Elton John: Addiction "nearly destroyed my soul"

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The music legend has completed an autobiography, titled "Me," but his story is far from over.

CBS News

When you're Sir Elton John, this is how you say goodbye: in a Vancouver arena packed to the rafters. It's a mid-way stop on a three-year road trip around the world. After this, he says he's never touring again.

"Yeah, this is the end of schlepping," he said backstage. "I'm over schlepping. I've been in the back of a van since I've been 16 or 17, so I just, I'm over traveling. And I just need to stop and take a deep breath."

For one of the most successful solo artists of all time – with 300 million albums sold, hits by the dozens, even an Oscar – it's time for reflection. So he's written an autobiography, called "Me." It's a soul-bearing look at his flamboyant career, his relationships, rehab … all of it.

"I wanted my boys to know what I was like and what happened, so that when I'm not here they can read the book and read the truth," he said.

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Henry Holt & Co.

The boys are Elton and husband David Furnish's two sons, Zachary and Elijah. 

Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, "What do you hope your boys get out of it?"

"I just want them to understand what I went through, the journey that I had before I had them," John replied. "How they made my life complete. How they've, you know, finished the circle. And that, you know, they were the last chapter on an incredible life. Maybe not the last chapter, but the best chapter."

And what a life it's been. If you watched this year's fantasy biopic "Rocketman," you might know the basics of the story. But now, Elton John is spelling it out chapter and verse.

He was born Reginald Dwight to a musical household in Pinner, England, in 1947, the only child of Sheila Dwight and her husband, Stanley.

He remembers playing piano in his house as young as age three or four. "I could pick up a tune on the radio," he said.

Music was a gift, and also a refuge from a mother who was, as he writes "the Cecile B. DeMille of bad moods"

"My mum was a very hard working woman; she worked her butt off, to pay for my education," he said. "And I'm so appreciative of that. But you never knew what kind of person would walk through the back door after work – which one is it gonna be today?"

John says no matter how successful he became, he could never please her, and for a number of years they stopped speaking.

"She never liked David," he said. "She never liked anybody. She never asked to see the children."

"Never asked to see her grandchildren?" asked Smith.

"No. But I'm glad they didn't meet her, because she would have criticized them, like she criticized me. She couldn't help herself. She's a sociopath."

Still, shortly before she died in December 2017, they reconciled.

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Reginald Dwight with his mother, Sheila Dwight. Elton John

He said, "Acceptance is a big part of recovery. You can't change people. You have to change your attitude towards them. And so, I reached out to her and she reached out to me, and we had a couple of lunches at my house. And nothing had changed. The only thing that changed was I didn't lose my temper. I knew what was coming and I let her get on with it. And I just said, 'I love you, Mum,' and she said, 'I love you, too. I don't like you, but I love you. But I don't like you."

"She said that?"

"Yeah. And I said, 'That's okay. That's all right. It's fine.' I let her be her."

Other relationships have been easier, like his 50-year partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Their songwriting process is astoundingly simple.

The two are never in the same room: "I read it through first," John said. "I look at the title, I read the song through. And then a little film comes into my mind, a visual. So, by the time I get to the end of reading the lyric, I kind of know what tempo the song might be. And then, I just literally put my hands on the keyboard and hope for the best. And that, again, is a divine act."

Smith asked, "And how fast does that happen, like with 'Your Song'?"

"I would guess – it's a long time ago! – I would say probably 40 minutes."

"Forty minutes? It's incredible!"

"But I write really quickly. And it sounds really boastful, but that's the way I write."

As he made Taupin's lyrics sing, John did one crucial re-write for himself. The combined the names of two friends to come up with a new persona. "It was Elton Dean and John Baldry, and I put it together very quickly. I went, 'Elton John. That's who I'm gonna be.'

"And so, Elton John became the big star. I could be as outrageous. I could admit my sexuality. And of course, on stage I felt very safe, as I did when I was a little boy by performing. But then when I came offstage there was still the timid, shy person. I was still Reg Dwight when I came offstage."

Still, outrageous worked. From the moment he started touring America at age 23, critics and fans fell in love.

Smith asked, "How do you think you handled success?"

"Pretty damn well. Well, I just loved it. Tours, radio, interviews. We were having so much fun being in the land of music, which is America. We just were on adrenaline. And it was just so joyous, so joyous."

Joyous, like his onstage wardrobe.

Smith asked, "In the beginning, what was the idea behind the outfits?"

"I wasn't allowed to be fashionable; I was Reginald Dwight. When Reginald Dwight became Elton John, then all hell let loose. I could wear exactly what I wanted to. And I just loved it."

His costumes ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, like the Donald Duck outfit he wore before half a million fans in New York's Central Park.  

"The butt was so big that when I sat on the piano stool, I couldn't hardly reach the keys. So, it was a complete – it was a costume that definitely needed a run-through! And we didn't. But it gave me such a laugh, oh my God!"

"With your stage costumes, did you feel like you had to top yourself?"

"Yeah, I probably went a lot too far. Maybe things got a little out of hand, but do I regret it? Absolutely not."

What he does regret, he says, are the deeper, more serious things, like the moment in 1974 when he was introduced to cocaine. He said that when he tried coke for the first time he actually threw up – and then went back and asked for more. "Because I wanted to join in so much and be part of the gang, I went back and asked for another line," he said.

"Even though it was making you sick?" asked Smith.

"I know! Isn't that crazy? But that's what being a drug addict is, crazy. I so wish I'd never taken a drug. But in the end, unless I'd have got sober, I wouldn't be the person I am today."

He's now been sober for 29 years, and remarkably open about how devastating his addiction was.

"It nearly destroyed my soul," he said. "My soul was black, like a charred piece of steak, until I said, 'I need help.' And suddenly, a little pilot light in my soul came along going, 'Yes, I'm still here. I'm still here. I'm still here. I can still be rescued.'"

And in a sense, he was rescued. He met David Furnish in 1993, and they've been together ever since. Furnish runs the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised about half a billion dollars to fight HIV.

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Elton John and David Furnish. CBS News

Furnish is his manager and his partner in life.

Smith asked, "What do you think it is about the two of you that keeps the relationship so strong?"

"Well, first of all, he loves me – and I love him," John replied. "And we have our big screaming rows, like everybody else. I've got a temper that goes from here to atomic in about five seconds. David has the really irritating habit of being able to rationalize and talk things through.

"And the relationship gets strong and stronger because we're parents as well. We have a responsibility to two wonderful little boys."

And now, his autobiography's complete. But Elton John's story is far from over.

"I'm 72 years of age; I feel as if I'm 18," he said. "And I've still got a lot of living to do hopefully with my children. And who knows what I'm gonna be doing? I really don't know. And I don't care. I don't care to know. I just want to be surprised."

      
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Story produced by Reid Orvedahl.