For some folks, 65 is retirement age. For Elton John, who reaches that mark on Sunday, it's the age at which you book a summer tour of Europe in addition to your lucrative Las Vegas residency… release a T Bone Burnett-produced comeback CD… prepare a sequel to your last hit animated musical, Gnomeo & Juliet… watch the grosses come in for your touring stage musical, Billy Elliot… dress up as a monarch and shill for Pepsi in inescapable TV spots…
And, oh yeah, the age at which you stop and smell the nappies.
"I love the smell of nappies and diapers," John said at a press event last year, helpfully using both the British and American terms for the fragrant delights. Perhaps he'd taken leave of his olfactory senses, but most likely the long-recovered alcoholic has found his true late-in-life fix getting high on fatherhood.
In the process of promoting the first Gnomeo & Juliet movie last year — which was produced by Rocket Films, John's and Furnish's company, and distributed by Disney — the pair had plenty of opportunities to espouse the virtues of becoming dads past the typical parenting age.
"Look, I'm not an idiot," John told London's Mirror newspaper. "I was prepared for criticism. I knew people would say that I was too old. I knew people would point out that I had said it myself. I did say it. But you know what? That was true for me when I said it, but I changed. I changed my mind.
"Something happened to change things and I went into this with my eyes open, knowing exactly what the reaction would be and prepared to take it on. I'm not afraid of sticking my head above the parapet because this is everything and it's worth it. It was a huge decision and it was not one we went into lightly… I have never been happier and never been more sure we've done the right thing."
A lot of couples adopt because they can't have a biological child. In an odd twist, John had a biological child because he couldn't adopt.
Specifically, John and Furnish had wanted to bring home a boy they'd met while visiting a Ukrainian orphanage on behalf of his AIDS foundation. "I saw this beautiful, innocent little boy with this incredible smile," John said last year. "He just unlocked this feeling in my heart. Actually, he broke it. This little boy just changed everything. We tried to adopt but the Ukraine don't accept same-sex couples." (John and Furnish aren't technically married, but the pair, who've been together for almost 20 years, were legally joined in a civil union in 2005.) "This is the boy who changed my heart, who planted the seed. I'll never give up on him."
The frustrating experience in the Ukraine "kind of lit the fuse," John explained to David Letterman. "We said, if we can't adopt, let's try the surrogacy route. And I've always turned that idea down before because I thought it was too old. But I thought, you know what, I'm not too old… The biggest challenge in life is to bring up a child, as you probably know or any parent knows. And I thought, I'm ready for this. So we decided to go ahead."
After the birth of Zachary, John couldn't wax ecstatic enough about "adventures in daddy-land," as he put it, even admitting to the "descent into gibberish" that affects any parent stricken with a case of baby-talk. "It's turned me into the gooiest person in the world."
Naturally, his parenthood hasn't been without its share of controversy — not just among the portion of the population that disapproves of gay parents, but among those who believe that Elton's lavish lifestyle and/or seemingly nonstop work schedule are bound to make him a less-than-present parent.
After the baby was born, one English paper, the Daily Mail, took particular delight in reporting every occasion on which John left his L.A. apartment without the infant -- be it to lunch, dinner, a New Year's Eve party, the studio, or the Troubadour — and also alleged that he and Furnish had multiple round-the-clock nannies to really smell all those nappies.
John denied much of what was in those dismissive accounts when he and Furnish sat down with Barbara Walters. "The Daily Mail in England said we [have] four round the clock nannies and chefs. Chefs are very important for babies!" he smiled. "The nonsense that was written—we have one nanny, and we're very hands-on… We change him, we bath him, we feed him and we read him a story every night," he added, describing their routine. "And we take him to lunch."
"The worst thing you can do to a child, and I've seen it happen so many times, is the silver spoon," John also told Walters. "Being the child of a famous person is very hard. So we're gonna have to work on that. It's not gonna be an easy ride for him. [That isn't] to say a child who's born into a wealthy environment can't be a good child. But there are pitfalls. And we know the pifalls."
