Saying goodbye to Elton John is a blessing.
Not because he’s washed up and we want to see him go. He isn’t, and we don't. And it’s not because he doesn’t put on a spectacular show or that his voice and songs would be better left in the golden age of classic rock. They shouldn’t be.
Saying goodbye is a blessing because there are too few gay men of John’s generation who have survived.
Over the fifty years he's made music, from the peak of the sexual revolution through the AIDS crisis, a man like John barely had a chance to make it. But he lived bravely anyhow, through his love songs and sequins.
Thankfully he’s still with us, and we’re in a different era now. Colorado, once boycotted as a hate state, has a gay governor. Marriage equality has been secured around the U.S. While there are still homophobic attacks (just look at what happened to Jussie Smollet in Chicago), they are now largely considered abhorrent — not a sport. As John said of AIDS at his February 6 concert at the Pepsi Center: "Today there is no reason for people to die of this disease." He said he even expects AIDS to be cured in his lifetime.
John lived through decades when that hope didn't exist, when the best of his generation died around him. Even so, he thrived, giving loud-and-proud queens a chance to see somebody flamboyant and fabulous keep going. If anybody in this modern era deserved to be knighted for a hard-fought battle, for fighting to end the AIDS epidemic (even if it was a decade too late, as he's quick to confess), for bringing hope to the world through music, it was Sir Elton John.
These days, the 71-year-old knight with layered orange hair no longer kicks his legs like a prodded cow when he plays piano. He walks cautiously around the stage, singing with heart — but also an air of sobriety. His story matters to his fans, but for most who grew up with his music, they evoke countless memories and stories from their own lives, not his: first kisses, breakups, long evenings drinking away life's miseries in a bar.
His Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour serves as a kind of retirement party — the sort of thing accountants and librarians get and rock stars too often don't live long enough to experience.
And a party it was.
John played classic songs like “Rocket Man,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “The Bitch Is Back,” “Candle in the Wind,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Tiny Dancer" with flair and anguish, guiding us through his career with stories about his co-writer Bernie Taupin. He hit every note and touched our souls — even at his cheesiest.
John has always been at his strongest paying homage to troubled women, from Marilyn Monroe (and then Princess Diana) in “Candle in the Wind” to Judy Garland in “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” These songs hark back to a time when Norma Jean meant everything, when the women of Hollywood were the best role models gay men had.
These days we have icons that aren’t just candles in the wind — people who've lived long and found success, even in their older years. Perhaps John will be canonized that way.
Part of me wants to see him play music and dye his hair orange into his nineties, to keep belting out those songs and dazzling crowds. Perhaps he fears his voice will be doomed to warble and crackle — and who can blame him for fretting about that? I respect his choice to bow out now. After all, John has always been intolerant of musical imperfection.
Yet he’s so willing to embrace human imperfection. John’s songs bushwack through loneliness and misery and find that spark of fabulousness inside each of us and turn it into a flaming totem to be worshiped.
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Unlike so many artists who take their collaborators for granted, John lavished praise on his fellow musicians at his first night in Denver. He waxed about his struggles in the industry co-writing music with Taupin. He explained how each of his bandmates came on board and what they brought to the band. There was animated percussionist Ray Cooper, who nearly stole the show with his tambourine-playing antics, seasoned drummer Nigel Olsson, and electric guitarist David Johnstone, who kept things ticking along.
The only people John praised more were his fans. After songs, he would stand, bang his hand on the piano, and look toward the crowd with a heart-melting gap-toothed grin. The house lights would come up, and he would mouth his thanks, looking at specific audience members, overwhelmed. I think he even blew me a kiss (though I’m sure everybody felt that way).
He thanked us for purchasing his eight-tracks, records, cassettes, CDs and merch over the years. But most of all, he thanked us for buying tickets and showing up to his concerts.
“I love to get a response from another human being,” he told us. “And, boy, have you responded.”