One morning in June 1983 I was awoken by the sound of someone hammering on the door of my hotel suite. I couldn’t think who it was, because I couldn’t think at all.
The moment I opened my eyes, I realised I had the kind of hangover that makes you think it’s not a hangover: you can’t possibly feel this ill just through overindulgence — there has to be something more serious wrong with you.
It wasn’t just my head. My whole body hurt. Especially my hands. Since when did hang-overs make your hands hurt?
The hammering continued, accompanied by a voice calling my name.
Showman: Elton appears on The Muppet Show in 1977
It was my PA, Bob Halley. I got out of bed. God, this hangover was astonishing. I felt worse than I did after Ringo Starr’s 1974 New Year’s Eve party, and that had started at 8pm and ended around 3.30 the following afternoon.
I opened the door and Bob gave me a searching look, like he was expecting me to say something. When I didn’t, he said: ‘I think you should come and see this.’
I followed him into his own room. He opened the door to reveal a scene of total devastation. There wasn’t a single piece of furniture left intact, except the bed.
Everything else was on its side, or upside down, or in pieces. Sitting among the splinters was a cowboy hat that Bob liked to wear. It was completely flat, like Yosemite Sam’s after Bugs Bunny drops an anvil on his head.
‘F***ing hell,’ I said. ‘What happened?’
There was a long pause.
‘Elton,’ he said eventually. ‘You happened.’
What did he mean, I happened? I couldn’t see how this had anything to do with me. The last thing I remembered, I was having an absolutely marvellous time. So why would I smash anything up?
‘I was in the bar,’ I said indignantly. ‘With Duran Duran.’
Bob sighed. ‘Yes, you were,’ he said. ‘At first.’
It was June 1983 and we were in Cannes, shooting a video for I’m Still Standing, which was planned as the first single off my forthcoming album, Too Low for Zero.
Filming started at 4am and went on all day. As the sun went down, a break was called and I went back to my hotel, the Negresco, to freshen up before the night shoot.
I was in the lobby when I bumped into Simon Le Bon. He was in town with Duran Duran, and they were just heading to the bar. Did I want to come along?
I didn’t know him that well, but I thought a quick drink might liven me up. I was dithering over what to order, when Simon asked if I’d ever had a vodka martini. I had not. Perhaps I should try one.
Reports vary about precisely what happened next. I’m afraid I can’t confirm or deny them because I don’t really remember anything beyond thinking Duran Duran were enormously jolly company and noticing that the vodka martini had slipped down remarkably easily.
Depending on who you believe, I had either six or eight more of them in the space of an hour, and a couple of lines of coke.
I then apparently returned to the video set, demanded they begin running the cameras, took all my clothes off and started rolling around on the floor naked.
My then manager John Reid was there, performing as an extra in the video, dressed as a clown. He remonstrated with me, an intervention I took very badly.
So badly, in fact, that I punched him in the face. Some observers said it looked like I’d broken his nose. That explained why my hands hurt, but I was quite shocked. I had never hit anyone in my adult life before, and I never have since. I hate physical violence to the point that I can’t even watch a rugby match.
Then again, if I was going to break the habit of a lifetime and punch someone in the face, it might as well be John Reid: he could take it as payback for thumping me when we were a couple.
Someone else managed to get my clothes back on — this, I was told, took several attempts — and Bob Halley hustled me upstairs. I expressed my displeasure about his intervention by smashing up his hotel room.
As a finale, I’d stamped on his hat, then staggered back to my own room and passed out.
Bob and I sat on the bed in hysterics. There was nothing to do other than howl with laughter at the awfulness of it all, and then make some apologetic phone calls.
It was a day that should have made me think long and hard about how I was behaving.
But, and you might be ahead of me here, it didn’t work out that way at all.
The main impact the events in Nice had on my life was that — wait for it — I decided to drink more vodka martinis.
Most of the time, no one dared say anything because of who I was. That’s the thing about success.
It gives you a licence to misbehave; a licence that doesn’t get revoked until your success dries up completely.
I had started taking cocaine in 1974. I liked how it made me feel. That jolt of confidence and euphoria, the sense that I could suddenly open up, that I didn’t feel shy or intimidated, that I could talk to anybody.
That was all bull***t, of course. I was full of energy, I was inquisitive, I had a sense of humour and a thirst for knowledge: I didn’t need a drug to make me talk to people.
If anything, cocaine gave me too much confidence for my own good. If I hadn’t been coked out of my head when the Rolling Stones turned up in Colorado and asked me to come onstage with them, I might have just performed Honky Tonk Women, waved to the crowd and made my exit.
