Vienna, Sir Elton, and I ...
He's one of the most famous faces in the world of entertainment, bringing to his many millions of adoring fans such songs as 'I'm still standing', 'Nikita', 'Crocodile Rock', 'Daniel', 'Candle in the Wind', 'I guess that's why they call it the blues', and many, many more.
The man in question, Sir Elton John, is also a massive soccer fan, having once been chairman of English club Watford. And it was that connection which led to me joining him in his dressing room one summer eve in the Austrian city of Vienna.
The year was 2008 and I was working for the BBC. I had been based in Vienna for the European Championships, then being co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria. Among the BBC colleagues working alongside me was former England, Aston Villa and Watford manager, Graham Taylor.
A genuinely nice guy, Graham and I would sit late into the night talking soccer - anecdotes, tactics, or simply that day's games. Occasionally, the name 'Elton' would creep into conversation. I knew he was referring to one of the world’s greatest showmen, and I also knew that they were good friends.
It was June 28, 2008 and was in the midst of a rather bizarre 72 hours, which started with me interviewing Enrique Iglesias (who sang the tournament’s official theme song), continued with a sit-down chat with former top referee Pierluigi Collina and ended with me watching Spain lift their first trophy in 44 years. It was for them the start of great things to come.
In the middle of all this was something so surreal and so beyond anything I had ever experienced. Two hours before the show was scheduled to start, I stood in the hospitality area of the venue, wondering whether to join my BBC colleagues queuing for food. While I stood there mulling over the decision, Graham Taylor – leaning on a walking stick having recently had Achilles surgery – said to me: “He’s not going to be expecting us in here, is he?”
The line of questioning kind of caught me off guard.
“Sorry,” I replied. “Who won’t be?”
“Elton, of course,” came a rather presumptuous response.
And, before I had time to tackle him on his most recent comment, he was hobbling back through the crowds seeking out a security guard. I half wondered whether he’d overdone the medication, as he was clearly in some discomfort and maybe not thinking straight, but then found myself being ushered back the way we came in, and directed through a non-descript door which led down into the bowels of the arena.
Still not sure what was going on, myself and seven BBC colleagues struggled to keep up with Graham, who was being led down a dimly-lit staircase.
At the bottom it was like a different world.
There were bright lights, trucks, people – lots of people – scurrying around looking anxious … all a far cry from the excitement being felt about 30 feet above us.
Next thing I know, we’re politely shown into a side room, with white walls, food laid out along two of them, and soft sofas along the other two. There was also a drinks cabinet, from which I took a bottle of water, before devouring three vol-au-vents and a couple of carrot sticks. Until I saw the food I hadn’t actually realized how famished I was.
And then, the moment …
“Sir Elton will see you now,” came a voice from the door.
Wiping pastry crumbs from my mouth, having rapidly realized I had just lifted food from the post-show table of Sir Elton John, I followed by dumb-struck colleagues into an adjoining room, where we were greeted by the outstretched hand of the man himself.
“Hello, I’m Elton. Lovely to meet you.”
He welcomed us all, before giving Graham Taylor a big bear hug. And then we chatted, or rather Elton did most of the chatting and we kind of just listened. But it was fascinating. Here was a man, moments away from entertaining thousands of fans, with rousing renditions of his most famous songs, and he was talking about “the German boy (Bastian) Schweinsteiger.”
Occasionally, his tour manager would pop his head around the door with updates on how the arena was filling up.
In all, we were in Elton John’s dressing room for over an hour, talking about the Beckhams, Billy Joel, his ‘gig’ in Vegas, life in LA, his and Graham’s days at Watford (which included carol singing in Graham’s cul-de-sac after a visit to the Chinese embassy close to Christmas in the late 1970s).
He even rejoiced in the fact that “Aldershot were back in the Football League”.
His knowledge of soccer was impressive, but then he was – by his own admission – a soccer nut. Back home in LA he watched soccer at every opportunity – Premier League, Championship, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga … all the way down to what was then known as the Conference.
And then our time was up. Another shake of the hand, and we followed him out of his dressing room, and began the walk to our seats. Myself and a colleague got slightly ahead of the group and over-shot the turning.
“Back here,” he called out.
Sir Elton John then proceeded to pull back the curtain, guide us toward a steward, who would then take us directly to our seats.
“I’m sorry they’re not any closer,” he whispered, as we went our separate ways. Not only did I get to talk soccer with Elton John in his dressing room. I then had him point out our seats, and actually wait for us to be seated before taking to the stage and beginning a three-hour master-class in entertainment, belting his way through 26 songs. No interval, no support act, just Sir Elton and his piano.
And, to cap it all, Graham even received a dedication from his good friend, with the song ‘Someone saved my life tonight’.
I may not have got a mention from Sir Elton, but I did have a few of his vol-au-vents.