DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross. Our guest today is Elton John. He personally selected the tracks for a new eight-CD boxset spanning his career. It includes rarities, demos, B-sides and fan favorites. When Terry spoke with him last year, he had just published a new memoir titled "Me," which took stock of his life and career. He wrote about his childhood, becoming a musician, songwriter and performer, how he realized he was gay after he proposed to woman, how saying yes to a line of cocaine led to addiction - one of several addictions - the rehab program that enabled him to get sober, the health scare that nearly robbed him of his voice, and what it's like now to be married to his husband David and raise their two children. A recent biopic, "Rocket Man," was a fantasy version of Elton John's life. The book was Elton John's more realistic account.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Elton John, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the book. It's a pleasure to have you back on our show.
ELTON JOHN: Thank you, Terry. It's lovely to be back with you.
GROSS: So the book is a very candid description of your life. Before we get into some of the candid details that you write about in the book, you were in the band early in your career as the keyboard player in Long John Baldry's band. The band was called Bluesology.
You tell this really funny story at the beginning of the book where he had just had a big hit, so now he was famous. And, you know, young women were coming to the concert and kind of, like, really getting excited and screaming. And he says - on mic, he says - why don't you say what he said?
JOHN: Well, he said, if you - they were grabbing the microphone. He said, if you break my microphone, you'll pay me 50 pounds. And I'm going - oh, John, that's not the way to handle this situation.
GROSS: (Laughter) What did that teach you...
JOHN: Yeah, John...
GROSS: ...About stardom and how to handle it?
JOHN: Not how to handle it.
GROSS: Not how to handle that, yeah.
JOHN: Because I got to this point where, after often "Rocket Man" came out, which was my first really big hit - about two years into my career, after "Your Song" - I got screaming girls at some of my shows. And I just thought that was rather funny because I wasn't David Bowie and I wasn't Rod Stewart and I wasn't Marc Bolan and I wasn't Mick Jagger.
But I was at the piano, and I got screaming girls. But I thought, I'm not going to - luckily, they couldn't reach my microphone 'cause I was playing the piano. But you accepted it, and you loved it. And you just went along with it. I think John didn't know how to cope with it. He just really didn't know how to cope. For all his life, he'd been playing in clubs playing the blues, and suddenly, young girls were screaming at him. And I just think, you know, he just never knew how to handle that.
GROSS: Of course, also with you, when you had young girls screaming at you and everything, like, you were gay. They didn't know that (laughter).
JOHN: No (laughter). Well, he was gay, too.
GROSS: Oh - and he was gay, too. Exactly, exactly.
JOHN: Yeah, yeah (laughter).
GROSS: That's right. That's right. So what was it like for you - knowing you were gay, knowing they didn't realize you were gay and they were probably having all these, like, sexual fantasies about you?
JOHN: Well, I didn't worry about it. (Laughter). It's like, well, I'm not interested. And you're not - you're interested, but I'm not.
JOHN: But it was very sweet. And they were very - I've still got a lot of - most of my audience is a lot of women, as well - a lot of girls and a lot of females. And I'm very grateful for that. But I just kind of think that once they did find out, I think a lot of girls still, you know, wanted to mother me and, you know - we can make you straight; we love you; we love you. And it's very touching.
GROSS: (Laughter). Well, speaking of you and John Baldry being gay - when you decided you were going to marry a woman when you were in your early 20s, he said to you - John, you're gay; you can't marry her. And...
GROSS: ...What was your reaction? Because I don't think you had acknowledged that to yourself yet.
JOHN: I hadn't. And I just thought, oh, my God. I remember where it was at the club. It was in Carnaby Street. And that's when Bernie and I came home that night, and we were so drunk. And I told Linda, the girl I was going to marry, that I wasn't going to marry her anymore because I'd never had a sexual experience. I didn't know anything about sex. I'd never had a sexual experience at all. I didn't have sex until I was 23, which was portrayed in "Rocket Man." That was the first time. I didn't know anything about it. I presumed that you had to marry a girl because that was the way things were done.
But I did - I didn't have sexual feelings for Bernie. I just had great love for Bernie. And I wanted to cuddle him, and I wanted to give him a hug. I didn't want to go to bed with him, but I did love him more than I did love Linda. And I - and then when he said that, I suddenly start thinking - oh - 'cause I had no one in my family who was gay. I had no yardstick to measure my gayness on except I'd worked for Long John Baldry for so long. And he was so - when I look back now, he was so outrageous. And I didn't know any - didn't think he was gay. I didn't know about any - I didn't know about it. I was so naive. So that night
- thank God the epiphany came that night, and I went home and, you know, dodged a bullet, as it were. But I still didn't have sex for a couple of years - two or three years later.
