A good friend is able to take a joke at their expense; a great one will try to one-up it instead. Once, my friend Alex and I were messing around and I said something at his expense, so he pushed me into a wall and accidentally scraped my hand. It somehow scarred, but I laugh about it now because it’s the perfect symbol of our friendship in the best way. Reading about Elton John’s friendship with Rod Stewart in John’s new memoir, Me, reminded me of my back-and-forths with Alex — only, John and Stewart’s rivalry is leagues ahead of us, a decades-long quasi-feud to aspire to. In fact, everyone should aspire to have a friend be the Rod Stewart to their Elton John.
John knew Stewart, who’d go on to become another piano-playing English rock star, from his early days playing in the band Bluesology — Stewart had been a previous bandmate of frontman Long John Baldry. But Stewart’s cover of John’s early song “Country Comfort” “set the tone” for their friendship. As John remembers, “He changed the lyrics, something I complained about at length in the press: ‘He sounds like he made it up as he went along! He couldn’t have got further from the original if he’d sung “The Camptown Races”!’” Since then, John writes, “We’ve spent nearly fifty years constantly taking the piss out of, and trying to put one over, each other.”
For instance: In the ’80s, Stewart’s PR team had advertised a London concert with a blimp featuring a photo of his face. John saw an opportunity. “So I called my management and they hired someone to shoot it down: apparently it landed on top of a double-decker bus and was last seen heading toward Putney,” he explains. “About an hour later, the phone went. It was Rod, spluttering about the disappearance.” But Stewart got the last laugh: “A year later, I was playing Olympia and the promoters had hung a huge banner across the street,” John remembers. “It was mysteriously cut down immediately after it was put up.” Of course, the culprit was none other than Stewart, who had the perfect response to John over the phone. “Such a shame about your banner, love,” he said. “I heard it wasn’t even up five minutes. I bet you didn’t even get to see it.”
They had their good times — they gave each other drag nicknames (John was Sharon and Stewart was Phyllis), and John once convinced Stewart to dance at a club by giving him poppers. (Oh, the benefits of having gay friends!) But the key to their great rivalry? John never misses a shot. “I was in bed alone at Woodside [his Berkshire home] one Sunday morning, half watching television, when a guy with bright orange hair suddenly appeared on the screen and called Rod Stewart a useless old fucker,” he writes. See where this is going? “Someone slagging Rod off was clearly too good to miss. His name was Johnny Rotten … I made a mental note to ring Rod later, just to make sure he knew all about it.” And oh, was it a read for the ages:
Hello, Phyllis, did you see the TV this morning? This new band were on called the Sex Pistols and, you’ll never believe this, they said you were a useless old fucker. Those were their exact words: Rod Stewart is a useless old fucker. Isn’t that terrible? You’re only thirty-two. How awful for you.
When John took an 18-month hiatus after leaving rehab, he made an exception for Stewart, as any true friend would. “Spoiling things for Rod has never felt like work, more a thoroughly enjoyable hobby,” he writes. So he surprised his friend on stage at Wembley Stadium “in full drag” and sat on his lap during a performance of Stewart’s hit “You’re in My Heart.” Stewart’s antics bring levity to the more serious moments in John’s memoir, and it sounds like in his life as well. When John married Renate Blauel in 1984, against all his friends’ recommendations, Stewart had to seize his own opportunity. His manager sent John a telegram that read, “You may still be standing, dear, but the rest of us are on the fucking floor.” And I, too, am on the floor just reading it all!
We can all only hope to have a friendship as … invested … as Elton John and Rod Stewart’s. And for the sake of us all (and a second memoir, perhaps), I hope John and Stewart can continue giving us these iconic pranks for many years to come.