By Elizabeth J. Rosenthal
Elton John has described the 1980s as his personal nadir. He has freely admitted that his abuse of drugs and alcohol, unsafe sex with other men, and release of some uncharacteristically subpar recordings, all contributed to this low point in his life. It wasn’t until 1990 that he finally sought help for his addictions and stepped on the path to recovery. But thirty years ago, long before he entered rehab, his life seemed to jerk from crisis to crisis. One such crisis spanned the final two months of 1986, and almost concluded with an end to Elton’s career. The following has been adapted from His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal (Billboard Books, 2001).
Things were pleasant enough in mid-October. Elton presided over the unveiling of the Watford Football Club’s new grandstand in suburban London, largely paid for with his concert proceeds, and proudly watched the first game played in the pristine structure. "When he held his hands above his head in a gesture of welcome, the crowd burst into spontaneous applause," observed one reporter. "[A]mong the muffled and capped leaders of Watford, for whom popular music probably ends with Tom Jones, this sort of rapture is astonishing. It is rather like John the Baptist getting a standing ovation in a betting shop."
The release of his new album, Leather Jackets, and its first single, "Heartache All Over The World," wasn’t as glorious. “Heartache” was among his worst charting singles in the UK and US, failing to reach the Top 40 in either place.
The weak showing of the album was as disconcerting. A hodgepodge of terrible songs with very few good ones, it remains possibly his most reviled album of new material among fans. The Philadelphia Inquirer gave the album one star out of four, complaining that "this is the worst album he's ever recorded."
On his US tour that fall, Elton’s voice had been giving out. It got to the point where he’d begun apologizing for his voice and encouraging fans to ask for their money back.
Despite all of this, Elton continued on like the trouper he was, arriving in Sydney, Australia, in late October 1986 in anticipation of the Tour De Force, his 27-date tour with the band and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. His first stop was Harry's Cafe de Wheels in the suburb of Woolloomooloo, where he held a press conference dressed in dignified grey. Only his pink pony tail seemed out of place. Switching from his regular sunglasses to ones with the Qantas logo of leaping kangaroo on each lens, he munched on pie 'n' peas, drank beer, and answered questions. "I'm feeling really great about the tour," he said. "I'm so excited, I've got more energy than I've had for ages."
Why would Elton tour with the MSO? Nearly fifteen years earlier, the London Times had written of the pianist's February 1972 one-show stint with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, suggesting Elton didn’t need the orchestra because his "songs are basically natural and only need him to sing and play them...."
This was still true. But when rehearsals finally began at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, the union of the MSO's talents and Elton's perfectly constructed ballads and rock tunes proved monstrously moving.
Plans for this tour, sponsored by Qantas and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, had begun in 1984, at the suggestion of Elton’s Australian promoter. Agreeing that it was an interesting idea was easy; actually making it a pleasing reality was another. Elton didn’t want to do it unless he could be assured that the MSO would be properly amplified and sound as loud as the band. Record producer Gus Dudgeon, who would be along to serve as the orchestra’s sound engineer, investigated ways to "mike" the MSO, discovering a method by which each instrument could be individually amplified, with microphones as tiny as fingernails.
There were other hurdles. Former band member James Newton Howard, who had been busy scoring American movies like Wildcats and Tough Guys, adapted Paul Buckmaster's (and his own) arrangements to the potential of a full symphony orchestra, downplaying the cello Buckmaster had favored on the early albums. Some orchestra members were reluctant to do a rock tour. A few refused to participate. James, who also was to be the orchestral conductor, tried to assuage the musicians' fears come the Brisbane rehearsals: "I came out to meet them and let them know they weren't dealing with Ozzy Osbourne."
Principal Clarinetist Philip Miechel told a television reporter that he only agreed to participate because most members did. He resented the orchestra’s amplification, but figured the six-week tour would make a nice vacation. Although of Elton’s generation, he claimed he’d never heard Elton's music prior to rehearsals.
Other MSO members were excited. Harpist Huw Jones, in his early fifties, cited "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" as his favorite Elton John song and professed to being "hypnotized by the beat" of the uptempo numbers. Significantly younger double bassist Michelle Picker remembered enthusiastically learning Elton's songs on piano as a girl of 12.
