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Elton John: Talent, Fame, and Substance Addiction

“But before trying to escape the island, he warned his son not to fly too close to the sun” – Icarus

Why is that many of the most talented figures who have ever lived, have also found themselves struggling with addiction?  Elton John, like many famous musicians before him, had a life of success, musical genius, and drug addiction. John is one of the most loveable and talented pianists of our generation, and he had a crazy sunglass collection and fashion sense to match. But he was also known to struggle with cocaine, alcohol and basically any substance addiction. However, he battled through it and came through the other side. In 2022, Elton celebrated 32 years dry. But what led this phenomenal man to addiction? To understand, we must delve into his magnificent career. 

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Elton John

Elton John sits comfortably next to the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis and the Rolling Stones when looking at the magnitude of his career. To put it into perspective, he is one of the top three ranking artists in the history of American charts. Elton John, a well-spoken, reserved and humble man to his friends, but when he takes to the stage – he’s electric. He may be 75 years old, but he still sings, he plays piano and composes as good as Bethoven. Elton John came from a humble background, and was a working class lad. When speaking about his adopted sons and bringing them up, he said:

“​​’I came from a very working class background where I had to work for everything I got, and I want to instil those same values in them”

You can see that Elton has taken this grassroots, hardened work ethic with him throughout his life and career. His name was once Reginanld Kenneth Dwight, and he was born in 1947 in Middlesex, England. However, after an amazing musical career, he is now known as Sir Elton Hercules John. For most fans, he is known as Elton. Elton John. Few people took to the piano like he did. He had an ear for it, a talent many would dream of having. Cheat Sheet writes:

“He had an innate ability to pick up tunes after hearing them. His impressive piano skills earned him a spot in the youth program at the Royal Academy of Music in London when he was 11 years old. John took piano lessons at the school for the next four years until he decided to pursue music full time.”

With a love and adoration for the rhythm and blues of the 60s, John began playing this kind of music. However, it wasn’t until he met Bernie Taupin that Elton became who he is today.

Bernie Taupin & Elton John

It was around this time that he met Bernie Taupin, a songwriter who would change his life forever, Taupin and John would go on to work together for 53 years and counting, writing over 400 songs. Together they won 35 gold and 25 platinum albums, with 30 US top 40 hits. Not only that, they sold more than 225 million records worldwide and hold the record for the largest selling song ever – Candle in the Wind written in 1997. They sold more than 33 million copies of that single. Their specific process was quite incredible and is portrayed well in the recent film Rocketman. Taupin would write the lyrics, and Elton would compose. Unlike other great musicians, they wouldn’t really communicate or discuss. They’d leave each other to their individual role in the cog of the machine of song making. Biography writes:

“Their writing relationship… was basically Elton putting Bernie’s lyrics in front of him and virtually auto-composing. From 1967 they developed this incredible remote working relationship where they would never sit in the same room and write together…Elton and Bernie were always writing separately. And there is something about that process that gave them a critical distance.”

Together the pair wrote a list of incredible, well-known anthems. These included: rocket man, honky cat, crocodile rock, tiny dancer, candle in the wind, goodbye yellow brick road, your song and many others. 

The Fame

The fame came thick and fast for the two musical stars. Like many musicians before them and after them, the popularity for their incredible music was something neither of them could ever have predicted. Their schedule increased, the limelight grew bigger and the drugs and alcohol most definitely became more accessible. For Elton John, those substances were a must, for Taupin – he tried to avoid. Taupin was known to have a far more rock n roll background, and preferred to stay out of the limelight. In short, he liked being the song writer, away from the flamboyance of the stage. In contrast to that, Elton John was shy and reserved offstage but loved the glamour and confidence he experienced on it. It was this dichotomy that caused Elton to need substances to fuel his onstage persona

“Offstage he was reserved and says he was shy, so he turned to cocaine in an effort to overcome what he thought he lacked. Over 16 years throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s he experienced life through a drug-fueled haze”

Elton John is far from the only musician who has turned to substances to handle the sheer insanity of fame, and we will most definitely not be the last. However, he is one of the lucky few that has been able to stop himself and stay clean. Unfortunately the likes of Jim Morrison, Billie Holiday, Jimmi Hendirx, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehosue were not so fortunate. 

Elton John admitted that the unrelenting schedule and demands of music led him to using cocaine, alcohol and other substances to numb himself. But why does fame cause so many individuals to turn to drugs? Psych Alive writes on the issues of fame and how something that in the beginning can seem so appealing, can easily turn to a life of loneliness and isolation.

“The unfortunate truth, however, is that for each and every celebrity, the fame machine can only churn for so long. As a former famous child star revealed, “I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.”

Elton John & Addiction

As situations worsened, Elton John has admitted that he came very close to death. Much like many before him and after him, Elton knew that his relationship with drugs was becoming life threatening. He says his routine was very unhealthy, admitting that he would smoke cannabis, drink copious amounts of alcohol and stay up on a coke-fuelled binge for night after night. At this time, his relationship with Taupin was worsening, and they even broke up for a few years. The beautiful duo was over. This was partly caused by Elton John’s self-sabotaging life. 

“I mean, I would have an epileptic seizure and turn blue, and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed, and then 40 minutes later I’d be snorting another line.”

Cocaine is a stimulant, and gives the user the feelings of awakeness, confidence and energy. For Elton John’s lifestyle this worked perfectly. The issue was, this drug is very addictive and can easily lead to health issues if overused. However, in 1990, Elton John reached rock bottom and decided to put his career to the side and focus on recovery.

Elton John’s Recovery

It takes a lot of drive, will-power and emotional support to recover from addiction. Overcoming any habit can be one of the hardest things to do. But with over 30 years of no substance use, it is clear now in 2022 – at the ripe age of 75 – that Elton John had the strength to go through with it. Speaking for Variety magazine, Elton John highlighted his advice for anyone out there also struggling with addiction:

“My best advice to people who are facing those difficult early days of sobriety is to get humble. Make recovery your absolute priority over everything else. Don’t go back to work too soon. Take the time you need to learn and heal. I don’t think I would still be sober today if I hadn’t taken that whole year off and thrown myself into my program of recovery.

As you can see, Elton realised that there was a version of himself that existed outside of fame and outside of his musical success. And this person was also called Elton John, and this person deserved to live. He realised, unlike many other unfortunate musicians, that this version of himself had to come first – even before the flamboyant, confident stage magician that the world loved. The world is thankful that Elton is still around and still performing today. In fact, he’s been almost retiring for the last 5 years but he keeps on going. 

Conclusion

Elton John is only one of the many many musicians and famous figures who have turned to substance abuse to deal with the sheer insanity of fame. What can once seem so full of glitz and glamour, can easily turn someone into an addict. However, Elton John’s incredible musical career should not be overshadowed by this. He was one of the most talented pianists and composers to ever live and when he took to the stage he was memorable. But it goes to show, even the best can be driven to substances.

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