Bernie Taupin Disputes Legend Of How His Lyrics Found Way To Elton John
By Andrew Magnotta @AndrewMagnotta
September 27, 2023
In a time when the rock and roll memoir genre can be diminished as Mad Libs of excesses and clichés, one of music's most unique figures, Bernie Taupin, has delivered with Scattershot an autobiography as imaginative as his immortal lyrics and as singular as his life's story.
While Bernie has contributed to dozens of artists since his songwriting career began in the late-1960s, his career-defining relationship is his work with Elton John. Though Bernie has scarcely performed a musical note on a quarter of a billion albums sold with Elton, his lyrics are the immortal soul of and invaluable catalyst behind some of the greatest popular music ever recorded.
All artists have their limits, and it would appear that Elton and Bernie's unconventional partnership has worked so well for so long because almost none of their creative skills overlap. When the pair met in 1967, Elton was a composer, singer and working pianist from London, who was admittedly "hopeless" at writing words. Bernie was a 17-year-old farmboy from Lincolnshire with a voracious appetite for music and literature but no idea what to do with his life.
The Liberty Records 'Talent Wanted' ad that ultimately connected the two was a thread that proved Bernie could build a future for himself using his imagination. But he couldn't have envisioned this.
As Bernie tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A in a recent conversation surrounding Scattershot, being a 'lyricist' who did not also sing or compose music was not really a job for which anyone was hiring. He believes his eventual partnership with Elton had more to do with the uniqueness of his submission and Elton's particular eye for talent than a divine coincidence, as Elton and others have made it out to be.
"I don’t think for a minute that there was anybody else that sent just lyrics and said, ‘Well, maybe you can find somebody to put music to this," Bernie explained.
And for the state of his lyrics in those days, Bernie notes that he was not a musician at the time and had little sense of how to write a song.
"I was writing sort of bad, naïve poetry," he continued. "I enjoyed writing, but I just didn’t know what to write. The poetry that I was probably creating was just a riff on what was popular at the time ... All those early things that I presented of examples of my work, anyone in their right mind would have said, ‘How would I make heads or tails of this?’ Luckily, Elton’s talent alone saw through it and saw the potential in it."
Scattershot details Bernie and Elton's partnership and chosen brotherhood, but also lays bare the distance between the two, the fascinating life Bernie built for himself in America and a number of priceless run-ins with fellow 20th century legends in colorful prose and commendable candor.
Read the full QN'A below! For more details and where to buy Scattershot, go here.
Watch Bernie's recent interview with Q104.3's Jim Kerr Rock and Roll Morning Show via the player at the top of this page.
I know that The Band was a formative influence for you and for Elton. We just lost Robbie Robertson this summer — I know your paths crossed during your first trip to America; did you maintain a relationship with Robbie?
I knew all the guys in The Band, some of them less than others. I had quite a long lasting relationship with Rick Danko, who is in the book a great deal. So I was very close to Rick.
I knew Robbie socially. In fact, Robbie was the first guy out of The Band that we met back around ’70 – ’71 in New York. The first time we met him, he invited us over to his hotel. We took him a copy of Tumbleweed Connection, an acetate. He was very impressed with it, very encouraging. After that, he and The Band came up to Philadelphia to see Elton play. I think it was at the Electric Factory. They came to see us then, and then I didn’t see Robbie for a long time after that.
We ran into each other socially, but he moved in a different social stratosphere than I did, so we didn’t get to see much of each other. I was very saddened by his passing.
His work was a huge, huge influence on me. I’ve been very vocal in saying how Music from Big Pink really sort of freed me up and made me aware that I could write about those sort of things, moving forward, that it was okay to write about a mythical America and put it in the framework of modern rock. So yes, I owe them a great debt.
It occurred to me that you and Robbie both had a lot of success writing songs for other vocalists, with Robbie writing songs for the other members of the band to sing and you writing for Elton and Alice Cooper and others.
That’s a good point.
Did you ever discuss that element of your work?
No, I don’t think our conversations went any deeper than a surface-level banter and dialogue. It was quite a platonic, mundane relationship. As far as our first meeting, Elton and I were both very shy individuals, especially at that point in time. I think we sort of let Robbie carry the conversation and stood back at the foot of the master, so to speak.
