Number 24 song on my 24 birthday


Out shopping one day I realised I might have exhausted the possibilities of retail therapy when I found myself buying a cuckoo clock that, instead of a cuckoo, had a large wooden penis that popped in and out of it every hour. I gave it to John Lennon when I went to visit him. I thought it was a good present for a man who had everything.

John and Yoko were as bad as me when it came to shopping.

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The various apartments they owned in the Dakota [residential building in Manhattan] were so full of priceless artworks, antiques and clothes that I once sent them a card, rewriting the lyrics to Imagine: 'Imagine six apartments, it isn't hard to do, one is full of fur coats, another's full of shoes.

They didn't care about who I was. A harassed mum at the school gates is less interested in asking how you wrote Bennie And The Jets, or what Princess Diana was really like, than in talking about packed lunches and the difficulty of assembling a costume for the Nativity play at 48 hours' notice — which was fine by me. But I've always thought of myself as a working musician; I prided myself on playing gigs a year, just as I had in the Seventies. I had a habit of telling people I wanted to die onstage, and a habit of ignoring David rolling his eyes whenever I said it.

Still, this list of school dates had thrown me. My kids were only going to grow up once.

I didn't want to be busy playing the Taco Bell Arena, Boise while it happened. So we started making plans for a farewell tour — a big celebration, a thank you to the people who'd bought tickets and albums over the years. They discovered it during a routine check-up. My doctor noticed the level of prostate- specific antigens in my blood had gone up slightly and sent me to an oncologist for a biopsy.

It came back positive. I wasn't as shocked at hearing the word 'cancer' as I might have been. It was prostate cancer: no joke, but incredibly common. They'd caught it early, and besides, I'm blessed with a constitution that just makes me bounce back from illnesses.

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A few years previously, I'd managed to play nine gigs, take 24 flights and perform with Coldplay at a fundraising ball for the AIDS Foundation — with a burst appendix. It had been misdiagnosed as a colon infection. I could have died: normally when your appendix bursts it causes peritonitis, which kills you within a few days.

So I had my appendix out, spent a couple of days in hospital and a few weeks recuperating, then went back on the road.

It's just how I am. If I hadn't got the constitution I have, all the drugs I took would have killed me decades ago.

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The oncologist told me I had two options. One was surgery to remove my prostate. The other was a course of radiation and chemotherapy that meant I would have to go back to hospital dozens of times. I went straight for the surgery. A lot of men won't have it, because it's a major operation, you can't have sex for at least a year afterwards and you can't control your bladder for a while. But effectively my kids made the decision for me. I didn't like the idea of cancer hanging over me — us — for years to come: I just wanted rid of it.

I had the surgery done in Los Angeles in , quickly and quietly. The operation was a complete success. It wasn't until I arrived in Las Vegas ten days later for a gig at Caesars Palace that I noticed something wasn't right. I woke in the morning feeling a little uncomfortable. As the day progressed, the pain got worse and worse.

The band suggested cancelling the show, but I said no. Before you start marvelling at my bravery and professionalism, I should point out that playing a gig seemed preferable to sitting around with nothing to do, while in exactly the same agony. So on I went, wearing special pants to deal with my bladder, which, as predicted, had developed a mind of its own since the operation.

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If nothing else, that was something different: I've worn some ridiculous things onstage in my time, but never a giant nappy. It turned out that I had a rare complication from the operation: fluid was leaking from my lymph nodes. I had it drained at the hospital and the pain went away. The fluid built up again and the pain came back. This cycle went on for two-and-a-half months, before doctors cured it by accident: a routine colonoscopy shifted the fluid permanently, days before my 70th birthday.

The party to celebrate my birthday was in Hollywood. David brought Zachary and Elijah over from London as a surprise.

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Prince Harry sent a video, wishing me all the best while wearing a pair of Elton John glasses. It was a magical evening. I was cancer-free and pain-free. The complications had been fixed. I was about to go back on tour, down to South America. It was on the flight back from Santiago that I started feeling ill. I couldn't stop shaking. When I got home, I called a doctor, who advised me to rest. The next morning, I woke up feeling worse than I ever had in my life.

Given some of the hangovers I'd had in the '70s and '80s, that was saying something. I was told my condition was so serious, the hospital didn't have the equipment to cope with it. I had to be moved to The London Clinic. My last memory is of hyperventilating while they were trying to find a vein to give me an injection.

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I have really muscular arms, so it's always been difficult, compounded by the fact that I hate needles. Eventually, they had to bring in a Russian nurse, a woman who was built like an Olympic shot-putter, to administer the sedative. For two days afterwards, I was in intensive care. They took a sample of the infection and grew it in a Petri dish. It was much more serious than they'd first realised. There were MRI scans and God knows how many other procedures. So I was incredibly lucky — although, I have to say, I didn't feel terribly lucky at the time.

I lay awake all night, wondering if I was going to die. After 11 days, I was allowed to leave. I spent seven weeks recuperating, learning to walk again. It was the kind of forced leisure that would ordinarily have driven me up the wall — I couldn't remember the last time I'd spent this long at home — but, as ill as I felt, I really enjoyed it. I settled into a domestic routine, pottering around the grounds, waiting for the boys to come home from school. In the hospital, alone at the dead of night, I'd prayed: please don't let me die, please let me see my kids again, please give me a little longer.

In a strange way, it felt like the time I spent recuperating was the answer to my prayers: if you want more time, you need to learn to live like this, you have to slow down. It was like being shown a different life, a life I realised I loved more than being on the road. Music was the most wonderful thing, but it still didn't sound as good as Zachary chattering about what had happened at Cubs or football practice.

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