In a candid interview with The Mail on Sunday’s Event magazine, the 66-year-old singer reveals the full horror of his health drama earlier this year, after he ignored the symptoms and continued his gruelling performance schedule.
And in a frank conversation he admits his feelings of helplessness when it came to tragic Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston.
‘I wish I could have helped her,’ he says of Amy.
‘I remember seeing her and just seeing everything that was going to happen and knowing there was no one there to stop it.’
He spoke of witnessing Whitney spiral into substance abuse, explaining: ‘I tried, I left messages but either it never got through or she just didn’t want to call me back.
'I listen to her voice and I just want to cry.’
Sir Elton also worries about spoiling his own children and revealed that Zachary, his son with partner David Furnish, was once bought so many presents that they ended up being shipped, unopened, to an orphanage in Ukraine.
He says: ‘The sitting room was full, floor to ceiling, with presents.
'Two hours later we had barely scratched the surface and David said, “This is obscene. No child should have this.” ’
The rock legend, dad to two-and-a-half-year-old Zachary and seven-month-old Elijah, says he has now completed his family and plans to cut back on his busy touring schedule to be a good father, especially after July’s health scare.
Explaining how he dismissed worsening stomach pains as ‘just a virus’, the relieved singer said: ‘I’m lucky I’m still alive. I started feeling ill 14 days before I went into hospital. It felt like crippling stomach pains.’
Elton had to walk off stage halfway through a gig in Germany. Doctors said he was a ‘ticking time-bomb’.
It is a perfect morning at Elton John’s lavish South of France home. The sun is glinting off the Hockney-blue pool, and ice is chinking in his glass of lemon-infused tea.
It is an appropriately swanky setting for a long and remarkably revealing conversation with the singer known affectionately in the industry as Uncle Elton.
Currently enjoying warm acclaim for his terrific new album The Diving Board, Elt is on cracking form, superbly entertaining and expansive as he holds court with Event on a dizzying range of subjects dear – and not so dear – to his heart.
He positively raves about his kids (more on them in a minute), who happen to have the world’s biggest pop star, Lady Gaga, as their delightfully dotty godmother.
'She does baths and sings to them. She’s a wonderful godmother.
'Stefani (Germanotta) takes it seriously and she’s a good girl, but she has the problem of being caught up in the personality cult, it’s so crazy. I talk to her mum a lot about it.’He tells me that he and his partner David Furnish won’t be having another child.
‘I would have loved to have had a girl but I do accept I’m now too old.’
He reveals how he has faced heartache trying to help stars in crisis, most tragically in the case of Whitney Houston.
‘Dionne (Warwick), her aunt, kept asking me to try and get through to her, to speak to her. I tried, I left messages but either it never got through or she just didn’t want to call me back. I listen to her voice and just want to cry.’
Later, I get a whirlwind tour of his views on the Royal baby pictures.
‘I love those pictures her Dad took! I think Mr Middleton did a great job. Who cares they’re not perfectly composed? That’s why they’re so great, they’re the same sort of family snaps millions of us have in our homes. Good for Kate and William for doing that.’
And he offers a paternal pat on the back to the much-maligned One Direction lads.
‘If you ignore the young or the old you are doomed,’ he says.
‘They are a great British pop band. I just hope they are getting good money because they are working bloody hard.
'I like their songs, I think they are at the age where it doesn’t matter if you don’t sleep because you are just enjoying the fame so much. I don’t think they’d work if one of them left but I just think: “Good luck to them.’’’
Once he starts talking music, John gets on a roll but invariably he ends up with a story about his children.
Clearly, he adores them. Zachary (two), he says, is a ‘Bam-Bam ball of energy’, sharing furtive sips of his iced tea and cashew nuts and tearing round the house like a screaming banshee.
Elijah, born in January 2013, is ‘a total Zen, calm, happy, relaxed and absolutely enormous; he’s wearing clothes for babies twice his age’.
They’re good, grounded kids, says Elton. His only concern is keeping the little darlings from becoming spoilt brats – no mean feat when their playgrounds are luxury homes in Windsor, America and the South of France.
‘Of course I worry about it. I think about it a lot. I’ve already decided that they are going to have to work for their pocket money, they will have to do gardening, weeding whatever.
'I can’t bear the idea they won’t understand the value of money. When Zachary gets his first car, I want it to be like the car I had. A good second-hand motor, a sensible car. Nothing flash. Nothing bonkers. And he has to pay us back for it – he won’t have it just given to him on a plate.
‘David comes from a pretty middle-class family but my family was working class. Underneath all of this, I’ve still got those values.
