Elton John: Prisoner in New York
In 1976, music’s brightest star came out publicly to a bi-curious journalist and a freelance photographer. He applauded them for having the balls to ask.
By Joe Fox
Photographs by Ron Pownall / RockRollPhoto.com
On America’s bicentennial, Elton John kicked off a summer tour of the states in Foxborough, Mass., a suburb south of Boston. Elton’s publicist, Dick Grant, hired local photographer Ron Pownall to shoot the show. It was a star-spangled spectacle, with a towering backdrop of multicolored lights that traced the contours of Elton’s face like some pagan deity. Elton worked the frenzied crowd at Schaefer Stadium and played to Pownall’s camera, doing handstands on the piano and darting across the stage in red-and-white striped hot pants and a tight blue shirt embroidered with silver stars.
Six months earlier, Pownall was a freelance music photographer crawling local clubs and chasing leads. Queen was playing two nights at the Boston Music Hall — “Bohemian Rhapsody” had just hit the airwaves and the band’s electrifying performances were selling out. Pownall finagled a ticket from an industry contact, shot three rolls from the front row and printed them the next day. Determined to get to Queen’s management, he returned the second night and talked his way backstage before the show. The band’s publicist, Dick Grant, spotted a rogue photographer with no press credentials and called security. Pownall showed him his 8x10s of Freddie Mercury and the band, and Grant was impressed. He put Pownall in the pit for the performance, then flew him to New York to shoot Queen for three nights at the Beacon Theater. From that day on, Pownall became the East Coast photographer for L.A.-based Grant — a decade-long relationship that would open many doors for Ron Pownall. Including Elton John’s.
Elton’s tour was culminating in New York with an unprecedented seven-night run at Madison Square Garden, and Rolling Stone was hell-bent on getting an interview. Annie Leibovitz, their chief photographer at the time, would typically shoot profiles, but she had a conflict, so they called Pownall. By then he was getting assignments from all the music trades, and Rolling Stone would hire him for New England gigs, but a New York shoot was rare. For a rock & roll photographer, a cover story for Rolling Stone was the holy grail.
In the summer of ‘76, Elton was at the pinnacle of his career. He had released four gold albums in just two years. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” a duet he recorded with Kiki Dee — which he and Bernie Taupin wrote under the aliases Carte Blanche and Ann Orson — was No. 1 on the Billboard charts. In the studio, he was an unstoppable hit machine, and onstage he was Captain Fantastic. But behind the oversize glasses and outrageous costumes hid a surprisingly reserved man who deplored the limelight and just wanted to write songs. As Elton’s tour was winding down, he made it known that he would be saying goodbye to the yellowbrick road for a while, maybe forever.
The interview was assigned to Cliff Jahr, a New York writer who specialized in entertainment and had written for The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy. His byline had appeared in Rolling Stone, but like Pownall he had never done a cover story. They were two hungry freelancers, and a profile of Elton John would add a notch to their résumés. There was only one problem: Elton was boycotting the press and no one could get to him. Not even Rolling Stone.
Elton’s New York basecamp was a suite in the Sherry-Netherland hotel in midtown. For two weeks fans mobbed the doors and lobby and leaned over police barricades on Fifth Avenue. The star rarely left his room, preferring to play records or watch TV than go clubbing. When he did, the paparazzi were at his heels. One night he caused a scene trying to crash a Chelsea gay bar called Crisco Disco with Divine, the drag queen and John Waters muse. Another day he played DJ at a New York rock station, where he blasted critics and diffused rumors about his nocturnal outings. He griped that he couldn’t go for a walk anymore without being mobbed. “I’m a prisoner in New York,” he said.
“I don’t want to end up my life like Elvis… I’ve been stuck in this hotel for two weeks and it’s driving me cra-zee.”
As the week wore on, the prospect of an interview didn’t look promising, but Pownall was determined to reach Elton through Dick Grant. Every evening the photographer would haul his gear to the Garden and shoot the show. The next day he and Jahr would leave messages for Grant and anyone else they thought might get them in.
“I was crashing at a friend’s place on the Upper West Side and remember sitting by the phone,” said Pownall. “Cliff and I even had a T-shirt printed with the words ‘Prisoner in New York’ and delivered it to Elton’s hotel with a handwritten note. We were on a mission.”
The call came on the last day of the tour. Elton would meet with them the following afternoon, after the final show.
Arriving at Elton’s 10th-floor suite, Pownall and Jahr were greeted at the door by Elton’s “house boy.” “He waved us into the living room and said ‘Mr. John will be with you shortly,’” Pownall recalls. They were expecting an entourage of handlers and security, the usual flurry of showbiz activity, but the room was eerily quiet. The brass plaque on the door read The Elizabeth Taylor Suite, but Elton’s face was everywhere, embroidered on cushions, carved in wood, handpainted on canvas — homemade gifts from fans covering every surface. Jahr set his notes down on the coffee table while Pownall set up his lights.
Cliff Jahr, a corn-fed Midwestern boy from St. Paul, Minnesota, was openly gay. “Friends in the business who knew him said I shouldn’t be surprised if he hit on me,” Pownall said. “Cliff was out and proud. He was convinced that Elton was gay, or bi, but no one talked openly about homosexuality then. Certainly not in the press.”
Jahr wanted to ask Elton about his sex life, but worried how he’d respond with the recorder rolling and a camera in his face. “Cliff was sure he could get Elton to open up if he got him alone,” Pownall recalled. “We agreed that he would give me a signal, at which point I would stop shooting and leave the room. The code word was privacy.”
