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A review of: Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me

Douglas Young gives us an even-handed review of Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me.

As a life-long Sir Elton John fan, it was exciting to see that his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, had penned an autobiography, Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me. Whereas Beatles John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney were the 1960s’ top composers, two of their disciples, Elton and Bernie, would be the 1970s’ reigning songwriters. This is all the more notable since the duo’s wordsmith was only in his early-to-mid-twenties when Captain Fantastic ruled FM radio with an incredible run of hit singles and albums from 1970 through 1976. Indeed, Taupin wrote the lyrics for “Your Song” as a nineteen-year-old virgin. The pair have continued to produce plenty of hits over the decades, and Taupin has occasionally written the words to songs for other performers, such as Alice Cooper, Starship (“We Built This City”), Heart (“These Dreams”), and Willie Nelson.

But as outrageously public as melody maker Sir Elton has been, his lyrical partner has generally stayed stubbornly backstage, making his memoir somewhat of a revelation. Though reared in rural England, Taupin was always in love with America’s music, movies, pop culture, and Wild West. These influences saturate his lyrics and, as soon as he could afford to, he headed for Hollywood: “I left because I wanted an alternate lifestyle and was driven by an Americanism that was always in my soul. I excommunicated myself from a culture that I didn’t feel I belonged to or was terribly interested in and embraced one that had inhabited my imagination since I straddled a broom and galloped across my old front lawn.”

By far Taupin’s longest love affair has been with America, and it is touching how grateful this immigrant remains. Of his SiriusXM program, “American Roots Radio,” he explains that “Preserving the heritage of consequential Americana had always been of the greatest importance to me,” crediting how “it served me well as an inspirational arsenal.” Taupin has no patience for fellow expats who ridicule American culture, bluntly telling them, “Don’t pillory the fabric of a nation that has invited you with open arms and p*$% on its pastimes.” Instead, having lived the last three-plus decades in a rural part of southern California, Taupin displays deep affection for his adopted homeland: “The Santa Ynez Valley is still quintessentially small-town America… They still wash your windows and pump your gas at the local Chevron, the coffee shop knows what I want without asking, and I know everyone on a first-name basis at the local market. I’m indebted to it and its inhabitants for giving me a stable and concurrently ordinary life. Everyone knows who I am, yet no one panders or fawns. I might garner a little extra attention, but in every other way I’m just another neighbour. They’re hardworking, good-natured people intrinsically patriotic in their respect for American tradition.”

Yet so much of the book is dominated by anecdotes about a huge variety of famous artists and entertainers Taupin has met, including John Lennon, Sir Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Katharine Hepburn, Stevie Wonder, the Rev. Al Green, Bob Marley, Billie Jean King, Freddie Mercury, and loads more. Many vignettes are quite revealing and fun. For example, surrealist painter Salvador Dali referred to himself as “The Dali,” doodled a delightful drawing on a restaurant napkin, and tossed it to a grateful Taupin, only for his hotel maid to mistakenly launder it.

At one get-together, Beach Boy songwriting genius Brian Wilson kept asking Taupin to introduce him to Lennon, despite having met his Beatle rival many times. Each time, Lennon sweetly pretended it was their first meeting. About the schizophrenic Wilson, Lennon touchingly confided to the author, “Bless him, he’s not well, you know.”

Interspersed among these charming rendezvous are Taupin’s adventures witnessing London’s campy gay night life in the late 1960s and early 1970s, staying in the Parisian hotel where Oscar Wilde died, skiing off Barbados, enjoying Mexico, and exploring New York City, frequently with a kind old Italian driver. It is refreshing how Taupin admires the many fine non-famous folks who cross his paths.

