(2 of 3)
And sometimes he fools you. His new album's title track perks and chirps along like a burger jingle. Not until you peel off the tinsel and listen to the lyrics--"You had a scent for scandal/ Well here's my middle finger/ I had 40 years of pain/ and nothing to cling to"--do you hear John raging at his homeland and his fickle fans. "It's sort of a 'screw you' song," says Taupin. "I put myself in his shoes and heard him saying, 'This is me, accept me for what I am.'"
John is the sum of what he has learned and, of course, borrowed. On the new album you'll hear echoes of A Whiter Shade of Pale in the powerful ballad Man; a hint of mid-period Beatles in the benign Latitude and the jaunty Please; a great big blast of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil in the infectious, wondrously bleak Pain ("My name is pain/ You belong to me/ You're all I ever wanted/ I'm all you'll ever be"). But hey, 90% of everything is theft. John built these songs on solid, familiar pop-rock foundations and wedded his musical ingenuity--the other, crucial 10%--to Taupin's brittle, Delphian lyrics.
"I don't believe in artists," said the hero of Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing. "I believe in singles." The joy and curse of Elton John's music is that every song on every album has eyes to be a hit single. These are super-productions, aural Busby Berkeley numbers, ascending an oratorical mountain to the sky-rocketing crescendo. And, on Made in England, they sound swell; there's heft and meaning in the songs--no throwaways. "Since I've been sober I've made three albums, and this is the best," he says. "Getting adjusted to a new way of life takes time. You don't go from 16 years of taking drugs to instant tranquillity." But he's not the sort to sit back and smell the royalties. "This album was a make-or-break thing for me," he says, "because I had to get off my backside and do something. I don't want to settle for a quiet life."
These days, though, life is quieter. John has just renovated his home in Old Windsor. He gutted the building, filled the rooms with antiques, decked the walls with illustrations of naval battles, stocked the shelves with Meissen and Staffordshire. A gracious home for the Country Squire.
There's enough of the old peacock in John that he still likes to buy things--"I can find a store in the desert"--but now he's more interested in selling them off: the former contents of his house, at Sotheby's last year, and cartloads of old clothes, with the proceeds going to aids charities. His own Elton John aids Foundation-to which he donates all profits from his singles-has raised $5.5 million for care and education.