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26 Mar 2011

An Interview With Elizabeth Rosenthal: author of "His Songs: The Musical Journey of Elton John" (Part One)

Hello Eltonites. I've been behind this interview since a long time ago. I thought about dedicating The Weekend Of... to her maybe one year ago, more or less. She's one of the most fantastic persons I've ever met. If she taught me what I needed about Elton when I bought her book, the preparing of the interview made me "discover" Peterson and the most incredible world of "Birdwatchers". That's really interesting, believe me. Bernie's "Birds" lyrics come to mind time after time: "These words can't explain what I feel inside". Old Rabbit get ready! Ladies and gentlemen, get up and stand up to receive one of the bests eltonites out there: Elizabeth J. Rosenthal!!!!

Welcome Liz, so happy to have you here, thanks so much for the acceptation.

Thanks to Miquel for a great opportunity to chat about Elton!

It’s really an honour to have you here. What are your most beautiful memories of your childhood? How was it growing up in Manhattan?

Although I was born in Manhattan, I grew up in the Bronx (one of the other New York City boros) and Rockland County, a suburb of the city. The Bronx was full of bricks and concrete – an ugly place. But it was home! And we could go everywhere by subway. It was the 1960s, and the golden era of American TV. Every week, I enjoyed some of the best TV ever – The Jackie Gleason Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and Star Trek (the original, with William Shatner). In Rockland County, we were far from shopping and movies, but it was safe, quiet, and picturesque.

You have said, “During most of middle school and high school, I refused to listen to contemporary music, limiting myself to the big band tunes of my parents’ generation.” Why was that so?

I was a weird kid! Also, most young people have a difficult time adjusting to adolescence. I responded by escaping into the popular music of a different generation.

Hahahaha Do you remember the first time you heard Elton’s music? What made you become an Elton fan?

I first heard Elton’s music in early 1974 when I was about 13, in Chorus – a class in which we learned to perform songs as a group. Anyway, one day, before the class started, the radio was on, playing “Crocodile Rock.” Kids had a great time singing along to it. I wasn’t interested. Then, the next year, in high school, my English teacher asked us to bring in lyrics to popular songs – and recordings of the songs – so that we could analyze the lyrics. A classmate copied the lyrics to “Philadelphia Freedom” onto a sheet of paper and brought that in plus the record so we could listen. Again, I was not impressed! All through high school (1974-78), one wall of our social studies classroom was decorated with a giant Elton John poster. But it wasn’t until later on in high school that I began listening to rock (after years of listening to big band music). By then, Elton had come out with his bisexual statement. His current single, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” was appealing, but didn’t dominate like his earlier hits. Other people had risen to the top. My favorite singer became Barry Manilow. However, by the time I was in college, at Syracuse University, I had acquired a copy of Elton’s first volume of greatest hits – a magical record for the casual fan! It was one of my favorite albums. I recall hearing the infectious “Honky Cat” blaring from someone’s dormitory window on a spring afternoon. This lifted my spirits, as it would do for anybody. Ironically, I had a friend at Syracuse, also named Liz, who was a huge Elton fanatic. She showed me Elton’s latest album, A Single Man, and played some of it for me. I remember thinking that he looked strange without glasses. I remarked that Elton sounded different. “No, he doesn’t!” Liz exclaimed, defensively. (But he did – his voice was deeper!)

In ensuing years (early to mid-1980s), I mainly concentrated on the rock stars who were most popular at the time. Elton wasn’t one of them. I did like “Little Jeannie,” “Kiss the Bride,” and “Who Wears These Shoes?” but didn’t feel particularly motivated to buy any of his new records. Finally, in 1988, I was totally blown away by “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.” It probably helped that the song was on the radio all the time. And I loved the video, in which Elton looked like a cool cat with his fedora hat, smart suit, and mode of playing his Roland piano while standing, spread-legged. “What a great piano player!” I thought. I resolved to see Elton in concert as soon as possible. My wish was fulfilled when he came to Philadelphia (near where I now lived in New Jersey) on September 30, 1989 for two shows. My husband and I attended the first one. I was hugely impressed - again – by Elton’s piano playing, so versatile and aggressive, and found his singing even better than I’d expected. That was it. I was hooked! Within a month, I had purchased Elton’s entire back catalog, including his latest, Sleeping with the Past.

