Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton & Me
- By Bernie Taupin
- Hachette Books
- 416 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael Causey
- November 6, 2023
A 1970s songwriting virtuoso looks back — and forward.
Perhaps it’s because the biggest album of his mega songwriting career is called “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” or because of his obsession with American movies and Old West cowboy culture, but the early sections of lyricist Bernie Taupin’s new memoir, Scattershot, have a decidedly elegiac, sepia-toned vibe.
He recalls toiling in lousy, uninspired Dickensian schools and, later, in lousy, uninspired Dickensian jobs (e.g., shoveling diseased and deceased chickens into an incinerator) while struggling to find joy in the bleak, desolate England of the late 1950s and early 1960s. You can almost feel the soot and grime emanating from London’s infamous “big black smoke” as you turn the pages.
Then, Taupin meets a pianist named Reg Dwight, and from that point on, the memoir dramatically turns to vibrant color. It’s not that the pair succeeded immediately — it took a few years for stardom to kick in — but Reg (later called Elton John) changed the trajectory of what was possible for a quiet, sensitive amateur poet from the East Midlands.
As the book’s title implies, Taupin as memoirist is not going for a comprehensive, linear look at his remarkable life. But it’s chockfull of intriguing celebrity encounters, detours, and pithy, astute comments about those he’s encountered on the ride. Alice Cooper becomes a great friend. Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham is an ass. Andy Warhol is boring. British actor Oliver Reed has a surprisingly quiet side, and singer Van Morrison has an even more surprising gift for mimicking stand-up comics.
Taupin acknowledges that he’s an unreliable narrator when it comes to remembering his hit songs’ origin stories. Still, he does provide interesting insights into several, including “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (a love/hate letter to New York City), “Bennie and the Jets” (inspired by Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis”), “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (inspired by Elton’s faux suicide attempt), and “I’m Still Standing” (based on Taupin’s own divorce and drinking struggles, though later co-opted as Elton’s similar anthem).
Taupin is self-effacing when recalling the occasional musical misstep. “The less said the better about Island Girl” is a spot-on comment about a song already tone deaf when it came out in 1975 that went on to age even more poorly. And who can forget his atrocious non-Elton hit, Starship’s “We Built This City,” which has been cited as the worst rock song of all time? Taupin mock-seriously claims to wear the label “as a badge of honor.”
He reserves his keenest insights for his long-time collaborator. Though it’s striking to learn what separate lives he and Elton have led, especially for the past few decades, Taupin chalks their longevity partly up to the fact that they’re so different and have given each other so much space over the years. To wit: Elton is gay and flamboyant, while Taupin is straight and sedate; the former is Captain Fantastic to the latter’s Brown Dirt Cowboy. Comments Elton on the book’s jacket: “I am besotted by the life I never knew he had.”
If Elton’s appearance in the memoir is somewhat intermittent, he’s always lurking behind the curtain, much like the Great and Powerful Oz. And while they’ve had some ups and downs, Taupin clearly reveres Elton and is appreciative of the impact he’s had on his life. Elton’s relative absence in Scattershot is somewhat explained by Taupin’s decision not to tread the same ground Elton himself covered in a recent memoir.
The lack of Elton, as it were, is more apparent in the final sections of the book. Here, we learn A LOT about Taupin’s obsession with cattle and ranching. It’s good to find him happy and at peace, but these passages aren’t quite as riveting as reading about snorting coke with big-name rockers on private jets.
Fran Lebowitz once said she could never understand why Dorothy wanted to get back to humdrum Kansas so badly when Oz was such an amazing place. I get her point — and the memoir might have benefited from more Elton and fewer cattle — but when it comes to learning about Taupin’s actual life, I see the appeal of exploring his maturing and changing vistas.
The Brown Dirt Cowboy has given us a fascinating view from the eye of the hurricane that was Elton John for much of the 1970s. So, if the latter sections of his memoir lack the titillating pop-culture joy found in the middle pages, I nevertheless tip my Stetson to Taupin for growing up and out of those wild days of excess.
[Editor’s note: “Levon” is pretty awesome, too.]
Michael Causey hosts the “A Good Hour” radio program on WOWD 94.3 FM and takomaradio.org. A big Elton John/Bernie Taupin fan, he might choose “I’ve Seen the Saucers” as a contrarian favorite.