GROSS: It's remarkable that you could be, like, a rock musician and remain a virgin until you were 23 (laughter). You might be the only (laughter) - the only person.
JOHN: Well, you know, a lot of rock musicians go into rock music to pull girls. You know, they go - that's one of the big attractions. Well, we can play onstage, and we can flirt with the girls. And then we can go backstage, and then we can have them. We can take them home, and we can have sex with them.
That was never my motive. I was - just wanted to play music. I wasn't - sex wasn't anything I was thinking about. I was just wanting to play music. I was so obsessed with music, nothing entered my head apart from that.
GROSS: You said you wanted to play music. But on the other hand, you write that, you know, early on, like when you were a sideman with John Baldry, that you thought what you really wanted to do was write songs. And...
JOHN: Well, I...
GROSS: ...You had auditioned for Liberty Records. And they told you you were not ever going to be a pop star, you weren't pop star material. So did you think, like, you really weren't cut out to be a - like, maybe they were right - that you weren't cut out to be a performer, that your job should be behind the scenes or as a sideman?
JOHN: Well, I was getting fed up with Long John Baldry playing to cabaret people who were eating chicken and chips and not caring about the music. And I thought, I didn't become a musician for this. Maybe - I'd written a couple of songs for Bluesology that were recorded. And the lyrics were awful, but I wrote the melody.
And I - this audition for Liberty Records was just - I thought, maybe I can be a songwriter. I had no intentions of being Elton John superstar or whatever. I just thought maybe I can write music. I went to the audition. I said, I do sing, but I don't sing much. But I can write songs, but I'm a terrible lyricist. And hence, he gave me the envelope, which was, you know - it could have been any envelope. And it was Bernie's lyrics, which I read on the train going home.
I didn't have any ambitions at that time to become someone who made their own records and became a star. I just thought, well, maybe if I leave the band, I can become a songwriter. And that would be fun, and I'm still in the music business.
So it was just part of the process of this serendipity that happened to me - that if I hadn't have gone to that meeting, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now. And then you look back and think, how did I have the courage to go to that meeting when I was chubby, I had no self-esteem, I was shy? But anything was better than playing to people who were eating chicken and chips while you were playing.
GROSS: You said you had no self-esteem or low self-esteem. Were the costumes that you - like, the crazy clothing that you wore - the big glasses, all that - was that in part armor to cover up your low self-esteem, like, something to call it...
JOHN: ...It was because in my teenage years, I wasn't allowed to wear anything fashionable at all - no pointy-toed shoes, no chisel-toed shoes, no fashionable coats. So when I actually left home and started - you know, I think that was the leak (ph), leaving home and beginning to earn my own wage and keeping myself and supporting myself. But I decided to live my teenage years in my 20s. And, you know, I made up for lost time pretty quickly. And I just - I went hell for leather for it. And I just had such a great time because I was cocooned in boring clothes.
GROSS: It sounds like a lot of your childhood years weren't great. Your parents bickered all the time. Your mother remarried. And you liked your stepfather, but they bickered all the time. They got married when she was 16 and he was 17. You wonder if they were ever - if they ever should have been together in the first place. And your mother sounds like she was a very moody and frequently angry person who could hold a grudge. And you even describe how when you - you don't remember this, but I think it was an aunt who told you that when your mother was toilet training you, she would beat you with a hairbrush until you were bloody. And she'd beat you until you used the potty. So is that - was that kind of typical of what your childhood was like?
JOHN: Well, that was my mother who did that. My father and my mother should never have gotten married. They got married very quickly after the war, which a lot of people did. They were totally unsuited to each other. My dad was in the air force and was away a lot. My mom worked very, very hard in shops and also later in life at the Royal Air Force as well. And I was the product of - I don't know how many times they must have had sex. I don't think they had sex very often. But I was the product of their marriage.
The '50s was an incredibly tough time to grow up in. It was after the war. It was very conservative. So if you were in a marriage and you wanted to get out of it, it was very tough to get out of it because divorce was frowned on socially. I can remember my Uncle Red (ph) coming when my parents were thinking of getting divorced, saying you can't get divorced. What would the next-door neighbors say? That was what it was like.
I knew nothing about sex. Nothing. I was seen and not heard. Children were seen and not heard. I loved - I had a wonderful upbringing with my grandmother. And my mother could be so much fun, but she was mercurial. And they were like oil and water, the two of them. The nice thing about it is that they got - when they did get divorced and my mother found Fred and my dad found Edna is that they found the love of their lives. That I'm very happy about.
