Me by Elton John
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Elton John is a mensch.
Elton might disagree with this description. A mensch, after all, is an honorable person, a “person of integrity and honor,” according to the dictionary. Elton — as self-described in his memoir, “Me” — has a terrible temper, abused drugs and people, ducked out on engagements, and generally was not a nice person for many years.
Nevertheless, a mensch is what he is.
If you measure a mensch by the degree to which they honestly examine their life and learn from their mistakes, then Sir Elton John, the onetime Reginald Dwight, has earned his menschian spurs many times over. In “Me” he addresses his faults and failures with brutal, if empathetic, ownership. His lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin once wrote that “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” but Elton puts the lie to that statement. He’s sorry, over and over again, and it doesn’t seem to be hard at all, but freeing.
Not to mention hilarious. There’s a hell of a lot more to “Me” than being sorry for taking too many drugs and locking himself in his house for extended periods of times. This may be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I probably laughed at something on every page.
On his wedding to Renate Blauel: “The reception was at the Sebel and was every bit as inconspicuous and understated as you might expect. White rose had been flown in from New Zealand … There was lobster and quail and loin of venison. As was also traditional, [manager] John Reid later punched someone.”
On meeting Mae West with some gay buddies: “To my delight, she swanned in with a lascivious smile and the words, ‘Ah, my favorite sight — a room full of men,’ which, given that the men present were me, John Reid and Tony King, suggested she was in for an evening of disappointment.”
On meeting his husband, David Furnish: “I asked what he was doing that evening, when I just happened to be in London. I behaved as if this was a remarkable coincidence, but frankly, if David had been in Botswana, I suspect I would have happened to be there that evening too: ‘The Kalahari Desert? What a stroke of luck! I’ve got a meeting there tomorrow morning!’ “
He has hundreds of stories like this, and he writes about them so deadpan casually that you can’t help but like the guy, even when he’s overindulging. Which, frankly, is often. After all, he’s been a rock star for 50 (!) years, and he lived the life, even when he was trying to resist it.
I think it’s because, beneath it all, he’s still an enthusiastic fan who may still see himself as the lonely, virginal Reg Dwight. He genuinely loves music — he has a famously large record collection — and nothing makes him happier than discovering the latest band or paying tribute to a hero. (When he’s describing his late-in-life collaboration with Leon Russell, an early role model, you get the feeling he’s still pinching himself.) He’s starstruck even after he becomes friends with John Lennon or Elizabeth Taylor or Bob Dylan. He takes his charity work seriously — he’s proud of the impact of the Elton John AIDS Foundation — but not himself. And even if he’s pleased with how many of his songs became classics, he notes more than once that he can write a melody for Taupin’s lyrics in 15 minutes, so even that talent doesn’t overly impress him.
“Me” has its moments of gloom, particularly when Elton’s in rehab, and it’s hard not to sympathize when his overbearing mother enters the scene. (She even managed to disrupt his wedding to Furnish.) And he zips through the making of classic albums such as “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” something that fans — and who isn’t an Elton John fan of some degree? — would probably want more of.
Still, for the most part, Elton is a wonderful and cheerful storyteller. He made me wish that “Me” were twice its length, like a sturdy double album. On the other hand, a man who’s always been attuned to the power of singles knows that greatest-hits collections have their own power. “Me” is a pretty great collection.
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Me by Elton John