Thursday, Feb. 12, 1998 | 9:33 a.m.
The days of performing in powdered wigs, feather boas and a duck suit may be gone.
But so are drug problems, the drinking and the bulimia.
And as pop star Elton John continues the second leg of his tour promoting the September release of "The Big Picture," his first album in two years, the dark shadow cast by the untimely deaths of his close friends Princess Diana and Gianni Versace seems to be fading.
Captain Fantastic is back.
"He is in some ways a better Elton John than ever," guitarist Davey Johnstone, a longtime bandmember and friend of John's, says. "I think what's going to surprise people is that he rocks harder than he probably ever has."
On Saturday, when John gives a sold-out Valentine's Day performance at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the only Las Vegas date on his "Big Picture" tour, fans will get a new look at the performer, who at 50 is enjoying the second major wave of success in his already notorious career -- clean, sober and still standin'.
(A select list of around 200 invited guests will be treated to a closer look at the star on Sunday evening, when John performs at the opening of the MGM Grand's Studio 54 nightclub.)
Saturday's concert, a celebration of the 30-year partnership between John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, will include recent hits such as "Something About The Way You Look Tonight," the No. 1 hit single from "The Big Picture."
For fans of John's more flamboyant days in the '70s, it will be "a trip down memory lane," featuring oldies such as "Daniel" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," tour publicist Will Rhodes says.
Johnstone, who co-wrote "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," expects to get the usual sentimental reaction from couples in the audience when they play that song, but says that for the most part, "it's going to be business as usual: We'll just be up there rocking."
"He's going to climb under his piano and play from underneath his piano on some of his songs, he's going to kick over his piano bench, have the hard rock guitars going on some of his music," says Tom Stanton, editor and publisher of East End Lights, a quarterly magazine for Elton John fans.
One thing will be missing, however: A tribute to Princess Diana.
After recording "Candle in the Wind" with new lyrics shortly after the princess' funeral to benefit her favorite charities, John vowed never to sing it again. Instead, in the early part of his tour, he performed Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Sand and Water."
But now even that reference to his grief has been dropped.
"The other day, he said, 'I'm not going to do that song because I'm out of mourning now ... enough with the depressing songs,' " Johnstone says.
"He was very depressed, very upset, very angry after Gianni died, and then Princess Diana," he adds, noting that, through the years, John has lost several other close friends to similar tragedies, including Freddie Mercury and John Lennon, with whom the pair appeared onstage at Madison Square Garden during the former Beatle's last performance.
"We were very good friends with John (Lennon) and John was gunned down right in front of his house," Johnstone says. "So it kind of makes you feel more vulnerable, but it also, I think, made Elton say, 'well screw this, I'm just going to go on. You can't hide away -- what are you going to do? You've got to go on and live your life.'
"So I think he went through maybe a month or two of mourning, and then he just said, 'That's it, let's get back to it, let's go for it.' "And we've been really kicking ever since."
John's previous decades of superstardom have been a hard act to follow -- even for himself.
But despite numerous personal struggles, he's managed to maintain his mega- success well into the '90s. His partnership with Taupin, which produced three dozen Top 40 hits and a dozen No. 1 hits worldwide, helped earn John the distinction of being one of the most successful artists in the history of rock 'n' roll.
"I guess what separates him from other people is his longevity," Stanton says. "He's been on the Top 40 charts every years since 1970, and that's including this year. That's 29 consecutive years -- nobody else comes close to that."
John Berry, music director for KSNE 106.5-FM, who saw John's American debut performance at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles in 1970, says it was clear from the start that "there was something special about Elton. His music was so dynamic. He was much more of a piano player at the time, before he really got into pop and rock."
Only a year after that now-legendary performance at the Troubadour, John became the first artist since the Beatles to have four American top 10 albums simultaneously. During the '70s, 15 of his albums went gold or platinum, including "Madman Across the Water," "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player," "Honky Chateau" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
His music, "pop-influenced rock in a very British tradition," reflected the early influence of British radio, says Howard Kramer, assistant curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, into which John was inducted in 1994. In many ways, it was "not very different from what Paul McCartney and John Lennon did, except that he had a far more flamboyant streak."
Performing songs such as "Bennnie and the Jets," "Philadelphia Freedom," and "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" with his wacky trademark sunglasses, outrageous costumes and campy theatrics, John became a unique icon of a generation. "That level of self-deprecation is priceless," Kramer muses. "Far too many people don't have that."
Instead of fading in the '80s, however, he churned out a new series of gold and platinum albums, including "A Single Man," "Victim of Love," "The Fox" and "Jump Up!" By the '90s, he had added the chart-topping "The One" -- donating the proceeds of its single sales to AIDS charities -- plus "Duets," the critically acclaimed "Made in England" and the soundtrack to the Disney animated film "The Lion King."
In November, "The Lion King" opened on Broadway to critical acclaim, featuring songs from the movie, and six new ones by John and Tim Rice. The two also collaborated on "Aida," which is expected to hit Broadway in the next year or so, Johnstone says. An animated feature, "Eldorado," is currently in the works with DreamWorks studio, Johnstone says.
"It's been a long career, and a lot of people either fade away or end up playing -- I hate to say it -- Vegas, the lounge act kind of thing," Johnstone says.
But John has managed to branch out, incorporating his theater projects, concerts and charity work for AIDS research -- the Elton John AIDS Foundation has already raised more than $13 million for charities worldwide -- into his grueling schedule.
And he actually seems to be enjoying himself more than ever.
"He actually is thriving more from the audience," Johnstone says. "One thing you will notice if you've been to other Elton shows is that he is much more upfront, shaking hands with the audience, signing autographs onstage," Stanton says. "It's like he's absorbing the appreciation to a much greater degree.
"His life seems to have settled down a great deal."
The happiness has been long overdue for the famously shy performer, who has struggled with obsessive-compulsive behaviors, trouble with drugs, alcohol and bulimia, and issues of his own sexuality, often in the public eye. (An article in the November issue of Vanity Fair magazine notes that "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" was written after Taupin found the now openly gay John with his head stuck in an oven, distraught over his impending marriage to a pickled onion heiress.)
Balding and perpetually pudgy, John lacked the sex appeal of stars such as Mick Jagger, Elvis or even Paul McCartney, and the magnetism of Madonna or Michael Jackson, Stanton says.
One thing he wasn't short on, however, was talent.
"He's a fabulous piano player, and that doesn't always come through when you see him in a setting with an entire band," says Stanton, who realized after seeing John perform solo in 1979 without a band that he was "a tremendous musician."
"He's been a success for all the right reasons. He seems -- especially now that he's gotten his life in order -- like someone who's worthy of the attention."