Still, it was John's very effusiveness about the joys of being a father that made some cynics suspicious that he must not be doing enough of the hard work if he found it that delightful.
Asked what most surprised him, John told the BBC News: "How relaxed it's made me. I thought I was going to be so frantically worried about how he is and when he's coughing or when he's got wind… but that's what they have. I'm so contented and so relaxed, and it's put me in a great mood. I don't worry about him. He's in great hands and he's a very happy little soul."
That kind of talk only further infuriated the Daily Mail, whose columnist Andrew Pierce fumed: "I have no doubt of the couple's 'overwhelming' happiness and joy at the arrival of their son… Yet I can't help feeling that his decision to become a father is another grotesque act of selfishness from Sir Elton, and that the child is a little Christmas bauble he and his partner have awarded themselves… He is also an aging, pampered, self-indulgent millionaire — look at the absurd names he and Furnish have given the poor child, for heaven's sake! And it is the nagging suspicion that Elton — a man who is by nature an obsessive — has simply acquired a son to satisfy his latest fixation that I find repellent."
But with the child's name the only concrete proof anyone has yet come up with that Zachary will be spoiled or neglected, most fans have rejoiced along with Elton.
Certainly the superstar has a sense of humor about every accusation that could be lobbed his way. When he hosted Saturday Night Live last year, he incorporated just about every conceivable criticism into his opening monologue — including the "absurd" name game, as he waggishly explained the boy's name "of course is short for Zachary Jackson Levon Hakuna Matata Furnish-John."
"As you can see," John further told the SNL viewing audience, "I still haven't lost the baby weight… So far the baby really takes after me. He screams and cries when he doesn't get his way, and he's had his ups and downs with the bottle. The baby has had some feeding difficulties. He is rejecting the breast. And in that way, he takes after both of his fathers… David and I had our child through a surrogate. Neither of us can become pregnant, though I promise you, we tried our hardest." He recounted the sense of relief in the maternity ward when "the doctors told us we had a healthy boy with 10 fingers, 10 toes, and 400 million dollars."
What of the work schedule, though? John said he has made one concession to "being dragged into the 21st century" as a result of having the infant. He told the BBC that although he was a confirmed "Luddite" who did not even own a computer or mobile phone, he was buying an iPad to see Zachary via Skype while he's on tour.
There is little evidence of him slowing his schedule, all e-devices aside.
John has already recorded a new album, The Diving Board, his first solo studio album since 2006, for release this fall. Like his recent collaboration with Leon Russell, The Union, the upcoming release was produced by T Bone Burnett and includes lyrics by longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin. It's said to be the most stripped-down effort he's made since his very earliest, pre-glitter-rock days, with Rolling Stone even comparing it to his landmark 11-17-70 album.
His "Million Dollar Piano" show will be back at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace for 20 gigs in April and May. He's also booked three different kind of touring shows — solo, with his band, and as a duo with Ray Cooper — in the U.S. and Canada as well as such far-flung locations as Poland and Slovakia through the end of July.
As far how to celebrate his birthday Sunday, he's leaving that to fans as a DIY affair. On his website, devotees are being invited to host local birthday lunches and raise money for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, as many have already done for the last decade.
And how's he adjusting to being a "senior," parenthood aside? Just fine, he claims, especially since now he no longer suffers from blurry vision — and not just because he quit drinking in 1990.
"I had my eyes done about eight years ago; I had replacement lens surgery because I was so blind," he said at a press event last year. "Now I have 20/20 vision and I can see all the signs that the fans have, all the album sleeves. And it makes a difference. I really appreciate my performing so much better now as I get older than I did. I don't take it for granted anymore… I can remember the words to the songs. It's great! It's just sensational what's happened to me in the last few years. The older I get, I think I'm singing better live."
- Elton John
- David Furnish