Interview: Singin' on the range

Bernie Taupin, expat Englishman and author of a thousand unforgettable songs, has ended up ... herding cattle. Spencer Bright talked to him

Without him there would have been no "Captain Fantastic", no "Daniel", no "Your Song", no "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", no "Goodbye Norma Jean" and no "Goodbye England's Rose". Somehow, somewhere or other, though, there would have always been "The Brown Dirt Cowboy".

Bernie Taupin has turned his art into reality and become that cowboy. He does not cook beans on the prairie, but he owns a ranch, raises highly trained cutting horses for rounding up cattle, competes with them in rodeos, ropes cattle in competitions, and, though he's 47 now and getting too old for it, is obsessed with riding cattle. It's all that a lad from Owmby- by-Spital with a fortune in the bank could have desired.

It is only now, with his life on the ranch, that he feels he has come full circle, rediscovering his countryside roots, though the hills around him in California are somewhat different to the Fenlands of Lincolnshire where his father had a farm.

Taupin wrote the words to the world's biggest selling single, "Candle in the Wind 1997", and, with Elton John, is one half of one of the 20th century's most successful songwriting partnerships. They share a rare skill of writing memorable songs in an extraordinarily short time. Taupin writes the lyrics, Elton the melodies, and they famously never write together in the same room. For Taupin, if it doesn't come within 30 minutes it doesn't come at all. Then he'll hand the words, or, recently, fax them, to Elton, who gets impatient if he can't crack a song in 10 minutes.

In the past that left a lot of spare time, and a lot of spare cash for Taupin. In the Seventies he would tour with Elton, standing at the side of the stage, itself a short interruption from the constant partying. As a kid he had stood in front of the full-length mirror, tennis racket in hand, and - like countless others - tried to mimic Elvis Presley. Over the years he has made the odd poorly received solo record, some spoken word, others singing, with illustrious friends making music. But he has never had the urge to get on stage - until now.

With his band, the Farm Dogs, comprised mostly of British expats resident in California, he sings and plays guitar, playing a rootsy American folk that owes allegiance to the music Taupin fell irretrievably in love with as a child. He first heard Lonnie Donegan's watered-down versions of Leadbelly songs on 78s at his cousin's house in Putney. Before long he sought out the source, Leadbelly, Woodie Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Lightin' Hopkins and Marty Robbins. Finally, with Farm Dogs, he is getting back to his American musical roots, for in his soul he always was American. He has lived there for 25 years, is a citizen, and speaks in a gently cascading fusion of accents.

So was he frustrated when he watched Elton getting all the glory on stage? "No, I don't think so. I've thought about that a lot, and thought, have I subconsciously or somewhere deep down inside been frustrated over the last couple of decades wanting to do that? I don't think it's the case at all. I've been very satisfied.

"The whole thing about Farm Dogs as well as about performing is that when we first started the band we didn't even think that we were going to perform. I didn't even contemplate it."

Their second album, aptly titled Immigrant Sons, is just out, and gradually their touring is building in America. He was gently prodded into action by his cohorts, who first encouraged him to play on radio stations, then in his wife Stephanie's LA restaurant Cicada, and gradually in clubs and now theatres.

Taupin's fascination with the American Old West has been evident since his earliest work with Elton John. The Tumbleweed Connection album cover, all sepia and olde worlde, is not dissimilar in theme to the sepia-tinted new album cover of Immigrant Sons, though the music is radically different. Taupin acquits himself with a voice that, though not strong, is expressive in a bar-room, telling tales kind of way. The musicians include Jim Cregan and Robin Le Mesurier, old guitar muckers with Rod Stewart. They have all lived under the shadows of big egos and want their band to be a democracy, all co-writing the music to Taupin's lyrics.

Taupin doesn't object to one critic's assertion that they are a "mid- life crisis band" though he reckons he had his mid-life crisis at least 10 years ago. He says that at least they are not recycling old hits; that their music is very viable now. He cites American bands such as Wilco and Son Volt, who have been successful at exploring similar American roots music.

Taupin grew up with the advantage of a mother and grandfather who sparked his imagination in narrative poetry. He would listen to Guthrie and Leadbelly and read Tennyson and Macaulay. This has inspired his best songs, narratives with a cinematic feel. He wants his tombstone to read: "He was a good storyteller."