Elton eventually won over the skeptics. Principal Clarinetist Philip Green cheerily remarked when the tour was well underway that "Elton's sheer musical energy has overcome anyone's reservations."
After James had worked with the orchestra in Brisbane for a week, Elton arrived for rehearsals, disarmingly clothed in shorts, sneakers, sports jersey, and ball cap, his pink pony tail poking out of the back. "When we actually got together with Elton, it was one of the most emotional experiences in my life," said James. "Musically, it was the most satisfying moment in my life to have been involved with the orchestrations so long, and with Elton for so many years prior to that, and to really have that many components as a musician come together and work well was very gratifying."
Elton agreed. He tearfully declared after his first day of rehearsals with the orchestra: "This has been the greatest day of my life." His remaining rehearsal days were long. The MSO practiced ten hours a day; Elton, thirteen. The band joined later, to review the work it would do with and without the MSO. (The show’s first segment was to be a twelve-song rock and roll set. Following an intermission, the orchestra would join the band for eighteen songs.)
The last rehearsal before opening night on November 5 in Brisbane was, for Elton, a kind of dress rehearsal. He was seen by the press either seated, solemnly playing his Steinway, or trudging about, contemplating his music, clothed in blue shorts, a koala sweatshirt, and a fuzzy blue and grey shark cap with inquisitive eyes and pearly, white teeth. Reporters were treated to a last run-through of "The King Must Die." Within a few hours, the first of three shows in Brisbane would take place.
Elton was mindful of the need for mental acuity. Entourage member Bob Stacey, in charge of procuring the musician's backstage refreshments, said, "At the moment, the favorite drink is Diet Coca-Cola without a doubt – and a cup of tea. In the old days it was gin, vodka or scotch. Nowadays our attitude is: we're older and wiser and we've got to last the tour!" His sobriety led to some of the most dazzling performances of his career, despite the raspiness of his voice. The shows were also physically taxing. He was the only one among the 102 musicians who had to play and sing steadily for nearly three hours every evening.
The first half of the lively show was an abbreviated version of the concert British, European, and American fans had enjoyed during the past year, with plenty of hits. During the initial ninety minutes, Elton was at least as ridiculously dressed as he had been in America a month or two earlier, when he had revived his 1970s penchant for outrageous clothes. The second, orchestrated half of the show, in which his appearance metamorphosed into a reasonable facsimile of Mozart, complete with beauty mark on his right cheek, showcased many songs forgotten over the years. There were six from his first US release, Elton John, two from Madman Across The Water, and two from his 1976 LP, Blue Moves. More recent albums were represented, too, including The Fox, Too Low For Zero and even the mostly awful Leather Jackets. Two songs, "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me" and "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," received symphonic treatment for the first time.
Elton appeared to fourteen thousand Brisbane fans during the first half of opening night dressed in what was described as a "pink, feathery mohawk hairdo, pink glasses, diamond tear-drop earrings and diamante-studded tails." Later, wearing one of several Amadeus get-ups made especially for the tour, "Elton and orchestra blended perfectly to produce an exciting mix of rock and classical music which fired the enthusiasm of fans to new heights," observed TV Week.
This was the night relations between Elton and his friend, Australian TV personality and pop columnist “Molly” Meldrum, became strained. Molly said Elton "summoned" him backstage after the show to relate his opinion of the concert. Meldrum responded that the first half needed more rockers, including "Crocodile Rock," and the second half should have a couple of instrumentals, like "Song For Guy" and "Funeral For A Friend." Elton didn’t welcome the advice. Molly later admitted that, when Elton dismissed his comments, "I blew my top." The scene became fodder for the tabloids:
"Furious Elton Snubs Critic Molly"
"Molly's Advice Hits Sour Note With Rocker Elt"
It got worse:
"'Dry Out': Elton Tells Molly"
The next stop was Melbourne, home of the MSO, for an eight-night stand. On November 10, the first night, Elton announced to concertgoers: "There's no way I'm going to do 'Crocodile Rock' – even if Molly is in the audience!" For the rock segment, he wore a green mohawk, winged Alain Mikli spectacles, and strangely specked tails.
