Once again, it’s my pleasure to bring you this interview with esteemed author, Stephen Spignesi.
Tony Northrup – Stephen, this is our third interview together. The last time we talked your book, Stephen King: American Master, was released in the fall of 2018. Tell us what you have been up to professionally since that time, and accomplishments you’ve achieved with the success of American Master?
SS – I first started playing piano in my early teens. A dear friend (one of the guys the Elton book is dedicated to), showed me a few chords on the piano, and that was it. I taught myself from there and ended up having a knack for it. My inspirations are many of the legendary piano singer-songwriters—Elton John, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Jackson Browne, Laura Nyro, Cat Stevens, Donald Fagen, Bruce Hornsby, Ben Folds, Stevie Wonder—and of course, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I chose writing and teaching as a career path because I didn’t want the challenges of a music career. I don’t like to travel, and performing is a big part of earning as a musician, plus, writing books and teaching held greater sway over me artistically and spiritually.
TN – You have written numerous books, with topics ranging from The Beatles to the Titanic, The Sopranos, Stephen King, and many more . What attracted you, or inspired you to write your new book about Sir Elton John?
SS – A couple of factors encouraged me to tackle an Elton book, the first being that he is retiring from performing, and is on his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. The other was the fact that 2019 is the 50th anniversary of his first album, Empty Sky. It seemed like the right time. Plus I had been looking for an excuse to dive into his entire canon and re-experience his greatness on a major scale.
TN – I see you‘ve brought back some of the contributors from your Stephen King: American Master book. Bev Vincent, Tyson Blue, Andrew J. Rausch, James Cole, Kevin Quigley, and…me. What is it specifically about these writers that prompted you to do so?
SS – Well, they’re all my friends and I’ve worked with them in the past. But that would not have mattered if they weren’t; also a few other things: first, they’re all major Elton fans; second, they’re all pop culture authorities and can provide informed opinion and commentary on Elton’s work; and third, they can write their butts off. This combination of factors convinced me that what they’d bring to the book would be awesome for my readers and Elton fans. And I was right.
TN – Your book, ELTON JOHN: FIFTY YEARS ON, is packed full of fun facts, trivia, interviews, essays, and other features. What else can the readers expect from the book? What makes your book about Elton so different than others that are available?
SS – I tackled the Elton book the same way I did Stephen King, American Master: we went through Elton’s entire body of work and provided facts, insights, and trivia about every song in his incredible canon: his 30 studio albums, beginning with Empty Sky, and concluding (so far) with Wonderful Crazy Night. I did a book-by-book and story-by-story breakdown in SKAM, and I did the same thing for Elton’s songs and albums. Plus there are lists and sidebars and lots of essays as well. Mike Lewis and I tried to do the ultimate fan’s companion, and we loved researching and writing it.
TN- How long was the process from start to finish of ELTON JOHN: FIFTY YEARS ON?
SS- We started it around Christmas 2018 and turned in the completed manuscript in June 2019. So, six months start to finish.
TN- Which Elton fact(s) did you find most interesting or never knew before that fascinated you most while researching for the book?
SS – I think the most amazing fact I learned was that Bernie wrote the lyrics to “Your Song” when he was seventeen-years-old, and when he gave the lyrics to Elton, it took the piano man fifteen minutes to write the song, start to finish. In a recent documentary, Elton agreed with the interviewer that it was a fifteen minutes “well-spent.” What also fascinated me was learning that Elton does not have a piano in his home in England. This quote from a 2016 UK Guardian interview sums up his thoughts about that: “I play 107 shows a year, why am I going to go home and play the piano? … God, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I have leisure, and I have work. And I do enough work. When I get home, the last thing I want to do is play the piano.”
SS – The first Elton album I bought was “Elton John”, and it was because of hearing “Your Song” on the radio. That album also had the song “Sixty Years On” on it, which was the source for the title of our book. My favorite Elton John song is “American Triangle,” which Elton and Bernie wrote about the murder of Matthew Shepherd. To me, it is Elton and Bernie’s most compelling and beautiful ballad. They were both firing on all cylinders when they wrote it, and it truly commemorates Matthew’s life, and marks the horrible tragedy of his murder.
SS – I saw Elton in Madison Square Garden in 1974. If I recall correctly, the show started in complete darkness and then a spotlight showed Elton lying prone on top of the piano and “Funeral For a Friend” started playing. He jumped down for the “Love Lies Bleeding” part, and then he was off and running. That’s the only time I saw him live and I don’t know if I’ll get to one of his Farewell concerts. But these days, with so many videos of his concert performances on YouTube, I feel like I’ve seen him a lot more. I know there’s no comparing the concert experience with watching videos, but I’m performance-oriented so I’m more interested in seeing and hearing him, then being there, frankly. Plus, videos let me see him close-up and even watch his hands on the keys.
TN – I know you are a huge Beatles fan, but you love Elton too. So, in your opinion, who is better: The Beatles, or Elton John?
SS – It’s always dicey when trying to rank artists because “better” is so subjective. But if I had to compare the two artists, I’d say there wouldn’t have been an Elton and Bernie if it weren’t for The Beatles, who are the genesis of all modern rock and songwriting in my opinion. But we’re talking gradations of excellence here and to prove that, I’ll quote John Lennon himself who said, “Elton John is the first new thing that’s happened since The Beatles.” So if The Beatles are an A+ band in terms of excellence and influence, Elton would probably deserve an A.
TN- Did you see the new Elton John movie this past summer, ROCKETMAN, and what are your thoughts on it? Did the film help while writing your book?
SS – I did see Rocketman, and bought the DVD. To me, it’s a 5-star film and a brilliant telling of Elton’s story. It’s a magical realism fable that is heads above the standard musician biopic. I loved it. As for it helping me with the book, that’s a big “not really,” because the movie came out on May 31st and my manuscript was due on June 1st! I couldn’t get an advance screener, so I assembled a bunch of background content for the movie (as journalists do before concerts and such so as to be able to meet deadlines), and went to the 10:00 AM showing of the movie on May 31st. I then spent the rest of the day and the following morning writing my review and finalizing that chapter of the book, and then sent in the completed ms. shortly after noon on June 1st. It was hectic but I got it done.