Author Interviews
12:58 am
Tue July 17, 2012

Addict To Activist: How Elton John Found His 'Cure'

Originally published on Wed July 18, 2012 7:51 am

Sir Elton John is constantly remembering his life as a drug addict, whether he wants to or not.

"I still dream, twice a week at least, that I've taken cocaine and I have it up my nose," John tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And it's very vivid and it's very upsetting, but at least it's a wake-up call."

In his new memoir, Love Is the Cure, the singer-songwriter explains how he stopped using cocaine — and abusing drugs and alcohol — after he came to know Ryan White. White was an Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. His case did much to build public support to battle the disease. When neighbors ostracized the White family, John helped them move. Then, months after White's death in 1990, the singer was forced to reconsider his own life.

"It got me to realize how out of whack my life was, because I was just in and out of a drug-fueled haze in the '80s. I did nothing to help people with AIDS," he says. "I was a gay man who really sat on the sidelines."

After seeking treatment for his addictions, he started the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which now gives grants to AIDS and HIV prevention and treatment programs. In the first of a two-part interview, John tells Inskeep about his experiences with addiction, his change of attitude toward AIDS and how he became an activist.


Interview Highlights

On his first encounter with cocaine in the '70s, when John's manager brought it into the recording studio

"I was so ignorant about drugs and so naive. I mean, my band was smoking marijuana for years; I didn't even know what a joint was. And I'd never seen a line of cocaine in my life, and I don't know whether it's bravado, or, 'OK, I'll join in,' but, [in] my stupidity, I had a line of coke and that started the whole process. ... I fired [my manager]. But it took me a long time to do it, because I was never a confrontational person, and it took me until the '90s to do that."

On what drugs did for him, and where they led him

"I was just genuinely shy. I'd always been a shy kid. And when I happened, when my success started, I was incredibly confident onstage because that's where I loved to be, but offstage there was no balance. I was the same little kid that went onstage, but onstage I had all the bravado and the chutzpah necessary to do a great show, but there was no balance in my life. I always said cocaine was the drug that made me open up. I could talk to people. 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 for two weeks. And it completely shut me down. 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."

On realizing he needed help

"When I knew Ryan [White], I knew that my life was out of whack. I knew that I had to change. And after he died, I realized that I only had two choices: I was either going to die or I was going to live, and which one did I want to do? And then I said those words, 'I'll get help,' or, 'I need help. I'll get help.' And my life turned around. Ridiculous for a human being to take 16 years to say, 'I need help.' "

On choosing a song to play at Ryan White's memorial

"It's very hard to choose the appropriate song to sing at something like that. 'Skyline Pigeon' was on my very first album, called Empty Sky, and I chose it because I thought at that time it was the first really good song that we'd ever written. And it was a song about release and freedom, and death is [a] kind of release and freedom. It's a very pretty song, a very pretty lyric. And so I sang it then, and it seemed the most appropriate thing to sing and the lyrics seemed to go beautifully with the passage of crossing over to the other side, as it were."

On asking Florida not to cut funding for HIV and AIDS patients, and Florida Surgeon General Frank Farmer suggesting he play a benefit to help raise money

"[EJAF is] an AIDS organization, and whenever anybody's funding is cut — and it's usually cut, especially in this case in Florida, [for] the people that can afford it least ... then we're going to write a letter about it. And we wrote a letter to [Florida Gov. Rick Scott] himself. ...

"It's not my job to [fund a state's AIDS program]. It's the government's priority to do that. I can't do benefit concerts for Florida, for the people with AIDS in Florida. It's their responsibility; they need to do what's right. And cutting funding for the people that [can] least afford it is criminal."

On why funding for AIDS treatment is the government's responsibility

"We can solve this AIDS problem forever if the government gives the funding. If people are encouraged to come out and say they're HIV-positive and they're given their treatments, then obviously the people who are marginalized — like intravenous drug users, prisoners, people who are made to feel less-than — if they're given the support of the government and they're given the funding, then it's going to help solve the spread of AIDS and HIV in America. We have to try and get rid of this shortsightedness when it comes to HIV and the stigma around it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Elton John constantly remembers his life as a drug addict, whether he wants to recall it or not.

ELTON JOHN: I still dream - twice a week, at least - that I've taken cocaine and I have it up my nose. And it's very vivid and it's very upsetting, but at least it's a wake-up call.

INSKEEP: The singer's new memoir explains how he stopped using cocaine. In that book, "Love is the Cure," John says he abused drugs and alcohol until after he came to know Ryan White. White was the Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. His case did much to build public support to battle the disease. When neighbors ostracized the White family, Elton John helped them to move. Months after White's death in 1990, the singer was forced to reconsider his own life.

JOHN: It help me realize - it got me to realize how out of whack my life was because I was just, as I say, in and out of a drug-fueled haze in the '80s. I did nothing to help people with AIDS. I was a gay man who really sat on the sidelines.

INSKEEP: After he finally sought drug treatment, Elton John started an AIDS foundation. It now makes grants to prevention and treatment programs. In recounting all of this story, the singer begins with his years as an addict, starting in the 1970s.

