The Final Farewell
By Katarzyna Bugaj
8th July 2023 – a date I will certainly remember forever. That day marked the end of an era. That day also marked the end of an important chapter in my life.
I wanted to end my idol’s last show in a special way so I got a front-row ticket that included a VIP backstage tour which I was very excited about. This was my second EJ VIP Experience. I decided to wear a replica of Elton’s iconic 1975 Dodger Stadium outfit (I did the same at his shows in Los Angeles). This event started at 4 pm, and I arrived long before the time. I sat outside the arena and listened to Elton’s songs that were playing around. At one point a journalist approached me and asked me to speak briefly to the camera. I talked about why I was here and how I became an Elton fan.
Then I met up with a fan friend from Sweden who was also going to the EJ VIP Event. It was an intimate event to my liking, I think there were about 30 guests. We were warmly welcomed by the staff and I heard kind words about my outfit. Then it was time for champagne, snacks and chatting with other fans. One of Elton’s crew members, Claire, welcomed guests and gave us a quick talk about VIP procedures and what to expect. I had met her a year ago and, interestingly, it turned out that her family had Polish roots. Then, she introduced us to Lindsay, a piano systems engineer who has worked with Elton for many years. He explained what his work with Elton was like. We were able to hear about the phenomenal success of Elton and Ray Cooper when they did over 100 shows around the world in the late 70s. He also talked about the pianos Elton uses on tour. He has seven pianos! These pianos are named after prominent female pianists. There are 5 black pianos: Diana – named after Diana Krall, Aretha – after Aretha Franklin, Nina – after Nina Simone, Kay – after Kay Cavendish and Winifred – after Winifred Atwell. There’s also Blossom (the Million Dollar Piano) – after Blossom Dearie, and Nikita (the Red Piano – I do not know where that name came from).
Lindsay revealed that after the tour, two of the current touring pianos will go up for auction. He also said an interesting fact about the Diana piano. Elton literally wore out that piano. He loved it very much. They were going to rebuild it but it had so much history to it that they finally decided it should be left as it is. When they started doing the calculations of how many shows it had done and where it had been, they ended up with the conclusion that it is the most traveled 9-foot grand piano in the world. No other piano, no single piano, 9-foot, has gone through that many miles, that many times around this globe and maintained its musical integrity. Lindsay also added that Elton is absolutely old school – he loves playing an acoustic piano. Then came the next part of the event: photos at Elton’s piano. This evening it was Aretha’s piano. What is interesting, as Lindsay mentioned, is that Aretha Franklin celebrated her birthday on the same day as Elton (25th March). Ben, Elton’s photographer, took a professional photo of each of us. There was one condition: you cannot touch the piano keys. Otherwise Elton might not be pleased 🙂 I did not have time to figure out the pose for the photo, and it was already my turn.
Meanwhile, we could listen to Mike (Elton’s rigging boss) who shared funny stories of working with Elton and what his tour was like. His son works alongside him in setting up the huge stage. We also found out that Elton takes great care of his crew. He talked about how Elton can be generous, providing his team with business class flights or ordering the best dinners around. I was not surprised by that! Later Mike showed us the guitars that Davey uses. The one I liked best was the one hand-painted by Davey’s daughter – Juliet. This guitar had the initials JJ on it. Before the show I met my Elton friends – from Germany, Belgium, the UK, Norway and even from the US. One of my American friends perfectly recreated Elton’s outfit (red shorts with braces and a red-yellow-brown T-shirt) that he wore when he performed in Sweden in 1971. Another friend had an equally amazing outfit – a bright green suit and star-shaped glasses. It was a replica of Elton’s Hollywood outfit when he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in California in 1975. I was impressed by the talent and creativity of some fans! I also met some people wearing the same outfits and, naturally, we had to capture this in a photo together. We wondered if there would be any change in the set list, but as it turned out later, the set list was the same as at previous shows.
And then the show started! I enjoyed every minute of the show. You literally could feel the love tonight! I am lost for words. It was an outstanding, unforgettable and breathtaking show. Elton was full of energy, a real joy radiated from him.
I had a front row seat on the right side of the stage. As Elton took the stage again, before “Funeral for a friend”, he looked at me and waved to me. During “Crocodile Rock” I watched the big screen carefully to see some friends on video for the last time. At the end of the show, a surprise was waiting for Elton – during the live video broadcast, Coldplay band leader Chris Martin called him, straight from his show in Gothenburg. He paid tribute to Elton’s remarkable career, thanking him for his music and for everything he does for others. For Elton, it was a complete surprise – neither he nor the band knew anything about it. I found out from my Polish friend who was at the Coldplay show in Gothenburg that Chris performed a cover of “Rocket Man” before his speech. He added that it was priceless to see Elton’s surprised face.
Elton gave a longer final speech than usual. He thanked the band and fans for their loyalty and kindness.
“I’ve had the most wonderful career, beyond belief. 52 years of pure joy playing music. How lucky am I to play music,” he said.
He also mentioned that in addition to David and their sons, there was a lot of his family in the audience, from both his mother’s and father’s side. He added that they had only recently reunited, and that he was happy about it. He dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to them.
Some fans had posters thanking Elton or saying how many shows they had been to. Elton read them out at the end. I also got a shot out from Elton and even though it was not the first time, it felt really special. He said:
“Kate from Poland – where are you? She’s been to so many shows. Bless you”
I got emotional during the last few songs. I was a bit heartbroken, but afterwards I had a nice conversation with my friend’s wife from Elton’s crew who comforted me. When I got back to the hotel, I could not sleep until the morning because of emotions, reflecting on last night and remembering my adventures from Elton’s shows in previous years. On my last day in Stockholm, on my way to the ABBA Museum, I walked by Gröna Lund – the amusement park where Elton performed in 1971. “ History has come full circle”, I thought.
One of the things I love about Elton is the fact that you could see all sorts of age groups at his shows – from young children to older people – all wearing boa feathers and coloured glasses, hopping and bopping to the “Crocodile Rock”.
I honestly cannot name an artist who has achieved something like that. I think only true legends have that impact across generations.
Goodbyes, and more particularly farewells, are bittersweet. For the first week after the last show I was missing something, I was feeling a bit empty. For the last few months I have been following Elton around, meeting up with my fan friends, counting down the days from one show to the next. I loved planning my next trips to Elton’s shows. I would say: “I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will…”
After returning from Sweden, I visited my neighbours to share my impressions of the shows. They said there would be a broadcast about Elton on Polish radio in the evening. Although they are not fans, they listened along with me. On the radio they talked about his amazing career and also about the movie “Rocketman”, and at the end we listened to some songs. Then I thought to myself how lucky I was to have been able to see Elton so many times live even though I regretted that things did not always go as planned and I did not get to go to more shows…
I have travelled many miles following him – from my home country, Poland, through several countries in Europe to sunny California and the farewell American shows in Los Angeles.
Elton – you are not only my favourite artist. You inspire me every day. I cannot even describe the impact you have had on my life! I could not be more inspired by all of your hard work, selflessness and generosity with helping others through the EJAF. You gave us so much great music, memories during your live performances. I have memories that I will cherish forever! Enjoy your well-deserved time with your beautiful family! You will be in my head, in my heart and my soul. Thank you for the music!