You have one of the largest collections of Elton memorabilia. Which of your Elton items do you appreciate the most, either for being hard to find, or for the pleasure from owning it?

That’s a good question! I’ve come to the conclusion that my favorite pieces of Elton memorabilia tend to be magazines and newspapers featuring him on the cover (with content inside, of course). Collectively, they offer a chronicle of his entire career. And the earliest ones, from 1970-71, are exciting to have because they reflect the excitement of Elton’s rise to the top of the music industry.

I really enjoy old press photos, from UPI, the Press Association, Agence France Press, and other agencies, which do a great job of chronicling his career visually. I have an original print from a photographer who was at the Troubadour in August 1970, too, which may be my favorite picture.

Great!!! What is Elton like personally? Which people related to Elton have you met?

Elton is wonderful to meet, whether on the street, or backstage. I met him twice, once as an anonymous fan, and once as myself, the author of His Song. As anonymous fans, my friend and I were lucky enough to run into Elton in Atlanta in late 2000 when a collection of his photography was being exhibited at the High Museum of Art. Since we had gone to the exhibit, he asked us what we thought of it! We just mumbled self-consciously that we had really enjoyed it.

My second meeting was backstage at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Elton was very welcoming, affectionate, and ready with a quick quip. I was petrified, but only because of who he was. He could not have been friendlier. And he made a joke at his own expense. After Bob Halley had taken a couple of photos of Elton and me together, Elton remarked to my husband, who was standing nearby clutching my handbag, “You shouldn’t be holding that [handbag] – I should be probably! Ha-ha!” He invited Stan to be part of the third photo. I’m not sure who was holding my handbag at that point!

I’ve met members of the band – Davey Johnstone, Nigel Olsson, Bob Birch, and Guy Babylon, plus Gus Dudgeon – at Elton Expos I attended in 1994, 1996, and 2000. Davey impressed me the most, as a truly regular guy who happens to have amazing guitar skills. In 2000, he graciously treated us fans to a guitar-only concert of EJ hits in which various brave souls would take turns at the mike to try singing along.

While I have not met Elton’s Mum, I did hear an interesting story about her from a manager of the Elton John Store at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. As you may know, His Song was the only EJ biography sold at the Elton John Store. When I was in town for the Red Piano shows, I autographed all the copies of my book in the store. Apparently, Elton’s Mum was shopping in the store not that long afterward and purchased a copy of His Song that I had inscribed: “To one EJ fan from another.”

Fantastic!!! Well, His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John (Billboard Books, 2001) is the best reference book ever published, a perfect chronicle of Elton’s life and music, with reviews of his albums, performances, songs, everything. I highly recommend it. Where did the idea for the book come from?

Thanks for the kind words about His Song! I decided to write it when I couldn’t find any biographies of Elton out there that concentrated on his music – on record and in live performance. Since I have a background in journalism, and love to write, it seemed like the project for me to undertake!

His Song was your first book. Your second is a well-researched bio of one of the most interesting and famed ornithologists, Roger Tory Peterson, who died in 1996. Peterson changed the way people thought about birds and wildlife in general. Why did you decide to write this book and what impressed you the most about him?

Thanks for asking about my current book, Birdwatcher: the Life of Roger Tory Peterson (Lyons Press, 2008). It’s now out in paperback. I decided to do research about Peterson in 2005, after several years of watching birds myself. For some reason, I began to notice birds around 2001-2002 and became an avid reader of books about birds, a participant in field trips to look for birds, and a feeder of birds in my backyard! Noticing and admiring birds - of which there are nearly 10,000 species globally – really opened up a whole new world for me. Before, I had my nose to the concrete. Now, I always look toward the sky. It’s especially nice that, wherever you are, there are also birds, so you’re never without them! Anyway, my first field guide to birds was a Peterson guide. As you know, Peterson was an artist, writer, amateur scientist, and adventurer. He invented the field guide to birds in 1934. His various field guides to birds and wildflowers, and his editorship of a whole line of other Peterson guides to all forms of wildlife, revolutionized people’s appreciation of birds and nature around the world. The guides helped kick-start modern environmentalism. Peterson was at the center of conservation issues from the time he was in his 20s – helping to spur the growth of the National Audubon Society, co-founding the World Wildlife Fund, and bringing attention to such diverse wild places as the Galapagos, the Coto Donana in Spain, Lake Nakuru in Kenya, and the Antarctic. He was at the center of the pesticide controversy of the 1950s and 1960s and urged environmental activism wherever he went. For decades, then, he was the birdwatching, nature, and conservation guru for people on every continent, and he influenced and inspired a generation of field guide authors and bird artists.

