Choosing one’s favourite Elton John story – like choosing one’s favourite Elton song – can feel like limiting oneself to a mere single grape from the horn of plenty. Leaving aside the music for the moment, Elton’s public and maybe even private persona can be divided into two phases: first there was the raging drugs monster, as extravagantly talented as he was costumed. Now that he’s sober, there’s the more conservatively dressed, happily married elder statesman of British pop, a proper establishment figure, albeit one who’s still unafraid to pick fights with everyone from Keith Richards (“a monkey with arthritis”) to Madonna (“looks like a fairground stripper”). Both eras have yielded a steady crop of outstanding Elton anecdotes, often retold by Elton himself, who, possessing the kind of self-knowledge few of his fame and wealth retain, tells his stories better than anyone else. Probably the most infamous of all is the one about the time he’d been up for several days (this, clearly, was from the pre-sobriety era) when he decided something really needed to be sorted out. No, not his devastating drug addiction or his lack of sleep – the problem was the weather. So he called a chap in his office and told him to sort it out: “It’s far too windy here, can you do something about it?”
Such is the wealth of material he has to choose from, this story gets only a passing mention in his outrageously enjoyable autobiography: “This is obviously the ideal moment to state once and for all that this story is a complete urban myth. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that, because the story is completely true,” he writes, with a self-deprecating shrug. And then he moves on to the next tale, which might be about the night he and John Lennon refused to answer the door to Andy Warhol because, as Lennon hissed to Elton: “Do you want him coming in here taking photos when you’ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?” Or it might be about the time Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone nearly came to blows over Princess Diana at one of his dinner parties. That he has celebrity anecdotes to burn is not a surprise. But the self-mocking tone is more unexpected from a musician so grand that at his 2014 wedding party he had one table dedicated solely to the Beatles and their families. Yet while his extraordinary talent justified his personal excesses, it is his self-awareness that has counterbalanced the narcissism and made him such a likable figure. This is, after all, the man who allowed his husband, David Furnish, to make a documentary about him and call it Tantrums and Tiaras.
So it is entirely and pleasingly right that Elton has called his book, quite simply, Me: not for him any pretentious effort to dress up the navel gazing nature of memoir writing as art or courageous truth-telling. It’s just Elton talking about Elton. It quickly becomes clear in Me that few people are more suited to the celebrity autobiography genre, given that he combines the most essential ingredients of the form. First, his life is still hilariously over the top (tabloid photos of Elton, dressed head to toe in Gucci, tootling about on his yacht with his similarly clad family have become as much of a signifier of summer to me as any number of swallows). Unlike other celebrities who act as if their position on the A-list is only provisional and they therefore mustn’t break the rules of discretion among the famous, Elton cheerfully gossips about everyone from Bob Dylan (terrible at charades, FYI) to David Bowie (“don’t know what [his] problem was”) as if they were his neighbours in Pinner, where he grew up. He is Joan Collins mixed with Joan Rivers, and if anyone can think of a more delicious combination they are probably deeper than I am. Best of all, he remembers, if not everything, then certainly a lot – unlike that arthritic monkey, Keith Richards, whose poor ghostwriter, James Fox, “had to do a little sleuthing” to confirm the Rolling Stone’s stories for Life, his 2010 memoir.
Elton has his own ghostwriter, of course – the “auto” in “celebrity autobiography” is always a loose concept – in the form of Alexis Petridis, this paper’s pop critic. Petridis has a journalist’s eye for the comically absurd, such as Elton’s predilection for sexual voyeurism competing with his innate tidiness (“They’d end up having sex on the snooker table with me shouting, ‘Make sure you don’t come on the baize!’ which tended to puncture the atmosphere a bit”), and he makes sure there is a laugh out loud moment on pretty much every other page. This gives a pacy originality to what could have been a by-the-numbers celebrity tale: the miserable suburban childhood, the early musical failures, the sudden meteoric success, the sex, drugs and dodgy financial advisers, the eventual redemption through marriage, parenthood and activism. The book could also have easily tipped into self-parody, with Elton as a musical Zelig figure, witnessing, in turn, the death of 1960s pop, the emergence of 70s rock, the brief burst of punk, the rise of 90s hip-hop and rap. Alongside all this is the glorious triumph of the gay rights movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, handily embodied by Elton himself, a pop star who once barely understood his own sexuality, but can now bring his two sons with Furnish, born by a surrogate, up on stage with him in Las Vegas, and has raised almost half a billion dollars for Aids charities. But Petridis wisely keeps the focus on the personal over the sweeping cultural: Elton’s immediate reaction to the Sex Pistols, for example, was not any cliched shock of the new, but rather delight in Johnny Rotten slagging off his friend and rival, Rod Stewart, on TV.
But credit really must go to Elton, whose extremely amusing voice very much drives the book. The most acclaimed celebrity memoirs of the past two decades have been thoughtful disquisitions on the weirdness of fame itself – Rupert Everett’s autobiographies, and Feel, Chris Heath’s book about Robbie Williams. Me is not like that, and the most Elton has to say about fame is it’s a lot of fun, but probably not very good for you. His book is closer in spirit to David Niven’s memoirs with their litany of namedrops – although Niven, as far as I know, never wrote a line like “I sat around, wanking, in a dressing gown covered in my own puke.”
Me is its own original thing because Elton makes fun of no one more than himself. He is utterly, astonishingly, hilariously self-lacerating. A half-hearted suicide attempt at the height of his fame could have been played for drama; instead Elton merely asks: “Why was I behaving like such a twat?” He sums up the experience of writing songs for The Lion King, which ultimately won him an Oscar, as: “I was now writing a song about a warthog that farted a lot.” And yes, Elton was also mystified by the hysteria over the version of “Candle in the Wind” he wrote for Diana’s funeral.
One subject he has strikingly little interest in is his creation of a catalogue of music that is now a licence to print money. He is very sweet about his friendship with his longterm lyricist, Bernie Taupin, but the process of how they write their songs is dealt with in a single paragraph, which concludes: “I can’t explain it and I don’t want to explain it.” And yet there’s no doubt his talent is miraculous. Some of his songs took as long to write as they do to listen to; in one morning he knocked off “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, “Amy” and “Rocket Man” before breakfast.
Elton has never come across as an especially warm celebrity: too sharp tongued, too ridiculous. Neither quality is played down in his memoir. And yet his clear-eyed honesty and his ear for the comic line make him a deeply appealing memoirist. By the end of the book I felt only regret that I am unlikely to get an invitation to join him on his yacht, where I could listen to him recall the time he asked Yoko Ono what happened to that herd of cattle she and John Lennon once bought: “Yoko shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I got rid of them. All that mooing.’”
• Me is published by Macmillan (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.