"Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face," John Updike wrote in Self-Consciousness, his memoir collection. "As soon as one is aware of being somebody, to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over-animation. One can either see or be seen."
Published to coincide with his 70th birthday, on March 25th, Captain Fantastic focuses on the decade in which Elton John made his name and early fortune. Bearing out Updike's perceptive observation, it was also the decade in which the British singer and songwriter lost sight of his vocation under the weight of alcohol, drugs, repressed sexuality and a work rate that saw him (and his primary lyricist, Bernie Taupin) release 12 studio records between 1970 (Elton John) and 1979 (Victim of Love).
By honing in on the period of time in which the man formerly known as Reginald Dwight was placed under such an intense spotlight, Tom Doyle, the book's author, smartly offsets the subsequent decades that saw a swift decline in output (nine studio albums in the 1980s, three in the 1990s and noughties, two so far in this decade). Yet Doyle does so with a professional's sleight of hand: most of the first-hand quotes from John about his career from 1969 to 1980 were originally intended for a long piece for Mojo. A change of plan at the music magazine meant the article had to be shortened, leaving Doyle with many thousands of unused words, straight from the horse's mouth, telling a very interesting tale.
Doyle collected the quotes from the editing suite, added what he had left to them, got the official nod to contact other people, and went off to write a much expanded version of the piece. Although John may be keeping the best stories, and the fullest detail, for the autobiography due in 2019, Captain Fantastic is thorough enough.
What is fascinating – and Doyle covers it as best he can, given the finite material he has to work with – is how Elton John’s influence as a songwriter in the 1970s has been overshadowed by bands and artists such as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, none of whom sold as many albums as John during that decade.
Lack of confidence
The singer admits that a lack of confidence stymied his initial progress, telling Doyle that it wasn’t until he began to perform on stage that he allowed his true personality to emerge.
“The timid boy that I was, I continued to be offstage. I was comfortable on the stage but not very comfortable off of it. Although I was having a ball, you’re still stuck with the insecure, nervous person inside. Being successful doesn’t cure it. In fact, it makes things a little worse because then the difference between your stage persona and your actual, normal persona is so far removed.”
The way “the bashful kid who turned into a superstar” tried to build a negotiable bridge between the two was through almost never-ending touring and the accompanying crutches of drink and drugs.
The rise from relative obscurity, as a record-label staff songwriter and session player, to superstar was rapid, with John's self-titled second album delivering his first hit single in the UK and US, Your Song. His third album, Madmen Across the Water, from 1971, continued the trend, and for the remainder of the 1970s – with seven consecutive number-one albums in the US alone – John was the man with the Midas touch.
But with commercial success came conflict and contradictions, readily highlighted in a 1973 television documentary (made by the actor and director Bryan Forbes, then a good friend of John’s). Forbes’s introduction certainly didn’t gloss over John’s flaws: “Sometimes as bright and unyielding as the diamonds he wears on his fingers. Sometimes plunged deep into self-critical gloom . . . Seeking fame one moment, determined to reject it the next. The life and soul of the party. The party destroyer . . .”
As John had intimated, the ostentatious trappings of success – in 1975 he moved into Woodside, a redbrick pile, standing on almost 40 acres of land in Windsor, for whose walls he purchased so many artworks that the only space left to hang a Rembrandt etching was in a garage – didn’t solve everything. Neither did his increasing dependence on cocaine, which in turn intensified his depression and eventually led to a suicide attempt.
Doyle summarises all this intelligently and straightforwardly. He outlines John according to his creative output and character, both of whose quality and stability fluctuate wildly.
Less engaged musician
The star reached the end of the 1970s a far less engaged musician than he was at the start, with albums such as
A Single Man
, from 1978, and
Victim of Love
, from 1979, damaging his reputation as a songwriter, particularly in the United States. “There are parts of it I can’t even remember,” John says of the decade, which doesn’t surprise (and which, perhaps, raises a question about his powers of recall for his autobiography).
Captain Fantastic, then, is a solid enough read about one of pop music's most triumphant (and occasionally petulant) performers and songwriters. "An overview of my career," John says, "is usually: glasses . . . homosexuality . . . tantrums . . ." All of which the book documents to a greater or lesser degree, yet, perhaps through no fault of its own, escaping its origins as a lengthy, well-written magazine article proves impossible.
Tony Clayton-Lea writes about pop culture for The Irish Times