Elton John and the Farewell Tour question: How do aging artists (and the rest of us) say goodbye?
Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour represents a big moment in music history when several farewell tours are taking place throughout the world. But do artists really need closure as they shut the door on their careers and transition into post-stardom life?
SALT LAKE CITY — Before launching into “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,” Elton John delivered a shocking announcement to his fans: He was going to retire.
“I’ve made a decision tonight that this is going to be the last show,” he told his large crowd as he softly played the piano. “There’s a lot more to me than playing on the road, and this is the last one I’m going to do.”
That declaration didn’t come last year, when John announced his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour. It came in 1977, and two years later, John was back on the road. Now, 40 years and several tours later, John seems to be saying goodbye for good — this time via a three-year farewell lap that has him performing 300 shows across five continents through 2021.
“I don’t want to go out with a whimper. I want to go out with a bang,” he said during a press conference announcing the tour. “It’ll be the most produced, fantastic show I’ve ever done.”
He wasn’t kidding. The nearly three-hour production came through Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena Wednesday night in all of its glittery glory, and it took only the first chord of “Bennie and the Jets” for the bespectacled, bedazzled John to hook his crowd. And as the high-energy night went on, with John’s voice in great shape, there was undoubtedly one question on all fans’ minds: Was John, 72, really nearing the end of the yellow brick road?
Because history has shown that farewell tours often tend to be like the boy who cried wolf. John’s retirement announcement in 1977 clearly didn’t stick. Ozzy Osbourne went on his “No More Tours” run in 1992, and now he’s on his “No More Tours 2” run. Currently on its “End of the Road” world tour, Kiss embarked on a farewell tour in 2000. In 1980, Don Henley said “hell would freeze over” before the Eagles toured again, and 14 years later, the band kicked off its tour, appropriately titled “Hell Freezes Over.” Everyone from rock bands like The Who to artists like Cher and Tina Turner have resurfaced after a farewell tour.
But is John’s farewell tour different?
‘Farewell yellow brick road’
John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour represents a big moment in music history when several farewell tours are taking place throughout the world. Aside from John, last year saw music icons like Paul Simon, Osbourne, and Joan Baez announcing farewell tours. And John’s performance isn’t the only major farewell concert in Utah this month — Kiss, Deep Purple, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger all have farewell shows rolling through Salt Lake City in September.
But do these artists really need closure as they shut the door on their careers and transition into post-stardom life? Who Is the recent surge in farewell tours more about: the artists or the fans?
At the start of John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour in 2018, shows grossed on average $2.5 million a night — a 56% increase from John’s previous tour average in 2016, according to data from concert trade magazine Pollstar. Rocker Rod Stewart called John’s retirement tour a “dishonest” ploy to make money.
But according to Doug Mark, a music lawyer who helped craft Motley Crue’s cessation of touring agreement, farewell tours like John’s aren’t about the money. In 2018 alone, after all, John earned $46 million and landed the No. 57 spot on Forbes’ top 100 celebrity earnings list, Fox Business reported.
“I don’t think any of it is a marketing gimmick,” Mark told the Deseret News. “The fans are never ill-served, and I think that’s what we have to keep in mind. … We didn’t buy a fake thing. We bought a real ticket.”
John was very aware of the fans at his Salt Lake concert. In between each song, the performer briefly rose from his piano bench to egg on his fans, emphatically pointing and gesturing to them throughout the night. Many times he bowed, mouthed the words “thank you” and let the deafening cheers wash over him.
“I’ve seen amazing places, I’ve met amazing people and I’ve been lucky enough to play music all that time,” John told the crowd. “Without you, I mean diddly-squat. You buy the records, you bought the 8-tracks, the cassettes, the CDs, the DVDs, the merchandise, but most of all, you bought the tickets to the shows.”
The “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour has also given fans a chance to reflect on John’s lasting impact in the music industry. A few months after John announced his tour, two tribute albums were released featuring Elton John covers from big names like Lady Gaga, The Killers, Ed Sheeran, Miley Cyrus, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, among others.
“It is a huge, huge compliment, and I still find it a huge compliment when someone covers my song,” John said during his concert Wednesday night, adding how Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin recorded his “Border Song” in the early 1970s.
“If Elton John has issued a notice to the world that this is his farewell tour, then it’s probably his farewell tour.”
Add in the “Rocketman” biopic that came out in May and the resurgence John’s “Lion King” music has received thanks to the recent live-action remake, and there’s a lot of hype surrounding the artist — making it seem like an odd time to bow out. But as John and other major baby boomer acts have now reached their 70s, the idea that they may never return to the stage becomes more credible, Mark said. Which is why the farewell tour should be accepted for what it claims to be: a chance to say goodbye.
“I think when bands go out on farewell tours, they say that and do that with the best intentions,” he said. “The whole concept of farewell tours is so exciting because the legends are so much older now. … People are scrambling to see their old legends. If Elton John has issued a notice to the world that this is his farewell tour, then it’s probably his farewell tour.”
‘I have another life to live now’
Eventually, the answer to whether this is truly John’s big farewell came. Following more than two hours of nonstop, sweat-inducing performing, John finally leveled with his fans in Salt Lake City.
After a 50-year career that has taken him to countless places around the world, the performer is ready for a new chapter.
“The greatest thrill for me is to play to another human being and get a response. And I deem it fairly accurate to say that you have responded so brilliantly. And I will never, ever forget you. You’re in my soul, you’re embedded in me,” he told his fans. “I have another life to live now. I never thought in my life I’d have a family of my own, but I do now. And that family needs me, so this is why I’m doing this final tour, to say goodbye and thank you. … Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you have given me.”
A standing ovation followed that heartfelt speech, and for 40 seconds, the crowd cheered as John removed his glittery green glasses to wipe away tears. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” somehow took on greater meaning — a poignant reminder to fans that although John is saying farewell, it doesn’t mean his music has to fade away.
“I never thought in my life I’d have a family of my own, but I do now. And that family needs me, so this is why I’m doing this final tour, to say goodbye and thank you.”
But even still, as photos of a young John at the piano and highlights from his career flashed across the screen while he sang “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” there was a sense of finality. As well-deserved as his retirement may be, John’s Salt Lake show was proof that the world is losing a masterful live performer, although there’s always hope he’ll one day join the ranks of performers who have reclaimed the stage following a farewell tour.
But I think it’s going to be a long, long time before that happens.