Taupin always was a bit of a sly writer, masking his intent with words that appeared to be upbeat but were in reality exploring the underbelly of life. Immigrant Sons continues the recurring themes of loneliness, loss and anger. In the song "Bird of Prey" he sings, "A wedding ring just hid the whore", and paints a picture of a woman desperate to grab his money. I suggest this is his first wife Maxine. He laughs. "You think I'm going to admit to that. I'm surprised you even know the name. You judge for yourself. I will tell you as much as this. It's definitely from experience."

He is a man who generally loves women, and eroticism has been a constant theme. There is usually at least one such tale on each Elton album. Often, as with "Sweet Painted Ladies" and "Since God Invented Girls", they are quite risque. On the new Farm Dogs album they are absent.

"Maybe it's more of a boys' club," he concedes. "I don't know how to answer that; I'd never even thought about it. I think I want to tell more road stories. Who knows, maybe it'll come along later on, although on the first album there's a song called 'Burn this Bed' which is extremely erotic.

"I'm always trying to push the envelope as far as sex and songs goes, because I think it's important to be as realistic as possible. That's been my modus operandi since day one, because basically I like sex. If you're going to write about love and sex then you've got to be able to write about it in a realistic sense and not paint a false picture of it."

He is happy to talk about the songwriting process, though wishes to draw a veil over that song, "Candle in the Wind 1997". It was not his greatest lyric, but it served its purpose. Initially he had intended cosmetically to alter a few lines on the original 1973 song about Marilyn Monroe. It soon became clear that a near-complete rewrite was necessary. Gone was the controversial, if fittingly prescient, "... pain was the price you paid/ Even when you died/ The press still hounded you."

Bernie was on his ranch when he received Elton's telephone call asking for his input, and in a New York hotel room when he nervously watched him perform it in Westminster Abbey. The irony for Taupin was that he is no longer an English citizen, yet his lyrics had to be written from a patriotic English perspective.

The result contrasts with his feelings towards England on "Foreign Windows", the opening song on Immigrant Sons: "You could drown in history here/ monuments and crumbling walls .../ I don't see the beauty here/ all I see's another country as the ghost of Europe disappears."

"'Foreign Windows' is one of my favourite songs I've ever written because I think it deals with my feelings on a very realistic level. It's very much my singular view of how I felt the last time I was there."

It was wet and cold, and for three weeks, while writing with Elton, Taupin was missing his family and his home.

"Anybody who is familiar with my work knows about my love-affair with America. I've been here for over 25 years now and I've always felt that I belong. That has no negative reflection on England; it's just that some people ultimately find their Shangri-La, and I've certainly found it where I live out here. My feelings about Europe are that it's a nice place to visit, but I don't want to live there."

He is American, and has an American standpoint. One Farm Dogs song, "America on Trial", is a "rant" about "how the world regards America as the world's watchdog and the world's bodyguard. It really irritates me that this country gets knocked so much by other countries. We'll go in and protect the shit out of somebody and once you're out of there they'll kick you in the teeth. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. There's a lot of negative feeling about America and I basically quite honestly get my back up about it and end up writing about it."

But he's no straightforward redneck. He also attacks in his songs American fundamentalism, not being allowed to smoke in bars and the Christian right, and he dislikes the prevalence of guns. In true "Brown Dirt Cowboy" fashion, however, he does have a rack of guns on his wall.

"It's a necessity. It's not like I walk around with a holster on like The Wild Bunch. We have wild pigs, we have coyotes, these hills are full of animals, and when you have livestock like we have - we have horses, cattle, dogs - you've got to have something. I would think there are very few farms in England that don't have a shotgun somewhere." Once in a year or two he will have to go out and hunt a coyote. "The whole gun thing is a dodgy issue. I'm very uncomfortable with it. I would love to see a country where no guns exist, but is that possible? I don't know."

He can't completely eradicate his Englishness. Half his life is spent on ranch-related business where he suspects that no one even thinks of him as English. The other half is dedicated to his band. And though his English colleagues give him stick for being so un-English, he is still hanging around buddies from the Old Country.

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