To retire or to reinvent, that is the question for aging rock stars

Retiring from touring while you still sound good is a popular move these days among rock and pop's "Greatest Generation," from Elton John to Paul Simon. But not for Paul McCartney, the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen.

Elton John is on his farewell tour, but Springsteen and McCartney keep going

Elton John performs at the 53rd Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on June 29. His final tour Farewell, Yellow Brick Road wraps up in December 2020. (Valentin Flauraud/Keystone/The Associated Press)

In the grand tradition of all things Elton John, his farewell tour is not a minimalist occasion. By the time Farewell, Yellow Brick Road wraps up in December 2020, Sir Elton will have traversed the globe for two years and four months, with nary a break day in between, and have played for audiences on three continents. 

And while ending his touring days, which Sir Elton attributed to his desire to spend more time with his family (Canadian husband David Furnish and two young sons), might also indicate a desire to slow down at the age of 72, it was not something noticeable in his last Canadian concerts this week.

During the first of his two sold-out nights at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena, he played a nearly three-hour set packed with hits from I'm Still Standing to Tiny Dancer, getting up from his piano to greet audience on each side of the stage and provide amusing anecdotes about his life and five-decade career.

"His voice is still so rich and has such energy; we had a fabulous time!" said fan Carol Ann Whittaker, of Mississauga, Ont. 

Debbie Arlington, who drove up from Buffalo, N.Y., to see the show with husband Tom, summed it up as "very strong and very ambitious, active, amazing, amazing!"

Elton John's farewell tour coincides with the release of his critically hailed biopic Rocketman and his newly released autobiography, Me. In other words, Sir Elton is sparing no efforts to ensure that, while he may not be as visible on tour in the years to come, his legacy as one of pop and rock's greats will stay intact.

Retiring from touring while you still sound somewhat like your younger self is a popular move these days among rock and pop's arguably "Greatest Generation."

Paul Simon wrapped up what he said would be his last tour on the home turf of Queens, N.Y., just last month. Neil Diamond announced his retirement last year, mostly due to his battle with Parkinson's disease.

An Elton John pop-up store in Toronto for his farewell tour. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

But not all of rock royalty think that's the best way to preserve one's legacy. Paul McCartney, the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen are still touring, with Springsteen especially coming up with novel ways of reaching audiences. 

Sobering times for rock royalty

It's been a sobering year for septuagenarian rock stars who until recently seemed impervious to age and injury. Mick Jagger, 76, had open heart surgery, forcing the Rolling Stones to postpone some of their tour dates. Jagger recovered successfully and the tour went on, including Canadian dates at Burl's Creek, Ont., in July.

Fleetwood Mac had to postpone its Canadian tour dates in the spring when Stevie Nicks battled a bad strain of flu; the rescheduled dates are slated to resume next week.

All this happened on the heels of  2016 and 2017 deaths of 57-year-old Prince and 66-year-old Tom Petty, both of whom had continued to tour through illness and injury, coping by taking painkillers like Fentanyl, the opioid that was found to be the cause of death of both musicians. Rolling Stone's contributing editor Rob Sheffield suggested in an article that the two deaths served as a "wake-up call to musicians and their fans. None of us want to see our heroes go out that way."

Concert promoter Elliott Lefko, left, and Burton Cummings share the stage as keynote speakers during the 2012 Canadian Music Week in Toronto. (Clinton Gliders/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

But Elliott Lefko, Canadian-born vice-president of the L.A.-based concert promotion company Goldenvoice, thinks there may be something else behind the sudden spate of farewell tours. 

"They want to be vital, they've got a lot to say, they've got a lot of big fire still burning inside of them," Lefko says of older rock stars.

A farewell tour, he says, "provides a focus: 'This is it, I'm gonna play my heart out for you, and then I don't know if I'm gonna play after this. So come on out, let's share this experience together!'"

Born to run ... and run ... and run

But for every Elton John, there's a Springsteen. The remarkably energetic rocker, whose stamina on his tours with the E Street Band is legendary, has recently been experimenting with new ways to stay connected to his fans, without going on a full-blown tour.

Bruce Springsteen's concert film, Western Stars, made its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. (Courtesy of TIFF)

His new film, Western Stars, opened this weekend. For the first time, Springsteen is not just the subject but the co-director of the film, which is one part concert doc (Springsteen plays tunes from his new album in a barn, replete with an orchestra and members of the E Street Band), one part Springsteen musings on his life and the characters he sings about on the new album. 

His long-time collaborator, Thom Zimny, serves as the other director of the film, and praised Springsteen's directorial skills at the film's premiere this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

"I recognized all the same qualities I saw in the studio, which was we were chasing to get the best thing possible, he never gave up, and that focus I see in the archival footage of younger Bruce, it's the same guy."

This comes on the heels of another hybrid art project: Springsteen on Broadway, a runaway hit of a one-man show where Springsteen combined acoustic performance and storytelling in a way that some critics felt "reinvented Broadway." There is a Netflix film version of that show, in case you couldn't catch it, also directed by Zimny.

Lefko sees it as a creative strategy to keep connected to your fans without doing a full-blown tour.

"You look at the modern pop artists now, they're all on Twitter, taking pictures of themselves, selfies," says Lefko. "These older artists can't do that so they're trying to figure out a way to communicate with their audience, and in that case it's Bruce Springsteen doing the one-man show, or some of these other performances where they're trying to get closer to their audience. and keep dignified yet fun way of performing."

Understanding fans

But these aging rockers may have one thing young pop stars could only dream of having: loyal, understanding audiences who have followed them through their career's peaks and valleys. Audiences who, beyond disposable income to spend on those farewell tours and one-man shows, also have the maturity to understand their musical heroes' decisions — even if that decision is never to perform again.

After Elton John's Toronto show, the crowd was full of well wishes for Sir Elton as he gets to devote himself to his family, not his fans. 

"He's the same age as I am, and I think it's time," said Tom Arlington.

Adds Carol Ann Whittaker: "We all would love to go on forever, but he's made a very good point: he has a family, and they need him now. We've still got his music."


Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the entertainment unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.


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