Farewell, Yellow Brick Road: how Elton John used VR to make his farewell announcement

Sir Elton John wowed in VR and IRL to announce his farewell tour starting in September. / Matt Baron via Shutterstock

“From the office of Elton John…” read the unexpected message in my Inbox.

I’d come down from the euphoria of conducting an interview in a penthouse overlooking the labyrinth of Lower Manhattan’s financial district when I’d opened my latest email, inviting me to an event the music legend was hosting the following week at Gotham Hall in Midtown. The only other mystery words etched in my mind’s forefront:

After a week that felt like a true New York minute, I got to the venue, John’s discography in my ear as I entered, still not sure what to expect. Gotham Hall has one of the most majestic interior arrays in Manhattan, its stone walls and pillars arching towards a stained glass roof. It wasn’t my first time inside the venue, but when I entered the hall in midtown that Tuesday, with only a week’s knowledge of the event, I was left wondering, pulling myself back to that “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” lyric, wondering: “What on earth could Sir Elton John be announcing?”

The answer would come, but the room of guests would take quite the ride before that all happened. The crowd packed the hall, where a stage draped in black with a white star logo above his name was surrounded by cameras of all varieties. Staff handed out fizzing champagne flutes, then dealt VR headsets and Yamaha headphones—the only music brand Elton uses, said host Anderson Cooper. I placed the headset on, adjusted for my terrible vision and waited as a purple sky full of stars twinkled at me.

Within five seconds, we were all swept up in the Troubadour in Los Angeles for John’s first US concert, swirling around as he belted out ‘Your Song’ and the reviews from Rolling Stone wafted around us. And I was in tears singing along in my head, because I was too nervous to sing aloud. Pretty sure so many of us at Gotham felt that way.

His Troubadour set evaporated into darkness and I felt myself rising swiftly (a very understated creative choice by Spinifex, the Project agency tasked with creating the virtual reality experience) through rafters and onto the next stop of this wild ride: Sir Elton John at Dodgers Stadium, staring straight at me in a bedazzled Dodgers uniform, before getting the virtual (and some of the physical) crowd to chant “Saturday! Saturday!” in deafening unison and jumping on his piano, baseball bat in hand.

He’d leap off the stage and poof—gone again as we continued our elevator ride through his career. As we rose, a golden machine with piano keys transformed into a rocket, jettisoning John into outer space, as we take a few seconds to appreciate the days he would serenade crowds on private jets.

We’d freefall through the rest of the legend’s career retrospective, floating through space and time as some of his lifetime accomplishments float past us. And eventually - the yellow brick road that he bids farewell to. The VR experience ended, our goggles plucked off our faces, and spinning around was the stage, Yamaha playing in front of us, and Sir Elton John singing yet more familiar words: “Blue jean baby, L.A. lady…”

Our answer would come after that thrilling rendition of ‘Tiny Dancer’, and then a triumphant ‘I’m Still Standing’, as a 360 projection enveloped us with all of his life’s work and accolades. To his fans in the room, and to Anderson Cooper, he revealed that after a whole adult life of touring, the 70-year-old had decided to call it quits—after he finishes a worldwide, 300-date farewell tour. After traveling the world with his band for that three-year span, John announced that he’d be staying at home to be with his kids (who’ll turn eight and 11).

The concept of John not touring was crazy for any of those in attendance, even for John himself. “10 years ago, if you’d have said I’ve gotta stop working,” he said. “I’d tell you, ‘No, no, no, I’m a working musician, I’ll always play.”

His priorities, however, had changed since adopting sons Elijah and Zachary years ago. His ability to give that announcement, and for that reason, gave a grounding feeling. It wasn’t illness—he had an infection that he said “knocked me sideways,” but was still able to do 96 shows in 2017. It was a man who probably had nothing to prove for years, whose music stood the test of time, and who could, hopefully, spend the next three years building out the finishing touches of his career, on his own terms.

With help from Gucci, who is a partner of his tour, because what’s an Elton John concert without splashy wardrobe—and support of his family, who helped him come to this decision in 2015.

For me, this was a man who I’d heard on both the adult contemporary and classic rock stations while riding around in my dad’s station wagon as a kid. I obviously wasn’t around for his early days, but any American millennial would be remiss to forget both his performance of ‘Candle in the Wind,’ a song synonymous to our understanding of Marylin Monroe, and ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight,’ which took an evolving meaning for those who grew up watching ‘The Lion King.’

We could all feel the love at that moment: the love represented in the immersive prelude, the love given from Sir Elton, and the love washing over him from the audiences he’ll be mesmerizing in the coming months.

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