Instead, I decided it was going so well, I’d stay on and jam along to the rest of their set, without first taking the precaution of asking the Stones if they wanted an auxiliary keyboard player. For a while, I thought Keith Richards kept staring at me because he was awestruck by the brilliance of my improvised contributions to their oeuvre. After a few songs, it finally penetrated my brain that the expression on his face wasn’t really suggestive of profound musical appreciation.
I quickly scuttled off, noting as I went that Keith was still staring at me in a manner that suggested we’d be discussing this later, and decided it might be best if I didn’t hang around for the after-show party.
But there was something more to cocaine than the way it made me feel. Cocaine had a certain cachet about it. It was fashionable and exclusive. Doing it was like becoming a member of an elite little clique, that secretly indulged in something edgy, dangerous and illicit. Pathetically enough, that really appealed to me. I’d become successful and popular, but I never felt cool.
Even back in my first band, Bluesology, I was the nerdy one, the one who didn’t look like a pop star, who never quite carried off the hip clothes, who spent all his time in record shops while the rest of the band were out getting laid and taking drugs.
When it finally arrived, my success had happened so fast that, despite the warm welcome I had from other stars, I couldn’t help but still feel slightly out of place, as if I didn’t quite belong.
As it turned out, doing a line of coke, then immediately going back for another one, was very me. I was never the kind of drug addict who couldn’t get out of bed without a line, or who needed to take it every day. But once I started, I couldn’t stop, until I was absolutely certain there was no cocaine anywhere in the vicinity.
My appetite for the stuff was unbelievable — enough to attract comment in the circles I was moving in. Given that I was a rock star spending a lot of time in Seventies L.A., this was a not inconsiderable feat.
Once again, you might think this would have given me pause for thought, but I’m afraid the next 16 years were full of incidents that would have given any rational human being pause concerning their drug consumption.
That was the problem. Because I was doing coke, I wasn’t a rational human being any more. You become unreasonable and irresponsible, self-obsessed, a law unto yourself.
It’s your way or the highway. It’s a horrible drug.
Elton Uncensored: So lovesick I tried to end it all with pills
As well as taking drugs, my personal life had been, more or less, a disaster.
I’d fall in love with straight men all the time, chase after the thing I couldn’t have.
Sometimes it went on for months and months, this madness of thinking that today was the day you’d get a phone call from them saying ‘Oh, by the way, I love you’, despite the fact that they’d told you it was never going to happen.
Or I’d see someone I liked the look of in a gay bar and before I’d actually spoken to them, I’d be hopelessly in love, convinced this was the man I was fated to share the rest of my life with and mentally sketching out a wonderful future. I didn’t pick them up so much as take them hostage.
‘Right, you have to give up what you’re doing, come on the road, fly round the world with me.’ I’d buy them the watch and the shirt and the cars, but eventually they had no reason to be, except to be with me, and I was busy, so they’d be left on the sidelines.
And after three or four months they’d end up resenting it, I’d end up getting bored with them, and it would end in tears. And then I’d get someone else to get rid of them for me and start again.
Decadent: Elton and, right, Rod Stewart
It was absolutely dreadful behaviour: I’d have one leaving at the airport at the same time as the new one was flying in.
It was a decadent era, and plenty of other pop stars were behaving in a similar way —Rod Stewart occasionally let girls know he’d finished with them by just leaving a plane ticket on their bed, so he wasn’t going to win any awards for chivalry either. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew this can’t be right. I couldn’t stand being on my own. I had to be with people.
I was incredibly immature. I was still the little boy from Pinner Hill Road underneath it all. The events, the shows, the records, the success were all great, but when I was away from that, I wasn’t an adult, I was a teenager.
I had been completely wrong when I thought that changing my name meant I’d changed as a person. I wasn’t Elton, I was Reg. And Reg was still the same as he’d been 15 years ago, hiding in his bedroom while his parents fought: insecure and body-conscious and self-loathing. I didn’t want to go home to him at night. If I did, the misery could be all-consuming.
One night, while I was recording with the new band up at Caribou studios, I took an overdose of Valium before I went to bed. Twelve tablets. I can’t remember what exactly prompted me to do that, although it was probably some catastrophic love affair gone wrong.
When I woke up the next day, I panicked and called Connie Pappas, who worked with John Reid, and told her what I’d done. While I was talking to her, I blacked out. The American session musician James Newton Howard heard me collapse and carried me back upstairs to my room. They called a doctor, who prescribed me pills for my nerves.
With the benefit of hindsight, that seems quite an odd thing to do to someone who’s just tried to finish himself off with a load of pills for his nerves, but they must have helped, at least in the short term — the sessions got finished.
