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This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 23, 2013.
Elton John has a flair for the extravagant, to say the least. Sunday night at the Emmys, he paid tribute to Liberace in a sequined jacket. John is currently performing in Vegas, at Caesar's Palace, doing a show he calls The Million Dollar Piano. But his album, The Diving Board, is the opposite of flashy. The songs are reflective, and the music is stripped down to piano, bass and drums. It's a surprising return to a time when Elton John wasn't Captain Fantastic, when he wasn't one of the biggest rock stars in the world.
The songs on the T-Bone Burnett-produced album were written with John's longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Their many hits include "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Tiny Dancer" (yes, that one), "Bennie and the Jets" ... the list just goes on. Here, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the "Elton John excess," his fear of sex as a young man, and how Liberace's example encouraged John to make the piano a star instrument.
On the different sound of The Diving Board
"It's a reflection on where we [he and Bernie Taupin] are in our lives; it's a very adult album. It's a very sparse album compared to the albums I've made before. And I'm very relaxed. I'm very happy with my personal life. When I started the album I had one son, when I finished the album I had two sons, and I think subconsciously all that played into the end sound and end product. The relaxed mood [with] which I played and which I sang, it was just a joy. I've never had that ever happen to me before when making a record."
On his extravagant stage outfits
"As a child, as a teenager, I was kind of not allowed to wear fashionable clothes. I always wanted to. I've often said I lived my teenage years in my twenties. When I left home, [I] became Elton John success, and then it became Elton John excess. Everything I couldn't do when I was younger, I did 10 times over. I was having the time of my life. I was becoming the person I wanted to be."
On understanding his own sexuality
"I didn't sleep with anyone until I was 23. In the '50s, you weren't taught about sex whatsoever; it was never talked about. People used to sneak behind curtains and look at the neighbors, and if a girl became pregnant in your part of the world, she was shipped off to the countryside. I was never told a thing about sex, so I was very naïve — as were my friends, as well, but me especially.
"I didn't really know what I was until I came to America and I had sex [for the first time] in San Francisco in 1970. It was with someone of my own sex. I suspected my homosexuality, but I had never acted out on it because I was afraid of sex. It was awful to be afraid of sex, but that's what the '50s did to people. It was, 'Sex is disgusting, it shouldn't be talked about, nudity is disgusting, we just don't talk about those kinds of things.'"
On his support of the LGBTQ community in Russia
"On one hand, I want to say, 'I'm not going and you can go to hell, you guys.' But that's not helping anyone who's gay or transgendered over there. I've been going to Russia since 1979. I've been going quite frequently, and I've always had a wonderful rapport with the Russian audiences and with the Russian people. And you know there are a lot of great Russian people out there who are outraged by what's going on, but they don't have — I don't want to abandon them. Now, I'll probably get criticized for going, and I can understand that. It's just that I, as a gay man and a gay musician, cannot stay at home and not support these people who have been to lots of my concerts in the past. I'm aware of the situation and I will be diplomatic. I'm not going to go into Russia and tell [Vladimir Putin] to go to hell and things like that. That's not the way things are done. You chip away at something, and you hope there will be dialogue and that the situation can get better. You don't just go in there with guns blazing and say, 'Well, to hell with you.' Because they're going to say, 'To hell with you, and get out of the country.' That's not going to solve anything. But if I can go there, maybe I can talk to some people in the administration.
"You can make a statement and you can read it from the stage, but it would be nice, and it would be much more fulfilling to try and meet with people in Moscow and say, 'Listen, this is just, you know, this is silly. It's a reactionary knee-jerk thing. It's harming your reputation in the rest of the world. It's not doing you any good. There has to be some discussion here. What you're doing is outrageous.' [Pauses.] They can tell me to go to hell. I've gotta do it diplomatically, but I'm going to say what I think and what I feel."
On Liberace's inspiration
"He was so charming and so lovely and very, very funny and very, very intelligent. And he was a huge influence on me. He was being who he was — he wasn't publicly out — but he didn't give a flying monkey about what he was wearing; he just went for it. And that was who he was. That, of course, influenced me, when I started wearing the clothes and I subconsciously must've [thought], 'If you're stuck at a piano and you're not a lead guitarist or a lead vocalist, you're kind of at a nine-foot plank and you've got to do something about it.' So my thing was to leap on piano, do handstands and wear clothes that would draw attention to me because that's the focus for two and half hours. I'm not walking around the stage; I'm not moving. So [Liberace] gave me that idea, probably subconsciously, because before then I had never seen anyone dress like that.
"All my stuff was firmly tongue-in-cheek. I wasn't a heartthrob [like] David Bowie or Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart in those days. I was Elton at the piano. I had to turn the attention to something comedic or even more outrageous than it was."
On using drugs to overcome shyness offstage
"I think performers are all show-offs anyway, especially musicians. Unless you show off, you're not going to get noticed. For me, music is so passionate, I have to give it my all every time I go onstage. Onstage, it was always comfortable for me, because that's where I felt at home. Offstage, it was a different situation. I was still shy offstage. Unfortunately, my shyness and my inability to communicate and really have great conversations or be part of the gang led me to the drug addiction, which blighted my life for 16 years because I thought by doing that, it would make me join in. And I did. Cocaine made me talk forever. The most nonsensical rubbish that you could ever think of. ... I had no balance in my life. I was this one person onstage and this one person offstage, but [someone] who really didn't know much about living. I had progressed as a performer, but I hadn't progressed as a human being.
"I had to learn how to function as a human being. And I really enjoyed that process. When people go to rehab and come out, they go through a difficult period, but I never had that. I was so glad to be rid of all that crap that for me, to learn again and to function as a human being and participate in the human race again was pure joy. And in 1993, I met my partner David and did The Lion King, so great things came my way.
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