In the blockbuster biopic Rocketman, Bernie Taupin’s character is the English wordsmith who met Elton John at a cafe in 1967 and became the stalwart friend who stood by his songwriting partner through decades of stardom and tumult. Atlantans also may recognize Taupin as the lyricist who wrote dozens of radio hits (from “Tiny Dancer” to “I’m Still Standing”) with John, including the album, Peachtree Road, which was recorded in our city and celebrated at a legendary concert at the Tabernacle in 2004. The pair continues to collaborate, but Taupin has spent the past few years focused primarily on his artwork, which he creates at his studio in California and labels as “musical archeology.” His paintings and assemblages reference Americana, country music, the U.S. flag, and found objects. Below, Taupin talks about his upcoming exhibition at Bill Lowe Gallery (which opens October 25), his writing process, and his friendship with John.
You’ve written lyrics for Elton John since you were 17 and have pursued painting since the 1990s. Do you remember creating art before you met Elton?
Not particularly, but I’ve had an appreciation of art since I was a child sitting on my mother’s knee, looking at a coffee table book of J.M.W. Turner’s nautical work and being fascinated by the colors and the storylines. My mother was a driving force in everything artistic in my life. She was very Bohemian. When I was growing up in the North of England during the 1950s, going to school was a catapult to put kids on the line in factories. Anybody with aspirations beyond the factory was sort of frowned upon. My mother said, “Go ahead and do what you feel you need to do.” So, I took my lead from her.
Your work is influenced by abstract expressionists including Anselm Kiefer, Jasper Johns, Hans Hofmann, and others. Is that partly a result of being exposed to art while going on tour [with Elton] in the early days?
That commenced from the time I moved to London in the 1960s during the onslaught of pop art, which had a huge effect on me then, and even more so when I wound up in New York later. We always seemed to be in New York City when it was cold, so I would seek refuge in places like MoMA and other art galleries. Those visits were the breeding ground for the art I’d eventually make after I stopped my transient lifestyle. I remember one huge Kiefer piece I’d stare at because of the storytelling in it. The beauty of art, for me, is that it’s up to the viewers to come up with their own interpretations.
One piece in your show is called “Evolution,” and it’s an assemblage of record sleeves, cassettes, and eight-track tapes featuring familiar faces from Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon to Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson. Are you contrasting tangible analog objects with the virtual realm or is this work a statement about how everything, including recorded music, is disposable?
My works are [not statements so much as] reactionary ideas, momentary ideas. I don’t necessarily pre-think things. Found objects are important for me; anything I feel could be useful becomes part of my own [art] smorgasbord. “Evolution” is not a cry for a simpler time, it’s about the way music has developed and is heard. This piece is about the arc of [physical] music from vinyl to CD and back to vinyl again. I only play vinyl at home, because it’s simply the best way of listening to music. A piece of art is like a lyric. I let people interpret it based upon what they feel. It’s not that important what I feel … Whether it’s songwriting, any form of writing, production, or art, [the purpose] is to wake up the mind. That’s why I’ve always loved abstract art because it made me think and instilled in me a desire to create.
Many of your paintings feature the American flag [sometimes deconstructed or burned], along with parts of musical instruments and bits of lyrics, including on the cover of the 2018 Restoration album, a compilation of yours and Elton’s hits performed by today’s top country artists. Was creating this piece a full-circle moment for you, since your earliest idols were American country singers such as Johnny Cash [who wrote the 1974 song, “Ragged Old Flag”], Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton?
I’ve said before that I was a closeted country fan [when I was young] because country music was not cool. Back then, people [in England] were listening to American rock and roll, but Elvis didn’t tell me stories. Merle Haggard was my Beatles. I loved the Beatles, but at the same time, I was listening to American blues, country, and folk, people like Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter [Lead Belly], Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. It was like a history lesson. Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “North to Alaska,” Cash singing about trains and the trials of [Native Americans], and Robbins’s trail songs—they were like movies to me. That’s what made me want to write sort of “mini-movies” in songs and tell stories through my art.
