Scattershot, by Bernie Taupin

Scattershot, by Bernie TaupinScattershot has left me divided, nonplussed and exasperated.

On the one hand, Bernie Taupin has a deep knowledge of musical history, enormous respect for his antecedents and friends, a treasure trove of anecdotes, and – especially – limitless affection and admiration for his musical collaborator, Elton John.

He wrote some truly magical song lyrics and made a great deal of money out of them. He shows here that he knows a lot of big words and sometimes strings them together quite adeptly in this “not a proper memoir”.

On the other hand, he also reveals himself to be pretentious, arrogant, self-indulgent, delusional, cynical, and – worst of all – semi-literate. He’s the kind of bloke who calls out misogyny in other men, while cheating on each of his first three wives – two of whom he doesn’t even respect enough to refer to by name. Not even the one he wrote “Tiny Dancer” about.

Taupin spends way too much time talking about his wealth, alcohol, drugs, real estate and horses, and not nearly enough about songwriting. Even then, he’s mostly dismissive of his own work. “Your Song”? Dashed off in 10 minutes. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”? Also 10 minutes work while on a mad bender in Barbados.

It’s halfway through the book before he talks about a song in any depth, and then it’s to reveal that he was originally going to write “Candle in the Wind” about Montgomery Clift, but decided Marilyn Monroe was a better known, more vulnerable and decidedly more commercial subject.

To be fair, his accounts of meeting Graham Greene, Salvador Dali and Frank Sinatra are (almost) worth the price of admission. There is a truckload of musical history and personal trivia, some extremely surprising. And there are passages where his writing flows beautifully, as lyrical as … well, his best lyrics.

His editors, however, have totally let him down and revealed that he has a very fragile grasp of the English language. A short list of instances where he mixed up his words:

  • illicit instead of elicit
  • payed instead of paid
  • alludes instead of eludes
  • emersion instead of immersion
  • florescent instead of fluorescent
  • chartered instead of charted
  • carneys instead of carnies
  • bought instead of brought
  • capitol instead of capital
  • ingenious instead of ingenuous
  • stationary instead of stationery
  • immanent instead of imminent
  • invariably instead of inevitably
  • poured instead of pored

Good Lord, this is laughable, schoolboy stuff! The man is adored as a poet but there’s no licence for this.

Yes, I’m being mean but not nearly as mean as he is to anyone who isn’t one of his drunken, drug-addled mates. I mean, really, is there any single word more pretentious than “unbeknownst”?

Granted, he details his willing and determined Americanisation, so maybe that excuses writing “gunnel” instead of “gunwale”. But anyone who’s had a passing acquaintance with Romeo and Juliet knows that “wherefore” means “why”, not “where”. Apparently not modern pop music’s greatest lyricist. And mis-spelling the names of both Carole King and Cary Grant is careless, to say the least.

I suppose he gets some points for being very open – indeed, extremely descriptive – about his massive over-indulgence in drugs and alcohol, but how self-centred and unaware do you have to be to bemoan the fact that drug cartels have ruined the previously “magical land” of Mexico? That would be the very cartels that brought your cocaine to Los Angeles, Bernie. And abandoning best buddy Alice Cooper because his drug-taking became too serious was a pretty low act.

His travels around the world are entertaining, if never wholesome – including to Australia, that “sun-drenched land in the Indian Ocean”. Clearly, making your money from publishing has definite benefits. And, of course, there’s the obligatory “I turned my life around” ending with his fourth wife, even as Elton also finds happiness and self-worth.

Look, I came to this book as a Bernie Taupin fan. 15 year old me loved Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy when it came out, complete with comic book bio-history, poster and gorgeous double gatefold. The idea of making a living out of writing song lyrics was unutterably attractive (I swear, all I needed was an Elton John).

But, frankly, if that kind of a career results in a life of this kind of wankery, I’m glad I didn’t get to go there, regardless of the obvious financial benefits.

Recommended only if you don’t mind seeing a hero knock himself off his own pedestal.

6 thoughts on “Scattershot, by Bernie Taupin”

  1. A very fair review. I’m not sure I will bother to even finish such a lazily-edited book.

  2. Thanks for the review! I completely agree that the stories of the playboy lifestyle are given far too much time in this book and become a chore to slog through.
    On the topic of why he didn’t name his first two wives, I wonder whether this is because they asked to be left out of the book (or in general have asked him to refrain from speaking publicly about their failed marriages).
    Regarding the errors of the English language, I imagine some responsibility for picking these up sits with the editor (or proof-readers?)
    I would have like to read more of the backstories to some of his songs – including how they might have reflected what was happening in his life at the time. But it seems that at least some may have just been the ramblings of a drunken stupor.
    In the end, I am reminded of the warning about never meeting your heroes/idols.

  3. I must admit I really wanted to enjoy this but it’s tiresome stuff… oh and add Oliver Reed described as a “rouge” to the spooling mistooks

  4. I disagree with this review. This reviewer may have felt threatened by the incredibly articulate writer that Bernie Taupin obviously is. The reviewer seems to be criticising Mr Taupin for not using everyday language. So much of the book is that much richer for the effort taken in describing something using more than a basic English language. I found it pushed me, improved my grasp of the language, and made me want to communicate with more depth in all I do. The reviewer sounds jealous! Yes, I’m sure everyone would like that every word was spelled correctly, every word intended used in the correct way, but just because someone doesn’t spell or punctuate correctly doesn’t make them a poor communicator.

    The thing I dislike about the book, which Bernie freely admits he also dislikes, is the alcohol and drug addled lifestyle he chose to lead for such a long time throughout the 70s and 80s. It comes across as tedious because it probably was, he is detailing his life, how else is he going to describe his life if that’s the way it was? I mean I had no idea how much the celebs and stars of the day hung out with each other, basically working and playing together to keep their stars afloat to some degree. Personally I’m not into the amount of name dropping but again, if that’s the life he lead, what else can he describe?

    As for details on writing songs? If he only took 10 minutes to write a song there’s probably no more to write about it. Maybe people are looking for a clue on how to write hit songs like Mr Taupin, maybe that there is no sure way to describe such a process is frustrating for people to discover? I mean he tried to give a clue by letting readers know that (like Graham Greene) he observes what goes on around him for inspiration. That seems like pretty good advice?

    Anyway, I disagree with the overall judgement from the reviewer and the four comments I read prior to this. I find the book fascinating and dense (in a good way) with interesting information. A far more interesting and for me educational read than most musicians memoirs/autobiographies/biographies I have read.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Trent. Obviously, I don’t agree with you but I’m happy to publish your response, and that you had a positive reaction to the book.

    Saying I feel threatened or jealous does nothing to support your opinion, though – you’ll notice I don’t make ad hominem attacks on Bernie Taupin, just this book.

    Regarding “just because someone doesn’t spell or punctuate correctly doesn’t make them a poor communicator” – well, yes, it does. Especially someone who expresses themselves artistically with words.

    But you’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book.

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