As of 2005, there hadn’t been a biography of Roger Tory Peterson since 1977, when he was still alive, and that one was badly written and rather one-dimensional. So I consulted archives at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian, and the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, reviewed people’s personal papers, and interviewed 116 of Peterson’s friends, family members, colleagues and protégés from all over the world, to write a comprehensive life story of this multi-faceted man. People can find out more about Birdwatcher by going to

“And everywhere I look there's something to learn .... How come birds don't fall from the sky when they die? How come birds always look for a quiet place to hide?” For sure you know I am talkin’ about Bernie’s lyrics. Bernie’s love for nature is well-known. He’s a “Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the “country comfort’s in his bones.” His “Skyline Pigeon” is an imprisoned bird searching for open skies. And his “High Flying Bird” has flown out of his arms. Could he be a perfect birdwatcher?

Bernie Taupin clearly appreciates birds. There have been many, many references to birds in his lyrics over the decades: “Bad Side of the Moon” (hummingbirds), “Love Lies Bleeding” (bluebird), “Come Down in Time” (nightjars), “The Best Part of the Day” (mourning doves), “Philadelphia Freedom” (whippoorwill). I could go on and on. Taupin grew up in Lincolnshire, England, on a farm, and now lives on a ranch in southern California. He’s the “country mouse” to Elton’s “city mouse.” So it makes sense that Bernie would notice birds. I saw a recent photo of him sporting a tattoo of what looked like a falcon on one of his arms!

What do you think of Bernie as a lyricist? Which of his lyrics are perfect? And why were his lyrics misinterpreted in the early days? Old Jack Rabbit is Spanish and when he learned the English language, the first thing he did was translate Bernie’s lyrics. What surprised him most was to find that Bernie’s love songs don’t only say, “I love you, you love me.”

Bernie’s lyrics were likely misinterpreted in the early days because they were so cryptic. What in the world is “Madman Across the Water” about? Or “Border Song”? “Take Me to the Pilot”? Even “Levon” is mysterious. There are reasons that Taupin wrote the way he did, emulating his own favorite lyricists, evoking a mood or a scene from a novel he was reading, or choosing from phrases that he had earlier filed away for later use. So he left fans speculating on what the songs were about. His writing tended to be much more straightforward by the 1980s, often to the detriment of John-Taupin song quality. Bernie is at his best when he writes about life or whatever is on his mind, rather than something merely radio-ready. Unfortunately, the lyrics really sink an album like Breaking Hearts. “Slow Down Georgie” (“You’re just a steppin’ stone to someone else’) and “’Lil’ Refrigerator” (“Get away from my soul/Llil’ ‘frigerator, you’re so cold!”) feature some of the most pedestrian lines that Taupin has ever penned. Basically, Bernie went from writing lyrics that didn’t make sense to lyrics that made too much sense! What could Elton do with them but write pedestrian tunes to fit? Then again, maybe Elton could have shelved those lyrics and asked for something different. But he didn’t.

Taupin’s best lyrics? Among my favorites are “Nikita” (“I saw you by the wall/Ten of your tin soldiers in a row/With eyes that looked like ice on fire/The human heart a captive in the snow”) and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,” which features perhaps Bernie’s best lines ever. “Carrie, don’t wait up for me/The brakeman’s going west/In this room all alone I dream of you/In this drawer I found someone I never knew/So I pop a top and stay up late with Gideon/And fall asleep to visions of Meridian.” They tell you an enormous amount about the song’s protagonist, the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers. As a brakeman on the railroad, he’s away from his wife, staying at night in lonely motels along the route, occupying himself by quenching his thirst with beer and reading the house tome, the Bible, which nevertheless doesn’t alleviate his homesickness. Wow.

When Bernie is at his best, you can actually read his lyrics for enjoyment, without the music. I hope that he someday revisits the idea of a compilation of all of his lyrics in book form, and that this time he not permit its publication until he proofreads the contents. Back in the 1990s, a gorgeous book of his lyrics came out, called The Complete Lyrics, and fans snapped it up, only to find loads of typos and errors, and the lyrics weren’t even “complete”!