Elton Uncensored: Rehab? It taught me how to make a bed and wash my own clothes
In the late Eighties, I fell in love with a guy called Hugh Williams, who lived in Atlanta, Georgia. One day, he had some news for me: he was sick of drinking and taking drugs, and he’d decided to go into rehab.
I went ballistic, screaming, shouting, saying the most hurtful things I could think of. Afterwards, I holed up alone in a rented house in London for two weeks, snorting cocaine and drinking whisky.
On the rare occasions when I ate, I made myself sick immediately afterwards. I wouldn’t answer the phone. I wouldn’t answer the door. I didn’t wash, I didn’t get dressed. It was sordid. Awful.
Eventually, I realised that if I carried on for a couple more days, I’d either overdose or have a heart attack. I had no idea how to live, but I didn’t want to die.
Drink problem: Elton in the Seventies
I called Hugh, who agreed to meet, but only in the presence of his counsellor.
The next day, I was in a tiny hotel room in America, facing Hugh. The counsellor had told us both to make a list of things we didn’t like about each other and then read it out.
I went first.
I said that I didn’t like the fact that Hugh was untidy. He left his clothes everywhere, and didn’t put CDs back in their cases.
Then it was Hugh’s turn. I noticed he was shaking. ‘You’re a drug addict,’ he said. ‘You’re an alcoholic. You’re a food addict and a bulimic. You’re a sex addict. You’re co-dependent.’
There was a long pause. He clearly thought I was going to explode again.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, I am.’
‘Well, do you want to get help?’ his counsellor asked. ‘Do you want to get better?’
I started to cry. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I need help. I want to get better.’
Getting help wasn’t straightforward, as I needed to be treated for three addictions at once: cocaine, alcohol and food. On July 29, 1990, I ended up in the only place I could find that would take me — an ordinary general hospital in Chicago, with a view over a shopping-centre car park.
A consultant asked me how I was feeling, and I told him the truth: I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure if I’d had any real feelings for years, or whether everything was the result of the constant see-sawing of emotions brought on by drugs and booze.
The first days were tough: I couldn’t sleep, I had panic attacks, suffered from mood swings, felt ill all the time and lonely. And, most of all, I was embarrassed.
Not because of my addictions, but because we were expected to do things for ourselves — clean our rooms, make our beds — and that was something I was completely unused to.
I’d got to the stage where I shaved and I wiped my a***, and paid other people to do everything else for me.
I had no idea how to work a washing-machine and had to ask another patient, Peggy, to show me. After she realised I wasn’t joking, she was helpful, but that didn’t change the fact that I was a 43-year-old man who didn’t know how to clean his own clothes.
But, for me, the worst problem was that the treatment was based around the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme, and as soon as my counsellor started talking to me about God, I flipped out.
I didn’t want to know about religion: religion was dogma, it was bigotry, it was the Moral Majority and people saying that Aids was God’s judgment on homosexuals.
That afternoon in Chicago, I stormed out of the meeting, packed my bag and left. I got as far as a bench outside and burst into tears.
I could easily make some phone calls and get out of here, but where to? Back to London? To do what? Sit around in a dressing-gown covered in vomit, doing coke all day? I lugged my suitcase sheepishly back into the hospital.
Eventually, I started making progress. I liked the routine. I liked doing things for myself. I got to grips, if not with the idea of God, then of a higher power.
Group meetings — in which we were told to talk about our worst, dirtiest secrets — were no place for the faint-hearted, but I grew to love them. They forced me to be honest, after years of deceiving other people and myself.
If someone else has the guts to stand there and tell you about being abused by their own father, it compels you to tell the truth about yourself. It’s just insulting their bravery to do anything else.
When you’re an addict, it’s all about lying, covering your tracks, telling yourself you don’t have a problem. Being honest was freeing. You got rid of all the baggage that came with lying: the embarrassment, the shame.
After six weeks, I was ready to leave. I spent some time in Atlanta with Hugh, but our relationship had begun to peter out.
For most of the next 18 months I was in London, where I settled into a quiet routine.
I lived alone. I didn’t bother employing staff; I liked doing things myself. I got a dog from Battersea Dogs Home, a little mutt called Thomas.
Every day, I’d get up at 6.30am and take Thomas for a walk. It’s a cliché to say that a recovering addict notices things about his surroundings that he never saw while he was using — the beauty of flowers, the wonders of nature — but it’s only a cliché because it’s true.
After the dog was walked, I spent most of my time at meetings.
Once, I skipped a meeting to go to a Watford game — and when my sponsor rang from America, I told him what I’d done.
A man who worked as a driver for the city of Chicago’s sanitation department and spent most of his life communicating with his colleagues over the noise of his garbage truck, he could really yell.