'The first Christmas we had Zachary, we walked into the sitting room and it was full, floor to ceiling, with presents. David said it would take two days to open everything. Two hours later we had barely scratched the surface and David just sat back and said: “This is obscene. No child should have this.”
‘We had bought him a swing for the garden. We kept that and everything else was sent to a Ukrainian orphanage.
'From then on we tell friends not to give gifts but donate money to a foundation we set up for Zachary to give to other children, so he’ll actually understand what it is to give.
‘Of course everywhere we go he is given presents, so he knows that word very well. But we limit them.
'He likes books and I love to read to him. We do the baths, we do the feeds but we have a nanny to help because we have to.’
How does he think Simon Cowell will take to fatherhood?
‘I don’t know Simon so well, but anyone with an ounce of humanity can’t help but be changed by it.
I’ve interviewed John on many occasions but never in such dramatic circumstances.
In fact, it’s a wonder he’s here in front of me at all.
A few months ago, just weeks ahead of the new album’s release, came what he describes as ‘the most incredible turn in my life that I never saw coming’ – John almost dying from an appendix that burst, leaving a crippling abscess in his stomach.
It is clear he is very much aware of how narrowly he escaped death. It is also evident how much he still pushes himself: in between the abscess developing and being rushed to hospital he took 24 flights, did nine shows and spent an afternoon having tea with Coldplay ‘trying to tell myself I wasn’t in absolute agony’.
He shakes his head: ‘I’m lucky I’m still alive. I started feeling ill 14 days before I went into hospital.
‘It felt like a crippling stomach pain and at first I thought it was food poisoning, but it didn’t go away. I called a doctor out but he thought – and I thought – it was just a virus. But I had a performance that night and I went on stage feeling as if I had been hit by a truck.
‘But you carry on. There was the White Tie And Tiara Summer Ball. Then I’d arranged to have tea with Chris (Martin) and the boys from Coldplay before I went on, then I was flying to Croatia and feeling worse and worse and worse and getting on more flights, doing more shows until finally I was on stage in Germany and I literally just could not move, the pain was unbelievable.
‘I can barely even remember it now because you go into a sort of delirium, but I just walked off the stage halfway through and was taken to hospital where they scanned my stomach and saw what the problem was.
‘What was really crazy, which I only understood afterwards when the doctors explained to me what was going on, was that every time I stepped on a plane I was basically turning myself into a ticking time-bomb.
‘Air pressure is one of the worst environments for causing the abscess and the appendix to burst.
'From the moment it bursts, you basically have 30 minutes to get to hospital or else that’s it . . . it’s over.
‘In a lot of ways this has been a huge wake-up call for me. I mean, what am I doing?
'I’m 66, I’ve been through everything from the drugs and the bad behaviour and I’ve actually amazingly got myself into this situation that I’ve been happy with David (Furnish) for nearly 20 years.
'I’m no idiot. I’ve taken every criticism of me there is for this. I’m too old, I said I was too selfish, someone like me should not have children.
'I see all those points of view, but as far as David and I are concerned this is the most important decision we have ever made and it has just been wonderful.’
'We have two boys, and I absolutely love being a father, I’ve made the album I honestly believe is my best-ever work, and I’m living at this ridiculous speed, addicted to touring, addicted to work.
‘As soon as I started to recover, I sat down with David and said, “Things are going to change.”’
He grins: ‘I mean, look – look at my life. I want to enjoy this.
'In a few years things are going to change anyway – I won’t be able to take the boys on tour because of school.
'And I want to be there to take Zachary to his first day of school. I want to be there to pick him up. I can’t actually believe I’m saying this but I want to do parents’ evenings, school play dates, the whole lot.’
He laughs: ‘So I think I got my tap on the shoulder and things are definitely going to be changing.’
After countless multi-million-selling albums, a knighthood, six Grammys, four Brits, an Oscar, a Golden Globe (both for The Lion King), an Ivor Novello Fellowship and most recently the first-ever Brits icon Award, John no longer has anything to prove as a musician or pop star, but that hasn’t stinted his ambition for his new album.
The Diving Board, produced by T-Bone Burnett, with its stripped-back sound, its emphasis on his piano playing and vocals, and with lyrics by long-term collaborator Bernie Taupin, shines a harsh light on the business they call show.
It is also – with its old-school feel, its emotional depth and intimate sound – one of his best and most assured recordings.
Influenced by Bob Dylan’s recent Modern Times album, it features songs reflecting on age and wisdom (Oceans Away, A Town Called Jubilee) and a series of short, sweeping instrumentals (Dreams #1, #2 and #3).
There are aching ballads and crunchy, uptempo rock songs. It is, in short, classic Elton John.