“After years that were long and lean / We're finally on our way,” Bernie wrote in “Postcards From Richard Nixon.” Elton and Bernie didn’t have an easy start in music, experiencing frustration and depression along the way. Did Dick James have faith in Elton from the beginning? I read that Elton recorded his songs because no one else did. Who was the most important person in Elton’s early career? Dick James? Gus Dudgeon? Steve Brown? Russ Regan? “Richard Nixon overseas”?

Without the support of Dick James, Elton wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. James, who published the Beatles’ catalog, was the first music publisher and record company executive to take a chance on the John-Taupin songwriting team and on Elton as a recording artist. James supported Elton and Bernie through three years of obscurity until they got their musical bearings, pushing Elton to take his trio, which included Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray, to the United States for a major opportunity at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. The rest is history.

Of course, Gus Dudgeon produced the album, Elton John (and all of Elton’s subsequent releases, through 1976), that caught Russ Regan’s ears in California, but the main strength of the album was in the songs, and the reason that Elton became a star was because of his tremendous ability as a live performer.

The fall 1972 tour solidified Elton’s reputation as a flamboyant act. He explained, “90% of my act is music, but the 10% theatrics is fun.” His 70s concerts were a fan phenomenon, with girls screamin’ for Elton, although he was not physically a Mick Jagger or a David Bowie. Did the costumes detract from the music, or help get him attention? How has Elton kept his fans over the years?

A lot of rock snobs were extremely turned off by Elton’s wild and whacky costumes, and by his onstage antics. They preferred the less flamboyant Elton of 1970-71, and claimed that he didn’t take his music seriously, while he retorted that he certainly did take it seriously but was having fun, too. The costumes may have made his entire persona more accessible to his teenage fans, who responded very positively to the concert spectacle he created. On the other hand, you couldn’t see his costumes on the radio, and Elton’s songs, a perfect marriage of catchiness and intelligent originality, were all over the radio. I’m glad he stopped wearing the costumes. He’s proved that his vibrant presence and musicianship are enough to keep packing ‘em in, year after year, decade after decade.

In the 70s no one could go out without hearing Elton’s music. John Lennon told him: “When you die, I will have to throw my radio out the window,” because then EJ’s music would be played even more frequently. Bryan Forbes described Elton as the legend he had always wanted to become. Let’s talk about his then manager, John Reid, the fabulous “Beryl.” How do we value the importance of John Reid to Elton’s career? What was Reid’s relationship with Bernie and Dick James?

John Reid’s business acumen got Elton the record-breaking North American record deal that he signed in 1974. In general, Reid’s talents as manager were vital to Elton’s accumulation of great wealth. Reid also shielded Elton from the seamier side of the music business, and the hangers-on and wannabes. Dick James lost Elton as a management client to Reid, who eventually concluded that James had not been entirely honest in his contractual relationship with John and Taupin, leading to a lawsuit against James that was traumatic for all involved. Ironically, about 13 years ago, Elton faced a similar situation with John Reid himself, which led to Reid’s dismissal and Elton establishing his own management company.

Shown on the picture sleeve of the “Philadelphia Freedom” single, Elton’s former, classic band included bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone and percussionist Ray Cooper. How important were they to Elton’s success? Were they the perfect band? It’s strange to see Elton calling them “The Elton John Band,” with even the single being credited that way, and then, months later, firing Dee and Nigel. Was that a bad decision? Also, is it true that Davey, Dee and Nigel recorded as a trio for Rocket Records but the work never saw the light of day?

