A tale of two madmen
The worst boyfriends ever made a lot of great music and a monstrous amount of money, but at what cost? Happy Pride!
Happy Pride, y’all.
There’s plenty to be in the streets protesting right now, or giving money to if you can, or interrupting those friendly family gender-reveal parties if they must. But there’s also as ever so much to celebrate and honor and continue to bask in, so much great work and art and joy that queer folks continue against all odds to make and share with the world.
I’m continuing a long, ever deeper dive into Elton John’s catalog and history. I found that one thread I was teasing out about his album Madman Across the Water, which is being celebrated with a 50th anniversary re-issue, was elbowing its way into essay territory. Here’s a peek at that.
(Warning for drugs, partner violence and a suicide attempt, aka Elton’s life story.)
By all accounts, Elton John is a happy man. The hard-earned kind, not just a famous stage smile. And he deserves to be.
Married for almost 10 years, sober for more than 30, he’s been able to both continue performing — and extending — his global “farewell” tour, while also because of Covid spending a serious amount of time at home with his husband and their two sons. He’s 75 years old and his duet-slash-quadruple-megamix with Dua Lipa is No. 1 on the pop charts; I was in London last month and heard it blasting out of a passing car on a sunny spring afternoon, a tiny time-traveling moment for the mental scrapbook.
For someone who was for so long notoriously, even proudly bratty, he’s now fully in his elder statesman phase. He’s raising and giving away money to good causes almost as fast as he’s still signing new deals and championing new artists, just like he’s as tart and prompt in shooting down both homophobic policies and reports he’s anything less than entirely capable of storming through the world on his terms.
This week he’s releasing a special 50th anniversary edition of Madman Across the Water, properly first put out in November 1971 (but what even is time these days, let alone time worth counting that precisely). Looking back, Madman seems stacked — beyond the driving dark heartbeat of the title track (much more on that in a minute), you’ve got both the epic “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” — though in fairness it underperformed both on radio and with critics, especially compared with albums before and after.
I’ve been thinking, this Pride season, about some of the lives and loves we leave behind as we blossom into our fully queer swan selves. How we’re often better off for it, and how rarely we make space to celebrate the versions of ourselves we had to be — and shed — to be happy and proud today. And with no disrespect to Elton’s husband, David Furnish, who has clearly been a far better lifelong partner, I’ve been considering how much of the great legacy of Elton’s epic output through the 1970s owes a certain awful debt to John Reid, his first boyfriend and longtime business manager.
At the time of Madman’s official debut, Elton was exhausted. He later called it “the most personal and painful album” he’d made. It was his fourth studio LP in two years1, during which he’d been either traveling or recording basically non-stop. For the first time, he wasn’t sitting on a stack of excess songs he and Bernie Taupin had tag-teamed with their already well-oiled writing machine. There were arguments with the label about the expensive, elaborate packaging, and a growing hum of disgruntled fans at home about how much time and attention Elton had spent on American audiences. He was on the precipice of a peak damned-if-you-do-or-don’t milestone: fans and critics were also complaining about how much music he’d put out in so little time. That awful O word floated around: oversaturated.
If Elton and Bernie together had a Midas touch for making hits, Elton’s relationship with John Reid was an alchemic, almost black magic that yielded crucial career highs — but only at the cost of extreme lows for Elton, too, many of which long outlived their toxic love affair. When Elton catapulted beyond his obvious excessive amount of natural talent and showmanship into true superstardom, it was because Reid was obsessively determined to make Elton the biggest singer of all time.2
So, exhausted or not, Elton laid down all of Madman in four days scheduled between tour dates on four continents.3 It would have been a whopping full five-day week had Paul Buckmaster not pulled an all-nighter to finish the score, spilled ink all over the sheet music, and forced a delay until he could rewrite the entire thing. “Even when Paul screwed up,” Elton writes in his memoir, “he screwed up in a way that reminded you he was a genius,” which sounds a lot like something many people have probably said about Elton himself.
According to Elton’s candid own recounting, he didn’t first try cocaine — or even more than a token toke of marijuana — until several albums later. But there’s a frenetic defensiveness in the Madman title track that to me, from many decades and degrees removed, has always flashed like a neon sign warning of treacherous conditions just down the road.
“Take my word — I’m a madman, don’t you know,” Elton bites out, courtesy as always Bernie’s silver-tipped pen.
The song holds up on repeated loud, heavy, focused listens, in no small part because the studio session players are the same musicians who then became Elton’s longtime touring band. There’s delicate, dissonant buzz of an acoustic guitar — Davey Johnstone’s first recorded contribution to the Elton John catalog — and stomping, clomping percussion by Ray Cooper. There’s even a bassoon, because Paul Buckmaster.
Is it in your conscience that you're after
Another glimpse of
a madman across the water
Reid hasn’t spoken much recently about Elton, not even in reaction to the generous upgrade in the form of Richard Madden he received in the 2019 biopic, Rocketman. In the film, the mercurial Reid swaggers into Elton’s life, full of smoldering, Scottish brogue-y pep talks: “Be brave, think big,” he urges as they make out in a recording studio closet. “What do you rrrrrreally want?” This is followed by a Broadway stage-worthy musical montage set to “Honky Cat” where Madden and Taron Egerton, as Elton, drink and shimmy and snort their way through a few years of superstar trajectory, ending in Reid assuming control of Elton’s career as his personal manager. From there, for the two of them, it’s really all over but the shouting.
