Bernie Taupin Scattershot

Telling His Story: An Interview with Bernie Taupin  

Bernie Taupin, legendary songwriting partner of Elton John, reveals all in a new book detailing his creative partnership, hatred of touring, and love of cowboys.

SCATTERSHOT: Life, Music, Elton, and Me
Bernie Taupin
12 September 2023

Bernie Taupin has written the lyrics to some of the biggest hits of the rock era, but his story hasn’t been as visible as that of his creative partner, Elton John.

Taupin corrects that gap with an illuminating and entertaining new book, SCATTERSHOT: Life, Music, Elton, and Me, out today. Less a linear autobiography than a series of reflections, the book shines a light – sometimes, in surprising ways – on the man who wrote the words to “Candle in the Wind”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Bennie and the Jets”, and countless other classics. Taupin has received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a lifetime achievement Grammy, and an Oscar, and on 3 November this year, he will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Taupin recently sat down with PopMatters for a conversation about SCATTERSHOT, digging deeply into many of the topics covered in his book. He reflected on why his remarkable 56-year bond with Elton is now as strong as ever. He also shared about shying away from the spotlight and how that has given him space for extramusical pursuits, such as living a Western lifestyle. He talked insightfully about how he writes – and how people interpret his writing. Perhaps most significantly, he reported that, before too long, he hopes to return with Elton to the studio to create new music.

One of the many things in the book that leaped out at me was describing yourself and Elton as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and it’s hard to imagine the two of you tilting at windmills; you’ve been so successful. You talked about Elton as the best friend the world had to offer and a world that offered the two of you everything.

That’s an establishing episode at the beginning, referencing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. We were tilting at windmills then, way before we overcame the windmills and went on to bigger things. It was very much him and me against the world. We were literally joined at the hip. We were best friends with the same goals and purpose in life that we wanted to achieve.

When we started out, all we wanted to do was write songs. He is quoted several times as saying I was the brother he never had. I’d had a brother at home, two brothers actually, but he was definitely my soul mate in London. I was most definitely a fish out of water. I wasn’t a hillbilly by any means because my parents were very urbane and weren’t country folk in that sense. There might have been some misgivings as to what I was. I was certainly not a country bumpkin. I was well-read. I was relatively intelligent, but I wasn’t schooled or versed in social ethics, as far as being in London. You know, it was a whole different world for me.

So, Elton was certainly more experienced than I was and was like a big brother. He looked out for me when other people would tend to not look down on me but treat me as something that just crawled in from the sticks. I dealt with quite a bit of that, but he always saw through to the creative element that was lying beneath the surface.

We were really the closest of friends, and we bonded on so many things. We love music, all kinds of music. We turned each other on to different styles of music. He wasn’t by nature a fan of country music, and I pointed him in the direction of things like that. Likewise, he did with me as far as sort of urban black music, soul music, which he was a huge fan of, and we just threw all those things into our big melting pot and used them over the years. And I think that’s why so much of our music is diverse.

We’ve created music in all genres and styles and enjoyed doing so because the people who influenced us early on came out of all those different styles. It was the glue that bound us together, and I think it’s still the glue that binds us together. Today, we still enjoy working together as much as we ever did. But at the same time, we’re not joined at the hip anymore. We’re joined by FaceTime and Zoom but geographically separated, and we have completely different lives. But we still have the same love and friendship that we had way back then. In fact, it might even be stronger now.

You write so movingly about what you mentioned: geography, the outside pursuits, alternate careers, and swimming in different currents, both socially and sexually, and yet, the strength of this bond. It’s hard to think of another major songwriting partnership that has lasted for five-plus decades. Why do you think it is that you are, as you just said, closer than ever before after all this time?

I think we understand each other. Our lives, although they’re very different, we’ve led them on somewhat of the same path. I know that might sound strange because [he] is on a much more international and visible level, but I think we’ve both been searching for the same things in life.

The musical thread has continued throughout our lives, and it’s always one of the foremost things we discuss or talk about when we talk or get together. He loves to FaceTime with me, and it’s almost kind of like being in the room with him. I’ll feel like I saw him as opposed to being on a phone call, which doesn’t have the same resonance as when you actually see somebody and see that they’re comfortable and relaxed. And so that works.

