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Elton John, Set to Feel the Love Tonight

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page N01

WINDSOR, England

Agas fire is purring in the hearth and oil paintings are peering down tastefully from the walls as Sir Elton John slips silently into the sitting room. He's dressed sedately in a black track suit -- no jewelry, no feathered boa, no rhinestone-studded glasses and no bombastic, outrageous posturing, either. Just a smiling, brown-eyed, boyish middle-aged man of 57 in an introspective mood.

It used to be "The Bitch Is Back" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and a shop-till-you-drop lifestyle. And he still wields a sharp tongue -- recent subjects of his exasperation range from Madonna to President Bush. But on this crisp English morning, Captain Fantastic is humming a more tranquil, rueful tune.

"I love entertaining people," says John, performing this year in Las Vegas. (Michael Caulfield -- Wireimage)

_____Kennedy Center Honors_____
Photo Gallery: Honorees
Warren Beatty
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Joan Sutherland
John Williams

Every year since 1978

the Kennedy Center has saluted a handful of national icons for their "lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts." This year's honorees are to be celebrated tonight with a gala performance and dinner at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The show will be broadcast Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. on Channel 9.

"I know I'm a larger-than-life character," he says. "I've made my own cross to bear. People still think of me as flamboyant, lavish, and people tend to forget about the music. But I just have to accept that sometimes I'm a victim of my own image. I made my bed and I've got to lie in it."

"Peachtree Road," his new CD -- the 43rd studio album of his four-decade career, in case you're counting -- puts it simply in its opening number: "The weight of the world is off my back."

Maybe this is what happens when you've done the whole rock superstar bit -- been hailed as the Next Big Thing at 23, made the hit singles and done the tours and the drugs and the rise and the fall and come out the other end with your talent and your band and your fan base and your bank balance somehow intact. He's had a steady partner for the past 11 years, a hit act in Las Vegas and his first self-produced album, and he has a new musical based on "Billy Elliot" debuting in London next spring, and his AIDS foundation has given away more than $20 million. He has been collecting accolades the way some people collect parking fines: an Oscar for "The Lion King," Grammys for "The Lion King" and "Aida," a Tony for the latter, a knighthood -- and this weekend he's being saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors for his contribution to the performing arts.

He has seen a bit of history along the way. This guy was John Lennon's drinking partner, co-writer of "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" and the person who coaxed John onstage at Madison Square Garden for his last live performance in 1974. He was Princess Diana's sob sister, and at her 1997 memorial service he performed "Candle in the Wind," a song that went on to sell 33 million copies for charity (in case you're counting).

The danger, of course, is that the oxygen's so thin at the top of the pedestal that it's hard to breathe, and the space is so small you don't want to risk falling off and you begin to calcify up there. But Sir Elton seems equipped to handle it. Deep down inside, he says, he knows what he does best: "I love playing live, I love entertaining people, I love playing with a band."

Don't shoot him, he's only the piano player.

The son of a Royal Air Force trumpet player, Reginald Dwight was born and raised in a suburb of London and was classically trained as a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music until he dropped out at 17 and dropped into rock-and-roll and changed his name. He arrived in the United States in 1970 and had a huge debut with "Your Song" and a best-selling eponymous album. He rode the singer-songwriter wave with consummate musicianship, a booming, gospel-tinged voice and some richly complex original songs featuring his intricate melodies and dense, dark lyrics by his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, with whom he has been collaborating for 34 years.

First he won over the critics -- Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times predicted his future as "one of rock's biggest and most important stars" after hearing him conquer the Troubadour in August 1970. Then he stormed the charts: From 1972 to 1976 he had 16 Top 20 hits in a row; from '73 to '75 six straight platinum albums. He met and played with all his idols: Leon Russell, Lennon and many more. "Every artist goes through a period when they can do no wrong," he recalls. "We were running on adrenaline, momentum and creativity."

He always knew it would end, he says -- "I wasn't shocked and I wasn't panicked" -- but when it did, it still took a lot of adjusting. He looks back at some of the albums he made after that and readily concedes they were less than his best. "I lost my way a little bit trying to be everything I wasn't," he says. "I had some really good songs in the '80s and '90s, but the albums weren't cohesive enough. It was uneven."

