Elton John has won plenty of awards for his music — eight Grammys, a Tony, and an Oscar — but it’s his activism on behalf of millions of people affected by the AIDS epidemic that earned Sir Elton the Harvard Foundation’s 2017 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award.
And yet the Rocket Man, whose Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised more than $385 million to support HIV/AIDS-related programs, told an audience of students, staff, and superfans at Sanders Theatre Monday that he wishes he’d done more to help others.
The 70-year-old singer said he was “imprisoned by [his] extraordinary fame” early on and became “a loathsome person — selfish, self-centered, disconnected.” John said he’d been in a haze of drugs and alcohol — a “cesspool of excess” — during the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s, and he didn’t do anything to raise awareness or money.
“I’m really a kind person, but the drugs made me a monster,” he said. “Do not waste your life. I wasted my life, but I’m making up for lost time now, OK?”
John said his life changed when he met Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who became a poster child for HIV/AIDS when he wasn’t allowed to return to school following an AIDS diagnosis. John said White’s family countered discrimination and hatred with “utter grace,” and it inspired him to get sober and get involved.
The singer lamented the current state of the world, and seemed to take particular aim at President Trump, though not by name. John said “funding for HIV prevention services is being threatened . . . health care for the poorest and most vulnerable is under attack . . . unjust immigration policies are driving people underground and away from the services they need . . . racial injustice and violence are once again on the rise . . . civil liberties for LGBT people are being threatened . . .”
“All of this is so deeply upsetting,” he said. “But I promise you, we can change the world and it all starts with embracing our common humanity.”
Recipients of the Harvard Foundation’s humanitarian awards have included Swedish physician-statistician Hans Rosling, actor James Earl Jones, Nobel Peace Prize Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, UN secretaries general Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali, and Javier Perez de Quellar, gender-rights advocate Malala Yousafzai, singer Lionel Richie, tennis player Arthur Ashe, and, last year, singer Rihanna.
John arrived in Cambridge Monday morning from New York, where he’d helped celebrate the 20th anniversary of the hit Broadway musical “The Lion King” with a special performance Sunday of “Circle of Life.” John co-wrote the music for the stage adaptation of the Disney animated film.
And the singer isn’t leaving town immediately. He’s scheduled to perform a show at a private party at Gillette Stadium hosted by his pal, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, for a few hundred friends.