#parent | #kids | ‘Writing a song like Tiny Dancer is bit like having a w**k’

On a Thursday morning in his Toronto hotel room, Elton John is in high spirits. He is 12 months into a three-year farewell tour that has sold out arenas and sports stadiums around the world, and earned some of the most rapturous reviews of his 50-year career.

“The last time I had notices like this I had a full head of hair and the writer had to spend half the review explaining who I was,” is how he puts it. His musical biopic Rocketman has grossed nearly $200 million at the box office. And he’s about to publish his autobiography, Me.

For this interview, he is answering questions submitted by his celebrity fans, some of whom are also personal friends. He is delighted that one is from Bob Dylan and is unfazed by the tone-lowering line of inquiry pursued by rapper Eminem. No subject seems off-limits.

When a tour ends I have a huge void of time to fill. What are you going to do when this big tour is over?

Ed Sheeran, singer-songwriter
I don’t have a clue. I’ve got another couple of years to go. What I’d like to do is spend time at my house in Windsor, walk around the garden, catch up with friends, spend some time with the boys [his sons Zachary and Elijah]. I just want to do nothing for about six months and catch up with my social life in England. Whether I’ll be able to do that is another matter – I’m not going to miss travelling, or life on the road, or staying in hotels, but I’m an enormous fidget.

When I got sick a couple of years back, I was forced to spend seven weeks at home in Windsor, recuperating. It was the longest time I’d spent there in years, and I really enjoyed it: seeing the boys when they got in from school, hearing their news. I remember when I came out of rehab, there’s this thing they talk about called “the hole in the doughnut”: how are you going to fill the time you used to spend drinking and taking drugs?

I had all these extravagant ideas about learning to speak Italian and how to cook, and of course I never did any of them. So I’m not planning on anything like that. I’d just like to take it easy and enjoy the fruits of spending three and a half years on the road.

In the song Tiny Dancer, did you work your way up to the cathartic chorus gradually, spontaneously, or did you have it thought out from the start?

Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter
This is a very good question. Tiny Dancer has a really long lyric, a very cinematic, California-in-the-early-70s lyric, so it had two verses and a middle eight before it even gets to the chorus, and it lent itself to a long buildup. The middle eight sets it up well, then it slows down for a moment – “when I say softly, slowly…” That line suggested a big chorus. I don’t remember much about writing it, but I do remember trying to make it sound as Californian as possible. Writing a song like that’s a bit like having a w**k, really. You want the climax to be good, but you don’t want it to be over too quickly – you want to work your way up to it. Bernie’s lyric took such a long time to get to the chorus, I thought, “f**k, the chorus had better be something special when it finally arrives.” And it’s “here I come”, literally.

Have you used your wedding gift yet?

Eminem, rapper
Ah, no. Eminem bought me and David matching cock rings when we got married. That was his gift. They sit there, like the crown jewels, in this beautiful box on satin cushions. They’re wonderful to look at. I don’t know if any guests we’ve had have used them. God, I hope not. They’re kind of sacrosanct. The fact they came from Eminem makes it even better. It’s very him, as is this question. I call him up every couple of months, and every time he picks up the phone he says the same thing: “Hello, you old c**t, how are you?” Justin Timberlake says the same thing, actually.

Over the years, you and I have talked about the need for a new ‘championship’ song that can become a sports anthem. How’s it going?

Billie Jean King, tennis champion and founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative
Billie Jean has always gone on about We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions by Queen being the ultimate sports songs. I couldn’t ask Bernie to sit down and write a lyric like that – he’s not that kind of writer. We wrote Philadelphia Freedom for Billie Jean’s tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms, but it’s not really about tennis; Bernie just wrote about Philadelphia. And to be honest, We Are The Champions can’t be beaten: it’s so good at what it does, any sport can use it. Queen had that market sewn up, which was hysterical, because Freddie Mercury hated sport; he knew nothing about it at all. If you’d mentioned Arsenal to Freddie, he’d have thought it was something to do with gay sex.

Your path to success hasn’t always been easy. You weren’t born into privilege and you’ve had to battle other people’s preconceptions in many aspects of your life. How have you overcome these challenges, and what drives you when things seem difficult?

Lewis Hamilton, Formula One champion
The challenges I had were shyness and my sexuality. I’ve always tried to be honest. I didn’t hide my sexuality from myself or people around me – as soon as I realised I was gay, I told everyone I knew; it didn’t give me a hang-up. Shyness never really held me back – a lot of creative people are shy and pull themselves out of that on stage. It’s when you come off stage and you’re stuck with yourself again that the problems start. I found challenges hard to overcome until I got sober, because I didn’t know how to deal with them.

Being sober is all about asking for help to get through challenges. You can’t just barrel through and do things yourself – you have to reach out. It took me a long time to get where I am now: I was too trusting, I didn’t like confrontations, so I made bad decisions, especially in business. The fear of confrontation went back to my childhood, my parents rowing all the time, and it really held me back. It became less and less when I got sober, but it’s still there. It doesn’t magically disappear.

Elton John’s first photo session – on Hampstead Heath – in 1968. Photograph: Val Wilmer/Redferns

Which song from the last five years do you wish you had written?

Charli XCX, singer-songwriter
I wouldn’t have minded writing Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, but I think The Joke by Brandi Carlile. I just love it, I’ve played it continuously. It’s just the kind of song I could have written, quite Elton-ish. It’s the song that launched her into the stratosphere after seven albums – it was nominated for four Grammys. She’s a friend, I love her and people are now giving her the respect she deserves.

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