Then there were the cocaine, the alcohol, the bulimia, the spending sprees and the difficulty of coming out as a gay man. He has admitted that he feels guilty about not speaking out when the AIDS crisis first hit in the 1980s because he was too messed up to get involved. He got clean and sober in the early 1990s, and found a new partner in David Furnish, a Canadian film producer, and a new purpose in life.

Even in the worst of times, his songs were still a part of everyone's narrative, from London to Los Angeles to the most remote and troubled corners of the world. I recall following a crowd of locals as they headed toward the municipal park in besieged Tete City in central Mozambique in 1986. Food was rationed, and there was electricity for only a few hours in the evening, but a band from the coast had made it overland past the guerrillas and come to play. Their opening number: Elton John's "Nikita," a samba-tinted ballad, half a Cold War meditation and half a lover's plea, slow and sad and terribly moving. The entire population of Tete City swayed.

Then there's America. It's the place where he first won fame and where the gospel, country and blues he loves best were born. He has a home in Atlanta and bases himself there for almost half the year while touring the States. He says he has always felt comfortable there -- Americans love success and are far less snippy about one's lifestyle than the English.

"America has given me everything," he says. "I had my first hit record there, and my first album, my first tour. And as one gets older, one becomes more grateful and more reflective. To be honored in this way by a country I desperately love is for me like the crown jewels. I'm so excited about it; I'm absolutely over the moon over it."

Of course there are issues to be resolved. Like many Britons and most Europeans, Sir Elton has been appalled and alarmed by the direction the Bush administration has taken the country, and he was an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq. "Bush and this administration are the worst thing that has ever happened to America," he recently told Time Out magazine. "Didn't the Guardian say something like 'Where is John Wilkes Booth when you need him?' "

A humor columnist in the Guardian, Britain's left-of-center broadsheet, did indeed say exactly that, although he and the newspaper quickly apologized. And Sir Elton wants to make clear that he isn't endorsing violence or jokes about assassination. "I wasn't going around talking about killing anybody and I don't want to be identified with that quote," he says. "It's just something that I noticed that the Guardian had said, and I thought it was outrageous."

He intends to be nothing but polite when the time comes to shake hands with the president. "My politics are different from the president's, but that's got nothing to do with this," he insists. "I'm going to shake his hand and be very civil and very nice."

He spends a lot of time, he says, defending America to left-wing friends in Britain. Still, he adds, he's worried. "I think people are afraid of America at the moment, and that saddens me because I do spend a lot of time there. I do see the division in the country. It's never been so polarized as it is now. . . . I don't want to see the country torn apart in the middle."

As a gay celebrity, he says he has never encountered any personal hostility in the United States. But he notes that in a recent referendum, 70 percent of the voters in Georgia, where he lives, rejected gay and lesbian marriage. He's also noticed the protests in some quarters over scenes of homosexuality in Oliver Stone's new movie, "Alexander," with some preachers offering counseling to members of their flocks disturbed by the film. This makes him shake his head in bemused despair: "I'm very suspicious of God-fearing zealots in whatever country they bloody well live in."

So much for politics. Music is still what he believes in most and what he does best. He and Taupin decided a few years back that they would return to the basics that had made them rich, famous and creatively successful in the early years. "We really made an effort to sit down and criticize what we'd been doing, and we said we don't want to drift off into the twilight of our careers by just coasting. Let's do what we do best and go back and record simply."

The first result was "Songs From the West Coast," a critical hit. Then came "Peachtree Road." The songs are not as strikingly original or radiant as those of three decades ago, and the emotions seem more one-dimensional. But the voice and the piano playing remain powerful and compelling.

He and Taupin have maintained the same apart-together work method for 36 years. Taupin, who has lived for decades in Southern California, always writes the lyrics first, then dispatches them to John. They see each other only two or three times a year, talk on the phone no more than once a month. Yet somehow Taupin's lyrics manage to capture Elton's mood.

"He's always had that second sight with me," he says of Taupin. "You don't have to be on top of each other or live next door to know what's going on. It is uncanny and also very rewarding to be able to sing a song that is about you.

"We're so close and yet we're so apart, and that's the way it works. And it's so fresh because when I write a great melody and I call him into the room, it's still the same result that I see in his face as when I wrote 'Your Song' 30-something years ago."

It's okay, he believes, as another award ceremony looms, to sound a little elegiac and a little contemplative.

"My time in the sun has gone, in a way, and it's younger people's time now. All I can do at my age is be true to myself, do the most honest and best work that I think I'm capable of."

Don't let the sun go down on him.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company