One reviewer noticed the growing delight of "Bennie And The Jets" (writing of "a most impressive – and highly amusing – piano solo"), and how the MSO enjoyed itself during the second half. "When the 88 musicians received a thunderous ovation from their home crowd, their faces showed glee," read the review. "And their acknowledgment of Elton's performance was just as hearty as Elton's was of theirs."
If some MSO members were initially reluctant to do this tour, they no longer regretted it. They realized they had a new audience in young people. Elton's professionalism helped, as did his generosity. Before the tour started, he presented a bottle of Moet & Chandon French champagne to every musician. Attached to each bottle was a message: "Here's to a great tour."
One night in Melbourne, Elton headed out to a "business meeting" at the Hilton Hotel. He just happened to be wearing a taffeta tuxedo, boater, bow tie, conservative glasses, and possibly thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. Upon entering the hotel's Decanter Room, he found the glare of television cameras and beaming MSO members. The MSO Chairman of the Board, Professor Peter Dennison, presented him with a plaque, which stated in part: "By public acclaim and acclaim of the critics, your Tour de Force has been a triumphant success and we are deeply proud to have been involved." The plaque memorialized the pianist's honorary MSO life membership, the first such honor bestowed on any musician, let alone a rock star.
Elton acted like the average person who had just won the lottery, fists in the air, face oozing delight. "There's no need for a consolidation between me and the orchestra, it is already there," he announced (having earlier remarked to an assistant, "Lucky I got dressed up"). "But it's just confirmation of what a wonderful time we're all having together." He vowed the tour would forever impact his music, observing mischievously: "I've never had such a love affair without ever actually going to bed with anybody."
Some in the classical community were incensed. Wrote The (Australian) Sun's music critic Tony Gould, "Artistically, it's rather childish. It's almost as if Elton John is one of the great musicians of the 20th century, which he certainly is not." None of the esteemed classical musicians who had appeared with the MSO, like Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, received such an honor, Gould complained. Newspaper readers called the award "phony." An "insult."
They missed the point. Elton was spotlighting the MSO and other symphony orchestras, and enlightening rock fans. Also, the MSO members liked and admired him. Among those coming to his defense was Molly Meldrum. The two had reconciled at a "barbie." In a column, Molly asserted that his friend's show improved with each night. He quoted from Gould's protestations, then wrote, "Well, my dear man, I don't know if you went to any of the concerts. If you did you could not accuse Elton of merely 'singing pop songs and playing pop piano'.
"What he and the MSO have been doing is bridging a gap that I, and many others, thought would be impossible to cross."
Once the long residency in Melbourne had ended, the MSO's newest member turned his sights to South Australia and Adelaide's Football Park. This was the only show at an outdoor venue, and boasted the largest crowd of the tour, twenty thousand. As he took his seat for the first number, "One Horse Town," people got an eyeful – silver lurex tails and cape, dark sunglasses with a tiny fan accenting each lens, and Tina Turner wig. Some concertgoers wore their own oversized glasses. Wrote a reviewer: "The sheer power and majesty of 100 musicians on stage bringing the diminutive Englishman's endearing melodies to life was sensational and at times overwhelming." The love fest was set to continue on the far side of the continent – Western Australia and the city of Perth – where three concerts were scheduled.
But on Thursday, November 27, twenty minutes after showtime, fans were startled to hear over the Public Address system that a "viral infection" would keep Elton from performing. Fifteen minutes earlier, an ear, nose and throat specialist had examined his throat and decreed that he had better not sing.
This concert was ultimately canceled; Elton's doctor advised him to rest his voice for the four days before the last – and lengthiest – leg of the tour began on Monday in Sydney.