We both have been propelled through this life towards finding the right partners. We found a lot of the wrong ones and some that were okay, and we learned a lot from them, but we both ended up in the same place, mentally and emotionally. He’s got two young boys, I’ve got two young girls, and we both have partners who manage our careers, so we’ve ended up very much in a sort of family conglomerate, which is wonderful now because it’s so much closer. There are no peripheral ten-percenters or 50-percenters. It’s all family-run. And that in itself is a wonderful gift.

I was really interested to read in the book about the degree to which you spend time on tour and in the studio. You describe it as being present as the recipe is being prepared, but even after that happens, because you helped supply one of the two main ingredients. I’m curious to hear about how that has continued for you.

I don’t go on tour with him anymore. In the early days, in the early 1970s, I was on the road with him and the band all the time because that’s all I had at the time. It was a sort of transient life. All I had in the world was making music with him and the band and traveling with them. But then, as you become more educated and get older, you find your own way in life.

If I had continued touring with him through all of the decades, it would have served no purpose to me. I wouldn’t have been able to involve myself in other things and form a life of my own. Once we found different partners and different friends and different places that we lived, I no longer toured. I only toured for a few years in the early 1970s, and then, on occasion.

I think I went on one tour in the 1980s, which was a pretty devastating tour because it was the point when Elton was right before he went into rehab, and he was at his lowest ebb, and I was also on the road simply because I was escaping something else at home. I didn’t want to be at home. I didn’t want to be in a relationship. I was there, so I made the excuse to go out on the road with him.

As far as the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, I didn’t go on that tour for three or four years. I’ve got a life to live. I’ve got other things to do, but I certainly hit enough of the shows to show my presence. I wasn’t at Glastonbury, but I was at all the Dodger Stadium shows. Glastonbury would have been fun, I guess, but I had been in England just prior to that, and I just couldn’t get it up and go back again after a couple of weeks. It would have been insane.

Touring has never been in my wheelhouse, and I wouldn’t have developed other facets of my life if I had just stayed touring. It would have been pretty sad and pretty boring.

Photo: Lauren Maeve Photography

It was really interesting to read about so many other areas in which you’ve spent time and energy and been successful, such as your flowering art career and your time living the Western lifestyle. The Western fascination you describe as something that started early on for you, in your childhood, and it’s something that’s reflected in your music. So, I’m just curious to hear more about that. And I also love the story of you being out with your Western friends and the waitstaff who didn’t believe you were that Bernie Taupin. That was a very evocative story regarding you having written some of the most beloved songs in pop music history. Yet, you can operate out in the world in a way that I imagine Elton can’t because people recognize him everywhere.

Exactly. That’s what I wanted to do. Believe me, when you move into the cowboy world, there’s little interest in who you are other than how you ride, how you handle yourself, and who you are as a human being. There’s no room for celebrity. That’s one of the reasons I loved it. I was gravitating towards it all my life, but the anonymity of it was the thing that I enjoyed the most.

These are some of the most interesting people I ever interacted with, and I was pretty good at what I did. And that’s why I was respected. I could throw a rope. I could ride a cutting horse. I didn’t mind getting dirty, getting up at four in the morning to work horses, because the Texas heat would kill you a few hours later. I’ve shown in the foulest weather imaginable and not complained. It was a life lesson, and it taught me. I showed as a non-pro cutter for over ten years. It’s like being on the road, only in a different framework entirely, and certainly without the perks and comfort of that. You’re staying in the cheapest of hotels and the funkiest of towns.

That story you talked about, with the waitstaff not believing it was me, if you saw the place that took place in, you’d never believe in a hundred years that a celebrated songwriter was eating at your establishment in the ass-end of California. So, I completely empathize with them. It’s like a bookend of my youth.

I was raised on the mythology of the American West. American history far outweighed any interest I had in anything else at school. They didn’t teach the kind of things I wanted to know about at school. So, I found ways of learning in other areas, whether it was books or vinyl records. My mother and my grandfather gave me a love of literature, the written word, and art. I’m grateful for all of that. I found my own way historically.

I was also fascinated reading about your process of observing life around you and bringing that into your songs. You write in the book about meeting Graham Greene and the importance of scrutinizing life around you and being observant, chronicling what you see. I also love the anecdotes about things you had seen moving into the songs that everyone knows and loves, that the seamstress for the band is an actual person named Janis, and the “Jesus freaks” were the Children of God. It was very moving to read about your early experiences with New York and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, seeing someone dead on the street your first night there. 

