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HomeEntertainmentBook review: Scattershot, by Elton John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin

Book review: Scattershot, by Elton John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin

When he was a teenager, in the brief time before he became one of the most renowned lyricists of the 20th century, Bernie Taupin didn’t even know songwriters existed. “I just presumed whoever was singing it made it up,” he writes in his new not-quite-a-memoir, “Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me.”

But soon enough, he figured it out. In late 1967 he partnered with a singing piano player named Reg Dwight to write songs and work on demo recordings. In October of 1969, after years of not coming up with much, Taupin, 19, wrote the lyrics to “Your Song” in 10 minutes, after being fed a lovely breakfast by Reg’s mother, with whom they were staying in the London suburbs.

“Scattershot,” in its own arch, roundabout fashion, traces what comes next. “Your Song” kick-started one of the most successful songwriting partnerships in history, enabling Dwight, eventually known as Elton John, to become a bombastic, beloved superstar. Taupin, who regarded being onstage, or in the spotlight at all, as mortifying, stayed in the background, “a rock-and-roll anomaly who has functioned unintentionally as a rock star.”

Taupin had the same access to the byproducts of fame — drugs, nightclubs, money, the company of other nocturnal famous people, nice hotels — as actual rock stars did, but he managed to avoid its burdens. “I have always attempted to inhabit a world of normality,” he writes. “The cocoon of fame would kill me.”

“Scattershot” isn’t a musical memoir exactly. It’s part travelogue, part autobiography, a nonlinear, unsentimental accounting of what Taupin did when Elton John was otherwise occupied ruling the world. It’s a blur of exotic locales, late nights at louche nightclubs, hung over dashes to the airport and random encounters with a rogues’ gallery of even more random celebrities.

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Taupin was born in rural Lincolnshire and spent much of his childhood with his head buried in books. He escaped to London while a teenager. He and John met after they answered an advertisement in a music magazine placed by a record label looking for talent. They became songwriting partners — Taupin writes lyrics, Elton writes melodies — and inseparable friends, moving into bunk beds in John’s family home.

They were very close — an “army of two,” writes Taupin — their platonic friendship surviving an early, fumbling romantic pass by John. “This innocent approach was done with zero aggression and lacked anything of a predatory nature,” Taupin explains. “If anything, I think it made me laugh. It was easily deflected and immediately understood. Of course, if I had reciprocated, it would have spelled disaster.”

Though their work partnership and friendship continues to this day, once fame hit they would never be that close again. “From the moment we made our mark, we severed our umbilical cord and went our own way,” writes Taupin, with an almost visible shrug. As John’s stardom grows, Taupin, who writes alone and seldom visits the studio or goes on the road, finds himself at loose ends. He writes hits for other artists, including Heart’s “These Dreams,” and, less forgivable, Starship’s “We Built This City.”

He buys a house off the Sunset Strip (one of the best things about “Scattershot” is its depiction of 1970s and ’80s Los Angeles, in all its lusciousness and rot), next door to Golden Age director George Cukor.

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“Scattershot” doesn’t have a center: It reads like a collection of amusing anecdotes assembled by a charming raconteur. But Taupin’s account of rubbing elbows with celebrities is the best thing here. These aren’t the standard, I-ran-into-Sting-backstage-at-Live-Aid-and-he-was-nice rock memoir reminiscences either.

At their sharpest, they detail the collision of the old gods and the new: Taupin and close friend Alice Cooper meet Frank Sinatra, who impresses Taupin by using the French pronunciation of his name, and also by being Frank Sinatra. When Katharine Hepburn’s car breaks down in the middle of the street on her way to one of Cukor’s legendary parties, Taupin offers to call AAA; Hepburn tells him to leave it, she’ll just buy another one. He meets novelist Graham Greene, and is thrilled when he is vaguely polite. Salvador Dali doodles on a napkin and gives the drawing to Taupin. Bowing to Princess Margaret, Taupin splits his pants; the princess has her royal tailor fix them. Taupin takes Billie Jean King and Freddie Mercury to a drag bar, a maneuver with an impressively high level of celebrity difficulty.

Taupin doesn’t say much about his own personal life. Wives — he had four — go mostly unmentioned. At the end of “Scattershot,” things happen in a rush: Taupin falls in love with the woman who would become his fourth wife and the mother of his two daughters, and buys a ranch outside Santa Barbara where he can indulge his passion for competitive horse cutting. He becomes an acclaimed visual artist, and a Presbyterian.

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Throughout, Elton John is a benevolent holograph that never quite comes into focus. He’s a subject mostly avoided, except for Taupin’s recollections of their early years and the occasional prosaic asides: John went to rehab again; John is vacationing in the south of France; John is friendly with the guys in Wham!

Curiously, “Me,” John’s 2019 corker of an autobiography, has little mention of Taupin. It’s baffling to witness two men so integral to the others’ lives and careers speak of each other with the affection usually reserved for distant relatives. Do they have some kind of mutual nonaggression treaty? Are they just sick of talking about each other? Is Taupin afraid of saying the wrong thing and making Elton mad? Because Elton seems like the kind of person who would get mad. (Probably not, since Taupin dares to call John “chunky.” On page 2!)

John is “in absentia for much of this narrative,” Taupin admits, mostly because their post-fame lives took such separate paths. “There are several aphorisms for what we are, but alike we are not,” Taupin writes, “and that is our magic.”

Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.

Life, Music, Elton, and Me

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