You know, when you talk about how your cocaine use started, you relate this story of being in your 20s. You're already a star. You're not using drugs, and you walk into the studio one day, and there's a line of coke on the table that your manager informs you is cocaine. And the first question that occurred to me is: This guy's your manager. What was he thinking?

JOHN: Exactly. Good point. And, you know, I've always - I was so ignorant about drugs and so naive. I mean, my band was smoking marijuana for years. I didn't even know what a joint was. And I'd never seen a line of cocaine in my life. And I don't know whether it was bravado, or, you know, OK, I'll join in. But my stupidity, I had a line of coke, and that started the whole process.

INSKEEP: And, you know, granted, I mean, it's a drug, people use drugs. It was the 1970s. But, still, I'm thinking: This guy was your manager. I mean, that - does that - what happened to that guy later on?

JOHN: I fired him. But it took me a long time to do it, because I was never a confrontational person, and it took me till the '90s to do that.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned not being a confrontational person. I wonder if that touches on another subject, because you write about a long period in your life where you would basically shut yourself up in the house. And you say that it was difficult for you to even talk with people unless you were high or drunk, or both. Now, in the course of getting clean, did you figure out what it was about yourself that would have made you that way?

JOHN: I was just genuinely shy. I'd always been a shy kid. And when I happened, when my success started, I was incredibly confident on stage, because that's where I loved to be, but offstage there was no balance. I was, you know, the same little kid that went onstage. But onstage, I had all the bravado and all the, you know, the chutzpah necessary to do a great show, but there was no balance in my life.

And I always said cocaine was the drug that made me open up. I could talk to people. 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 for two weeks. And it completely shut me down. 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.

INSKEEP: Now, the immediate cause for your finally getting clean was that you had a lover, you had a boyfriend who got clean himself. But you also write that it had something to do with the years that you knew Ryan White. What does one thing have to do with the other?

JOHN: Well, because when I knew Ryan, I knew that my life was out of whack. I knew that I had to change. And after he died, I realized that I only had two choices: I was going to die, or I was going to live. And which one do I want to do? And then I said those words: I'll get help, or I need help. I'll get help. And my life turned around. Ridiculous for a human being to take 16 years to say I need help.

INSKEEP: Now, when it came time to choose a song to memorialize Ryan White, you chose a very old song, a song that's so old that I think there's probably a lot of Elton John fans who had never heard of it: "Skyline Pigeon." What is that song, and why did it come to your mind?

JOHN: It's very hard to choose the appropriate song to sing at something like that. "Skyline Pigeon" was on my very first album, called "Empty Sky," and I chose it because I thought, at that time, it was the first really good song that we'd ever written. And it was a song about release and freedom, and death is kind of release and freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKYLINE PIGEON")

JOHN: (Singing) Turn me loose from your hands, let me fly to distant lands, over green fields, trees and mountains, flowers and forest fountains.

It's a very pretty song, a very pretty lyric. And so I sang it then, and it seemed the most appropriate thing to sing, and the lyrics seemed to go beautifully with the passage of crossing over to the other side, as it were.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKYLINE PIGEON")

JOHN: (Singing) Fly away, skyline pigeon, fly towards the dreams you've left so very, so very far behind.

INSKEEP: One other thing I want to ask about: You, in this book, in addition to talking about how Ryan White affected your life, how your attitude toward AIDS changed, how you became an activist, you argue pretty strongly against politicians today, American politicians today. You even talk about - maybe a run-in is too strong a word - but an exchange of notes that you had with Rick Scott, the governor of Florida. What got you involved there?

JOHN: We're an AIDS organization, and whenever anybody's funding is cut - and it's usually cut, especially in this case in Florida, for the people that can afford it least, to have their funding cut - then we're going to write a letter about it. And we wrote a letter to the governor himself. We have to pay attention to things like that. We can't take our eye off the ball.

INSKEEP: In this particular case, you got a letter back from the governor's surgeon general saying: Well, maybe you should play a benefit concert or a series of concerts to raise money for the program.

JOHN: Yeah, it's not my job to do that. It's the government's priority to do that. I can't do benefit concerts for Florida, for the people with AIDS in Florida. It's their responsibility. They need to, you know, do what's right. And cutting funding for the people that least afford it is criminal.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask the fundamental question that gets asked about issues like this in the United States now: What is it that makes AIDS a matter of fundamental public concern that it is the business of the government, as opposed to anybody else to deal with it?

JOHN: Because we can solve this AIDS problem forever if the government gives the funding. If people are encouraged to come out and say they're HIV-positive and they're given their treatments, then obviously the people who are marginalized - like intravenous drug users, prisoners, people are made to feel less-than - if they're given the support of the government and they're given the funding, then it's going to help solve the spread of AIDS and HIV in America. We have to try and get rid of this shortsightedness when it comes to HIV and the stigma around it.

INSKEEP: That's Elton John, whose new memoir is called "Love is the Cure." And we're going to hear more from him tomorrow. We're going to ask him about writing music, and also ask what that song "Daniel" is really about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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