Really Reid gets off easy on screen. In various other accounts through the years, including Elton’s own memoir, Reid is at least as likely to punch a man as make a deal with him. He did a month’s jail time during one of Elton’s New Zealand tours for assaulting someone who’d called them both poufs (thus also making sure Elton could continue on without delay). Elton, for his part, got so wasted on vodka and cocaine during the video shoot for “I’m Still Standing” that he violated his own lifetime ban on personal violence and bloodied, possibly broke, Reid’s nose. “He could take it as payback for thumping me when we were a couple,” Elton said. (Details you just cannot make up: Reid, who was at the time dressed as a clown to appear in the video, hopped into a Bentley and drove clear through from Cannes to Calais, where his car broke down on the ferry back to England.)
He was Elton’s first sex, first love, first live-in boyfriend (they moved in together almost as soon as they first slept together). Reid’s sexuality was even more of an open secret than Elton’s; their mere proximity would have been a bigger threat had Elton not been so head over heels in love he didn’t seem to care who figured it out.
Reid was also — perhaps incidentally, as it was the 1970s and rock’n’roll and Elton had surely been around plenty of drugs before then — the first person Elton ever did a line of coke with, the auspicious beginning to a devastating addiction Elton barely survived.
Great time to stop doing coke, right?
As chilling as that story is, there’s just so much more lurking in the corners of the books and old magazine interviews I’ve been working my way through. There’s one tiny terrible part that’s stuck with me and no matter what else I learn about how Madman was recorded, it’s become my first, very unfortunate association with the song and album.
Reid had a yacht, presumably bought at least in part with funds made off Elton’s work — and he named it Madman. Was it a cruel swipe at Elton, still his lover at that time, whose already infamous tantrums at least gave good cover to Reid’s anger management issues? Was it an inside joke, some cheeky allusion to the singer’s hold on Reid, his long reach even out to sea?
Still worse: Elton hated to sail, but in the Los Angeles publicity blitz that led up to Elton’s record-setting 1975 Dodger Stadium run — literally named “Elton John Week” — there was at least one party thrown by Reid on the boat, ostensibly in his honor. This is the same week that ended with Elton’s dramatic suicide attempt, a pill-fueled plunge into the pool of his rented mansion, which (depending on the account) appears to have been either precipitated by or immediately followed by being broken up with by Reid.
But come on. What kind of an asshole names his boat after his boyfriend’s angry, self-defensive song about how everyone thinks he’s crazy?
There’s another song on Madman, “All the Nasties,” that like the title track breaks off from the other longer and more lyrical troubadour-style stories.
The arrangement is upbeat, almost a light gospel. As in “Madman,” Elton’s speaking directly to the “nasties” — the critics and the questioning, real or perceived, and probably also an imaginary bogeyman keeping a secret locked up tight. It’s (now) a fairly obvious musing on what would happen were he to come out publicly: “If it came to pass that they should ask / What would I tell them?”
“Not a single person seemed to notice what I was singing about,” he said later. He didn’t, of course, say any such thing directly for a while yet, and when he did — an interview with Rolling Stone during which John Reid wandered into the hotel room, most likely trying to get Elton to stop talking about his sexuality — many didn’t quite know how to take it, especially when followed a few years later by marriage to a woman (Reid was his best man and also later punched a reporter whose coverage he didn’t like).
Unlike many of his other songs, “Nasties” hasn’t been included on any remixes and seems to have been rarely if ever covered by other artists. (That said: go listen to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” and tell me the end refrains aren’t incredibly similar.4) It’s not a great song, by my count. There’s a piano demo on one of Elton’s massive box sets of rarities and b-sides, and it’s not meaningfully different minus the additional instruments. But it’s arguably the gayest of Elton’s early songs and, like with audiences at the time, it’s barely made a blip.
Reid stayed in Elton’s life via his career another 25 years after they split up, including a very advantageous handshake deal that gave him a full 20 percent of Elton’s earnings. It took a giant scandal involving leaked financial statements, millions of possibly missing pounds, and (just my theory) quite possibly David Furnish’s own insistence, to finally come to a bitter lawsuit-countersuit-settlement end. Reid retired from management altogether.
“However close other artists claimed to be to their managers, I doubted any of them had lost their virginity to them,” Elton wrote. And yet, “I was still terrified of confronting him about the situation and rocking the boat. We’d been together so long that I couldn’t imagine my world without John in it.”
John Reid’s story has, at least in modern times, been written largely by Elton John, who has accomplished the platonic ideal of fame: outliving all his enemies and thus getting to largely dictate his own legacy. (David Furnish should also be credited with having elegantly led a best-in-class effort to both modernize and extend Elton’s empire while slowly nudging his audience-addicted husband off the road — maybe, we’ll see how that goes.)
I’m hardly suggesting we spend Pride, especially when under attack again from so many directions, lamenting our long-ago love-blind choices. But we’re all the sum of our parts, and for many of us there was at least one period of time when those parts were pure mess. It’s what we make of the pieces we pick up on the other side that we’re here to celebrate. 🌈
In addition to those four studio albums in two years, there was a fifth release – the live recording of a radio show, 17-11-70, which is about as close as we can get to sitting in the front row of a small-venue Elton performance in the early years. Highly recommended.
Why yes it does make me dizzy to decide who in a piece like this is referred to as “John” and whether to use last names or first but in the end, Elton is ELTON and John Reid is just a Scottish jerk.
On the other hand, if somehow you haven’t heard/seen Brandi Carlile absolutely devour “Madman Against the Water,” please watch it. We had the good fortune to see this live in Los Angeles shortly pre-Covid and it was face-melting amazing. (Apologies for the Howard Stern of it all but I love what Brandi has to say here about her interpretation of it.)