‘When I first talked to T-Bone he told me he couldn’t believe that for an artist who’s known as a piano man, there is no album of mine where it’s all about the piano with a bass and a drum and vocals.
'We wrote the songs in 2012 in a few days, then came back to it a year later and I wrote four more songs.
‘For me it was very personal. I had Zachary when I began it and we had just had Elijah (both boys were born to the same surrogate mother) when I finished it.
'I definitely feel they both added to the album in some indefinable way. This sense that I have now that I’m actually incredibly happy with my life, more relaxed than I’ve ever been in my life.
‘Going to rehab, then meeting David, completely changed me, but fatherhood has just been something way, way more than I ever knew. I just wish I’d realised that earlier.’
The beautifully mournful title track, The Diving Board, is, says John, about the dark, dangerous side of fame and a young kid being swallowed up in it. It’s easy to assume he’s talking about Reg Dwight, the self-conscious, insecure, chubby, bespectacled boy from Pinner who became one of the world’s most flamboyant stars, crashed and burned on drink, drugs and bulimia and then fought his way back to sanity, fatherhood and a relationship with 50-year-old former marketing executive Furnish.
He nods: ‘You mean Elton – the drugs, the excess, the millions on flowers, the tantrums, the outfits and the glasses?’
Then he shakes his head: ‘But it isn’t. It’s about Lindsay Lohan, Justin (Bieber), all these kids who are out there now not knowing what the hell is going on.
‘I hate to think of Lindsay because she had a talent, she was a great actress, and then it became all about the madness, the parties and everyone forgets about what put them there in the first place; they get lost in the idea that they are famous for who they are, not what they are.
‘I feel sorry for these kids. I was 23 when I got famous. And I made every mistake in the book. But whatever was going on, the drinking, the drugs, whatever, I was still making music, I kept making music and I never stopped.
'It was definitely rehab that saved me but it was music, that work ethic, that sense of ‘this is what I’m here for’ that kept me from totally blowing away in a bubble.
'I’m 66. I’m still here. I’m still making records and I’m making records I’m still passionate about.
‘I went through all that and I came out of it 20 years ago. I’m bloody fit (he plays tennis regularly and watches what he eats) and I’m tough and I think that’s part of the reason my appendix didn’t kill me. I worry that these kids will just get swallowed up.’
John has admiring words for an old mucker who keeps in even better shape than him.
‘That guy (Jagger) is the greatest pro in this business. The Stones are going to keep going and going, there is no way he’s giving up.
'Look at what he puts himself through on a daily basis to do the job he does, he’s out there in wind, rain, sun and he knows exactly how to entertain a crowd. All of us do, we’ve all learnt through doing it, we’ve all earned our corn.’
John keeps up with peers but he also maintains a passion for pop’s young guns, having been something of a child prodigy himself. He was just 11 when he won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy Of Music.
One tutor recalls how he played back a four-page piece by Handel – note-perfect – after just one hearing. But he was also a rebel and he recalls skipping classes to ride the Tube.
In recent years he gave both Joss Stone and Ed Sheehan a leg-up and was quick off the mark to sign the red-hot Belfast schoolboy band The Strypes to his label. And, knowing the tell-tale signs, he keeps a watchful eye out for those prone to straying off the path.
‘There are a few people I’m in touch with right now. I think it’s your duty to try and help, especially if you know what they are going through.
'The big problems are the ones that won’t let you help them, like Amy Winehouse. I wish I could have helped her. I remember looking at her and just seeing everything that was going to happen and knowing there was no one there to stop it.’
On gay marriage: 'I think it's amazing that Britain is really taking a stand on this' Michael Jackson, he says, signed his death warrant when he made the decision to do his final tour.
'The guy was a basket case. I was put out for my appendix operation with Demerol, and that was what Michael was taking every day – and he’d been taking it for years.
'The whole thing was just utterly tragic and the idea that he went through that tour announcement and those rehearsals… even on a purely physical level it would have killed him.’
We talk about Britain.
‘Every time I fly home, I think “It’s Blighty!” I feel happy. I have homes in a lot of places but I’d never leave England.’
He talks about the new Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Tony Blair and David Cameron.
How he is delighted both Church leaders appear to be changing their attitudes to homosexuality and women priests. How he is grateful to the British prime ministers for bringing in the law to enable gay couples to marry.
‘David and I will be there on the first day, not necessarily because we feel we have to be married but because of the years of suffering that gay people have had to go through.
'I think it’s amazing that Britain is really taking a stand on this and leading countries all over the world.
'Except of course Russia, who won’t accept they have any homosexuals. Try telling Tchaikovsky and Rudolph Nureyev they weren’t gay!’
He laughs. ‘Like I say. I’m proud to be British.’