Picks and Pans Review: Elton John
John may be the unlikeliest rock star ever. Born Reginald Dwight, this pudgy, balding, bisexual British suburbanite parlayed a Liberace-like flamboyance, a fab voice and an ability to synthesize the whole spectrum of pop styles into one of the most distinguished careers in modern music.
As John nears 25 years in showbiz, he finds himself the subject of two unauthorized biographies. The Many Lives of Elton John (Birch Lane, $19.95) is too intent on simply defining the pianist as a dual personality: Reggie, the insecure, introspective mama's boy, vs. Elton, the flaming groovy. Because Crimp, a former broadcaster, and Burstein, a onetime PEOPLE writer, didn't get access to those closest to John, like his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, they waste time profiling the sources they did interview to make them seem important. The prose seems rather rushed and clunky: "Shortly before his trip to America, Elton had lost about fifty pounds during a gig in Sweden, and as a result he could get into the fancy clothes his large self had kept him out of until now." That must have been some gig.
If you read only one Captain Fantastic bio this year, let it be Elton John (Harmony, $22.50). Elton himself enjoyed reading an advance copy so much that he recently invited Norman, the author of the Beatles book Shout!, over for tea.
Norman paints the performer as a much more complex and intriguing character, from his early years as an only child with a doting mother and a distant, daunting military father. The author delicately handles his subject's first homosexual experience with John Reid, the swank Scotsman who would become his manager, and his marriage and divorce from the German Renate Blauel. And he carefully chronicles John's triumphant pitched battles with the British tabloids, which shamelessly accused him of conducting druggy gay orgies with young male prostitutes.
Though Norman gets overly caught up at times in laying out financial and contractual details, the writing is lively throughout. He has accomplished what pop music bios rarely do: He makes the subject seem like a multi-faceted human being, not a poster.