For more than a year all the news from Elton John had been pretty alarming. He'd given up live performing, exclusive heterosexuality and more recently, jeepers, his $50,000 collection of peepers. But now comes the flip side. Elton's into the latest soft contact lenses, which—like his recent hair-transplant surgery—hearteningly suggests that vanity still spices his life. Just possibly, his announced retirement from the stage isn't forever, what with new musical "tangents" forthcoming on record. Certainly his sex life isn't suffering. "I mean not once a day," flinches the 30-year-old Captain Fantastic. "Say three times a week [pause] at least. And more female than male."
All that may not sound like the sort of life-style to warm a mum's heart, but Elton's mother applauds him for coming "out of the cupboard." Sure, Sheila Farebrother, 52, admits to "mixed feelings," but she adds, "I would never interfere. If he chooses a life with another man, that doesn't worry me. I just want him to be happy." What does worry her about Elton—despite a fortune, wardrobe and popularity rivaling his royal neighbor down the road in Windsor Castle—is that he seems to be "an unhappy person." The difficulty, she says, is his "loneliness and isolation, the wall around him." She's referring not to the electrified gates or guard dogs but the hangers-on, "the people preventing him from establishing good relationships."
Elton has faced up at least partly to those perils. Even before Presley's death he had fretted that "I don't want to end up my life like Elvis, I want to be active and involved with people, and that means going outside." He realizes that "you must have people around you who will bring you down to earth." His mother is the main person, if not always with immediate effect. "I'm not the settling-down type," Elton keeps telling her. "I'm afraid of someone getting to the real bottom of me, because I don't know what's there myself. When people get too close, I shut them off."
"Yet deep, deep down," his mum insists, "I know that he would love to get married and have a family." Elton agrees with her, at least, that his publicized bisexuality is no obstacle. "The sort of woman I'd marry would understand that anyway." He notes, of course, that his last serious relationship was also his first. Elton was then 21 and remembers, "We'd made the cake and bought the furniture." The person was female (a 6'2" blonde) and the experience inspired him to write Someone Saved My Life Tonight. Their breakup "frightened me off sex for a good year or two," he admits and led to a suicide attempt ("It was a very Woody Allen-type suicide—I turned on the gas and left all the windows open"). A more recent companion was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, but Elton's dream type, he sighs, is "the vastly experienced, older woman who knows everything about the world. I know six or seven, but they're all happily married. Something psychological there," he laughs.
Oedipal, maybe? The girl who married dear old Dad "is the most wonderful woman I've ever met," says her only son, Reginald Kenneth Dwight by name, whom she championed in a household where his RAF squadron leader dad didn't like the boy. "Stanley," his ex-wife reports, "wanted a daughter," and Elton, she remembers, grew up "a bundle of nerves." The Dwights split when Reg was 14 (she has since married an interior decorator, Frederick Farebrother), and Elton is still estranged from Dad. The only fatherly legacy left is an exciting memory of sharing sixpence standing-room perches on the stadium embankment to cheer the Watford Hornets soccer club.
Elton still faithfully follows the Hornets' games, sometimes chartering a helicopter to away matches. But now he occupies the midfield box, as befits the team's chairman and 51 percent owner. Neither mere figurehead nor flamboyant Ted Turner-type meddler, Elton is the model ball club executive, pouring his treasure into rebuilding, without kibitzing the coach's field strategy. Chairman John makes the 40-minute drive to the practice field three or four mornings a week and at games manfully puts up with loutish hecklers from opposing teams who call him "faggot" and worse. "I'm not that, anyway," he snaps. "A faggot is an English sausage."
The man who once described himself as a "male Betty Boop" is accustomed to epithets. Elton's melodic, if muscular, middle-of-the-road music and very success have made him target practice for preening rock critics. And after six years of nonstop touring and prolific recording, Elton himself felt "there was no burning spark left. To sing Rocket Man yet again was just digging up the dregs. The thought appalled me." So two months ago Elton stunned an English crowd of 8,000, not to mention his own entourage, by announcing that this was his last gig. Stevie Wonder joined him onstage for an electrifying and emotional finale, and then Elton exited to "wipe the slate clean, to start all over again. Had I kept going as I was," he now figures, "my whole life would have passed by me by the time I was 35. What I have done is musically of no great importance next to what's been done down the centuries." But he excuses himself, saying, "You can't produce a major work between climbing off the stage and getting onto a plane. There's so much inside me that still has to come out."
Some of it may spill over into other media: an ABC TV special is shooting in March and he's also contemplating a follow-up to his big-screen debut in Tommy with a semiautobiographical film. In it he and sometime rock rival Rod Stewart would play themselves. "I don't particularly like his life-style," volunteers Elton, "but then I doubt that he likes mine." Another departure is writing some of his own lyrics, which have been consigned the last nine years to Bernie Taupin. Musically, Elton has been reverting to a sort of Soho soul sound with the Spinners' Thorn Bell taking over as his current producer. Other eventual changes may include a switch to more intimate concert halls "because you can't have a conversation with people in the bleachers." Elton doesn't deny that the punk new wave "makes me feel old, but I know I have more talent than most of them. I do believe that I could come back anytime I want to," he says. "I'm fortunate I'm only 30. There's so much time still."
"An immature 30," his mother corrects him. "I'd put him at about 23." Elton dutifully accepts that his "real need is to grow up." A few years back he said, "I didn't start enjoying life until I was 21, so I'm living through my teenage period now." He acknowledges, "I'm obsessed with getting myself back together." That means sans shrink and with stopgap "casual liaisons," though he adds, "I like pretty people but I don't have a rampant sex life. I can get off on my work just as well."
It won't trouble him if people stop making passes at a guy without diamond-framed glasses. (He is so nearsighted he can "hardly read the top line" of an eye chart.) As for his bald spot, it was caused, he says, by "messing around with my hair—pink, green, orange dyes. A hundred percent vanity" he calls the transplant, which required two 90-minute operations in Paris. "I'll just be grateful if it grows." He'll find out by March and until then keeps it under his hat—even indoors. His new image is trimmer also, thanks to a no-junk food, no-booze regimen. He once drank as much as a bottle and a half of Scotch a day and now sticks to fruit juice, Perrier water and (before soccer matches to calm his nerves) valerian-root tea. As a result he's lost 40 pounds in four months, bringing him down to 145 (over 5'8").
With his designer stepdad's guidance, Elton is redoing the seven-bedroom main house on his 37-acre Berkshire estate. Within it, the master has created a bachelor retreat with a combined bathroom-library, sauna and stereo room so that he can "disappear for a couple of days without ever coming downstairs." As for staff, Elton points out, "I'm not a duke or an earl," and he actually helps with the dusting and "Hoovering. I'm a cleanliness fanatic, and it relaxes me." On the other hand, he maintains a flotilla of 17 cars worth $750,000. "I can live very well in England," he notes pointedly, "on what I earn." Though many showbiz colleagues have fled into tax exile, he snorts: "It depends on what you want in life: whether you have a sense of values, or you're out to save a few quid."
Elton reckons he'll "always be stuck with the glasses thing and the bloody glittery image," but says, "I feel new." The world's reaction to an Elton John without fanzine flash doesn't seem to worry him. "I'm in limbo with people itching to see what I'm going to do next—and if I'll fall on my face." He used to dismiss Sinatra and Crosby "just because they were older" but has come to appreciate the reasons for their long careers. "They diversified," he explains. "They had other things to offer. I can see myself singing at 50 and 60 and hope I will always have something to contribute." The bitch, as his song goes, will surely be back.