What He Taught Me: Elton John And A Fabulous Farewell To State College

The rules of traditional journalism tell me that I’m supposed to remain unattached to the subject of a story. When you’re writing about Sir Elton John on his farewell tour, that becomes impossible.

I grew up with Elton. He was with me in the back of my parents’ Honda Accord, belting a classic rendition of “Levon.” He sang “Crocodile Rock” to my sister and me as many times as we pleased on a vacation to Canada. He was my father’s personal favorite and the soundtrack of my childhood. Just like my dad, Elton John taught me a lot of things. Last night, nine rows away from the maker of the music that shaped me, I got the last, few lessons from a legend.

In an explosion of color and piano keys, John opened with “Bennie and the Jets” (a song I feel so personally attached to that I requested it be played in Beaver Stadium) in front of a packed BJC. It became clear after a few songs that, despite a shift in vocal character and depth, the 71-year-old’s talents on the piano were still untouchable. He taught me that passions can’t die if you don’t let them.

John followed his opening numbers with “Border Song” as a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin, who covered the song two years after its original release. The faces of John’s heroes, including Franklin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Elizabeth Taylor, and Nina Simone, flashed across the screen behind him as he sang, leaving the audience quietly mesmerized for the first time. He taught me the importance of honoring those who came before you.

Through classics “Tiny Dancer,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Indian Sunset,” and “Rocket Man,” John pushed narratives of love, struggles of life and war, and the beauty in diversity with touching videos playing behind him. He also spoke about Bernie Taupin, his writing partner of 50 years, and the success they encountered by never writing a song in the same room. He taught me about the power of perspective and the need for differing ones.

John continued to rock the house with a few of his favorites, including “Levon,” which turned into an all-out jam session with his six-piece band, “Candle in the Wind,” accompanied by a video tribute to Marilyn Monroe, and “Burn Down the Mission.” John, usually quick with an anecdote or a joke between numbers, taught me about community as he touched on his work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation:

“If there’s one thing I learned in life, it’s the healing power of love and compassion,” he said. “We have to be kinder to one another.”

There were a lot of important messages behind John’s more poignant songs of the evening like “Believe” and “Daniel,” but I took the most from him when he revealed his beautiful heart. As he neared the end of the show, he took the time to individually thank every member of his band and asked the crowd for a roaring round of applause as he ran down their list of achievements. As their voices and instruments blended together for “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” I saw the man behind the melodies and learned that the good times get better when you have friends to share them with.

The rest of the night popped off like a great party. “The Bitch is Back,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” came and went in a flurry of drag queens, fight scenes, and clips of John’s most iconic performances. Not only did he show me that fun never truly leaves you, but he taught me that a little theatrics never hurt anyone.

Following a downpour of confetti and a five-minute standing ovation, John, glistening in a pink, silk robe, returned to a sea of cellphone lights with his band for “Your Song.” I always hoped to dance to this song at my wedding. John proved to me yet again why I had that dream in the first place.

As he sat down at his piano one last time in State College, he told the audience to sing along with him. As Elton John, 15,000 of our friends, and I belted out “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” to one another, it felt exactly like that — a goodbye. Not sad or bitter, but simply sweet. In one final moment with a world-class icon and one of my oldest, dearest friends, I learned the greatest lesson of the entire night: the importance of a proper farewell.

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About the Author

Gabriela Stevenson

Gabriela is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism and Onward State's former student life editor. She is from Norristown, PA, which she normally refers to as "30 minutes outside of Philadelphia" (she looked up the exact driving time). She enjoys really enjoys eating cereal at night, in case you were wondering. To contact Gabriela, e-mail her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @GabiStevenson if you want to feel young again.

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