Have you read Elton's book?
Of course! I loved it. Obviously, Elton’s book was ghostwritten, but the guy who wrote it really captured [who he is]. I mean, it sounds like [Elton’s] voice. Very self-deprecating, wearing his heart on his sleeve and extremely funny at the same time. There was a lot of it that I laughed out loud.
It's such a unique thing in a relationship to be able to exchange your life's story with a friend, and learn things about each other you would never know otherwise.
Well, I mean, we both admire each other’s books. He’s been very complimentary of mine and I’ve been very complimentary of his. Obviously there are things in Elton’s book that are also in my book, but I tried to avoid that as much as possible. I really tried to skirt around things that have been regurgitated time and time again and people know. I tried to avoid those.
But there are things that you can’t avoid — major issues, but I tried to write them from my perspective, a fly on the wall kind of thing, a peripheral kind of thing.
I think our books are vastly different. His is very much a linear book, mine is nonlinear. The only part of my book that tows the line in a linear sense is the beginning, my childhood leading into meeting Elton.
Hence the title Scattershot. After we come to the States in the book, our lives become very separate in the sense that geographically, we’re in two different places. Once I came to the States, this is where I belonged, I kissed the ground, this is where I’m staying and you’re not going to be able to drag me back. Wild horses couldn’t pull me [back to England].
Elton has always been an anglophile and lived in England, although he has places around the world.
It’s a misconception that I think people have is that they’ve look at Elton and I as sort of a two-headed monster, which we are far from. Like I say, once we came to the States and after a couple of tours, we were definitely separate individuals searching for our own identity and our own lives.
Hopefully people won’t be disappointed by the book in the sense that Elton is not apparent in it for the majority of it.
One fact from your book that struck me was how much you were on the road with Elton, given that Elton remarks in Me about how you were never keen on being introduced to the audience or taking a bow with the band.
I was out there as a support unit, as much as anything else. I was very young, so there was nothing else going on in my life; that was my life. I hadn’t developed any different notions of how to get along on my own somewhere else. We were just one big unit traveling around the world, and I liked that transient lifestyle.
The music that we were creating and taking out on the road was something that was created by the two of us. I was instinctively a part of that and treated as a part of the band. That really was my life, I had no other life outside of that.
If you see all those early album covers, I was featured on those as if I was part of the band. I mean, I did everything with them outside of walking onstage at night and playing. I was up there, it was my voice up there — not my voice, but what was coming out of the voice onstage came from me. So instinctively I felt like I was definitely part of that.
Elton didn't find his flamboyant style until after the first U.S. tour. You remarked in Scattershot that his rather "square" appearance when you first met put you at ease. Did you have misgivings later on about the level to which he took his costuming?
If you’re familiar with his book, he talks about when he was a child, his father was so strict, he wouldn’t let him wear anything that was regarded as trendy — he couldn’t even wear suede shoes, so I could see that that was his way of rebelling. Pop music, rock and roll music, call it what you want, it’s all about rebelling. That was his way of doing it.
There were times I felt, ‘Yeah, this is a bit over-the-top, dressing as Donald Duck in Central Park and the Statue of Liberty.’ It also, probably, was a hindrance to his playing. I understood that it added to his success — it was part of his success — and it also led to the palace of excess.
There were times where I didn’t like it, I thought it was counterproductive to the music. There were different levels to the costuming; there were times it went over-the-top and there were times that I was fine with it.
It’s his life to live. A long way around answering your question: there were times when I didn’t like it and expressed my distaste for it, and he did what he should have done and completely ignored me.
You write that you answered that famed Liberty Records 'Talent Wanted' ad "unsure that you had any" talent. Did you have any conviction at the time that your submission contained good writing?
The material I was presenting was fairly random and not particularly in any sort of format. I was pretty lucky that somebody spotted any potential in the things that I was writing.
The myth would have it that Ray Williams, the gentleman that I met with at Liberty sort of randomly gave Elton a pile of my lyrics out of a whole set of lyrics that people had sent in … but I’ve never bought into that.
I don’t think for a minute that there was anybody else that sent just lyrics and said, ‘Well, maybe you can find somebody to put music to this.’ I mean, it wasn’t like being a guitar player or a bass player or a general songwriter — ‘lyricist’ alone wasn’t a well-known profession.