But the bit in between was hard to take because I dreaded my dad coming home because it would be a row immediately. And then I would retreat to my room, you know, look at my books, look at my records, look at my toys. And funnily enough, I mean, I just - I found love of inanimate objects because inanimate objects, which I kept in pristine condition, couldn't harm me or talk back to me. So I always loved collecting things.
GROSS: What did you collect as a kid?
JOHN: Books, records, you know, toys, Dinky Toys, but mostly records and books which, you know, I never lent out to anybody because I - they're in - I still have my books.
GROSS: Well, you became an obsessive shopper later in life. And you collected everything.
JOHN: Yeah. I'm an addict. It was the instigation of being an addict. But it was because I felt safe with the objects and not with my parents. And so - and it gave me a determination, you know, with my dad not wanting me to be anything to do with rock 'n' roll when Elvis Presley came in, that I would be - I would be determined to prove to him that my mother who took my side and said yeah, you should do what he does and let him do the music because he loves it - and was very supportive. My dad, of course, hated it. And I've been trying to prove to my dad that it's been OK ever since. So it gave me the determination to make something of myself. And it's just prolonged in my life. He's been dead for over 30 years, and I'm still kind of doing that. It's like, well, dad, I hope you're proud now. And it's crazy.
GROSS: He was an amateur trumpet player, wasn't he?
JOHN: He was a trumpet player in a band, yeah. But he...
GROSS: Yeah. So why was he so set - I realize he didn't like rock 'n' roll. But still, he must have appreciated that you were such a talented musician. And you were studying classical music, too, at a conservatory.
JOHN: I know. He just considered - there was an expression then called wide boy, which meant crook. He said if I became a - Elton is - my mother read the letter to me. It's in a thing called (unintelligible). Elton would become a wide boy if he carried rock 'n' roll. There's no future. He wanted a solid future for me in a bank or in the air force or doing a proper job. You know, it was all down - you grew up in the '50s, you knew what it was like. It was - when Elvis came, it was a revolution. It was a social revolution. And people were horrified. And people who - in England were horrified who had, you know, conservative opinions of what was good and what was bad, that if I became a rock 'n' roller, my life would fall apart. To a certain extent, he was right (laughter).
GROSS: You could say that (laughter) but it also...
GROSS: Let's face it, you've had an amazing life. He must have been so proud once you became famous and hopefully a little embarrassed that he tried so hard to discourage you from doing what you do.
JOHN: No, not really. He never came to my shows. He never wrote a letter saying well done.
GROSS: He didn't even try to capitalize on your fame, like, that's my son?
JOHN: No. No. No. He had four other sons that he had with his - married to Edna. He was a tactile father to them and loving. He just, you know, I've done so much therapy and rehab. And I just looked back on it and saying this was an unfortunate meeting of two people who should never have met each other.
GROSS: Just curious, how much do you think of that is like the music, that it was rock 'n' roll? And do you think any of that estrangement was because you were gay?
JOHN: I think he was a musical snob, yeah.
JOHN: I mean, I grew up - I'm so grateful - I mean, I always had music in the house, Terry. I grew up with, you know, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, George Shearing.
GROSS: This is great music.
JOHN: All great music. I mean, all from America, obviously, but great music. When I was, like, 9 years old, I think I got "Songs For Swingin' Lovers" as my Christmas present by Frank Sinatra. And I loved George Shearing. He was a jazz player who - pianist who was blind who came from Pinner, where I came from. When I first became successful in the early '70s, I went to New York, and I phoned him. And I said, thank you. I grew up with your music. And it was fantastic. And I was only 6 or 7 years old when I heard your music, but I loved it. And it made me want to play the piano like you, although I couldn't play as well as you. But I was very grateful to the music I had. But when Elvis Presley came knocking on the door and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, who started jumping on the piano, then that was what I wanted to do.
GROSS: And that's kind of what you did. OK. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. He has a new memoir called "Me." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "SIXTY YEARS ON")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. He has a new memoir called "Me."
It seems to me in London that there was a kind of community of gay musicians who weren't necessarily out to the public, to their listeners, but that people in the music world knew. And that it, you know - that the - it wasn't as bad a closet as some closets were because there was this community of people. And so - like you and John Baldry and later Freddie Mercury. And, I mean, there's, you know, David Bowie being gender fluid. And - but did you feel like there was a community there where there - that was a kind of safe place?