The author’s humour is often self-deprecating, and he is frank about his repeated romantic failures and alcoholism. Still, for all the seemingly endless tales of drink- and drug-fuelled debauchery (he named his dog “Vodka”), the massive number of songs, paintings, and other art works Taupin has produced appear to confirm him as a highly “functional alcoholic.” It is truly remarkable how well he has done as a lyricist, poet, painter, abstract artist, singer with his Farm Dogs band, radio host, rodeo cowboy, and rancher. The horse farm he acquired in middle age and lived on for a quarter century helped ground the rich vagabond and bring some desperately needed peace amidst so much alcohol and chemical consumption and endless romantic turmoil. It is especially comforting that Taupin finally created a happy, lasting marriage producing successful children and a much deeper religious faith as the long-lapsed Catholic became a Presbyterian. The now-old man who calls his Christian faith “rehab for the soul” has evolved quite a ways from the young rebel who wrote the 1976 song, “If There’s a God in Heaven (What’s He Waiting For?).”

Befitting an author whose God has “a sense of humour,” the book occasionally has laugh-out-loud moments, as when a youthful Taupin enjoys “a weekend fling that culminated with the best exit line imaginable.” After an amorous evening, his date suddenly jumped out of bed early the next morning. Asked what was the hurry, she exclaimed, “Because I’m getting married this afternoon!” No film of Taupin’s life should ever neglect this gem. There is also his African grey parrot, “Baldy,” with moulting feathers and an amazing vocabulary [who] would drive me nuts by imitating the sound of the phone ringing, perfectly. He would then proceed to have a one-sided conversation with the imaginary caller, punctuating his responses to their non-existent dialogue with responses like ‘uh-huh,’ ‘oh, really?’ and ‘bye.’

But for all Scattershot’s hits, there are many misses. Perhaps foremost is just how few of the book’s not quite four hundred pages ever mention “my melodic mate,” Taupin’s “very best friend,” and the fellow whose name graces the book’s title, Sir Elton. There is virtually no dialogue between the lyricist and his musical knight, little material on their friendship, and still less on how they write their songs. This is all the more unfortunate since the memoir’s most moving moment is when Taupin visits his dearest friend in a drug rehabilitation clinic. Particularly because he points out how different they are, it would be fascinating to learn how they have gotten along and worked together so splendidly for almost six decades.

Alas, their legions of songs, many of which have formed the soundtrack to so many millions of lives, are largely ignored. On a rare page when Taupin finally discusses his craft, he is often completely flippant, as when he refers to his lyrics for the huge hit, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” as just a set of words he dashed off in ten minutes while drunk. As for “England’s Rose,” the new lyrics for “Candle in the Wind” honouring Princess Diana that became by far the biggest-selling single of all time, Taupin cavalierly claims that he wrote them “within half an hour” and, “If you put a gun to my head right now and threatened to kill me if I didn’t recite the lyric, I’d be a dead man. I don’t remember a word of it.”

This repeated dismissal of his most famous artistic creations grates all the more since the book sings when he does convey his songwriting techniques and influences, however briefly. “Tiny Dancer,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Daniel,” and “Empty Garden,” his tribute to Lennon, are such examples. It is both funny and a tad sad that, watching TV’s Jeopardy! “When one of the categories was ‘Elton John Lyrics,'” the man who penned them admits (boasts?), “Out of the five questions, I only got two right.” While initially intriguing, the seemingly non-stop tales of drunkenness, drug use, and womanizing became tiresome and even embarrassing, prompting me to more than once wonder why I was reading the book. To be fair, Taupin does resolutely condemn all recreational drugs and emphasizes he never wrote one lyric under the influence of any, but he also writes that he has few regrets for having indulged in so many for so much of his life.

Nor does the thrice-divorced lyricist harbour any shame for all his adultery. Revealing a stunning lack of self-awareness, he brags how, “Even at my worst, and during times of extreme bad behaviour, I can honestly say I remained on an even keel in regard to my morality.” But in the next paragraph he declares that “in retrospect I feel no guilt or remorse that I found favour in the arms of others,” justifying his infidelities by implying he was mistreated at home and arguing that “A marriage without passion is a marriage of convenience.” In a ridiculous rationalization, he concludes that “I needed these experiences to keep me alive and functioning.” Uh-huh. I wonder if he said that in divorce court.