There’s so much specificity in you seeing these things and bringing them into your songs. But at the same time, you write a lot about how the listeners’ interpretation is important – how the meaning, if not obvious, should be open to interpretation without any explanation from you. Can you tell us a little more about the tension between what you’re putting into the songs based on your specific observations and what people are taking from them? The hundreds of millions of people listening to these songs all the time?

I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the term songwriter. I’ve always thought of myself as basically a cinematographer, an observer, a storyteller. I don’t like the word lyricist very much. It’s sort of a bit inane and bland. It’s interesting when you talk about something like “Tiny Dancer”. I don’t like specifically writing about one particular thing. Yes, sometimes, if you’re writing a ballad like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, that’s a classic kind of ballad, but for the more slightly esoteric things, I like to throw in curve balls from every angle and something that’s different.

“Tiny Dancer” has so many different components to it and so many different people in it, and yes, that’s from observing. That’s from just seeing the Children of God or Janis Larkham sewing the album cover of Madman Across the Water. All those things are not ignored by me. They all go into that place in my head, that storeroom where I store bits and pieces.

The first line of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” was obviously inspired by my first night in New York, and that piece of paper was pushed aside and came back a year later, or maybe a little while later, and got finished off. It started off as being a frightened child’s view of New York, an immediate reaction, and then I realized later on how much I loved New York, once I became familiar with it and knew the grid. I loved New York in the early 1970s; it was so dynamic and electric. I finished that song in a way that ultimately, I understood it, came to terms with it, and began to love it.

There’s a quote of Lou Reed‘s at the beginning of the book: “Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean I know what it’s about.” The reason I included that is because I completely subscribe to it. Sometimes, things just fly off the top of your head, and maybe, ultimately, somebody will find a metaphor for something else in it. But I’ve always subscribed to the theory that songs that are slightly more esoteric or a little bit more cerebral are a bit like abstract paintings. You see people standing in front of a Rothko or a Franz Kline, wondering; their heads are tipped, and they’re looking at it from different angles. Ultimately, they’ll come up with what was in the artist’s mind at the time, and I always find it fascinating that people come up with different concepts of what some of the songs are about.

I never think they’re that off the wall or that hard to understand, except for maybe one out of ten songs, whether it’s “Grey Seal” or “Take Me to the Pilot”. I’ve no idea what that song is about, but I think there are a lot of people who have written songs that are stream-of-consciousness. David Bowie did it all the time. He wrote words down, cut them up, threw them, picked them up, and put them together, and it’s like abstract art. If you can enlighten the listener and give them a little bit of a challenge, something else to enjoy other than just the melodic presence of the song, the hum-ability of it, then that’s great, to give them something to think about.

At the same time, you don’t need me to sit in front of you and give you a complete lesson on what a song is about. I don’t think I cover it that much in the book. I think people might think that the book will be this litany of explanations of songs. There are certain ones that I go into detail on, whether it be “Daniel” or “Candle in the Wind”. I explain briefly that “Bennie and the Jets” was based on the Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I don’t think many people probably know that. I think that will be a tidbit that will make people probably refer to that movie, see the female robot in it, and then understand.

“All the Girls Love Alice”, The Killing of Sister George, I think I give enough to tease people but not enough to give the complete game away. Somebody told me there’s a book out, a rather large book about all our recordings and all our songs. I haven’t seen it personally, but they said, “Don’t look at it because everything in it is wrong.” So, the person who knows me said, “You don’t want to go near that.”

I also enjoy your writing about some of the people that you admire and who have influenced you. You write so lovingly about certain folks, about your early encounter with Frank Sinatra. You described Leonard Cohen as the only recording artist you could comfortably call a poet and the beautiful dinner you had with him. I particularly loved reading about your relationship with Willie Dixon, and it struck me that your stories may mirror each other in that you’ve both written songs that so many people love. These people may not necessarily know that you wrote them because you may not have been the performers of those songs. I wondered if there was anything else, aside from what you wrote in the book, that you wanted to share about these folks who have been meaningful to you. 

I love to give credit to the people who really did influence me, and I mentioned several of them. I mentioned the photographer, William Claxton, a very dear friend and one of the greatest jazz photographers of all time. There was a gentleman called Michael Schwartz, who was a great art dealer, who was a huge influence on my life, too, who nobody is going to know about. Along with Willie, those are the three people who I look at as huge influences on my life.

