Bernie Taupin: even after 300m album sales, why is Elton John’s lyricist still underrated?

As befits a lengthy autobiography by an artist who, as the cover puts it, is “a famously private person”, we learn a great deal about lyricist Bernie Taupin from Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me, published this week.

We discover that, low public profile or not, Taupin enjoyed the fruits of his success in almost as lavish a style as his songwriting partner Elton John: while holidaying in Barbados in the mid-70s, he rectifies the problem of having forgotten to buy a birthday present for his then girlfriend by simply flying to New York, picking something up at Tiffany, then immediately flying back to the Caribbean. We learn that the man who wrote the lyrics for Candle in the Wind wasn’t a fan of Marilyn Monroe, and that the man who rewrote the lyrics for Candle in the Wind so it could be performed at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral isn’t keen on the institution of monarchy. And we learn that – again, like his most celebrated songwriting partner – he is possessed of a winningly waspish sense of humour. As skewering live reviews go, his view from the audience at the Rolling Stones’s legendary Shelley-quoting, butterfly-releasing 1969 Hyde Park gig takes some beating: “Then the Stones came on,” he writes, “pretending they were sorry Brian Jones was dead.”

We learn that Bernie Taupin is remarkably self-deprecating, eschewing the title of “songwriter” altogether – Elton John is the songwriter in their partnership, he insists, and “any concrete evidence that I [am] doing anything other than flying by the seat of my pants has yet to be presented” – and we learn that Taupin, bizarrely, writes his lyrics with a guitar, then presents them to John. The finished product isn’t Elton John writing music to Taupin’s words, but Elton John effectively writing a completely different melody and accompaniment to a song that already exists, but which he hasn’t heard.

Taupin in 2020.
Taupin in 2020. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

However roundabout their songwriting process, they sold something like 300m records together, yet Taupin is a perennially underrated lyricist – which might have something to with the John-Taupin partnership’s signature song. There’s a clever conceit at Your Song’s centre – a song about writing a song – but it’s ultimately a love song written by a teenage virgin, with all the naive clumsiness that suggests: “I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss / Well a few of the verses, well they’ve got me quite cross.” Its occasional gaucheness may well be part of its lasting appeal – there’s something charming about its prosaic shrug of “it’s the best I can do” – but it’s not the stuff of which critical acclaim is made.

But Taupin learned quickly, on the job. A born Americanophile, on the 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection he conjured up civil war and wild west fantasias under the influence of the Band – Bob Dylan approved of My Father’s Gun – but it was when he actually reached the US that things really took off. Goggle-eyed at LA, he wrote one of the great paeans to the city. The subject of Tiny Dancer is a matter of some controversy (the common assumption is that it’s Maxine Feibelman, who became Taupin’s first wife, but Taupin insists not, which might have something to do with the bitterness of their subsequent divorce), but the truth might be that the subject is Los Angeles itself. Its verses feel as evocative of the city in the immediate aftermath of the 60s as the pages of Scattershot do, recalling its many delights.

On their return from their first American trip, Elton John came out to his friends. Taupin, who already knew John was gay, responded with 1971’s All the Nasties, which has the singer pondering what would happen if he came out publicly: “Would they criticise behind my back? / Maybe I should let them”. It’s an extraordinary, heartfelt act of empathy; it’s difficult to imagine that it was written by someone other than the person singing it, which says a great deal about the closeness of the pair’s bond, and it wouldn’t be the last time he pulled off the extremely dicey feat of writing from his partner’s point of view.

The diciest song of the lot might be 1980’s White Lady White Powder, where he had the cocaine-addicted John sing: “I’m a catatonic son-of-a-bitch who’s had a touch too much white powder … I might just escape while the others might die”. The most powerful might be 1992’s The Last Song, a shattering memorial for the umpteen friends and former partners John had watched die of Aids, which the singer was initially incapable of recording without breaking down: “As light as straw and brittle as a bird, today I weigh less than a shadow on the wall … As fear grows, please hold me in your arms”.

The familiarity of Elton John’s most famous songs blinds people to how good Taupin’s contributions were. Songs about space exploration had understandably proliferated around the time of the first moon landing, but in Rocket Man, Taupin’s brilliance is to update them for an era in which the Apollo missions had become a regular fact of life and subject to declining public interest. There’s none of the fear and trepidation that informs David Bowie’s Space Oddity; the papers no longer want to know whose shirts the astronaut wears, and the whole business elicits nothing more than a weary shrug: “It’s just my job, five days a week”. Bennie and the Jets is a fantastic evocation of the kind of gig almost everyone has been to: the band are overhyped, the atmosphere is equal parts anticipation and cynicism, everything great you’ve heard about them has been mediated through breathless journalism. “Have you seen them yet? … they’re weird and wonderful … I read it in a magazine”.

And sometimes you have to dig into Elton John’s deep cuts to find Bernie Taupin’s gems. Roy Rogers, buried near the end of the double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, is a weirdly moving portrait of thwarted middle-age: its strange emotive power may derive from the suspicion that the character it portrays might be Taupin if he’d never met John: slumped in front of a western on the TV, dreading the next day at work.

Ticking, from 1974’s Caribou, is something else entirely: its chilling depiction of a siege at a bar, the gunman at its centre – “What was it that brought the squad car screaming up your drive / to notify your parents of the manner in which you died?” – has been eerily potentiated by the passing years. It reads more like something written recently, in the age of school shootings and furious debate about US gun control, than nearly 50 years ago.

His greatest achievement might be the 1975 song cycle of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, about the John/Taupin partnership’s hardscrabble early years, which also paints a striking picture of London in the 60s: a tougher, grimier city than the era’s mythology would have you believe. It’s written from the perspective of someone with their nose pressed against the glass of the exclusive party that was swinging London, to which they’ve resolutely failed to secure an invitation. Later on, he’s particularly great on 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, home to the midlife crisis of This Train Don’t Stop There Any More and American Triangle’s harrowing depiction of the homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard.

But in Scattershot he seems blithely unbothered. You don’t think the lyrics to Don’t Go Breaking My Heart are much cop? No problem, nor does he: he wrote them to order, in 10 minutes, pissed by a hotel swimming pool. And being unrecognised has its advantages. I once found him seated behind me at an Elton John show at Madison Square Gardenin New York with his wife and kids. It was in the midst of what became the highest-grossing tour in rock history; there were more than 20,000 people there, and the man who had co-written literally every song on the gig’s setlist had walked to his seat in the centre of the arena, apparently without any of them noticing, and certainly without any of them stopping him. I rather got the impression that suited him just fine.

Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me is published by Octopus (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

The Guardian

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