JOHN: Well, there was a gay community that I got introduced to. My manager, John Reid, was gay, and he was the head of Tamla Motown records in England. And I met...
GROSS: And he was your first boyfriend, too.
JOHN: Yeah. And Tony King was the - like, the first real big gay influence who's in the book a lot who's my best friend and still works for me. And he was the most exotic creature I'd ever met when I first met him. He had beads on and feather boas. And I went, oh, wow. What's that? I want to be like he is. There was a gay community in London. But it still wasn't - people weren't out.
But when I moved in with gay - with John Reid, Tony King said, you might as well hang a flag out the window and say you're gay right now, because John was, you know, a big fixture on the London gay scene. And I had no qualms once I - you know, I - once I'd done the dirty deed in San Francisco with John Reid, of course that set the floodgates open. And I was - I enjoyed the sex, and I knew - it was a relief to find out that it wasn't - I was going to die. And it was great, and it was fun. And it wasn't sordid. And it was lovely. Everything I was told about sex before was horrible.
So, you know, from that point on, I flourished as a sexual human being. But there still wasn't - I mean, in the '60s in England, you know, you could still go to jail for being gay. People - we used to go to North Africa. People who could afford it used to go to North Africa and have sex, like Joe Orton and people like that, from comedians like Kenneth Williams. They all went to North Africa because, you know, the only sort of gay clubs were available - there weren't any gay - people went to public toilets. And people like Sir John Gielgud were arrested in public toilets for having sex. There were nowhere for gay people to go except maybe a few little clubs upstairs in Soho.
So it was the beginning of a gay scene in the early 1970s. There was a club called Yours and Mine (ph), which David Bowie took me to. And I'd never been to a gay club in England before, and that was fun. But I never had a - you know, I never lived a lie about being gay. John and I were living together in an apartment. Then we lived together in a house. We went to Los Angeles and played the Troubadour club. We went to a gay club on Santa Monica Boulevard. There was a little gay community.
But English people, English entertainers, have always been very flamboyant. And I think it's because of the music hall tradition that we have in England. And so we've always dressed up. And so there's always been that - you know, Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan, David, Rod Stewart, you know, and Freddie Mercury later. It's just a tradition. And, you know, I don't think people cared. And also, we had radio programs that were very, very funny with blatantly gay humor in it. And so England had a very - sense of the gay. But I'm - and also, I'm quite a blokey gay guy. I'm - you know, I like sport. I like football. I like things like - so - but I had no qualms about being gay. And I was just - it was just a relief to know what I was.
GROSS: So it's interesting that you and Freddie Mercury were friends, and there have been biopics about both of you in the past year. Tell us a little bit about what the friendship was like and what he was like offstage.
JOHN: Well, I met Freddie because John Reid, my manager, managed Queen. And Freddie was one of the most exotic people I've ever met in my life. He was a Parsi. He - you know, he came from Madagascar and had a huge mixture of different blood. And he was exotic. And he was funny. He was brilliant. He was incredibly creative. He was innovative. And he had the best sense of humor. And one of the best - if you're a friend of mine, you have to have a great sense of humor.
And we used to hang out a lot together at clubs in London and Monkbury's (ph), which was a nightclub, not a gay club but a nightclub. And because John managed him, we used to see a lot of each other. And he just made me laugh. And, you know, he was - I love creative people like that. I like people who have a sense of humor about themselves, and Freddie did. And so it was just always a joy to hang out with him. There was never a dull moment with Freddie.
BIANCULLI: Elton John speaking with Terry Gross last year. A new eight-CD box set spans his career and is titled "Elton: Jewel Box." After a short break, they'll talk about his addictions to alcohol and cocaine and how he got sober, which he wrote about in his 2019 memoir. And Justin Chang reviews "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," streaming on Netflix. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY CAT")
JOHN: (Singing) When I look back, boy I must have been green. Bopping in the country, fishing in a stream. Looking for an answer, trying to find a sign. Until I saw your city lights, honey, I was blind. They said, get back, honky cat. Better get back to the woods...
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with Elton John. He has a new handpicked eight-CD collection from his career titled "Elton: Jewel Box." When Terry spoke with him, he had just published his memoir. It was, in part, about how his addictions to alcohol and cocaine affected his personal and professional life and how he got sober.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: How were you introduced to cocaine?
JOHN: I was in a recording studio in Colorado, Caribou Ranch, and I saw my manager John Reid sniffing something. Now, I was very naive up to that point. I didn't even know what marijuana was. I didn't know my band smoked marijuana. I'd never smoked marijuana. And I don't know what made me say it. I said, what is that? And he was - said - he was quite embarrassed. He said, it's cocaine. I said, what does it do? He said, it makes you feel good. And I said, oh, I'll have a go. Why I said that, I don't know.