You turned your childhood dream of being a cowboy into reality by buying a ranch in California and becoming an American citizen in 1990. You also participated in charity projects for U.S. military veterans. Has America met your expectations?
Kids of my generation were incredibly influenced by American culture, music, television, movies, books, whatever. My contemporaries wanted to emulate it. I wanted to go further than that. I always felt I never belonged [in England], but that I belonged here [in America]. I came here in 1970 and never wanted to leave. So everything I do now, I think of myself as wholly American. I’m very passionate about that, and I think it comes across in my work.
Elton has said your writing appealed to him in the beginning because you didn’t structure songs in a typical verse/chorus/bridge format. Your phrases were wordier, which allowed him to sing more.
I think that’s simply because when I was younger I was flying by the seat of my pants [laughs]. I was really writing a sort of stream of consciousness. I wouldn’t call it poetry. If you want to get my hackles up, call me a poet, because that’s the last thing I am. I’m a lyricist. Back then I was not musically trained. I was just trying desperately to be cool and be in touch with the times . . . I had to write more in a pop vein because I knew that writing the kind of country stuff that I was listening to was not gonna fly. But luckily after releasing a couple of albums [with Elton] and hearing American rock bands like The Band doing songs based on country, gospel, and blues, and inventing what is now known as Americana music, that was a release to me. It was like, “Whoa, people can actually, we can actually do that?” So that was when I embraced my inner closeted country songwriter and we created [the 1970 Elton John album] Tumbleweed Connection.
In the Rocketman film, you [portrayed by Jamie Bell] try to take back a sheet of paper containing the “Border Song” lyrics from Elton [Taron Egerton], but it’s too late because he says he’s already set the words to music. You actually wrote those words two years after you met Elton and the song was released on Elton’s eponymous first album in 1970. Aretha Franklin did her own version of the song in 1972, also blending those Americana genres of country, gospel, and blues you admired. Today, one could read a lot into those verses, from the struggle of refugees to border walls, racism, political division, and more. Am I overthinking it?
Yeah [laughs], I don’t know. I’d have to go back and look at it. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to our own music. I’m not David Crosby [laughs]. I’ve got way too much to do than to reconnect with old songs and try and figure out where, when, and why I wrote them.
Your lyrics span decades and mark very specific moments in our lives. For a Gen-Xer like me, Elton and George Michael performing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at Live Aid in 1985 and their reprisal of the song at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation concert in 1992 brought cultural awareness about global poverty and the AIDS crisis. Elton’s performance of your re-worked “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 is also an indelible memory. Do you have any career moments where you’re like, “Wow, we really got that right?”
No, I think you’re always waiting for the peak, you know? The minute you stop looking for the summit, you might as well close up your case and go home. I’m not nostalgic at all. I’m always looking for the next best thing. Trying to recollect is really not important to me. Down the road, around the corner, in my studio right now, that’s important. Connecting with Elton, the next concert I go to, or the next event I do . . . I’m always going forward.
In a recent New York Times review of Elton John’s new autobiography, Me, the critic wrote, “It’s a gift to finally hear from someone who has delivered so many of Bernie Taupin’s words and so few of his own.” In what ways does Elton singing your words tell the story of your life?
In the Middle Ages, he probably would have been the town crier. I don’t want to be gratuitous, but without him, I wouldn’t have a voice. It’s one thing to tell a story and write the story. But unless you embrace the story, melodically, with music that is interesting, tasteful, and appealing, it’s not gonna mean a thing, and it’s not going to reach the masses. You know, I could just publish lyrics in a pamphlet and put it out, but who’s going to read that? No one. So he’s the messenger. Without him, I wouldn’t have a voice. It’s a beautiful thing, not something I want to overthink. It just happened and it works.
If you go: Bernie Taupin: Lost & Found opens to the public on Friday, October 25th from 6-9 P.M., and runs through the end of November at Bill Lowe Gallery in Miami Circle.