Gentle reader: How improbable is your life? How ridiculous does it seem that the pieces fell into place exactly as they did, to give you exactly the life you have?
Sir Elton’s Me
“That’s the lesson my ridiculous life has taught me. Nothing has ever really turned out how I thought it would.”
This is Elton John, from his autobiography, Me. Over the past few weeks, this book has been a hilarious, scurrilous, fabulous (and doubtless many other “-ous” words) companion. Brutally honest it is. Discreet it jolly well is not.* Throughout, Sir Elton is fully aware of how spectacularly unlikely is this ridiculous life. For him, the fact that we even know who he is hinges on a tiny moment in 1967. This pivotal point began in crushing defeat. He’d just failed an audition for Ray Williams of Liberty Records. On his way out, he was handed an envelope full of lyrics by Bernie Taupin, who would be the other half of a writing partnership that utterly transformed Elton John’s life over the next half-century. Sir Elton’s mind boggles to recall this moment:
“He seemed to pull the envelope out at random, just to give me something to take away, so the meeting didn’t feel like a dead loss – I can’t remember if he even opened it or not before he gave it to me. And yet the envelope had my future in it: everything that’s happened to me since happened because of what it contained. You try and figure that out without giving yourself a headache.”
Our lives hinge on these moments, even if we might have no idea of their importance in the moment. Sir Elton says:
“My history is full of what ifs, weird little moments that changed everything. What if I’d been so upset by failing my audition that I’d dumped Bernie’s envelope in a bin on the way to the station? […] Where would I be now? Who would I be now?”
2000 me and 2020 me
It was my birthday this week. For some reason I slept awfully the night before. My restless mind wandered. Sometimes, I can recall memories so vividly that I am there again. I can remember exactly how things felt. This unvarnished recall of the past could explain why I am against nostalgia.**
That night, my birthday in the year 2000 came back most vividly. On that particular birthday, I felt lost and desperately worried. That week I’d been given notice of redundancy, and had no idea what I was going to do next. But that birthday was also just a few days before I met my now wife, a few days before my life transformed for the better in every way.
Looking back from 2020, I marvelled at the journey of profound change that 2000 me had no idea was just about to begin. I love that 2000 me could not possibly have imagined the life of 2020 me, or how winding and wonderful would be the path to this exact point. For this path to have been possible, so many unlikely events and coincidences had to line up perfectly. It boggles my mind to look back on the lengthy and tenuous chain of unlikely events that had to happen for me even to meet my wife. I’m sure everyone’s life is equally improbable, from a certain point of view.
To 2000 me, the life of 2020 me might seem a dream.
It baffles me
When you wake you’re still in a dream, to quote My Bloody Valentine.* I gave up on fitful sleep in the early hours of my birthday. Over a very early breakfast, I watched the latest episode of The Church of What’s Happening Now. I was stunned that the subject matter matched almost exactly my thoughts from the dead of night.
This episode finds Joey Diaz in reflective mood. Turning 57 last month gave him pause for thought. Diaz has lived a great many lifetimes in one lifetime. He is lucky to be alive. He admits that he never thought he would see 50. He looks back 30 years, to the time when he decided to move away from a directionless and frequently criminal life. He chose to follow his instincts and pursue a life in stand-up comedy. This was by no means a certain path. He asks: “Whatever gave me the illusion that I could be a comedian, 30 years ago?”
Diaz cannot believe his unlikely path to success over the last three decades, nor the solid, beautiful family life he has been able to build:
“It baffles me, it really does baffle me. I’m going to come up on a 30 years anniversary. I couldn’t do anything for 30 days. I couldn’t stay sober for 30 days. The only thing I did longer than 30 days was time.”
To the Uncle Joey of three decades ago, the life of 2020 Uncle Joey might seem a dream:
“I think about this stuff at 57 and I wanna just cry. Because I can’t believe I’m here. I cannot believe I am here. This seems like a dream, like I’m waiting to get woken up by my mother to tell me that breakfast is ready. This has to be a dream. All these people that I met. It has to be a dream.”
The only question worth asking…
Each of our lives is improbable. Each of our lives is shaped by chance, coincidence and fortune. The threads of coincidence that give form to and tie together our lives are so gossamer thin. Their very shape – indeed their very existence – defies belief. Each of our lives is ridiculous – from a certain point of view.
Each life could so very easily have turned out so very different. Sir Elton advises us not to focus on the infinity of what ifs:
“You can send yourself crazy wondering. But it all happened, and here I am. There’s really no point in asking what if? The only question worth asking is: what’s next?”
Testify! Now… What’s next?
* Indiscretion abounds. It’s all here in Me… Sir Elton’s ongoing good-natured sabotage campaign against Rod Stewart. Freddie Mercury’s true opinion of Brian May’s clogs. What Yoko Ono really thinks of cattle. The depths of druggy depravity. The pitfalls of a nature given to the frequent throwing of temper tantrums. In a wonderful recent episode of the Word In Your Ear podcast, Me‘s ghost writer Alexis Petridis speaks of his shock that Sir Elton would share some of these stories with him in private, let alone allow them to be printed. But there are some limits to the tea spilt in the book. Petridis says that Elton asked for much of the highly critical stuff he said about Madonna to be excised prior to publication, as he didn’t want to be too mean to her in the wake of the poor performance of her latest album and her general recent run of bad luck.
** I was delighted to read in Me of Elton John’s views on the perils and pitfalls of nostalgia:
“I think nostalgia can be a real trap for an artist. […] If you end up convincing yourself that everything in the past was better than it is now, you might as well give up writing music and retire. What I did like was the idea of recapturing that spirit, that directness, […] stripping things down, just focusing on making music rather than worrying whether it was going to be a hit; going backwards to go forwards.”
*** My Bloody Valentine’s beautiful (When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream, from their stunning 1988 album Isn’t Anything.
- Elton John in 1975 via Wikimedia Commons.
- Elton John in 1972 via Wikimedia Commons.
- An mjcarty at large in London on his birthday in 2020, photographed by Sean Jones. My birthday ultimately proved so wonderful that it felt like a dream. I had the privilege of meeting Sean and Jane Furniss for lunch in London. Over lunch, Jane told us about her current run of excellent fundraising activities – the most recent of which involved walking over hot coals (see video evidence, below). Please consider sponsoring Jane in her year of challenges to raise money for Overgate Hospice.
- Elton John in 1974 via Wikimedia Commons.