Anyway, I had a line of cocaine, which I threw up immediately afterwards because it made me feel nauseous and sick, and it was horrible. And then I - after I threw up, I said, can I have another one? Now, why on Earth would anyone who was sane, who was compos mentis, would want another line of cocaine after it made you throw up? But I did.
And it made - the thing with cocaine, it's very speedy. So it made me talk. And I was quite a shy person. So I thought, oh, this is the drug that can open me up and make me feel relaxed and be able to talk to people. And, of course, it was fool's gold. That was the start of a love-hate relationship with it for 16 years, basically.
GROSS: Did you think that it would make you more creative in your music, either in writing or performing?
JOHN: No, but it was an aphrodisiac for me. But on the other hand (laughter), it's the aphrodisiac that couldn't perform. So, you know, this was the drug that made me feel horny, but I couldn't do anything about it (laughter).
GROSS: Is that why you describe yourself as having become something of a voyeur?
GROSS: Kind of setting up scenes and watching?
JOHN: Yeah, I became the Federico Fellini of sex scenes.
JOHN: I - yes, I would - I liked to watch. And...
GROSS: Yeah. And you say that in the book, so - yeah.
JOHN: Yeah. And I think that's probably why I didn't get HIV, and I didn't get AIDS in the 1980s because I didn't participate as much as watch.
GROSS: Oh, that's really interesting. So in some ways, it saved your life.
JOHN: It did. Cocaine nearly killed me, but it saved me as well because I liked to watch. And it fulfilled my fantasies, so I didn't really participate in much sex.
GROSS: And that was before you even knew about HIV?
JOHN: Yeah. And then, of course, it happened so quickly, the terror of it all. And then, you know, there are The New York Times stories and people - John Reid's personal assistant, Neil Carter, died of AIDS very quickly. People started - that I knew started dying. And it was terrifying.
GROSS: Did you ever fear that cocaine and alcohol were turning you into, like, the stereotype of the spoiled, entitled rock star?
JOHN: Yes, of course, and that's what made it even worse. I mean, when Ryan White was in Indianapolis dying for that week, which I was there for, I came home to...
GROSS: And just to refresh people's memories, Ryan White was a boy who had hemophilia and got AIDS through a blood transfusion.
GROSS: And you became aware of him.
JOHN: And I befriended the family, yeah.
GROSS: You know he was a fan.
GROSS: Yeah. And you befriended the family.
JOHN: I knew the family. And for the last week of his life, along with a lot of other people who were friends of the family, I was there in Indianapolis at the hospital kind of being Jeanne White's - his mother - secretary. But I used to come home to the hotel - and, you know, the thing about drugs is I always - wouldn't ask for help because I knew I had a problem, and I knew my behavior was reprehensible.
And I came home to the hotel in Indianapolis, and I would be so ashamed that these people who had been through hell, including Ryan himself, who never complained about it, his family who'd been treated - ostracized by people in their community, forgave the people. I mean, the forgiveness and the Christianity involved in their actions - no hatred, no - it was unbelievable.
And I came home and I think, I complain here about I don't like the wallpaper. I don't like the furniture. I'm asking, what kind of person have I become? I've become the most despicable, horrible person. I complain about everything in my life. I'm so blessed in my life. These people have lost their son, are losing their son, who has never complained about being the most unfortunate man in the world by contracting HIV through a blood transfusion. And here am I, looking at everything and complaining about it. And I said, I really despise myself. And six months after Ryan died, I was sober.
GROSS: You wanted to go into rehab and found that a lot of the rehab clinics wouldn't take you because they handled people with single addictions, and you had several. You had a food addiction, a cocaine addiction, an alcohol addiction.
GROSS: And so the place that you did go to is, like, a general hospital in Chicago with, you know, no fancy amenities.
GROSS: It wasn't, like, a rehab for celebrities or anything. And it sounds like that was pretty humbling for you but very productive.
JOHN: It was exactly what I needed. There were no celebrity rehabs then. There were no rehabs with televisions and things like that. I'm totally against those kind of things. I was at boot camp. I got up at 6 o'clock in the morning. I shared a room. I had to make my bed. I had to work a washing machine, which I didn't know how to do. And I worked really, really hard. I went in kicking and screaming, ready to get well, but also, you know, I had a problem with authoritarianism. And I, at one point, left and sat on the steps outside the hospital with my suitcase crying, thinking, what are you doing? You're going - where are you going to run to now and behave like this yet again?