I was just clinging at straws. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. My imagination was my driving force, that was really all I had to offer, so I had to go where I could possibly make my imagination work.
Were you writing much on your own before that?
I was writing sort of bad, naïve poetry. I enjoyed writing, but I just didn’t know what to write. The poetry that I was probably creating was just a riff on what was popular at the time, whether it was the protest movement, the folk movement, I was emulating those kinds of themes. It was just an exercise in writing, but I had no idea how to write a song — a lyric for a song. I had no idea about bridges and choruses, it was very stream-of-consciousness.
All those early things that I presented of examples of my work, anyone in their right mind would have said, ‘How would I make heads or tails of this?’ Luckily, Elton’s talent alone saw through it and saw the potential in it.
There’s a photograph in the book of the very first song that we ever wrote — a song called “Scarecrow.” If you look at it, it just looks like freeform poetry.
Bear in mind, as time has gone by, the thing that I loathe more than anything else is my lyrics being referred to as poetry, which people in their kindness do. But if there’s anything that they’re not is poetry. Lyrics and poetry are very different. If you want poetry, go to Leonard Cohen. If you want lyrics, go to Bernie Taupin.
How has your writing process changed since those early attempts?
When I first started … I had no idea what writing a song entailed. The way that I’ve written throughout the years has changed, but what has never changed is that I like titles. I make lists of titles. And bear in mind, too … I’m not writing lyrics every day. I’m not a professional songwriter like that … I only work if Elton calls up and says, ‘I want to go into the studio in a couple of months; why don’t you start putting some stuff together?’ That’s when I start writing.
I make lists of titles, I’ll come up with lines. I’ll make notes. The way that I write now is that I write with a guitar. I know how to construct a lyric for a song, that came pretty quickly after the first couple of album. So I have a melody in my head sometimes.
Just working with a guitar — it’s a bit like Linus and his security blanket — I need to have something in my hands to start putting the structure of a song together. Now, when Elton gets it … it’s his territory, and it’ll sound totally different — I never give him melodic ideas because his are so much better than mine; he’s brilliant with melody. But [playing guitar] helps me in the construction of a song. Words just come very easily to me. If I’ve got a title, I just sort of build around a title. If I’ve got a great couple of lines for a chorus or a verse, once I’ve got those, it’s free sailing for me.
I’ll just play a couple of chords on the guitar, sing to myself, write it down on a legal pad and then transfer it to the word processor and play around with it. Ideas come very easily to me.
Whilst recalled some of your early work together, Elton in his book mentioned on multiple occasions that Bernie was hammering away at a typewriter. I was curious if that typing was your first draft or if you were simply transferring your lyrics to type for the benefit of Elton and the band?
The only difference now is the computer has taken the place of the typewriter. Back then, I was doing the same thing; I was writing on a legal pad and working on a legal pad. All my original lyrics are handwritten. All I was doing on the typewriter was just printing them out so they were more legible. I wasn’t actually creating on the typewriter.
My writing was very slapdash. I’d cross things out and replace them. So in order for him to have something concrete to read legibly, I’d do it on the typewriter, but I wasn’t literally creating on the typewriter.
You've worked with a lot of artists in your career, but your relationship with Elton is obviously career-defining for the both of you. Each book — yours and Elton's — describes a special kind of symbiosis between you where you seem to cover one another's shortcomings and bring the best out of one another.
I would like to think that you’re correct that we bring out the best in each other. …We’re a million miles apart in our lives and our lifestyles, but we just really love each other as human beings. I know that sounds a bit corny, but we went through so much when we were younger.
He was certainly looking out for me, because I was younger and I was bit more naïve. He really did look out for me, and I hope I make that clear in the book. And that bond has never stopped. The other bond, obviously, is music. We just loved, loved music when we started out. I mean, it was our lifeblood; we just lived it and breathed it. We went to see it. We bought it. We were inspired by it, and we still are today.
We have vastly different musical tastes. I mean, he has an incredible understanding of modern music, and is supportive of so many different artists. I’m a little bit longer in the tooth; I don’t really listen to pop music — I don’t really listen to rock music either. All I listen to is jazz, classic country and blues.
But again, [music is] what keeps us functioning.