NEW YORK — Hey, no one said retiring is easy.
John’s actual last performance in the United States, a curious and minor epilogue to his grand adieu, was on Tuesday night when he briefly stopped traffic in one of America’s busiest commercial stretches to open the Christmas shopping season as the surprise guest performer at Saks Fifth Avenue’s annual reveal of its holiday windows and light show. It’s not the typical way one would expect a 75-year old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to follow up the end of a 271-show stretch he started planning seven years ago.
But Saks is donating $1 million to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. And he and his family — his husband, David Furnish, and their two sons Zachary, 11, and Elijah, 9 — were already heading east to get back home to London. So, why not?
“I can’t think of a more magical way to close out my Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour in the U.S. than by being here on Fifth Avenue with my family, experiencing both my music and my work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation incorporated into New York’s most iconic holiday window displays and light show,” John said in a perfectly articulated quote to Saks PR, who were kind enough to pass it along to The Washington Post.
Furnish called it “a cherry on top of an incredibly beautiful cake” and “a very special one-off” in a phone interview. The whole point of doing it is because it is “an opportunity for EJAF,” said Furnish, who is also the foundation’s chairman of the board and John’s manager. But, as a bonus, “It’s going to kick off our family Christmas, which is wonderful,” he said.
As the hour grew near, police blocked off Fifth Avenue between 50th and 49th streets outside Saks’s flagship store. A sea of tourists, many in town for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, rushed into the traffic void, jostling to get a better look, without a clue that John was on his way, and with a stream of honking buses and taxis and pedicabs backed up behind them.
At exactly 7 p.m., a crew raced to wheel out a piano onto the pavement and two minutes later, John made his grand entrance, riding in on a golf cart decorated with big light-up stars, in a green jacket with red track pants, waving and blowing kisses. He thanked Saks, had David and the kids join him onstage for a countdown, and then launched into a heartfelt rendition of “Your Song.”
And only “Your Song.”
“It’s one song because we can’t close Fifth Avenue down for very long or we’re going to have a lot of angry New Yorkers,” said Furnish, laughing. “Your Song” was John’s choice because it was his first hit in America (and two minutes shorter than “Tiny Dancer”).
John barely had time to soak up the applause before he was racing (as best as he could while he recovers from hip surgery) to join his family in the stands. The front of Saks exploded with the light show, which was designed to look like a tree and flashed to a medley of his songs, including his dance-club hit, “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix)” with Dua Lipa. Then the windows came to life, including one that looked like a Lite Brite and another, in tribute to John, that had rockets going up and down on pistons.
There were fireworks! And then it was over. John walked across the street, posed for some pictures and went inside the store. The whole thing took 15 minutes, and ended with a police officers shouting at straggling photographers and guests to get out of the street already so a city bus could come through.
Elton John’s North American concerts may be done, but he has still got plenty of shows ahead of him. His farewell tour — two years behind schedule, after delays due to covid and his 2021 hip surgery — hits pause for a month before picking up in January for a string of dates in Australia and New Zealand, then the United Kingdom and Europe, before finally he finally hangs up his sparkly captain’s hat in Stockholm on July 3.
“I’ve made this video a couple of times,” Miley Cyrus joked in a video tribute to John that played during the Los Angeles farewell. Furnish knows that people are skeptical, so he wants to be totally clear. “Absolutely, he will never, ever tour again,” he said. “Those days are over and he’s pulled the curtain closed on that. He’s done.”
John will be 76 when this tour ends and, as much as he loves his fans and performing live, said Furnish, “He finds the travel really hard and he finds being away from his family incredibly hard. And, you know, our boys are going to be 10 and 12 and they are getting to the age where we feel they need us more than ever.”
They pair have been reflecting a lot more on what it means for them to be together, and to present themselves publicly as a loving unit, in the past few days, said Furnish. John did not mention it from the stage, but his final Dodgers show was the night after the shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, when a gunman killed six people in a gay bar, the latest attack on the LGBTQ community. “It was deeply, deeply depressing and deeply distressing,” said Furnish.
“You know, on the one hand, Elton can bring his husband and his two sons onstage to an unbelievably warm response from everybody in the audience,” Furnish continued. “And it went out on live stream around the world. And in other parts of the world that would be considered promotion of homosexuality and homosexuality being a lifestyle rather than a completely natural and normal thing for people.”
The Colorado Springs shooting, he said, has made them both more committed to the mission of the AIDS Foundation’s Rocket Fund, which is to eliminate the stigma of AIDS that leads to people who “are frightened to get an AIDS test, frightened to pick up their medication, frightened to discuss or reveal their status openly for fear of recrimination based on their sexuality,” said Furnish. And it is why he leaves the door open to John performing charity events in the future.
Over the weekend in Los Angeles, John revisited his landmark 1975 shows when he was arguably the biggest pop star in the world. He also was an addict, and not openly gay, but had come out as bisexual. In 1984, he married a woman, Renate Blauel, divorcing her four years later. The first shows “were hard for me because I was not in a very good place, mentally and physically,” John said in a video that played before the show.
Now he is 32 years sober. He has been with Furnish for 29 years. When asked what he would miss about touring as part of the Disney special, he said, “Nothing. I’ve done it since I was 17 in the back of a van with my first band.”
He is excited for a new chapter, said Furnish. “Might he do the occasional one-off? Might he do something like a residency in a theater? Maybe, maybe not. He is not closing the door on performing completely.” Furnish mentioned Kate Bush’s 2014 run of 22 shows at a London theater as a potential blueprint, and said John was eager to dig into his catalogue and play lesser-known songs.
But the door is closed on one type of performance. “He is not doing a Vegas residency. That is off the table,” said Furnish. In the meantime, maybe he’ll just hang out with his kids and ride around in sparkly golf carts in front of Christmas lights for a while.