So I went back, and I ate humble pie. You have to have humility to get sober. And I - you know, I needed humility. And I listened, and I listened, and I listened. And I've - gradually, it dawned on me. And I really enjoyed my point in - time in rehab because I thought I was the only person that took drugs and did what I did. And of course, listening to people in group therapy saying, I did this, and I think, oh, you did? How fabulous. Then I'm not the only person that did this. So I didn't feel alone anymore.
GROSS: You almost left rehab because - well, one of the reasons why, anyway, was when it got to talk of a higher power, when it got to, as you describe it, the God talk, you felt like that is just, like, not for me.
GROSS: And you really thought seriously about leaving. So I'd like to know what upset you so much about the God talk and if you were able to find a way into that talk and kind - to turn it toward who you were.
JOHN: Well, the God thing, I just - I was angry at - God, for me, represented, you know, a punishment. You know, God will punish you for doing this; God will punish you for doing that. I hated the word God. And I was - you know, I really resented the word God. And then someone said to me, listen; do you believe in something greater than yourself? And I said, of course I do. I - you know, there's been so many things in my life that have happened by chance or just, you know, decisions I've made that have been prompted by something inside of my soul. Of course, I only have to look up in the sky to believe in something greater than myself, or I'll go walk in the field or look at a mountain. And they said, well, then that's it. Use it. That's how - say higher power instead of God. And I went, I can do that. I can do that. It doesn't have to be the punishing God that I, you know, learned in Sunday school. It can be a higher power that, you know, sends me messages. And I accepted that, and I came to terms with that, and that was really very important for me.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk a little bit more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. He has a new memoir called "Me." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "HONKY CAT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Elton John. He has a new memoir called "Me."
I was just thinking about the disconnect - I'm thinking about the disconnect between being on stage and having, like, thousands of people, like, screaming for you, just stadium - tens of thousands of people screaming for you and then being offstage and having to contend with your own problems, your - the things that you don't know how to do, your own insecurities and your own failings and your own, you know, extremes and everything. It seems like that must be really hard to connect, like, the famous person who's so beloved and wonderful on stage with the flawed person who's off-stage.
JOHN: And that's why you escape into drugs or alcohol and you just block it out. You block it out until the problem of the thing you're facing becomes such a monumental thing that you explode with rage, and that's the way I handled confrontation. I just blocked it out. I didn't deal with it until I had to deal with it. And then it was a very, very uncomfortable and painful procedure all the time, and I kept doing it time and time again.
So yeah, it was - I hated my addiction. I hated the way I behaved. I hated how I treated people. I hated what I'd become. But I'm grateful that I had it because then I learned how to become who I am now, and I'm proud of who I am now. I like who I am. And I - you know, I basically said I'm 29 years old because I started to be a good person or start to try and be a good person or to behave properly when I was 43.
And I know I was always a nice, kind person, but, you know, drugs bring out the darkness in you. The recovery - it wasn't when I was on drugs that was horrible. It was when I was off drugs - you know, the comedown from it. Alcohol is a major depressant, and I was drinking a bottle of Johnnie Scotch Black - Johnnie Walker Scotch - Johnnie Walker Black Scotch every day neat. And so no wonder I was angry. No wonder I was - you know, alcohol is a huge depressant.
GROSS: How could you write songs that way?
JOHN: I don't know. The only thing that was a constant, Terry, was that throughout all of this, I still wrote songs because I - music was - again, saved my life. I love touring. I love writing the songs. I love recording, and sometimes not in the best circumstances and not in the fitness I should have been in or the right state of mind, but it saved my life. If I'd had been the drug addict that it was and I just become a recluse and done nothing for 10 years, I wouldn't be here. I'd be - I'd have OD'ed.
But because I loved - and I didn't take drugs constantly all the time. Then I'd be stopped for nine months. But whenever you go back to something you love, like cocaine, it gets worse every time you relapse and you take more. So, you know, the fact that I loved the music, that also helped save my life by touring, making the records. I just still loved the music, so it would remind me of how great my life was without the drugs. And I said, I will get well. I will get well. And then, you know, the madness of it all is while I was thinking that, I'd be taking yet another line of cocaine. I will get well. Here's another line. I would have seizures in the middle of the night.
JOHN: I would have seizures, and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed. Twenty minutes later, I'd be up doing cocaine again. I was blue from seizures. And they'd put me into bed and say, we got to call the doctor. I said, no. I'll be fine. When they got out the door, I got the cocaine out again. I started doing it again. These seizures were horrible. They were really distressing. And that's how mad and how dangerous my addiction was. And I look back at it with sheer horror and...
