The annals of rock star writing are riddled with tumultuous relationships that burned over onto the gossip pages of rock magazines.
Examples include Lennon/McCartney, Vicious/Rotten, Tweedy/Farrar, Tweedy/Bennett, Cobain/Love. However, the least visible conflict occurred within the inner workings of one of the most ostentatious musicians to ever hit Las Vegas: Elton John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin.
Taupin, who is individually famous for absolutely nothing, contributed the lyrics to most of John’s greatest hits until splitting with the mercurial singer after Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy. While that record is a fantastic illumination of the front-man/behind-the-curtain genius dynamic evident in most great rock and roll records, the real dirty record, where John literally attacks and slanders himself through Taupin’s lyrics, is 1972’s Honky Chateau.
Taupin was actually a brown dirt cowboy. His relationship with John began when he responded to an ad in the New Musical Express for a lyricist. The rest is written in the pages of Taupin’s journal and spilled out on Honky Chateau. Recorded in France by John (the Chateau), Taupin (the Honky) wrote most of the record shacked up in New York by request of the record label to be stateside. Honky Chateau bears recognition merely from a John fan perspective since it was one of the first times John would abandon lavish string arrangements for the simplicity and stark sounds of a live touring band.
The overtones were astoundingly dire for a man who had released the soundtrack to Friends a year before. The record’s cover art is a muted tope with a troubled John looking off at some menace. The reason for this self-serious John was that Taupin was in the midst of a mental breakdown trying to churn out records in a city that had nothing to do with him.
Honky Chateau starts off on an innocuous note—“Honky Cat,” with its Alan Toussaint jazz jump, doesn’t exactly scream “ANGST.” However, a closer look inside the Oriental bop reveals the spiteful Taupin, a man defying his former “green” self, making his own life in the city against the will of his family. This is the life Taupin chose with John, the life of a city writer for a pop star. And what a fantasy! John would be the charismatic troubadour, Taupin the Wizard of Oz. It would be “Mellow,” the life of an excellent songwriter in the service of an excellent musician.
However, the behind-the-scenes life is rarely that tidy, and by the time John rolls his jaunty hands over the lyrics to “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself,” it’s clear that such notions of easy life are not easy to come by. Country boys may not know this, and Taupin certainly didn’t, but everybody secretly wishes they could be John—the star. Imagine having a man out there accepting standing ovations for songs Taupin wrote. This is the great irony of “Rocket Man,” a song so famous people have forgotten it’s sadness. Taupin burns out his fuse, alone, waiting for someone to rescue him. It will never come. It never did. By the time the album flips over to Side Two, there is a palpable anger to Taupin’s verse.
Much has been made of Taupin’s ability to craft an exquisite ballad for John. Rumor has it that “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song” were the two submissions Taupin sent to John’s management to become his permanent songwriter. But “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” stands alone as Taupin’s ballad, the song of a defeated writer, unable to write a hit without the help of a man who would always get the credit for the deed.
It is simultaneously a love note to Elton, and a Dear John letter. Taupin knows he would never be famous without John, even though he hates him for being one of those Mad Hatters getting onto the subway late at night, greeting their friends and forgetting the world. This illusion of happiness was never Taupin’s gift—the women who chided him for leaving the farm in “Honky Cat” raised him to be honest, and Honky Chateau is the merciless honesty of a tired writer.
If that wasn’t enough, to write the embittered love/hate song to John and make him actually sing it, Taupin sticks a knife so far into John’s private persona that most casual fans never knew the wound was there. “Hercules,” about falling in love with a girl who loves a cat, is an overlooked track in the grand career of John. But the unforgettable part of “Hercules” is the bridge, in which Taupin, who knew John was gay long before the writing of Honky Chateau, makes him sing “I like women,” effectively betraying his own sexuality and furthering a myth that, if discovered to be false, would’ve hampered John’s career severely.
The power of Honky Chateau, in comparison to a happy John/Taupin combination on Madman Across The Water or the duo’s breakup album Captain Fantastic, is its simple contradictions. John knew Taupin wrote the songs that he could sing best. Taupin knew John would make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, but he hated John, if only for the brief moment in which he wrote Honky Chateau. Taupin became the reclusive, utterly unknown songwriter and genius overshadowed by John’s star power.
The greatest trick the devil performed was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest song John ever played was the one that convinced everyone that Taupin didn’t exist. And, as anyone who’s ever listened to Honky Chateau knows, Taupin was the man who helped John bring that trick to life.