Many people consider the Johnstone/Olsson/Murray combination Elton’s best band and the one most responsible for the classic Elton John “sound.” In particular, their backing vocals sounded unlike anything else out there and gave Elton’s 1972-75 recordings a certain wistful sheen that, combined with Elton’s liberal use of falsetto in those years, made for an unmistakable aural experience. Nigel’s drumming style was distinctive in providing some very interesting emotional accents to the songs. Elton once observed that he gets choked up when he hears Nigel’s climactic but restrained use of drums and cymbal on the recording of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Even so, Elton was entitled to change bands if he wanted to pursue a different musical direction, which is what he did after they recorded Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. But Elton himself would agree that he handled the firing of Nigel and Dee very badly. I don’t know of a recording featuring the trio of Johnstone, Olsson, and Murray, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

The new band of Rock of the Westies and Blue Moves may have been Elton’s most accomplished one, however. Roger Pope was a better technical drummer than Nigel. The combination of all the new musicians – Pope, Caleb Quaye (guitars), Kenny Passarelli (bass), and James Newton Howard (keyboards) – plus hold-overs Davey Johnstone and Ray Cooper, produced a funkier, looser sound. Unfortunately, Elton reacted to their combined prowess by neglecting his piano playing.

I love the band Elton has now, with Davey Johnstone on guitars, Bob Birch on bass, Nigel Olsson on drums, John Mahon on percussion, and Kim Bullard on keyboards (replacing the late, great Guy Babylon). In a way, the current members give Elton the best of both worlds: excellent musicianship plus the fairly unadorned live sound that his original band provided. And Elton’s piano playing gets better and better, which is incredible considering the heights he has already reached.

In “Bitter Fingers,” Bernie perfectly described the stress and the pressure of writing songs: “So much to prove, so few to tell you why.” Recording albums in just a few days, promotin’ the albums, goin’ on tour, et cetera, seemed like so much to do in so little time. That’s a pity, because in that period Elton & Bernie penned their best albums, and the albums could have lasted longer in the public mind than they did. Songs like “Harmony” and “High Flying Bird” could have been released as singles and led to more chart success, maybe helping to turn Grammy nominations into Grammy Awards. How do you analyze the end of Elton’s golden career?

As Elton has pointed out, he was contracted to record two albums a year for most of the 1970s, which is the reason for the great volume of work. But he also loved writing new songs and had the tremendous energy necessary to put out as much superb material as he did. I’m glad the John-Taupin partnership was as prolific as it was. Who would want to be deprived of those songs? Given these circumstances, it would have been impossible for any one EJ album to be wrung dry through the endless release of singles as the record companies did with Fleetwood Mac and Michael Jackson in the late 70s and early 80s. And why do that, anyway? The less familiar songs are all the more precious precisely because they haven’t been pummeled to death on the radio. Having said that, it is a terrible shame that so many early songs, like “Harmony,” haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. But the same can be said of songs from any period of Elton’s career. The modernistic jazz of “Too Low for Zero” could use an airing, as could the bluesy “Fascist Faces,” the funk of “Satellite” and the beauty of “Blue Avenue.” And those are just a few examples from the 1980s, Elton’s supposed lost decade. Meanwhile, his entire output of the last 10 or 11 years remains virtually unknown to the general public, which is an even greater tragedy, as they feature songwriting that most definitely rivals that of his 1970s oeuvre – and maybe surpasses it.

I don’t think that more hit singles would have translated into Grammys for Elton, given how the Grammys worked in the 1970s (they were essentially anti-British).

How was the songwriting process affected by Elton telling Bernie how and what to write? I am referring to “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” whose titles were both suggested by Elton. Gary Osborne, Elton’s next lyricist, started with a title and a few words provided by Elton, as well as the melody coming first, which was the opposite of how Elton and Bernie’s creative process normally worked.

The title “Philadelphia Freedom” gave Bernie a lot of leeway. He didn’t have to write about Billie Jean King’s Philadelphia Freedom tennis team, and, in fact, he didn’t. He turned it into what seemed to be a patriotic American anthem and Elton, who did not have lyric input here, gave the words a quintessentially American feel, by paying tribute to the smoothly soulful, string-laden Philadelphia sound. The compatibility of music and lyrics here may be among the most perfect in the John-Taupin catalog, even if “Philadelphia Freedom” wasn’t reminiscent of tennis in the least.

Elton came up with the titles and a large quantity of the words in “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and instructed Bernie to convert the nascent song into a duet. The result may have been somewhat saccharine, but it was flavorful saccharine. Then again, one John-Taupin song that is pretty hard to beat in quality is “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,” and, there, too, Elton started out with a melody and a bunch of words before turning it over to Bernie to finish the lyrics. Also, this was the way Elton regularly worked with Gary Osborne, and some good stuff came out of it – for example, “Little Jeannie,” “Chloe,” “Blue Eyes.”

To Be Continued

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