Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton, and Me
Everyone knows the music of Elton John. But some may not know that Elton never writes any lyrics. He’s the music man and those idiosyncratic lyrics (“Bennie and the Jets,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin’” for instance) are all the handiwork of Elton’s writing partner and best mate Bernie Taupin who changed both their lives when he answered a want ad looking to pair a lyricist with a musician.
Elton’s story has been well told but, in his memoir Scattershot, Bernie gets a chance to tell the tale from his perspective. And it’s a delight to hear the true story of the distant want ad that Bernie happened to read in the New Musical Express. It was placed by someone who worked for Dick James, then the publisher of The Beatles catalog. Lightning struck twice when Bernie found Elton, who was then still Reg Dwight.
Bernie was 17 years old and working a variety of blue-collar jobs. He didn’t care much for education, but he loved rock and roll, liked to write lyrical stories, and was fascinated with the American west.
He saw the ad and figured he had nothing to lose. That might be an understatement. At the time, Bernie was working on a chicken farm and, when hundreds of birds began dying because of some sort of virus, the boss handpicked Bernie to shovel the dead birds into an incinerator. Things were so dire that Bernie was scouring condom machines for loose change.
He quit his dead chicken gig and a month later, spotted that want ad. “Unsure as to what songwriting consisted of,” he writes, “I covered my incompetence by way of flowery purple prose . . . how it wasn’t tossed in the bin after a good chuckle is anyone’s guess.”
Bernie was so ineffectual that he actually forgot to mail in his pitch. It was his mother who sent it along. “I just forgot, OK?” he writes and, in an attempt to “dispel myths,” Bernie tells the sad truth of that letter and why it wasn’t tossed: “How many lyricists do you honestly think responded to the advertisement? Er, me, that’s how many!”
Elton or Reg liked what he saw in Bernie’s lyrics, and they formed a partnership where each got 50% of the music royalties even though Elton was writing the melodies, playing the piano, and singing the songs.
It’s hard not to think of Bernie as one of the luckiest people alive, and he knows many think he’s just a barnacle who attached himself to one of the most talented pop stars alive. About three-quarters of the way through the book, Bernie tackles that common perception as he accompanies Elton on yet another massive tour:
“For those who might assume that I was simply coasting on a wave of Elton’s tour dollars and flaunting around as if I was owed this luxury by way of my lyrical contributions, take note,” he writes. “I was continually observing, always in the minute, drawing my blueprints from every single thing that steered into my path throughout the day and into the night. . . . I was deadly serious about my work . . . the thing is, good, bad or indifferent, I never stopped writing.”
Serious, yes, but also a party animal, as he makes clear. Bernie may have been “only” a lyricist, but he lived the life of a major pop star. Much of the book is devoted to his excesses in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He leaves no doubt he made his mark and swanned around with celebrity rock friends like Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon. The two drummers were reportedly so wild back in the day that Bernie seemed a little afraid of them.
What’s surprising about the memoir is how little Bernie delves into his inspiration and where the songs came from. For a guy who wrote, “Candle in the Wind,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Rocketman,” “Tiny Dancer” and on and on, he just doesn’t outline his inspiration very often. By way of explanation, early in the book, Bernie quotes the great Lou Reed as saying, “Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean I know what it’s about.”
But there are lots of anecdotes that make this memoir a great read, as long as you skip over the parts about Bernie’s ranching days, how he learned to waterski, and his own group “Farm Dogs,” which he tells us constantly was a great band even though it was a classic vanity project.
But the anecdotes make up for that, like the time when Bernie was vacationing in Barbados and got a call from Elton about a backing track he’d just come up with. (By the way, this almost never happened. Nearly 100% of the time, Bernie came up with the lyric first and then Elton wrote the music.)
Elton played the track and Bernie listened over the phone, even though he’s aware “the afternoon’s cocktails [had] muddled my brainwaves.” Elton said he envisioned the track as a duet of the sort Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell once recorded.
“I listened, told him I’d give it a shot, hung up and stuck my head in an ice bucket,” he writes. “In ten minutes I’d thrown something together that was simplistic without being overly trite, and this is how ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ came about. Not exactly ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’ but the second biggest selling single of 1976 and our first UK number one . . . not bad for ten minutes of drunken scribbling.”
As great as that story is, it does make the reader wonder: What would Elton have been with another lyricist? He would have been a different Elton for sure, but would he still have been as massively popular or was there some kind of magic in Bernie’s lyrics? And would there have been an Elton John at all if not for the endearing lyrics of “Your Song” that brought Elton to the public’s attention.
Bernie knows all too well that he got to live a charmed life. Aside from the tremendous wealth that came from those songs, Bernie got to personally hobnob with the biggest rock names of his generation. And some of those intimate stories are worth the price of the book.
Bernie tells a most poignant story from a time he and a bunch of rock stars descended on Dean Martin’s house, then still a beacon of cool. He found himself sitting next to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys who was going through his what became his well-publicized breakdown. “Wilson plopped down beside me and whispered breathlessly into my ear, ‘Bernie, Bernie, will you introduce me to John Lennon.’”
Bernie knew Lennon from his friendship with Elton and a nervous Lennon had dragged Bernie onstage for the ex-Beatle’s last performance ever. It was at Madison Square Garden when Lennon sang “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” The footage from that night shows Bernie near Lennon playing a tambourine.
So Bernie was in a good position to introduce Brian Wilson to Lennon even though he wondered how the two had never met since The Beatles were great fans of Wilson’s music. Wilson and Lennon chatted and minutes later, Wilson again asked Bernie to introduce them. He did a second and then even a third time. Lennon was always polite and chatted Wilson up.
At that point, Bernie told Lennon that should leave before it happened again. “What did he want to talk about?” Bernie asked Lennon.
“John shook his head, ‘Across the Universe.’
“’Sorry about that,’ I said.
“John looked at me, smiled and in that unmistakable Liverpudlian drawl just said, ‘Bless him, he’s not well you know.’”
Maybe someone needs to write a song about Bernie and the Jets.