The Words You Know, The Tune You Hum
Bernie Taupin's "Scattershot" delivers insight into one of rock music's most visible unknowns. Known as Elton John's lyricist, his photos were on a number of the 1970's albums... but anything else could pretty much be fabricated with interpretation of his lyrics. The wide-eyed innocence of "Your Song" was a landmark and melded perfectly with Elton's unforced piano work. From there... a long, extraordinary road.
I can never get enough rock biographies-- until I read one. Music has been a huge part of my life, both as an entertainment and as a livelihood. Casey Kasem's countdown shows were always a must and to this day I possess wonderfully pointless trivia neutrons lounging in vital brain cells. All that being said, worthwhile music biographies have been illusive in my pursuits. Keith Richards's book was surprising with its profound and illuminating insights. The recent Ricki Lee Jones bio was enjoyable, and the stories Robbie Robertson told were (from his angle, at least) amazing. On the less worthwhile side, Chuck Negron's Three Dog Night story was mostly one of a heroin tragedy. I found Donovan's to be so self-aggrandizing I wanted to sic 'Superman or Green Lantern' on him. Most of the other accounts were hit or miss, pretty tepid "as told to" tales of drugs, groupies, two-year peaks and crashes.
In the Author's Note, Bernie warns us this is not a straight-forward biography, not a strictly chronological tale. It is going to be "Scattershot," perhaps haphazard in its form. If a scholarly document is desired, this is not the place to look. The book takes off from there. The initial, well known telling of the Elton-Bernie collaboration is covered, there are the early struggling years, and the career breakthrough Troubadour performances. Much of this was covered in Elton's book, "Me," and the hyper-glitzy film "Rocketman."
"Scattershot" is not limited to Elton's adventures with his sidekick. We do get insights into their relationship and there are passages like Elton's suicide attempt and how that is transformed into "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," but Bernie stresses the differences in their personalities and how they have found their own separate paths to happiness. He is not just one of the Captain Fantastic posse as he travels on tour, he claims his job is to be a witness.
"I'm a complete voyeur when it comes to my ideas. I always have been, from day one. I think if there's anything you could put on my tombstone, it could be: HE WAS AN OBSERVER."-- Bernie in a Vanity Faire interview.
Is this a "tell all" book? It is a "tell some" with entertaining anecdotes about people like Cher, Nilsson, John Lennon, John Belushi, Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra-- even encounters with Salvador Dali and author Graham Greene. He pulls no punches as he blasts Chevy Chase, John Bonham and Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant. Fun stuff.
Songwriters are often grilled on the meaning of the lyrics. One of the big reveals is that he was never a Marilyn Monroe fan, that "Candle in the Wind'' was not originally about her, and that while he did adapt the lyrics for Princess Di's memorial, he was never particularly a royal family follower. There are a few instances where Bernie reveals his inspiration, but he includes Lou Reed's quote, "Just because I wrote it doesn't mean I know what it's about." Then he adds, "Don't rely on me-- I'm liable to make things up."
Bernie's life is much more than songwriting. The 'Brown Dirt Cowboy' has been an accomplished equestrian, a successful restaurateur, and a celebrated artist. While these areas show a great deal of diversity, there is much more detail here than necessary and could have been edited down.
Finally: I do not hold it against "Scattershot" that Mr. Taupin was responsible for writing "We Built This City." There must be a statute of limitations on that crime. Oh, "Island Girl," too.
"I'm just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls."-- Holly Martins from "The Third Man" as quoted by Bernie.
I do recommend "Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton, and Me" for its entertaining reveal of a pop life we could only imagine. It rises above the average rock bio, thankfully.
I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.