Taupin again sees nothing remiss when extolling the painter Paul Gauguin for leaving “the homely bureaucracy he gave up so as to devote his life to raw independency and abject poverty.” Yet the painter abandoned Mrs. Gauguin and their children to flee to Tahiti where he not only painted girls as young as thirteen but had sex with many, infecting a slew of them with syphilis, and fathering two children by one – and all when he was in his forties and fifties. Perhaps it all just reads so much better in Hollywood. Recounting when he and Sir Elton visited Playboy Magazine creator Hugh Hefner’s famous mansion, the author is all the more hilariously hypocritical condemning the publisher as simply “a self-ordained libertine” presiding over a sexual empire of “camouflaged vulgarity.” And exactly how was Taupin’s decadent lifestyle different from Hef’s?

Taupin’s poo-pooing the Playboy mansion’s décor for poor “taste” typifies a snobbish streak occasionally infecting the narrative, such as when defending some lyrics’ seamy imagery by arguing that “It was my job to conjure up an illusion of something without people imagining I moonlighted as a dockland pimp or lived in a trailer park.” Explaining why he changed the subject of “Candle in the Wind” from the actor Montgomery Clift to the actress Marilyn Monroe, he writes she was merely “more sympathetic in the minds of the masses.” And the perpetual tourist condemns a place if it is “infested with tourists and populated by an inordinate amount of tacky gift shops offering kitsch souvenirs.”

There are other problems with the book as well. For all its prodigious name-dropping, there are not remotely as many anecdotes accompanying all the famous folks Taupin boasts he has met. While the book’s title is apropos since the narrative jumps back and forth in time, there are way too many abrupt transitions between wildly different topics where a new chapter or some type of break is needed. Especially for a renowned writer, it is stunning how many cliches, incomplete sentences, split infinitives, sentences ending in prepositions, absent commas, and misspellings permeate the book.

I still recommend Scattershot, especially for Sir Elton fans who enjoy what he sings, but more as a collection of sometimes amusing stories giving a glimpse of rich celebrities with too much free time and not remotely enough self-awareness. Savour the work’s candour, humility, and humour, and smile at its glaring contradictions.


Dr. Douglas Young is a political science professor emeritus who taught government and history for over 33 years and whose essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in a variety of publications in America, Canada, and Europe. His first novel, Deep in the Forest, was published in 2021 and the second, Due South, came out in 2022. His most recent book, This Little Opinion Plus $1.50 Will Buy You a Coke: A Collection of Essays, was published in 2024.

5 comments to A review of: Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton and Me

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    A fascinating review of a book by a strangely elusive but hugely talented man. Most of what I know about Bernie Taupin comes from the film “Rocketman” which includes the scene you mention where Taupin visits Elton John in a drug clinic. It is a moving scene in the film, too, but since the film eschews realism completely – it includes numerous dream sequences – I don’t know whether to take the way it is depicted there literally.

  • bobby b

    Everyone seems to have been eagerly awaiting “Taupin’s Tell-All About Elton”, but apparently cooler legal heads prevailed.

  • Everyone seems to have been eagerly awaiting “Taupin’s Tell-All About Elton”, but apparently cooler legal heads prevailed.

    yes, I too was wondering if that might be the case 😀

  • Mr Ed

    The one thing I heard (in the 1990s) as an anecdote about Mr Taupin was that at some point in the mid-1970s, he found Elton John in mid-suicide attempt, the latter having put his head in a gas oven with taps on but resting his head on a pillow in case it hurt. Knowing that this method no longer worked (directly) as Coal Gas (a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) had been phased out a few years before, and the harmless as such to breathe (and made smelly) methane had replaced it, the only risk being an explosion. Mr Taupin was said to have burst out laughing at the sight, struck by the mix of determination to die yet avoiding discomfort.

  • Paul Marks

    The small town point is a good one.

    I suspect that Americans who live more than (say) a 100 miles from a city of over 100 thousand people will be O.K.

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