I’m an absolute, complete jazz fanatic. So, being in the presence of somebody like William Claxton, who worked with everybody and took all those phenomenal album covers for jazz artists and other artists. He turned me on to a lot of different people. I asked him, “Of all of these people you work with, who is your favorite jazz artist?” He completely surprised me because he said Paul Desmond. I learned so much from him about jazz, which was one of my first loves. From Michael Schwartz, I learned so much about art. He was just a walking encyclopedia and one of the dearest men I’ve ever known.

Then, of course, there was Willie, who was like my Black grandfather. I was so close with him, and I still am with the remainder of his family. His youngest daughter is a dear friend of mine. I’ve never been more incensed in my life when I found out he wasn’t in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I was absolutely apoplectic. I threatened to send all my awards back. They put people in there who wrote a couple of hit songs in the 1980s, and you don’t have Willie Dixon, who wrote the blues songbook for every upcoming English rock and roll band in the 1960s? As I said in my speech, those bands wouldn’t have had a set list if it wasn’t for Willie Dixon. I’m just appalled it didn’t happen in his lifetime.

Speaking of awards and being honored, I know 3 November is coming up soon, when you will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it’s great timing also for your book to come out shortly beforehand. I wondered what thoughts you might share about that honor, the ceremony, fellow inductees, or anything about that process. 

I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. So many people say to me, “I can’t believe you haven’t been inducted before now,” which is very generous. One of the reasons that I was given that it happened now is because so many people on the board had thought that I was actually already in there. Whether that’s just a lame excuse or the absolute truth, I’ve no idea. I feel no disparagement against anybody. I think there were certain elements at one point that tried to keep me out, but I’m not going to go into that. I’m very gratified that it’s happening now.

It couldn’t be happening at a better time. I think I’m going in with a particularly interesting set of inductees, including my old friend Willie Nelson. I love the fact that Link Wray is going in, and Al Kooper, whom I haven’t seen since probably 1970. I’m also thrilled that Kate Bush is going in. I think she’s quite magnificent, and Sheryl Crow, who’s a friend of mine. It’s definitely an interesting group.

I’ll get into the spirit of it and enjoy it. I don’t mind getting out there and cutting the rug every once in a while. It’s not a continual desire of mine. I like to be able to pick and choose my times to come out of hiding, if you will. It’s an honor. I like the idea of being in there. It’s a big house, and I’m living in it with Little Richard, the Beatles, and Willie Dixon. I’ll be in there with Willie, so that’s good.

Regarding what you just mentioned about picking your moment to be out in the spotlight, probably for me, the most memorable story in the book is John Lennon pulling you out on stage on Thanksgiving Day, 1974, at Madison Square Garden. 

He’d wanted me to come out with him in the beginning, which was ridiculous because what was I going to do? My biggest job at the beginning was actually trying to help propel him onto the stage. Somebody asked me why he would be nervous about going on after Beatlemania, and I said, bear in mind, he hadn’t been on stage in years in that capacity. He didn’t know how he was going to be received. There was a certain amount of humility to John, like him saying, “Did you ever hear a song I wrote called ‘Across the Universe?'” It was the loudest crowd I think I’ve ever heard in my life for that number of people. You would have thought that Madison Square Garden was going to take off. It was unbelievable, so it made more sense when he dragged me on at the end, and believe me, nobody could have cared less that I was on there. I was invisible, and people were just in absolute awe of him, and he looked fantastic, too. So, I was just glad I was there.

Are there any plans for the future that you would like folks to know about? 

The next couple of months for me are just sort of a hamster wheel of going on the road, doing interviews, and trying to make it fresh all the time. I’m sure at some point in the future, once Elton has rested up for a while, you know, we’ll talk about going into the studio, which we both really want to do. We’ll wait and see. There’s no rush.

I’d love people to realize that just because Elton is retired from the road doesn’t mean he’s retired. He’s a moving object, and once he has rested up a little bit, he’s raring to go to do something, and he’s going to find something to do. He’s certainly not going to curl up in a ball and die. I do have a couple of art things happening, interspersed with all this publicity for the book, but right now, my number one priority is the book. You don’t have to be a rabid Elton fan to enjoy this book. Maybe people will enjoy it just as an odyssey, an adventure of somebody in the music business.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.