The celebrated lyricist is pulling back the curtain on his life's adventures in his new memoir 'Scattershot,' out Tuesday
Bernie Taupin, the celebrated lyricist best known for his songwriting partnership with Elton John, has a cartoon framed on his desk. In it, the strip lays out various torture methods listed by pain level: thumbscrews, the rack, the pillory, the Iron Maiden. And finally, Starships’ “We Built This City,” the polarizing 1985 earworm for which Taupin wrote the lyrics.
Though the song has found itself the butt of many a joke, Taupin, 73, takes it in stride, laughing as he proudly shows off the comic’s position on his desk.
“A lot of the people that have knocked it aren’t around anymore, so…" he says. “I have no regrets about that whatsoever.”
Living a life free of regrets is a mantra that Taupin will repeatedly return to over the course of his Zoom call with PEOPLE, and one that quickly becomes clear within the pages of Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton, and Me, his new memoir due out on Tuesday with Hachette.
“I like to ruffle feathers,” he says. “If I can piss people off the right way, then I have no problem with that.”
Scattershot serves as a peek behind the curtain into the life of the spotlight-shy Taupin, from his early beginnings in the English countryside and his star-making partnership with John, to his struggles with addiction and his encounters with everyone from Ringo Starr to Princess Margaret.
“I basically just wrote until I had nothing left to say,” he says. “I’ve always been an observer. That’s why I think all of our songs come from so many different genres. Back then, I’d make copious notes. My bag would be full of napkins and receipts, or on a plane, a vomit bag.”
Though the book does offer stories behind some of Taupin and John’s biggest hits, Taupin admits that many of his lyrics he can’t remember writing — and that’s perfectly fine with him, as he prefers to let fans come up with their own interpretations of his words.
The writer says he finds it “more interesting” to let listeners come to their own conclusions, and likens it to taking in abstract art — everyone sees something different.
“It’s always more fun to allow people to use their imaginations to come up with ideas about songs,” he says.
Of course, that’s not to say he’s against sharing the inspirations behind hits like “Tiny Dancer” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” The latter is covered early on in Scattershot, as Taupin recounts a halfhearted suicide attempt by John, who stuck his head in the oven of the London flat they shared — but opened all of the kitchen windows and, as Taupin writes, “awaited a dramatic response.”
Then there’s the 1973 classic “Candle in the Wind,” which, while about Marilyn Monroe, was actually initially inspired by someone else.
“The song, ultimately yes, is about Marilyn Monroe,” he says. “It’s just that Montgomery Clift was my first choice for the song because I found him more interesting, and he was a more interesting character [in The Misfits] to me than Marilyn Monroe was and I didn’t particularly care for Marilyn Monroe.”
Taupin says he just wasn’t “one of the many millions who fell on their feet” at the mention of Monroe, but knew that song’s subject had to be someone “more recognizable and iconic” to the general public than Clift.
“But by the same token, it could have been about a lot of other people,” he says. “It’s the idea of, ‘Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse.’ There are so many choices to pick from, I just felt ultimately that Marilyn Monroe would be the most recognizable and sensible choice to run with. And it obviously made sense because it’s resonated over the years.”
Taupin says that when it comes to most of his catalog, he’s “fine” with people coming up with their own ideas, even if it’s not what he had in mind.
“The most obvious one is the theory that ‘Madman Across the Water’ was about Richard Nixon, because it came out at the time of Watergate, and people just assumed [it] was a metaphor for Nixon and the White House, when in my mind, it absolutely wasn’t,” he says. “It was completely about what I said it was about, which was institutionalization and how sometimes that can make things worse.”
Taupin concedes that perhaps he may have been “a little too esoteric” in his lyrics, but still loves the idea that some people think the song’s about Nixon.
“That’s the perfect example of how people run with something,” he says. “People, when they visualize something like ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ everybody sees a different group of performers. And as I say in the book, the initial idea for that was the Machine Man in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. That’s launched dozens of theories, and it just makes for good table talk.”
Then there’s more obvious songs, like “Your Song,” which was his first big hit with John. Taupin wrote the song at 17 years old, while living with John and John’s mother in a London flat.
“We knew it was special, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “I literally sat down at a breakfast table and I was drinking a cup of tea and eating something and I just had a pad on the side, and I just wrote it in like, 10 minutes. And I think the naïvety of it came from a place that was real, simply because that character was very much me. I was only 17 years old. I was socially awkward, I was sexually awkward. I hadn’t had any sort of experience in any of those areas that would give me course to write something any more adult than that.”
Of course, not all songs were home runs. Among those not exactly standing the test of time for Taupin include “Snow Queen,” a 1976 B-side written after a failed attempt at romance with Cher that both he and John later apologized for.
“You can’t change it. It’s there, the damage is done. I think probably at the time I made it known that I’d written it about her, which was ridiculous,” he says. “I mean, it was so stupid, and it’s not even a good song! Let’s just regard it as a grand mistake ultimately. I got a story out of it, I suppose.”
Taupin’s journey with John began nearly 60 years ago, when they were paired together as songwriters after separately responding to an ad seeking talent put out by Liberty Records.
He admits he’s “always been a very solitary individual” who’s not particularly attracted to the limelight — making his partnership with John, ever the showman, all the more ideal. He's also well aware — and perfectly content — that their legacies will likely be forever intertwined.
“It was destined for [Elton] and I to live the roles that we live and it makes sense and it’s been successful and we’re both blessed to have come out on the other end,” he says. “I’m lucky to have come through everything and be here and happier than ever. And that’s not to disparage Elton’s career — he was the guy that should have been that face, the face on which everybody is familiar with.”
He continues: “The glue that’s kept us together all through these years is the music… I think the musicality of it all is what’s important. And that’s where we are completely 50/50, hand in hand,” he says. “Nothing will ever change. That is the legacy we’ve forged and we forged that together, and that is the most important essence of our careers. So on that level, I think we are completely the same.”
Though John recently concluded his years-long farewell tour (“They were fantastic,” Taupin says of the shows) the sun hasn’t gone down on their partnership.
“Who knows — he may not do anything anymore, but we’ll definitely make another record,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that. Just because he isn’t touring doesn’t mean he is fading to black. He’s still going to be very much active in other areas.”
Taupin married wife Heather in 2004, and the pair share two young daughters, so he understands John’s desire to quit life on the road and spend more time at home with husband David Furnish and sons Zachary and Elijah.
“That was the intent of doing the tour, because he wanted to spend more time with his kids,” says Taupin. “They’re at an age now where I think he needs to be present and whatever he does, and however he works now, he can be in a situation where the kids are either present, or he can go back and forth and see them. It’s all good.”
And as for Scattershot, it isn’t just for “Elton and Bernie fans.”
“I’d like people to realize that this is an odyssey, and that you don’t have to be a huge fan of our music. You might just like it as a book,” he says. “I think it’s a good adventure story and I just prefer to leave it at that.”
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