Feathers boas and sequins cover the screen in ads and commercials as the new movie Rocketman hit theaters on May 31st. The new music biopic details the life and rise to fame of singer/songwriter Elton John. However, for those who don’t know the whole story, they quickly learn that at one time, the life of rock’s greatest showman didn’t look as pleasant through the rhinestone studded shades as they do now.
While John has always been candid about his struggles with addiction, the 72-year-old singer recently opened up at the Cannes Film Festival and gave an inside look of what it was like watching his journey unfold on the big screen, including harrowing details about his addiction, recovery and the turmoil behind the glitter.
“It’s hard to watch the family stuff,” John said in an interview with Variety. “The drug stuff I can handle because I know I did it. The family stuff was part of the reason I became the addict I was.”
“I am a survivor,” he noted. “I’ve survived a lot of things. Life is full of pitfalls, even when you’re sober. I can deal with them now because I don’t have to run away and hide.”
“Cocaine Was The Drug That Made Me Open Up”
Growing up with cold and disinterested father exacerbated feelings of insecurity for the star. In a 2008 interview, he told People, “I never had his approval. I was afraid of my father. I was walking on eggshells the whole time. My mother had letters from him saying, ‘He’ll never become a star.” When his father died in 1991, the singer didn’t attend his funeral.
Drowning out the sounds of his parents fighting, the singer escaped through the radio and started taking music lessons at the Royal Academy of Music on the weekends.
At the start of his career, the singer mentioned he was naive about drugs and didn’t try cocaine until his manager brought it into the recording studio in the early 70’s. John reported that the drug helped overcome some of this insecurities.
“I always said cocaine was the drug that made me open up. I could talk to people,” he told NPR. “But then it became the drug that closed me down, because the last two weeks of my use of cocaine I spent in a room in London, using it and not coming out … So, it started out by making me talk to everyone and then ended up by me isolating myself alone with it, which is the end of the world, really.”
There were moments, however, when he thought he wouldn’t survive. “There were times I was having chest pains or staying up for three days at a time,” he recalled. “I used to have spasms and be found on the floor and they’d put me back to bed and half an hour later I’d be doing the same. It’s crazy.”
In a 2010 TV interview with Piers Morgan, the singer/songwriter opened up about his routine, noting that cocaine wasn’t his only vice.
“This is how bleak it was: I’d stay up, I’d smoke joints, I’d drink a bottle of Johnnie Walker and then I’d stay up for three days and then I’d go to sleep for a day and half, get up, and because I was so hungry, because I hadn’t eaten anything, I’d binge and have like three bacon sandwiches, a pot of ice cream and then I’d throw it up, because I became bulimic and then go and do the whole thing all over again,” John said. “And I’m not being flippant when I say that, when I look back I shudder at the behavior and what I was doing to myself.”
“I Was Going To Get Sober Or I Was Going to Die.”
In the 80’s John befriended AIDS victim Ryan White. In a 2012 memoir, Love Is The Cure, John details the change in perspective he had upon meeting his newfound friend who had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. When his neighbors shunned White and his family, John helped them move. And, when White lost his life in 1990, the singer had to take a hard look at his own.
“I was going to make the decision that I was going to get sober or I was going to die. And I didn’t want to die.”
In July of 1990, the singer checked himself into treatment at Chicago’s Parkside Lutheran Hospital after writing a tearful letter to his “worst best friend, cocaine,” he noted. “You are my whore, I love you so much, but I can never use you again.”
Today, with nearly 30 years of sobriety, a farewell tour, a biopic, and another memoir due to be released in October, one might think Elton John’s got it all together, but remaining humble, the singer admits he’s still learning as time goes on.
“Every creative artist does have doubt and has moments of, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Am I good enough?’ And that’s what turns us into monsters as well because I think you become unreasonable and of course the chemical substances and the alcohol doesn’t help anything, and you lose touch with reality.”
Through the three decades of sobriety, looking back he realizes the pitfalls where he fell short. “What I couldn’t do when I was an addict was communicate, except when I was on cocaine I thought I could but I talked rubbish,” John said, laughing. “I have a confrontation problem which I don’t have any more because I learned if you don’t communicate and you don’t talk about things then you’re never going to find a solution,” he said.
“I have a wonderful life now. But I had to change it.”