I did a completely uncharacteristic thing this week — I wrote a letter to Bernie Taupin. The uncharacteristic thing was not writing a letter — an email, to be exact; it was to write it to someone famous. I’ve never understood autograph-seekers or the people who get celebrities to pose for pictures with them — or, no, I suppose I get it, I’ve simply never been interested. What I want to do with people I admire is sit down with them, over a drink or a meal, the kind of meal that starts early and lasts long into the evening, with the conversation continuing long after the plates have been cleared, and maybe moves on to more comfortable chairs — and maybe doesn’t, and talk with them, learn what makes them tick. It’s kind of the same way that I don’t want to go visit a country I’ve been wanting to visit for 10 days or however long the standard vacation is. I want to get to know it, travel around inside it, meet its denizens, find out what makes it tick. In the word of Robert Heinlein, I want to ‘grok’ it. There are certain people I’d like to grok too, for an hour or a day (or evening) or weekend, and Bernie Taupin is one of them. My favourite Russian prof called the kind of conversation that you have at 4 a.m. after too much vodka ‘dukhe na dukhe’ (pardon my transliteration) — soul to soul. It’s the only kind of conversation worth having with someone you admire.
My admiration for Bernie Taupin has been strictly of his professional persona (well, no, that’s not true, he was awfully good looking when he was a young man, I admired that too). For those unfamiliar with the name, Bernie Taupin is the man who puts the words in Elton John’s mouth. I’ve been an Elton John fan since 1975, when my cousin Lisa forced me to listen to Someone Saved My Life Tonight and it plucked a chord inside me that has never stopped vibrating. Even now that song will take me back to that summer, and make me feel a little melancholy. I’d heard of Elton John before, of course, my brother had his first Greatest Hits album and you couldn’t be a child in the 70s without having danced at least once to Crocodile Rock. But Elton John is such a towering character, and I was young and I’m beginning to think perhaps I was a bit simple, for the things it never occurred to me to think about, but I sang the lyrics without thinking about them. As you do, I suppose. It wasn’t until I started accumulating Elton John albums, with their lyric sheets and recording information that I became aware of the jester behind the throne. I pored over lyric inserts on those albums, soaking up the words, figuring out what I liked and didn’t like, and more importantly to someone who already realized that writing was going to be a feature in her life, why I liked them.
But the years went by and eventually there came a time when I didn’t love every Elton John album on first listen. Sure there was a gem or two on every one, but by the 90s I have to admit to giving up a little. My mother gave me the latest one for Christmas every year until Peachtree Road, and I listened to them dutifully, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing held me quite like the old stuff. Elton was plagiarizing himself a bit, I thought, and so was Bernie if truth be told. But the year my heart broke, the year I couldn’t listen to music without crying, or wanting to throw up, Elton and Bernie saved me — that was the only music (with lyrics) that I could bear to hear. The music, the words, were almost like sense memory, race memory, they were simply part of me, not listening would have been like chopping off an arm. I thanked Bernie for that in my letter.
Two weeks ago I had a voice lesson. I’ve always loved to sing, I sang in elementary and high school choirs and have performed on stage as a soloist once or twice; and I love karaoke. My dream was to either be a writer or a singer and I kind of made one side of it happen but I still dream of getting on a stage with a backing band and a microphone and giving Ann Wilson some competition. With age and smoking and disuse my voice is failing me — I think I once had close to a five-octave range, now it’s closer to three. So I decided to take lessons to learn how to preserve what I have and to strengthen it — maybe to the point where I could do something more than sing karaoke if the chance presented itself. My instructor tells me I have a pretty voice with a good tone. My first class we sang Levon, probably my favourite song off the Madman Across the Water album, and my instructor told me I had a good voice for Elton John. This I kind of already knew — I’m a mimic, not an interpreter, and my pitch is good and I know when I match someone note for note. It was still nice to hear though. And that class sent me back to Elton John, which sends me back to Bernie Taupin. Everything is on the internet these days — I’m finding interviews, documentaries that I didn’t know existed — or knew, but had never sought out. And one of the things on the internet that I found when I fell down one of its Elton John rabbit holes, was Bernie Taupin.
He spends most of his time as a visual artist now. I can’t claim to understand abstract art but some of his stuff is quite striking. He has two young daughters. He rode in the rodeo for a while, cutting cattle was his event but now, to paraphrase another famous poet/lyricist/storyteller, he aches too much in the places that he used to play to do it competitively any more. He had a satellite radio show dedicated to playing the old masters of country, blues and jazz. Funny that someone I connect entirely with rock/pop music spends his days immersed in anything but. I sometimes forget that people have whole lives to which I am not privy, as if my brain thinks they shut off any time I’m not watching. Bernie’s a private guy and he doesn’t give anything away — in fact, if you read enough interviews you’ll see that he has some stock answers to questions that journalists keep printing even though if they’d done the slightest bit of research they’d have found he’d said it all before (though in his defence I think if people kept asking me the same questions after 40-odd years I wouldn’t dignify them with an original response either). He has a blog but he doesn’t use it to tell tales of life on the road with Elton’s magical mystery tours — a fact that disappoints me and greatly amuses me all at once. Amuses because a) it’s unexpected (and it’s unexpected because I know nothing about Bernie Taupin), and b) he doesn’t look back, and by that he means that he’s his own man, he has his own life and he’s happy with it, doesn’t yearn after some bygone glory days. I’m sure he has stories to spare, and I hope he one day writes a book. But he was somehow, despite the fact that he was just a kid when everything went golden for the two of them, able to hang on to himself. He didn’t get caught up in the entourage, though he was part of the show, didn’t get caught up in the fame and glitz — not to the point where he needed it, in any case. He remained himself. I admire that, I’m not sure I would have had the strength of character.
I’m delighted to find Blogging Bernie not at all what I expected. He’s an opinionated old coot (well, not that old, he was a young teenager when I was born) who hates reality shows as much as I do, has no interest in current music and doesn’t take the stuff he writes for Elton too seriously. Elton famously has written songs in minutes; Bernie, it seems, is nearly as fast. He cautions readers against imputing too much depth to his lyrics — and that made me smile because I never have, except in a few cases where I’m pretty sure it’s expected. I’m not really a fan of Bernie Taupin because of his depth, I’m a fan because of his phrasing. I like the way he uses words. When I write — when I’m paying attention and not just putting words on a page to meet a deadline — I listen for the music, the little sublime moments when two words together, or two ideas together, or the repetition of a phrase or word create something bigger than themselves. On a good day, when I’m on fire, there’s music everywhere. And I think I have Bernie Taupin to thank for that. He’s the writer I’ve studied the longest, the one whose work I’ve drunk of the deepest, and I like to think he’s taught me a thing or two. So I thanked him for that in my letter too.
I still don’t know why I wrote to him. A bit of a compulsion that became more pronounced after he said he reads all his email (the stuff that makes it through the vetting process in any case, ask him for an autographed photo or send him your poetry and your email will not make it to his desk). But I’m glad I did. It’s not every day you get to acknowledge the people who influence you.