That night, he sounded like he was trying to make himself heard on the other side of the Atlantic without the aid of a telephone.
More used to shouting at people than being shouted at, I was taken aback, but also abashed. He was a good man — I eventually ended up being his son’s godfather — but he was genuinely angry, and his anger was born out of concern for me.
So I followed his advice. I became very strict about attending meetings: Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous. Sometimes, I went to three or four meetings a day. In three years, I went to about 1,400 of them.
Some of my friends began expressing the opinion that I was now addicted to going to meetings about addiction.
They were probably right — but it was a substantial improvement on the things I’d been addicted to previously.
I liked the people I met. I always volunteered to make the tea, and I made lasting friends, people I’m still in touch with today: ordinary people, who saw me as a recovering addict first and Elton John second.
You heard the most extraordinary things. Women in the Anorexics and Bulimics meetings would talk about taking a single pea, cutting it into four and eating a quarter for lunch and a quarter for dinner.
I’d think, ‘That’s insane’. But then I’d remember how I’d been a few months before — drunk and unwashed at 10am, doing a line of coke every five minutes — and realised they must have thought exactly the same about me.
Some people really struggle when they come out of addiction, but I was the opposite. I was elated.
Every morning, I was just happy to wake up without feeling like s***. I never felt like having a line, and I still can’t bear being anywhere near people who are doing it.
The second I walk into a room, I know. I can just sense people are on it — from the way they’re talking, their voices pitched slightly louder than they need to be, not really listening — and how they’re behaving.
I just leave — because, quite frankly, it’s a drug that makes people act like a*******s. I wish I’d realised that 45 years ago.
Elton Uncensored: Katharine Hepburn hopped into my life
The most interesting person I knew in Virginia Water in Surrey — where I bought a bungalow with John Reid in 1972 — had nothing to do with the music business.
At that time, the film-maker Bryan Forbes owned a bookshop, and we met when I walked in one day. He introduced himself and said he thought he recognised me.
Pals: Katharine and Bryan
As the conversation progressed, it became increasingly apparent that he thought I was one of the Bee Gees. Still, once we’d established I wasn’t a Gibb brother, we got on very well.
One summer Sunday afternoon, John and I were sitting outside the bungalow having a snack, when we noticed a 60-something lady who looked a little like Katharine Hepburn cycling up our drive.
It was Katharine Hepburn: ‘I’m staying with Bryan Forbes — he said it would be OK if I used your pool.’
John and I just nodded, dumbstruck. Five minutes later, she reappeared in a swimsuit, complaining there was a dead frog in the pool.
While I dithered about how to get it out — I’m a bit squeamish — she just jumped in and grabbed it with her hand.
I asked her how she could bear to touch it.
‘Character, young man,’ she said, nodding sternly.
Elton Uncensored: Bob Dylan is a disaster at party games
Towards the end of the Eighties, I held an insane party in LA, and invited everyone I knew. By mid-evening, I was flying, absolutely out of my mind, when a scruffy-looking guy I didn’t recognise wandered into the lit-up garden.
Who the hell was he? Must be one of the staff, a gardener. I loudly demanded to know what the gardener was doing helping himself to a drink.
There was a moment’s shocked silence, broken by my PA saying: ‘Elton, that’s not the gardener. It’s Bob Dylan.’
Coked out of my brain and keen to make amends, I rushed over, grabbed him and started steering him towards the house.
‘Bob! Bob! We can’t have you in those terrible clothes, darling. Come upstairs and I’ll fit you out with some of mine at once. Come on, dear!’
Scruffy: Elton’s party guest Bob Dylan
Dylan stared at me, horrified. His expression suggested he was trying hard to think of something he wanted to do less than get dressed up like Elton John, and drawing a blank.
Given that one of my recent looks had involved teaming a pink suit and a straw boater topped with a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, you couldn’t really blame him.
Another time, I invited Dylan to dinner with Simon and Garfunkel, and afterwards we played charades.
At least, they tried to play charades. They were terrible at it. The best thing I can say about Simon and Garfunkel is that they were better than Dylan.
He couldn’t get the hang of the ‘How many syllables?’ thing at all. He couldn’t do ‘sounds like’ either, come to think of it. One of the best lyricists in the world, the greatest man of letters in the history of rock music, and he couldn’t seem to tell you whether a word had one syllable or two syllables or what it rhymed with!
He was so hopeless, I started throwing oranges at him. Or so I was informed the next morning by a friend.
That’s not really a phone call you want to receive when you’re struggling with a hangover. ‘Morning, darling — do you remember throwing oranges at Bob Dylan last night?’ Oh God.
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TOMORROW: Hair-raising truth about my transplants