Compassion and Dignity: A Conversation with Elton John

By John-Manuel AndrioteDecember 22, 2013

Compassion and Dignity: A Conversation with Elton John
MAYBE IT WAS playing piano on The Hollies’s 1969 hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” that set the stage for the global charitable impact the child piano prodigy would have in the decades ahead. Or maybe it was when Reginald Kenneth Dwight changed his name to Elton Hercules John that he set about living up to the mythic hero’s famous strength and far-ranging adventures.

In Love Is the Cure, John’s 2012 book just released in paperback, one of the world’s best-selling musicians reflects “on life, loss, and the end of AIDS,” as its subtitle puts it. The book is a deeply personal reflection on how AIDS has touched John’s life, robbing him of dear friends. But it’s far from a sad lament.

John says his 1990 rehab experience was the catalyst for his belief in the transformative power of compassionate and dignified care that spurred him, in 1992, to launch the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “This is a disease,” he writes, “that must be cured not by a miraculous vaccine, but by changing hearts and minds, and through a collective effort to break down social barriers and to build bridges of compassion.” 

In an introduction to the book, famed international health expert Dr. Paul Farmer commends John and the Foundation’s commitment to supporting targeted, compassionate, dignified services to the world’s most marginalized people, those at greatest risk for HIV/AIDS.

Sir Elton — Queen Elizabeth II in 1998 made him a knight for “services to music and charitable services” — kindly took time to answer emailed questions on the eve of his concerts in Russia, where he spoke out against that country’s harsh new antigay laws. He is currently touring to promote The Diving Board, his 31st album, produced by T-Bone Burnett.

— John-Manuel Andriote


JOHN-MANUEL ANDRIOTE: In Love Is the Cure, you describe the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s approach to HIV/AIDS and its concentration in marginalized populations. You point out that in the United States, “The government didn’t care about gays, HIV spread uncontrollably, and we are suffering the impact of that indifference to this day.” How, in your view, could the US government make a practical and real difference in addressing homophobia? Public education campaigns? Campaigns aimed at gay/bisexual men intended to support their (our) resilience and strength to blunt the impact of homophobia?

ELTON JOHN: Messages of equality and support from public leaders are extremely important. So is electing openly gay politicians. But when it comes to governments, we need them to do more than just say the right thing. We need them to support and fund effective services for those living with HIV and those at highest risk.

JMA: How has the foundation, in the face of opposition, managed to support organizations that serve gay men, sex workers, or drug users?

EJ: Our work wouldn’t be possible without our partners. As a grant-making organization, we identify and support the groups that are most effectively fighting AIDS and providing support to those living with HIV. When policies keep our grantees from doing their work — such as when Congress tries to prevent needle exchange programs in Washington, DC, from receiving funding, or when Ukraine’s policies keep people living with HIV from accessing treatment — we speak out. We contribute our courage. But it’s our grantees who are on the front lines, day in and day out, and their persistence and courage is the basis for our support. And ultimately, this persistence and courage is recognized by the thousands of contributors who generously support EJAF.

JMA: Mother Teresa said, “God is love in action.” I read in Love Is the Cure what I see as a secular response to Mother Teresa’s observation; that is, a portrait of what “love in action” looks like in the form of programs and services that treat people with compassion, dignity, and love. Please say something about why, as a nonreligious person, you believe so strongly in the healing, transformative power of love in action.

EJ: I was a drug addict. I needed people who loved me to tell me that it was time for me to take care of myself, and I needed every bit of the care and support that I received from my fellow patients and staff at the rehab facility. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the compassion, dignity, and love I received when I was at my lowest point. There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t deserve the same.

JMA: Please describe for readers of the Los Angeles Review of Books the solutions you propose for HIV/AIDS. Do you have specific recommendations for steps to take or strategies to achieve greater equality, engender more compassion and love in addressing the epidemic?

EJ: First, there are funding issues to address. Global health experts have determined that we are just $3 to $5 billion short of the annual funding needed to provide lifesaving treatment and prevention to everyone who needs it by 2015. That is a critical deadline: if we meet our targets in 2015, we become a lot closer to seeing the end of AIDS in our lifetime. But the funding has to be there for it to happen.

Second, we need our leaders in government, religion, and entertainment to spread the message that everyone — no matter who they are, whom they love, or how they contracted the virus — deserves our compassion and care. This means our leaders need to support proven prevention strategies (such as condoms and syringe access programs) and stand alongside the people too often marginalized in society — women, the global poor, gays and lesbians, prisoners, the homeless, and drug users.

JMA: You write in Love Is the Cure about how Ryan White and the White family touched and inspired you in such a profound, life-changing way. My hunch, as one who myself grew up in the working class, is that the Whites’ solid, salt-of-the-earth, straight-shooting values and genuineness touched a deep part of you, based on your own similar background. Did knowing the Whites reconnect you with that part of yourself? Was it a reconnection with values your family gave you? Or a new way of thinking altogether?

EJ: The Whites absolutely reminded me of my own family and the kind of people I grew up with. What I loved about them, too, was that they never acted as though their struggle was somehow different from that of anyone else, gay or straight, living with HIV. I am very proud that Ryan’s legacy continues through the national HIV funding program that bears his name, through which 900,000 people get services every year, no matter their background.

JMA: You write about the treatment you received in rehab in 1990, and how it inspired your approach to addressing HIV/AIDS, about how being treated as a unique individual had such a strong impact on you. Please describe how you felt about yourself pre- and post-rehab and how your rehab set you on a new path.

EJ: I was a mess before I went to rehab. I knew that, as did anyone who knew me at the time. As much as I had developed as a performer, I still hadn’t really developed as a person. Rehab was the wake-up call I needed. After I left rehab, I was in a place where I could focus on others, not just myself. I couldn’t have founded EJAF if I hadn’t been sober.

JMA: Finally, in talking about The Diving Board, you have said this is the type of music you want to make at this point in your life — music reflecting on important life issues (the longing for home, for example), appropriate for a man of your age. My sense is that both The Diving Board and Love Is the Cure are coming from the same place, that the wisdom you have acquired is being transformed via your creative talents into both viable policies and wonderful music. Both bespeak a man at peace with his life. Could you say something about this?

EJ: I have two beautiful sons, a wonderful partner, and I’m writing some of the best songs of my career. I have so much to feel grateful for — and I do, every day.


John-Manuel Andriote has reported on HIV/AIDS as a journalist since 1986

LARB Contributor

John-Manuel Andriote has reported on HIV/AIDS as a journalist since 1986, and is the author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America; Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco/Dance Music; and the children's book Wilhelmina Goes Wandering, based on the true story of a runaway cow.


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