Elton emerged wearing running pants, sneakers and a cowboy jacket that made him look like an overgrown kid. He was just 29, but offstage his reserved manner made him seem older. “He was shy at first,” said Pownall, “so to break the ice I did what I always do: I showed him the photos I had taken at the Boston show.”
Elton rarely gave interviews, and it took him a while to warm to the camera and the conversation. Jahr describes the artist’s obvious discomfort, his difficulty making eye contact, the surprising fact that behind the tinted glasses his eyes were intensely blue. “He played to my tape machine on the table so that later the playback was warm, lively, fun,” the reporter writes. “No hint on it that Elton barely stirred from his spot on the sofa, or rarely looked this way.”
“It is some flip side of his personality that gets him to boogieing atop white pianos in spangles and feathers.”
Jahr’s strategy was to first give Elton an opportunity to vent. He responded to rumors about tensions with his band and dismissed insults by peers — including David Bowie, who in an interview with Playboy had referred to Elton as “the Liberace, the token queen of rock.”
The mood lifted when talk turned to sports; Elton had recently acquired a stake in the Watford Hornets, the English football club of which he had been a lifelong fan and had just been named director. Beside him on the couch rested a cushion with Elton in needlepoint, dribbling a soccer ball and sporting the Watford jersey.
Pownall was framing Elton and Jahr in his lens when a chambermaid came through to empty ashtrays, lingering a beat too long. Elton stopped talking mid-sentence and took a sip of Perrier. When the woman left the suite, Jahr leaned closer and changed the subject. “Elton, I hear you can’t get any peace or privacy...”
Hearing his cue, Pownall retreated to the adjoining room, which was filled with more Elton-inspired gewgaws. In the corner stood a special edition Captain Fantastic pinball machine, made by Bally, illustrated with Elton John’s Pinball Wizard character from the Ken Russell film Tommy.
The interview lasted more than an hour and got very personal. Elton admitted to grappling with depression, and lamented the lack of a romantic relationship, the main reason he was taking a break from public life. He said he longed for a partner with whom to share his success, someone to greet him when he returned home. “I would desperately like to have an affair. I crave to be loved.”
He opened up about his sex life, and admitted that he was bisexual. “There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex,” Elton told the reporter. “I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me… I think you’re bisexual. I think everybody is.” Jahr asked about speculation that he and Bernie Taupin had been lovers, which Elton denied, saying they were like brothers. He went on to say that he believed everyone should be free to have sex with whomever they wanted. “They should draw the line at goats,” he added, a crack that would inspire a disparaging cartoon in a New York newspaper once the story broke.
After the interview was over, Pownall took a series of photos of Elton sitting in the window, then leaning out, with Fifth Avenue ten stories below. “The light filtering through the midtown skyline was perfect,” Pownall recalled. “I knew this would be my cover, so it had to be vertical. The composition was very deliberate, but when I look at the photo now I’m struck by his expression. He looks pensive, and a little bit sad, which I think he was. I took several shots of him in the window and he’s like that in all of them. Except one where he’s grimacing as Cliff pretends to push him out.”
It’s another side of Elton that nobody saw, a lonely artist grappling with the price of fame.
When the Rolling Stone cover story hit the stands in October of that year, it was explosive. Walter Cronkite covered it on the evening news. It seems surprising now to think of Elton as closeted, that his coming out would be big news, but at the time it was scandalous for an entertainer in the public eye to openly admit to being bi or gay. The aftershocks sent Elton’s record sales plummeting and he stopped giving live performances for several years. But for a few moments, in the privacy of his suite on a summer afternoon, he seemed almost giddy with relief. Finally it was out there, and it wasn’t such a big deal. “I would have said something all along,” he told Jahr. “Nobody’s had the balls to ask me about it before.”
Unfortunately Pownall’s image didn’t make the cover. Rolling Stone ran a different photo, a press image shot in the studio by David Nutter. Elton is grinning, hamming it up, the performer working the room. Pownall’s natural-light image is a portrait of an artist facing an uncertain future. “Here was this larger-than-life musician whose songs were playing everywhere, hiding out in this stuffy hotel suite,” says Pownall. “It’s not the glamorous image of a rock & roll star. It’s another side of Elton that nobody saw, a lonely artist who was grappling with the price of fame.”
A sadder footnote to this story is that Cliff Jahr would die of AIDS just 15 years later at the age of 54. He wrote numerous profiles, mostly of artists and entertainers, and collaborated on a bio of actress Lana Turner and a memoir by Frank Sinatra’s wife, Barbara. Ron Pownall says that breaking Elton’s story was a proud moment for the young reporter and for himself. “It was courageous for a mainstream artist like Elton John to come out in such a public way, and it moved the needle on an important conversation.”
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Photographer Ron Pownall has been capturing great moments in rock history since the early 1970s. He started shooting Aerosmith in 1973 and has chronicled the Boston music scene for over four decades. See more of his rock photos here.
Joe Fox is a creative director and writer who grew up in Manhattan. He is currently penning a memoir about his relationship with his father, an Irish immigrant who for 35 years tended bar at New York’s fabled Algonquin Hotel.
Select quotes from: Jahr, Cliff. “Elton John, Lonely at the Top.”
Rolling Stone Magazine Oct. 7, 1976. Print.
All photos © Ron Pownall | RockRollPhoto.com
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