GROSS: Well, thank goodness you've been sober all these years.
JOHN: I have 29 years now. It's been wonderful.
GROSS: It's a long time.
JOHN: And I've learned so much.
GROSS: So you're married. You have two children now. How long ago did you know you wanted to be a father? Because I'm thinking having the parents that you had wasn't the greatest role model sometimes.
GROSS: Like, if you don't have great parents, it doesn't speak well for the nuclear family, and you might not want one.
JOHN: I never wanted to be a father. I never wanted to have children until I went to the Ukraine on a visit for the Elton John AIDS Foundation with David to an orphanage in Ukraine. And a young boy there who was 18 months old called Lev levitated towards me, literally. He just jumped into my arms, and I carried him around for an hour and a half at the orphanage. He would not leave my side. He had a brother there called Artemis (ph), who was HIV-positive. And we stayed in the orphanage, and we were giving money to the orphanage and supporting them. And then I did a press conference, and - after we'd done everything that we had to do, and one of the questions was, this little boy seems to be - who was now sitting on David's lap while I'm answering the question - this little boy seems to have been attracted to you. Would you ever think of adopting him? And I went, you know what? I've never, ever thought of adopting anybody, really, and this kid has stolen my heart. I would love to adopt him.
Well, in the Ukraine, I was too old to adopt him. I was gay, and that was another strike against me. I was too old. The Ukrainian laws was, you know, post - ex-Soviet laws, which were so, you know, anti-gay and everything like that, but we tried. We - you know, even the adoption laws in Britain aren't - weren't great, and we tried for about a year and a half to adopt this boy and his brother. And at the end of the day, it became a national press thing where the press would go out and go to the - you know, find out who his mother was and his father was.
And it became a farce. And David and I sat down and said, listen; the thing has become more important now to get these boys out of the - we can't adopt them, but we have to get them out because after a certain time, if you don't have tactile love, you know, it leaves a scar on you. I said, we got to get these boys out. They had a grandmother. We got them out to the grandmother in Donetsk, where they came from, and we surreptitiously looked after them.
David then said to me, well, what do you think this boy was telling you? And I said, you know, my higher power - or God, whatever you want to call it - was telling me that it's not - he was telling me, yeah, you can be a dad. You would love - you'd be a good dad. And I said, I'd never thought that before, so David said, what do you want to do? And I said, well, you know, it's going to be hard to adopt. Let's have our own kids through a surrogate. So David did all the investigation, all the hard work, and we found a surrogate. We found an egg donor. And to cut a long story short, we had two children in two years from the same surrogate and the same egg donor, Zachary and Elijah.
And again, serendipity plays a big part. If I hadn't gone to that orphanage, I would not have had children. And so that boy was telling me something. It was a messenger from the angels or whatever, and I truly believe that. And last year was wonderful because we got to meet them again and their grandmother, and it was so touching. We were in Kiev, and they walked in, and Lev came straight up to me, burst into tears. I burst into tears. It was the greatest thing in the world. And they're just wonderful boys, and they're doing - they're flourishing. Their grandmother's doing a wonderful job. We surreptitiously look after them still. We care about them, and - but it's a wonderful story because...
GROSS: That's great.
JOHN: ...Those boys made me a father.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been such a pleasure to talk with you.
JOHN: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Thank you.
JOHN: It's been lovely to talk with you. Thanks.
BIANCULLI: Elton John speaking with Terry Gross last year. The new eight-CD boxset, "Elton: Jewel Box," collects rarities, demos, B-sides and fan favorites from his career.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR SONG")
JOHN: (Singing) It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside. 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 both live. If I was a sculptor - ha, 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 this is your song. It may be quite simple, but now that it's done I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind that I put down in the words how wonderful life is while you're in the world.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer in August at the age of 43, not long after he finished shooting the movie "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Now streaming on Netflix, the movie stars Viola Davis as the famous blues singer Ma Rainey and was adapted from August Wilson's play. Our film critic Justin Chang says that Boseman's final screen performance ranks among his very best.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: One reason Chadwick Boseman was such an extraordinary actor was his ability to command the screen without hogging the spotlight. His presence was so quietly magnetic that even when he played real-life heroes like Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall or fictional ones like King T'Challa in "Black Panther," he still seemed like the most self-effacing of movie stars. But Boseman could also go big, like when he took on James Brown in the musical biopic "Get On Up" and gave his most electrifying performance until now.
