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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Elton John has been writing music since the 1960s, and he's had the kind of life experience that allows him to reach conclusions like this.

ELTON JOHN: I certainly, if I'm being honest with you, don't think you write as good of songs on cocaine as you do when you're normal.

INSKEEP: Elton John should know, having spent many years taking cocaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAD SONGS SAY SO MUCH")

JOHN: (Singing) Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain, and ironing out the rough spots is the hardest part when memories remain.

INSKEEP: Elton John's new memoir, "Love is the Cure," details how he misspent much of the 1970s and '80s. He says he abused drugs and alcohol, and even suffered from bulimia. He sought treatment in 1990 - partly, he says, because of the death of Ryan White. As we heard yesterday, John had supported the teenager, whose short life called attention to AIDS. We also asked Elton John about his music, starting with the way addiction affected what he wrote and sang.

JOHN: You know, some artists can write great songs on drugs - Jimi Hendrix, for example, Rolling Stones. And that was acid, and stuff like that. I didn't write my best songs on drugs, because you're delusional.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking even about just the way you would sing something. You've had this experience. It's not an experience that people would necessarily want, but after you've had it, I mean, there's a lot of depth in the way that you sing a lot of lyrics and a degree of sadness. I wonder if you feel that your own experiences somehow informed that.

JOHN: Well, I think now my experience has - yes, I think now I'm a much better singer. And I, you know, I pay much more lip service to the lyrics. And even when I sing songs that I've sung a thousand times, they seem new to me, because I'm becoming a better singer. And I think the experience that I went through has not only helped me as a person, but it's also helped me as a musician and a singer.

INSKEEP: Is there a song you can think of that has become more meaningful to you over time?

JOHN: I think something like "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," which was written in the late '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD")

JOHN: (Singing) What do I gotta do to make you love me? What do I gotta do to make you care?

I was always having, you know, ridiculous, short relationships with people because I took hostages in relationship. They had to come with me. They had to travel with me. And after six months, they hated my guts, because they had no reason to live. I'd taken their identity away from them. I see it now in a different light. And it's more like an Edith Piaf song for me now than it was in those days.

INSKEEP: More like an Edith Piaf song. Explain that.

JOHN: Yeah. Well, you know, it's - the lyrics are so beautiful - it was the first song I ever had that was a big hit in France. So it has a lot of French, Edith Piaf qualities to it. It has an accordion in it. And I always - it always reminded me of a French song. And every time I sing it now, I feel like Edith Piaf, although I'm taller.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD")

JOHN: (Singing) It's sad, so sad. It's a sad, sad situation, and it's getting more and more absurd.

INSKEEP: We should explain for people who don't know that you don't typically write the lyrics to your songs. They're written by...

JOHN: No, Bernie Taupin. I'm not a lyric writer. I get all my inspiration from looking at the written page.

INSKEEP: When a song arrives from Bernie Taupin, does it have a melody that comes along with it, or is it really just like a poem, and you make up all the music?

JOHN: No, it has nothing. It just - never. It's just a blank - well, not a blank, but it's a piece of paper. In the old days, it was handwritten. Then it got typed. Then it got faxed. Now it gets emailed. And it's no suggestions, nothing. And we've never written in the same room. I don't know if people know that. But he gives me the lyric, and I go away and write the song, and then come back and play it to him. And I've never lost the enjoyment or the thrill of playing him the song that I've just written to his lyric.

We've been together 46 years, and we've never had an argument over a song. He's never criticized my melodies - although I'm sure sometimes they haven't worked out as well as he would have thought. But we've had the most impeccable relationship. And it's still as fascinating and fresh for me now as it was when we first started writing together.

INSKEEP: Sometimes the songs, the music goes in a different direction than the lyrics. In some ways, it even adds to the meaning that a song like "Island Girl" - it's kind of a dark story, but you could almost miss that, because the music is so happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND GIRL")

JOHN: (Singing) I see your teeth flash, Jamaican honey so sweet, down where Lexington cross 47th Street.

INSKEEP: What seems like a cheerful beach tale is actually about a Caribbean prostitute servicing white men in Manhattan.

JOHN: Yeah, the lyric is what it is. But then the melody you choose, whether it's up-tempo, going it's a sad song and a dark song, can kind of highlight the song even more. You suddenly think, oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND GIRL")

JOHN: (Singing) Island girl, island girl, island girl. Tell me what you what you wanting with the white man's world.

INSKEEP: There's a song you played - you report playing at a Farm Aid concert in Indiana the night before Ryan White's death, that you went away from the hospital where you'd been visiting, played this concert and then went back to the hospital. And you played several songs, and one of them is "Daniel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANIEL")

JOHN: (Singing) Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane. I can see the red taillights heading for Spain. Oh, and I can see Daniel waving goodbye.

INSKEEP: What does that song mean? What does it mean to you? I mean, it's a story of longing for someone who's gone away, but you could...

JOHN: It's a - it's about two brothers. Now, when "Daniel" was given to me as a lyric, I looked at it and I thought the song was too long. So I crossed the last verse out, as I often did with Taupin's lyrics, because they weren't written in verse-chorus form. They were just written as just lines. And so I had to divide them up into verse-chorus, and I just thought this makes it too long. But unfortunately, that last verse explained the whole song.

INSKEEP: Well, what's the last verse?

JOHN: The last verse - well, he explained that his brother was a Vietnamese veteran that had lost his eyesight, and he was moving to Spain because he loved Spain. But a lot of people thought it was about two boys that were in love with each other. And, of course, by crossing out that last verse, you gave the song a certain ambiguity. And it actually enhanced the song, in a way, because people, you know, didn't know what it was about. They could make their own minds up about it. But it has confused a lot of people along the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANIEL")

JOHN: (Singing) Oh, Daniel, my brother, you are older than me. Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal? Your eyes have died, but you see more than I. Daniel, you're a star...

INSKEEP: Elton John's new memoir is called "Love is the Cure." Thanks very much.

Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANIEL")

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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