How Bernie Taupin Rejected Fame on ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’
Still, just three years after they first became famous, Taupin was already tiring of the spotlight, and put that desire for something else into 1973's platinum-selling No. 2 smash "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
Just as Dorothy needed to follow the glittering path in The Wizard of Oz to realize that her black-and-white Kansas home offered her more than the technicolor Oz, Taupin's lyrics reflect someone who's seen the limelight and wants to be back among the "howling old owl" and "horny-back toad" of his rural past.
The lyrics are among Taupin's most explicitly autobiographical. He was raised on a farm in Lincolnshire, England, living without electricity until he was five years old. As a child, he developed a fascination with America, both through country music and cowboy movies.
"When I was growing up in England in the '50s and '60s, we all played cowboys and Indians and watched westerns on TV and it entranced me," Taupin told the Telegraph in 2002. "I was intoxicated by the myth of the west. The music I listened to – Johnny Cash and the like – the films I watched, even the history I was interested in: I wanted to live like a cowboy."
The lyrics on 1970's Tumbleweed Connection drew upon that same Old West imagery. Taupin's love of the movies was also reflected three years later in a few songs from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: "Roy Rogers" and two of Elton John's most famous singles, "Candle in the Wind" (a tribute to Marilyn Monroe) and the title track.
Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2014 that he wasn't a huge Monroe fan, adding that the actress "was just a metaphor for fame and dying young." "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," on the other hand, was more personal.
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a cinematic album," Taupin added. "The lyrics to the title track do say that I want to leave Oz and get back to the farm. I think that’s still my M.O. these days. I don’t mind getting out there and doing what everybody else was doing, but I always had to have an escape hatch.”
John wondered aloud whether Taupin “ever really liked the fame. He was always the quiet one and the more thoughtful one. I was always the one that said, ‘Let’s go out!’ I used to go out with Divine and dance at clubs. We’d both burn the candle at both ends, but I did it far more than he did.”
John's tune and vocal perfectly capture the wistful longing in Taupin's words, but John admitted that he really didn't know where the lyrics come from. "I was just the guy who wrote the melodies, that was my job," John told Rolling Stone. "I just love writing to his lyrics. I really don’t analyze them much. He’s never told me what sort of song to write. He just gave me the lyrics. It’s nice when you’re creating something that comes together like a jigsaw puzzle very quickly.”
Taupin eventually found a way to combine his love of America with his rural roots: In 1992, he bought the Roundup Valley Ranch, a 30-acre estate in California's Santa Ynez Valley where Taupin could ride horses, paint and write lyrics. "This place has just been unbelievably inspirational for me," he said in 2017. "The songs that I've written have all been inspired by this place, and just the comfort it gives me."
Work with John earned him a fortune, but Taupin remains grateful that – unlike his friend – he's been able to stay relatively anonymous.
"That’s one of the things I’m the most thankful for," Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2015. "I mean in the early '70s, I would get recognized because my picture was on the album covers a lot. My name does still get recognized. I go places and give a credit card or give my name at the airport, and someone will recognize the name and the gushing begins. But I couldn't live [Elton's] life. I would rather drill myself in the head with a nail gun than do what he does."