It's devastating that "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is the last new Boseman movie we'll ever see. This excellent adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play from the director George C. Wolfe and the screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson is both a precious parting gift and a punch in the gut. Even more than in "Get On Up," Boseman holds nothing back. He empties himself out on screen. He plays Levee, a gifted and ambitious trumpet player struggling to forge his way in a white man's world, or in this case, a white man's recording studio, where most of the movie takes place.
It's a sweltering hot day in 1927 Chicago, and the pioneering Southern blues singer Ma Rainey, played by a superb Viola Davis, is planning to record some of her most popular songs. Ma's name may be in the play's title, but she isn't the main narrative focus here. Much of the story unfolds while the four musicians in her band are waiting for her to show up at the studio. During their rehearsal session, Cutler, the guitar and trombone player played by Colman Domingo, wants to stick with their usual arrangement for a particular song. But Levee wants to use a new, edgier version that he composed. It doesn't take long for the arguments to start and the egos to emerge.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")
CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Levee) What is you? I don't see your name in lights.
COLMAN DOMINGO: (As Cutler) Oh, I just play the piece, whatever they want. I don't criticize other people's music.
BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I ain't like you, Cut (ph). I got talent.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Oh.
BOSEMAN: (As Levee) Me and this horn, we is tight. If my daddy had a note I was going to turn out like this, he would have named me Gabriel.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Oh.
BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I'm going to get me a band and make me some records. I gave Mr. Sturdyvant some of my songs I wrote, and he say he's going to let me record them when I get my band together. I just got to finish the last part of this song. I got style.
GLYNN TURMAN: (As Toledo) Oh, everybody got style. Style ain't nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end. Everybody got it.
BOSEMAN: (As Levee) Everybody can't play like I do.
CHANG: For all his outward swagger, Boseman later lays bare the anguish beneath Levee's self-assured grin. In a spellbinding monologue about his Southern childhood, he reveals the acts of violence that were committed against his family by a gang of white men. He's witnessed unspeakable horrors and fought hard for his shot at success. And he's not about to let anyone stand in his way, not even Ma Rainey herself, when she finally shows up at the studio.
Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for her work in another Wilson adaptation, "Fences," is magnificent here in the kind of full-throated diva showcase she's rarely taken on. Becoming Ma Rainey required quite the transformation. Davis wears a padded rubber suit and sports a mouthful of gold teeth, and her vocals are supplied by the singer Maxayn Lewis. But the performance never feels needlessly flashy, and Davis's best moments are the ones in which she shows us Ma Rainey's anxious, calculating side.
When she stops the recording session because no one's brought her the bottle of Coke she always insists on before singing, she isn't just causing a fuss. She knows exactly what she's worth and how much power she commands in a predominantly white male industry. And she's determined to push herself right up to that line without crossing it.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is one of 10 plays in August Wilson's epic Pittsburgh Cycle and the only one that isn't actually set in Pittsburgh. Wilson's insights into the complexities of 20th century African American experience cemented his reputation as one of this country's greatest dramatists. Notably, the filmmakers haven't opened up the material in the manner of so many stage-to-screen adaptations. If anything, they've ruthlessly tightened the play and pared it down to essentials. Wolfe directs at a furious clip. The sets are spare, even drab, which has the effect of focusing your concentration on the performances. And while Bozeman and Davis are the stars of the show, every actor gets a chance to shine, including Michael Potts as the bass player Slow Drag and Glynn Turman, reprising his role as the pianist Toledo from a 2016 revival.
At the heart of the play is the bond between Levee, a fictional creation, and Ma Rainey, a real-life figure. The two are antagonistic by nature. Levee keeps trying to put his own stamp on Ma's music, and he makes the mistake of trying to seduce her young girlfriend, played by Taylour Paige. But Levee and Ma are also kindred spirits. They're both trying to make authentic, commercially viable art within a system bent on exploiting their talents. But Levee doesn't have Ma Rainey's experience or her knack for self-preservation, and the weight of his past trauma ultimately proves too much to overcome. The climax is haunting beyond words. We're seeing a man peering into an abyss played by an actor who knew his own life was slipping away. Chadwick Boseman's last moments on the screen are among his darkest and also his finest.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, is now streaming on Netflix. On Monday's show, Michael J. Fox talks about his new memoir, "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality." It's about his recent life and how it's been affected by Parkinson's disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1991 at the age of 29. At the time, he was famous for the hit sitcom "Family Ties" and the international movie blockbuster "Back To The Future." I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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