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Book Review: Elton John: The Bitch Is Back by Mark Bego

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Elton John: The Bitch Is Back certainly is an appropriate title for a book purporting to capture: “The passion, the outlandishness, and the complexity of Elton John’s life.”

Sir Elton has lived a few lifetimes in his 62 years, the past 40 of which have been in the public eye. Author Mark Bego spends a few token pages on Elton’s youth, when he was called Reginald Dwight. The seminal event for the young man was his parents’ divorce. Reg embraced his mother and new stepfather immediately, leaving his biological father out in the cold, basically for the rest of his life.

The story picks up steam when he joins a group called Bluesology, who went on to become Long John Baldry’s back-up band. As any music fan knows though, the real break came when he met Bernie Taupin. One of the more interesting revelations in the book was how Elton wrote the music to Bernie’s lyrics. Taupin would hand him the words, and Elton would compose the music right there on the spot. I don’t care what anyone thinks of Elton John, the ability to write like that shows an amazing talent.

The run Elton went on in the early 1970’s was unprecedented. Seven consecutive number one albums, including the very first one to debut at number one on Billboard. The only band that had previously enjoyed such sustained success were The Beatles. Now that is some heady company to be keeping.

Elton’s cocaine and alcohol abuse became big news in the 1980’s, but it had started long before. Bego traces the end of “Elton-mania” to drug use—and serious depression—despite his many triumphs. The Blue Moves LP was aptly titled.

The first two-thirds of The Bitch Is Back concerns itself with what most people consider the “classic” Elton John period, from 1970-76. From there, things go sideways in every manner imaginable. There was his infamous first wedding—to a woman no less—that eventually cost him 45 million dollars.

The drugs continued, his sexual appetites morphed into addiction, and the records became pretty spotty affairs. Elton became close to many of the rich and famous, most notably the Royal Family. But so much of this is either sad tabloid fodder or breathless celebrity gossip. Honestly, the last hundred or so pages of The Bitch Is Back are a bit tedious. For all of his success with The Lion King or Aida, I just miss the fun Elton of “Bennie And The Jets” or as The Pinball Wizard in Tommy.

I think the author does too, because the past ten years especially are pretty much phoned in. Here’s an example: “Throughout 2001 Elton was kept busy with solo tour dates and his ongoing Face To Face tour with Billy Joel.”

A couple of pages later comes this: “His 48th album, Peachtree Road, was one of Elton’s main focuses in 2004.”

The dry prose reflects the subject. Elton John is now simply a product, a cash cow on tour with the occasional new record release. Once in a while he manages to generate some humorous headlines. His diva flap with Tina Turner is the best recent one.

I’m happy he’s clean and sober, and apparently has found his one true love, but Elton John is now and has been pretty boring for a long time. Then again, I’m just an old guy who as a kid in the sixth grade bought Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy the day it came out. I have only done that a couple of times in my life since.

So that early ‘70’s version of The Captain remains indelible for me. The good news is that Mark Bego seems to feel the same way. It is no coincidence that so much of the book is devoted to those years. Obviously he had to report on Elton’s life since 1976 though, and to be fair there were some pretty good songs, and some very juicy incidents to discuss.

You can’t fault the author for the direction his subject chose to go in. All in all, Bego did an outstanding job with Elton John: The Bitch Is Back. It is the most up-to-date bio on Elton John out there right now, and a fine read as well.

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About Greg Barbrick