another sign. You know, as soon as that happened, David and I said, I don't have to work 12 months a year. I'm the sort of person - and you nailed it just now by saying, if I had done 100 shows last year, I want to do 120 this year. Why? I don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHN: I'm afraid that's part of my Achilles heel, is the way I think like that. I'm so kind of driven that you think stop it, you know. And so we - David and I sat down after the appendix thing had happened and said, you know, I don't have to work. I don't have to - I'm going to maybe work six months a year and take my kids to school. But the work became, like the drug addiction, the clothes - anything in my life - it became - it's become an addiction; I'm addicted to working.

GROSS: Early in your career - this is the story the way I've read it - you know, that you auditioned for Liberty Records. They didn't like your singing well enough to sign you, but they thought, well, maybe you could write songs. And they gave you lyrics that were written by Bernie Taupin, which is how you got hooked up with him.

JOHN: Yeah. I was in a band. I didn't like playing in the band. I didn't like where we were musically. I was very shy. I was a little overweight. But I answered this advertisement. And I went to see the guy in the office. And he - I said, I can sing, and I can write songs. And I said, but I can't write lyrics. And he said, well, here's somebody who writes lyrics who's just - you know, he had a - piles of stuff on his desk - tapes, lyrics. But it was in a brown envelope, and I took it home. And that was Bernie.

And if I hadn't have had the courage or the leap of faith to make - answer that advertisement when I was very shy - it's just one of the most incredible things that's ever happened to me. It - that changed my life - that whole thing, that advertisement in the New Musical Express, the fact that I had the courage to do it. When I look back now, I can't really understand how I had the courage to do it, knowing how timid I was at that point and how, you know, I just - my self-esteem wasn't very good, but I - anything rather than playing to people eating food when I was playing.

So, you know, I took the leap of faith. It changed my life. Forty-six years on, I'm still writing songs with the guy. And it just - without that, I would probably still be working a record store or - well, there aren't any record stores now, so I'd probably be doing something else.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So would it have ever occurred to you to look for a lyricist to collaborate with?

JOHN: Because I knew I couldn't write lyrics. And people say, well, you're very verbose. You're very articulate. How come you can't write your own lyrics? Well, that is a very great disservice to people who write brilliant lyrics. Some people can actually write their own lyrics and their own songs. I can't. I realized at an early age or when I tried to write songs that I wasn't very good at it.

And you know, I enjoy the process of writing to his lyrics and the weird process of him giving me a lyric, me going to a studio and never writing with him in the same room. It's a magical event. He's a very - and always has been a very cinematic storyteller in his lyrics. There's a visual. So as soon as I look at the lyrics, visually, I can see what's going on.

And I don't know how it works, Terry. It's kind of a bit "Twilight Zone"-ish, to say the least. But it has worked. And it's as interesting now and as fun now as it was when I first wrote the first song to his lyric because that excitement of writing something and then seeing his reaction has never, ever dimmed. It's always been as exciting as it was in the first - when I wrote the very first song.

GROSS: Well, Elton John, I'm so grateful you were on our show. Thank you so much for doing it.

JOHN: Thank you. I've really enjoyed it.

GROSS: I really enjoyed it, too. And it occurs to me - should I have been calling you Sir Elton?

JOHN: No, no, no. No one calls me Sir, thank you.

GROSS: OK (laughter). I feel better already (laughter).

JOHN: No, don't worry about that, for God's sake.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

JOHN: No, I get called much worse things than that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Well, thank you so much, and be well.

JOHN: Well, thank you. And give my love to Philly, OK?

GROSS: Will do.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross talking with Elton John, recorded in 2013. The biopic "Rocketman" about the life and music of Elton John opens Friday. Elton's global final tour is scheduled to end in 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD")

JOHN: (Singing) When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land? I should have stayed on the farm. I should have listened to my old man. You know you can't hold me forever. I didn't sign up with you. I'm not a present for your friends to open. This boy's too young to be singing the blues. (Vocalizing). So goodbye, yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl. You can't plant me in your penthouse. I'm going back to my plough, back to the howling old owl in the woods, hunting the horny-back toad. Oh, I've finally decided by future lies beyond the yellow brick road.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews new records by two musicians who were part of the first wave of British punk rock in the 1970s - Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "HIGH T") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.