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The Rocket Man Blasts Off

Elton John is the coolest old-timer in rock -- The Rocket Man blasts off to EW about his new CD, hit Vegas show, and his beef with Madonna and the paparazzi

You're forgiven if it's slipped your mind that Elton John makes music for a living. Over the past six weeks he's enjoyed one of the biggest spurts of ink and airtime of his 35-year career, but this time he didn't earn it with hit records or over-the-top live performances. Instead, it's all thanks to a pair of profanity-laced public tantrums. In September, he snarled at a group of paparazzi at the Taipei airport, calling them ''rude, vile pigs.'' No big deal, except the outburst was, much to the delight of tabloid-TV producers, captured on camera; John's minor meltdown was aired incessantly for days. Then he trashed Madonna during Oct. 4's televised Q Awards luncheon in London, accusing her of lip-synching on her last concert tour and insisting that anyone who does ''should be shot.'' For a while there it looked like one of our most treasured singer-songwriters was turning into the world's grumpiest man (or at least angling for Simon Cowell's job).

Well, we're happy to report that effective immediately, the bitch is gone and the musician is back. Earlier this year, he won raves for his eye-popping Las Vegas revue, The Red Piano, which kicked off at Caesars Palace in February and will run periodically for three years. Now Sir Elton is set to release his 43rd (!) album, the emotionally and lyrically frank Peachtree Road, named after his American address in Atlanta (his main residence is in Windsor, England). With its country-tinged sound and pared-down production, Peachtree, out Nov. 9, continues the back-to-the-basics approach that critics praised on his last record, 2001's Songs From the West Coast. He's also keeping busy prepping two musicals: Billy Elliot, inspired by the 2000 ballet film, and The Vampire Lestat (his first theatrical work with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin), based on two Anne Rice novels.

Today, the 57-year-old is enjoying a day off from The Red Piano in his gargantuan top-floor suite at Caesars, which features all the accoutrements you'd imagine in the house of Captain Fantastic, including perfumed candles, abundant fresh flowers, and monogrammed towels that read ''EJ'' and ''DF'' (for David Furnish, his partner of 12 years). Clad in a black tracksuit with the words ''Yo Elton'' on the back, the Rocket Man is in fine spirits, even when he's prodded about his recent public brouhahas.

EW Do you think you're especially cranky right now?

EJ No, absolutely not. The thing in Taiwan was unfortunate. We arrived at 12:15 at night, we were going through the terminal, and we were just ambushed. [The photographers] were pretty hostile. They were allowed to stay in immigration and photograph us. In the end you get tired and it's like, if they're going to say ''F--- off out of Taiwan,'' you're going to answer them back. This happened to Mel Gibson, it's happened to Robbie Williams; it seems to happen in Taiwan. The Madonna thing, we were at a very drunken lunch. The Best Live Act [award] came up, and it was all these bands, like the Darkness and Muse, and then Madonna. It didn't seem to make any sense and it's not fair. These guys are driving around in a van, trying to get their career together, learn their craft, and they're singing their hearts out. If it had been Best Show of the Year, I wouldn't have had any [problem]. But I feel so strongly about lip-synching and how people do get conned.

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