The odds were that every concert review would not be stellar, and these caught up with Elton on December 1, the night of the first Sydney show. Appropriately named critic Lynden Barber disliked Elton's purported "return" to a style favored early in his career, a "white English hybrid of gospel and New Orleans piano-led R&B." "It was easy to overlook the fact that his voice rasped terribly ..., but less easy to feel sympathy for ...the stolid treatment dished out to songs like 'Benny [sic] And The Jets' and 'Rocket Man'," groused Barber. "The latter, in particular, was drawn out to self-indulgent extremes, the necessary sense of funk absent from John's piano technique. Hardly aided by poor sound, the whole band seemed bored...."
The next night saw a fuming Elton – disturbed by increasingly irksome voice problems that required the cancellation of a 32-date American tour early the following year – start the show in his rehearsal outfit of shorts, sports jersey, ball cap, and sneakers. He made a comment about the Barber review as he began "Rocket Man" and, in the middle of the song, abruptly exited the stage as the band played. An awkward intermission ensued, followed by his surprise reappearance onstage. The band, by now backstage, hurriedly caught up with him.
That was nothing compared to what happened on December 9. He was in the middle of introducing the MSO to the audience when he collapsed, face first. James and some stage hands rushed to lift him up. After drinking a glass of water, he resumed the show, as if nothing had happened. Rumors flew about his health. Publicist Patti Mostyn dismissed speculation of imminent disaster, saying that he had been feeling a "little tension" lately. "He has the constitution of an ox," she reassured the press. The following month the public learned that his vocal cords had endured episodes of spasmodic pain throughout the tour. One such episode caused this collapse.
The Sydney shows continued. The biggest night of the tour was also the last night, on Sunday, December 14, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would be simulcasting the final show on television and radio across Australia and New Zealand. Elton didn’t admit it then, but it was the specialness of this tour that kept him going. "I'm gonna be very sad when this tour ends," he had said earlier. By the last night, he knew throat surgery was inevitable. It was too early to tell whether he had growths on his vocal cords, and whether they were cancerous. The tour’s end meant he would have to face the music, possibly very unpleasant music.
Molly Meldrum, a co-host of the telecast, was ready to interview band members and tour participants during a live pre-show segment. Blissfully unaware of the battle raging in Elton's mind, Molly was befuddled when, during the live pre-show that Sunday, the musician approached him (off camera) and announced that he wasn’t "going on." Elton started leaving the arena for his hotel room as Molly ran after him. "I tried to convince him that it would be unfair on the people who had paid for their tickets, the eight million viewers, and on the people who had spent two years trying to put the televised concert together," Molly recounted in his column days later. Elton was unconvinced. Molly rushed to tell the show's producer of this alarming development. If they had to, they could televise the previous night's concert, which was on tape. But Molly rightly observed that that would "hardly have been the same."
Elton came through. At showtime, concertgoers watched as Elton, dressed as flashy, furry forest creature, and his flexible band tore through the rock portion of the show. His voice, hopelessly hoarse at the beginning, loosened up as the show progressed. An innocent interpolation of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright?" in the middle of an extended version of “Rocket Man” provided the only glimpse of his worries. "Rocket Man ain't feelin' too good himself," he scratchily sang.
Throat pain didn’t keep him from a display of unorthodox virtuosity during "Bennie." Lowering his body onto the floor as he steadily rolled ragtime chords with his right hand, he rested on his left elbow with eyes shut, and yawned. But he couldn’t always keep the pain a secret. He struggled to sing "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues." At song’s end, he puffed his cheeks and blew through his mouth, relieved it was over.
His sense of humor was still intact. During his introduction of the band members, something backfired, sounding like a gunshot. He quickly fell, and as quickly stood up. "I knew Rod Stewart'd get in somewhere," he joked about his friendly rival.
The second half with orchestra began, as always, with "Sixty Years On." Elton made his entrance in a luminous get-up of white tails striped with light-reflecting silver, and a white powdered wig. The band members turned up gradually during later songs, most wearing stately, matching white suits. The gruffness of Elton's voice sometimes detracted from songs that required softness, like "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” or a sustained power, like "Slow Rivers." But on most, the MSO's full treatments – and Elton's playing – made up for his unbecoming singing. The first showstopper of the evening was "Take Me To The Pilot," which included buoyant piano work, reminiscent of his early 1970s shows, and a battle between band and orchestra built from a combination of the piano chord sequences heard on the original recording and James’ invigoratingly bombastic reworking of the arrangements.
