elton john and fame -- 5/6/22

Today's selection -- from Me by Elton John. In 1970, with the release of the album Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John's fame began to bring him unease:

"Not long after we moved into the Water Gardens, I was back in America for another tour. It's a huge country and most of it couldn't care less if the LA Times has called you the future of rock and roll. You have to get out there and show people what you can do. Besides, we had a new album to promote -- Tumbleweed Connection was already finished: recorded in March 1970 and released in the UK in the October. That's just how it was then. You didn't take three years to make an album. You recorded quick, you got it out fast, you kept the momentum going, kept things fresh. It suited the way I worked. I hate wasting time in the studio. I suppose it's a legacy from my days as a session musician, or recording demos in the middle of the night at DJM: you were always working against the clock.

"So we criss-crossed the States, usually playing as a support act, for Leon Russell, The Byrds, Paco, The Kinks and Eric Clapton's new band Derek And The Dominoes. That was the idea of my booking agent, Howard Rose, and a really clever move: don't play top of the bill, play second, make people want to come back and see you again in your own right. Every artist we supported was incredibly kind and generous to us, but it was hard work. Each night, we'd go onstage with the intention of stealing the show. We'd go down great, and come off thinking we'd blown the headliners offstage, and every night, the headliners would come out and play better than us. People talk about Derek And The Dominoes being a real disaster area, strung out on heroin and booze, but you would never have known that if you'd seen them live that autumn. They were phenomenal. From the side of the stage, I took mental notes about their performance. Eric Clapton was the star, but it was their keyboard player, Bobby Whitlock, that I watched like a hawk. He was from Memphis, learned his craft hanging around Stax Studios and played with that soulful, Deep Southern gospel feel. Touring with them or Leon was like being on the road with Patti LaBelle or Major Lance when I was in Bluesology: you watched and you learned, from people who had more experience than you.

"If we still had a long way to go, it was clear on that tour that the word was spreading. In LA, we had dinner with Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night and he casually mentioned that Brian Wilson wanted to meet us. Really? I had idolized The Beach Boys in the sixties, but their career had tailed off, and Brian Wilson had turned into this mysterious, mythic figure -- according to some lurid gossip he was supposed to have become a recluse, or gone insane, or both. Oh no, Danny assured us, he's a huge fan, he'd love you to visit.

"So we drove up to his house in Bel Air, a Spanish-style mansion with an intercom at the gate. Danny buzzed it and announced he was here with Elton John. There was a deathly silence at the other end. Then there was a voice, unmistakably that of The Beach Boys' mastermind, singing the chorus of 'Your Song': 'I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind'. As we approached the front door, it opened to reveal Brian Wilson himself. He looked fine -- a little chubbier than on the cover of Pet Sounds, perhaps, but nothing like the reclusive weirdo people gossiped about. We said hello. He stared at us and nodded. Then he sang the chorus of 'Your Song' again. He said we should come upstairs and meet his kids. It turned out that his kids were asleep in bed. He woke them up. 'This is Elton John!' he enthused. His daughters looked understandably baffled. He sang the chorus of 'Your Song' to them: 'I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind'. Then he sang the chorus of 'Your Song' to us again. By now, the novelty of hearing the chorus of 'Your Song' sung to me by one of pop history's true geniuses was beginning to wear a little thin. I was struck by the sinking feeling that we were in for quite a long and trying evening. I turned to Bernie and a certain look passed between us, that somehow managed to combine fear, confusion and the fact that we were both desperately trying not to laugh at the absolute preposterousness of the situation we found ourselves in, a look that said: what the fuck is happening?

"It was a look that we grew increasingly accustomed to using during the last months of 1970. I was invited to a party at Mama Cass Elliot's house on Woodrow Wilson Drive in LA, famed as the leading hang-out for Laurel Canyon's musicians, the place where Crosby, Stills and Nash had formed, and David Crosby had shown off his new discovery, a singer-songwriter called Joni Mitchell, to his friends. When I arrived, they were all there. It was nuts, like the record sleeves in the bedroom at Frome Court had come to life: what the fuck is happening?

"We passed Bob Dylan on the stairs at the Fillmore East, and he stopped, introduced himself, then told Bernie he loved the lyrics of a song from Tumbleweed called 'Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun': what the fuck is happening?

"We were sitting backstage after a gig in Philadelphia when the dressing room door opened and five men walked in unannounced. You couldn't mistake The Band for anyone else: they looked like they'd just stepped off the cover of the album we'd played to death back in England. Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel started telling us they'd flown in from Massachusetts by private plane just to see the show, while I tried to behave as if The Band flying in from Massachusetts to see me perform was a perfectly normal state of affairs, and occasionally stole a glance at Bernie, who was similarly engaged in a desperate attempt to play it cool. A year ago, we were dreaming of trying to write songs like them and now they're stood in front of us, asking us to play them our new album: what the fuck is happening?

"It wasn't just The Band who wanted to meet us. It was their managers, Albert Grossman and Bennett Glotzer. They were legendary American music business figures, particularly Grossman, a renowned tough guy who'd managed Bob Dylan since the early sixties. He had reacted to another client, Janis Joplin, becoming addicted to heroin not by intervening but by taking a life insurance policy out on her. Word must have reached them that I was currently without a manager. Ray Williams was a lovely man, I owed him a great deal and he was incredibly loyal -- he'd even named his daughter Amoreena, after another of the Tumbleweed Connection songs -- but after the first American trip, I'd talked it over with the rest of the band, and no one thought he was the right person to look after us. But nor were Grossman and Glotzer, as I realized the moment I met them. They were like characters from a film, a film that had been panned for its hopelessly cartoonish depiction of two aggressive, motor-mouthed American showbiz managers. Nevertheless they were real people, and their collective efforts to win me over succeeded in scaring me witless. As long as there was a vacancy, they were not going to leave me alone.

"'I'm going to follow you around until you sign for me,' Glotzer told me.

"He wasn't joking. There seemed to be no way of getting rid of him short of applying for a restraining order. Once again, the allure of locking myself in the toilet became hard to resist." 

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Elton John




Henry Holt and Company


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