Earlier this week at the Choice Contemporary gallery in Brentwood, owner Ari Goldman was talking about an exhibition of art by lyricist Bernie Taupin, and he kept interrupting himself to happily sing bits of Elton John hits: “From the young man in the 22nd row…” and “It’s 7 o’clock and I want to rock, I want to get a belly full of beer!”
Nearby, gallery staff were hanging dozens of prints and original works by Taupin, who has been John’s main songwriting collaborator since 1967, racking up a mountain of platinum albums and top 10 hits, from 1970’s “Your Song” to last year’s “Hold Me Closer,” a dance-floor duet with Britney Spears.
In recent years, as John has embarked on what he says is his final round of touring, Taupin has turned increasingly to painting and mixed media visual art. His one-man show opening this weekend, “Reflections,” is the first to incorporate evocative bits of his most famous lyrics onto his canvases.
Near the gallery’s front door is a print of one minimalist painting, depicting yellow bricks with the simple word “Goodbye,” a nod to both John’s final tour and the 1973 multiplatinum song and album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. “It’s emblematic of the end of his tour, and one of his greatest songs,” Goldman says. “We sold five of those already.” Another large piece, a collage of Elton John album covers taken from Taupin’s personal collection, and singed along the edges, is available for $35,000.
Choice Contemporary opened just a year ago on cozy Barrington Court, but Goldman has spent three decades specializing in pop culture, street artists and, increasingly, work made by “famous creatives that are also capable of doing really wonderful fine art.” Also on the walls here are works by Bob Dylan, Shephard Fairey and Risk. One of his most recent shows was paintings by comic actor Kevin Nealon. Coming up are drawings by John Lennon.
In November, Taupin is set to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (His songwriting partner received the honor in 1994.) At 73, he is a British transplant who has lived mostly in rural Santa Barbara County for the last 30 years, but spent many years living and working in Los Angeles. Ahead of his invitation-only opening on Saturday, and a public opening Sunday, Taupin shared his thoughts about art and songwriting, and living and creating in Southern California.
Do you spend much time in Los Angeles? Do you have many ties here?
Bernie Taupin: L.A. is no longer the same city I lived in for decades. I have great memories of better times there. These days there seems to be a forced desperation to remain relevant while clinging to a need to be correct in all forms of a political, sexual and ethnic status quo. It’s an oppressive sort of climate, a bit like living in Groundhog Day. I’ll always be a California kid, but where I’ve lived for the last 30 years is the California I’m happiest in. I still have an apartment in Beverly Hills and some wonderful friends there, though.
How did you get interested in making visual art?
Inspired by years of investing my time in studying it, visiting the great galleries and museums. My mother instilled a passion for it in me, turning me onto J.M.W. Turner and Paul Gaugin at a young age. In the early 70’s I became enamored of abstract art and the work of Hans Hoffman, Anselm Kiefer, Franz Kline, and Wassily Kandinsky, among others. I wanted to grow up and be Robert Rauschenberg so when my life became less transient, I set out to do it for myself..
When you write lyrics, do you often have a visual image in your mind?
Sometimes, it depends on what I’m writing about. I’m by nature a very visual writer, an observer and a storyteller so what I set out to do is create something the listener can visualize. I like to think I write for the imagination and hope people incorporate theirs when hearing one of our songs.
How did you feel the film Rocketman was as a visual representation of the music you and Elton made together?
I absolutely loved it. It was wonderful. But then again, we had complete artistic control, so we made what we wanted to make.
What is the idea behind the works in “Reflections”?
“Reflections” is a very simple series, very direct and to the point in incorporating iconic text from some of our most popular work. I just wanted to design pieces to accompany the journey that is “The Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour. It’s just my contribution, something uncluttered and airy, a memento and reminder of a moment in time. It’s the more commercial lighter side of what is my normal deeper structures.
Was turning these songs you made with Elton into visuals a challenge?
They’re fragments, snatches of lyrics, it was easy and fun but at times quite intricate also.
Where do you make your visual art? What kind of materials are you drawn to?
I’m currently looking for a new studio space. I had a wonderful warehouse which was ideal, but the property sold. For materials, anything is fair game, mainly found objects, wood, wire, deconstructed instruments, ash and wax, ephemera of all kinds, and of course, the U.S. flag. It’s sort of become my calling card. There’s also a lot of fire involved; flame is my friend.
Are you spending most of your creative time on art now, or are you currently writing lyrics as well?
Well, I spent the last two years writing my memoir [Scattershot, to be published by Hachette on Sept. 12], so everything else got pushed to the back burner. Also, I only usually work on song lyrics when we are planning on recording an album so yes in general, art takes precedence.
For one body of your work, you used some famous photos by Terry O’Neill from the 1960s as a starting point. How was that experience compared to collaborating on songs with Elton?
Well, the Terry O’Neill show was a collaboration in name only. I picked the images I wanted and he and his crew just provided them to me in a way that I could elaborate on them. It is in no way comparable to writing songs with Elton, completely different attitudes, the art forms involved being one visual, one sonic. Both are artistic but unconnected in this particular case.
What does being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mean to you?
Gratifying, some might say overdue, but I’m happy to be living in the same house as Little Richard, Johnny Cash and Link Wray.
What songwriters impressed you the most?
Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Willie Dixon, Joni Mitchell. Each one is eloquent and sophisticated on their own terms and masters of their own genre. There are many others I admire, but like cream, these are the ones that rise to the top.
“Reflections,” art by Bernie Taupin. Public opening, Sunday, June 18, Choice Contemporary Gallery.