Viewers could also delight in "Madman Across The Water." Elton's damaged voice helped convey the deranged nature of the "madman." His dissonant playing danced around the intentionally disturbed utterances of the MSO. But the evening's most dramatic moment was the performance of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." The orchestra played with Gone With The Wind-style melodrama. Elton took Bernie Taupin's lyrics to heart. "I'd just allow a fragment of your life to wander free," he sang, only fragments of his voice left. His eyes looked moist, for good reason. "I was crying," he said, years later. "My life was an utter disaster area."
The next song, "Candle In The Wind," would ensure that the sun didn’t go down on him. A brief recess was afforded the band and the MSO as Elton performed the song solo, accompanied only by the synthesizer sounds triggered by his piano’s MIDI hook-up. This version was more special than all the other solo versions he had played in the last year. His voice had cleared up a bit, allowing him to delicately project the song’s passion while retaining the vulnerability in its message, audible in his uncomfortable timbre. His piano rang like a chorus of church bells. The whole world would know this performance as a major hit single in late 1987.
During the encore, Elton dedicated "Your Song" to manager John Reid, and to Molly Meldrum, "for putting up with me today," and apologized to fans for canceling the last Perth concert. "I'll be back," he said. As the ballad finished, the orchestra hummed. Familiar strains sounded from behind James' baton. The audience grew increasingly excited as it recognized the beginning of a quite new "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." Elton leapt from his piano bench, motioning for those still seated to stand, just before Davey Johnstone launched into the song’s guitar opening. Confetti, streamers and, finally, balloons, fell on the band and the dancing audience. Elton's only musical obstacle now was an incessant supply of streamers floating onto his keyboard, forcing him to play with one hand as he brushed them from the keys with the other. At song’s end, he thanked everyone, including viewers in Australia and New Zealand. As the arena emptied, only the sound of popping balloons remained. The tour was over.
Elton hosted an end of tour party for four hundred people. He seemed in good spirits, noting he would be going to London for surgery but return to hear the MSO play its customary material. "I don't think any permanent damage has been done," he said of his voice. The subject turned to the rich musical experience that had just ended. He said he hoped he would remember it. On impulse he mimicked, in David Crosby-like American accent, imaginary veterans of Woodstock unable to remember the details of their own big event because they were high. Only Molly was in a bad mood.
A few days later, Meldrum purged his feelings in a column. Molly wrote that he had been speaking with a friend who was an Elvis Presley devotee, which reminded him of how isolated Presley became from the real world. “I'm not about to say that is what has happened to Elton. But … this could almost become the case. If he had not gone on stage on Sunday night, by the next day his whole career could have been in ruins.” He added that he had seen the tragic rock and roll deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and others. “But I can't think of a friend in the business who is closer to me than Elton. That's why I worry.”
Elton’s erratic behavior during the tour may be mostly attributed to the stress of his voice problems, even though Meldrum seemed less than clear on this. His throat surgery in early 1987 was successful, but his period of recovery was long and, afterward, many fans complained that his falsetto was gone. As all of this transpired, Elton was in the middle of on-again, off-again, drinking and drugging. It would be a few more years before he recognized his substance abuse problems and committed himself to overcoming them. Since then, he has been a different man creatively, philanthropically, in his energy level, and with friends and family. His projects take him from strength to strength. Thirty years ago, however, it wasn’t at all evident that Elton would ever seek help or that his life and career would improve. In remembering the thirtieth anniversary of one of his most important, and moving, musical efforts, his Australian tour with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, we can also acknowledge his continued sobriety, which Elton has called the accomplishment of which he is most proud.
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, All Rights Reserved.
A blog about everything: Abraham Lincoln, birds, Jewish history, Elton John, classic literature (Henry James, John Steinbeck vs. Upton Sinclair), America's gun problem, and who-knows-what-else.
REMEMBERING THE THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF ELTON JOHN'S HISTORIC TOUR WITH THE MELBOURNE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
By Elizabeth J. Rosenthal