Elton John lyricist and Lincolnshire native Bernie Taupin explains why his visual art–and almost everything he’s ever done–was made for the USA
by Andrew Alexander
October 28, 2019
Featured image: Bernie Taupin, Sleeping Beauty IV
(images courtesy the artist/Bill Lowe Gallery)
On the phone, Bernie Taupin’s accent is surprisingly hard to place. There’s a plain-spoken, true-west directness that suggests John Wayne, sometimes a deep, hard country twang that brings to mind Merle Haggard. But beneath it all: the unmistakable remnants of a soft, flowing British accent. “I’m 100% American,” he says with a laugh, by way of explanation. “I spent well over half of my life here.”
Taupin grew up on a farm outside of Sleaford in Lincolnshire, England. His family life was warm, he says, but the environment was otherwise gray, colorless, dreary, and uninspiring. “It was incredibly rural,” he says. “It would be the equivalent of growing up in the middle of Idaho. Very flat, very cold. The landscapes were pretty bleak.”
Throughout his childhood, however, his imagination was sparked by the energetic and colorful American pop culture flooding into England in the 1960s. “It was always my desire and dream not just to emulate Americana like all my contemporaries,” he says. “They sort of just dabbled around in it. That wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be where the action was. When I got the chance to come here in 1970, there was no real reason for me to ever go back.”
It’s somewhat unsurprising then that American themes (and even the American flag itself) appear so often in Taupin’s visual art. Taupin, of course, found fame and fortune writing lyrics for Elton John, the musical and lyrical influences of America notable in almost everything they created together.
But when Taupin first got to America in the 1970s, he found himself especially inspired by the innovative visual art he encountered. “New York was the well spring of where it started happening for me,” he says. “The galleries were exhibiting people that really spoke to me: Anselm Kiefer, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline. Rauschenberg blew my mind … I spent many years in a transient lifestyle touring. It took a while for me. But Duke Ellington famously said, ‘Everybody should do two things.’ If I’m going to listen to anybody, I’m going to listen to Duke Ellington. Like anything else, you start by emulating the people you respect until you can really find your own voice.”
Taupin began creating art at his ranch in California in the 1990s: His assemblages often took their titles from, or were dedicated to, the musicians who inspired him: Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, Lightening Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Maybelle Carter, the Louvin Brothers. Atlanta’s Bill Lowe Gallery is currently showing the largest exhibition of Taupin’s work to date, and the American influences are clear throughout.
“I grew up embracing sub-genres of American music: country music, Delta blues, urban blues, gospel, folk music,” he says. “Those were the things that were the inspiration for everything that I ultimately did. But they’re also musical genres that seem to be fading from the landscape … My pieces, I think of them as a sort of musical archaeology. I’m trying to keep these genres alive. Some of these musicians a lot of America’s youth probably aren’t even aware of.”
Taupin creates in a formerly deserted warehouse near his home outside of Solvang, California, filled, he says, with more power tools than paints or brushes. “A lot of the surrounding buildings have materials in them,” he says. “I’m like a kid in a candy store because I keep finding all this stuff … When I write songs, it’s got to be quiet. But when I work in my studio I’m blasting music. It gets me moving, it gets my blood going.”
The American flag itself appears regularly in the work, an emblem that, in spite of the bleak political moment, still recalls for him the energy and artistic integrity of the music he’s always so admired “The American flag is the glue that binds them all together,” he says. “It’s what I put in there because it’s so emblematic, it’s so powerful. It’s an amazing medium to work with because it’s so malleable.”
One of his most famous pieces, which he’s made in several versions, is titled Sleeping Beauty, an American flag wrapped in twine. “That’s my feeling about the American flag,” he says. “There are times it’s ‘under wraps’ a little. We misuse it. We use it for the wrong political gain … It’s fallen into the mud. It was in the rubble on 9/11. It was under the floorboards in prison camps in Germany and Japan … It was always pulled out. I don’t think people understand the durability of the flag… Think of how old it is. It’s been around, it’s been battered and bruised, but it’s always come back.”
“I use it with the most unbelievable respect imaginable,” he says. “When you have a love for something it finds its way into your art. I’m a very patriotic human being. So it all works.”
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.
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