Bernie Taupin writes about Elton John, LA and ’70s-era fame in memoir ‘Scattershot’
For 56 years, since the day Bernie Taupin met Elton John and embarked on a lifelong musical partnership, most of lyricist Taupin’s best-known works fit neatly on a single sheet of paper.
“Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing.”
Scores of big hits and deep cuts from the more than 25 albums Taupin and John made together, as well as dozens more that Taupin wrote for artists such as Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper, Heart and himself, decades ago established his talent with chorus and verse.
But Taupin always liked writing prose, too, which is how, almost by accident, he came to compose his just-published memoir, “Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton & Me.”
“I started writing it somewhat as an experiment,” Taupin says on a recent call from his home in the Santa Ynez Valley some 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California.
“When I wrote the first few pieces, it took me a while until I realized, ‘Oh, what you’re doing here is you’re actually writing a book,’” he says. “I thought, ‘This is what I’m doing. OK, I’m gonna get in touch with my literary agent and sell the sucker and get published.’
“I fell straight into the addiction of writing. I mean, I was writing maybe five hours a day for a couple of years.”
Filling page after page with narrative and memories felt liberating, Taupin says. His first draft ran roughly 800 pages. The finished book is still nearly 400.
At 73, he says it felt right to tell his story now. “Rocketman,” the Elton John biopic that starred Taron Egerton as John and Jamie Bell as Taupin came out in 2019, followed a few months later by John’s own memoir, “Me.”
“I think it makes sense at this point in my life, the culmination of everything, you know,” Taupin says. “I mean, I’m sure I’m going to end up doing a few more things, but I think that the bulk of my history is behind me.”
The legend of Elton and Bernie is well known. At 17, Taupin saw an ad in a music newspaper seeking songwriters at a record label and left his home in rural Lincolnshire for London, where John, 20, had responded to the same notice.
They teamed up quickly, Taupin writing lyrics that John would then find melodies for, living and working together at John’s family flat. They had early success in England and by 1970 were ready to try the United States. The self-titled “Elton John” album delivered a hit with “Your Song,” as well as songs such as “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Border Song.”
Then, on Aug. 25, 1970, John made his U.S. debut at the Troubadour, a show widely seen as the moment his fame took off. Taupin was there in his usual role as a non-performing member of the group, which also included drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray.
All that’s in the memoir, but it’s not the part Taupin enjoyed writing most.
“There are certain things that you can’t help but mention, because they’re ingrained in the fabric of your life, and part of our history,” he says. “But if I do write about those, then hopefully I write about them from a different standpoint.
“You know, say, if I’m talking about John Lennon and Madison Square Garden,” Taupin says of the night when Lennon, having lost a bet to John, had to join him in performance, but only if Taupin did, too. “That’s been recounted many times in many forums. But not from my standpoint.”
So what did he really want to write about? Let’s start with the lure of the American West and arriving in the wonderland of L.A. in 1970.
Way out West
Taupin writes that, as a child, he’d play games set in the mythic past of England, romantic tales of Old Europe that his well-educated mother and grandfather would tell him.
“I loved that and that infused my play when I was a kid,” he says. “You know, my book starts with me playing Horatius (who famously defended Rome from invaders) on a frigid pond in Lincolnshire and using my imagination to fuel my games.”
Soon, thanks to a nearby American military base, a different kind of poetry reached his years, that of country singer-songwriters such as Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins.
“They were singing songs that were completely at odds with the kind of cowboys that I was seeing on television,” Taupin says. “People like the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, who were all done up in sequins and pearl-handled pistols.
“The people that Marty Robbins was singing about on his album ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs,’ those were the real deal,” he says. “The dust and the grit came through the vinyl grooves and captured my imagination.
There’s a clear line from American country songs such as Robbins’ "El Paso" to the narratives Taupin created for some of John’s biggest hits, most directly on albums such as 1970’s western-themed “Tumbleweed Connection.”
There’s a reason, Taupin says, why in the title of the 1975 album “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” John is Captain Fantastic and he’s the Brown Dirt Cowboy.
LA in the ’70s
One of the best parts of the book comes when Taupin writes about his experiences and memories of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, from the band’s arrival at LAX to the bright lights of the Sunset Strip and Hollywood Boulevard.
He writes of his first purchase in the United States: a pair of stars-and-stripes decorated tennis shoes at the Ziedler & Zeidler clothing store on Sunset at Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Or standing in line at a Baskins-Robbins next to Jack Lemmon and Gene Kelly. And the glory of Tower Records to a vinyl-deprived Brit.
“The little details are sometimes more fascinating than the big picture, which is recounted time and time again,” Taupin says. “I tried to talk about the slightly smaller world and the real things that happened, as opposed to the major things that happened.
In the final paragraph of the book, Taupin writes about how lucky he’s been since he and John teamed up. His love for his friend shines throughout the book even if he doesn’t always spend that much time talking about him.
“Clearly, though, in this travelogue, one character stands out,” Taupin writes. “He’s the most colorful, constant, and omnipresent.”
Then, a sentence or two later he adds: “He is also in absentia for much of this narrative.”
“I wrote the truth,” Taupin says when asked how he balanced the disparate elements of his life — riding the rocket of success with John, living his own life, too — in the book.
“I wrote about the way it really was. You know, people think we are this continual two-headed monster, that we are never ever apart.
“I want people to understand that everything we have done musically we have done together, and we are connected at the hip in that way,” he says. “You have to remember that between 1967 and 1970 we were inseparable. We lived together. It was just the two of us, trying to find our way in the world. We were the best of friends, we were like brothers.”
But after breaking out in the States, fame and fortune provided the means and opportunity to follow individual interests. John lived mostly in England, Taupin mostly in California.
“It would be pretty weird if we didn’t,” Taupin says of the different paths the two have followed. “We’re not going to buy houses next to each other like the Beatles in ‘Help.’ It would be ridiculous.”
For tours and recording sessions, they reunited throughout the ’70s. After a break of a few years, during which John worked with other lyricists, by the early ’80s they were back together in a collaboration that continues to this day.
And Taupin, rightly, wants readers to know of the many other things that have made up his life. Some of that’s work — he’s made solo albums and a few with his group the Farm Dogs. He’s also written for other artists, including a few songs — Heart’s “These Dreams,” Starship’s “We Built This City” — that were hits as big as many he wrote with John.
In November, Taupin will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a songwriter. He and John already are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2020, they won an Oscar for best original song for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from “Rocketman.”
So, yes, his hope for the memoir, that it stand on its own, and not just in the shadow of Elton’s fame, has been realized.
“To this day, we are still as close as we ever were,” Taupin says. “We talk constantly. We’ll talk once a week. In the age of these Zoom calls, it’s easy to FaceTime. So you actually think you saw the person the other day when you actually just saw them on a screen.
“Our lives have been completely separate for decades. But we always come back together for the reasons that we got together in the first place.”
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