Goodbye for Now: Farewell Tours Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

History and hefty ticket prices suggest fans have every reason to be cautious of goodbyes

Elton John, Photo by Philip Cosores
Elton John, Photo by Philip Cosores

On April 2nd, 2011, James Murphy and his bandmates brought the tenure of one of the most adored bands of the 2000s to a close. Not only did Murphy shut the door on LCD Soundsystem, but he chose to do so in wild, garish fashion. The farewell show at Madison Square Garden ran a Springsteen-like four hours in length, not including the four pre-shows that preceded it at Terminal 5. The entire spectacle was captured in the form of a documentary with appearances from the likes of Chuck Klosterman and Donald Glover. Aziz Ansari was there crowd surfing. This wasn’t a concert; it was a celebration. Murphy sought a farewell that lived up to the hype and stratospheric adulation that LCD Soundsystem’s work arguably deserved. This was The Last Waltz upgraded for the new millennium.

Instead, Murphy regrouped LCD Soundsystem just six years later for 2017’s American Dream. The record was expectedly top notch, proving that Murphy’s ear for irascibly catchy dance punk had only gotten better with age. Add a successful run of theater and arena shows to the mix, and the reunion circle was complete.

Still, something feels off about the band’s return, as successful as it has been. It’s anything but uncommon for bands to break up only to reunite, but wasn’t there a distinct air of finality to LCD’s outsized ride off into the sunset? The band’s final show, after all, was very clearly billed as just that. It was one last chance to see one of the most culturally and critically celebrated bands of the past decade … forever. But when the band started recording again in 2015 and playing reunion shows a year later, they effectively undid the special event they’d very deliberately created just a few years prior.

Some fans were understandably upset at news of a new album. There were those that attended the Madison Square Garden show who took to Twitter to ask that they be refunded the cost of their tickets while others suggested that a free download of the record should be presented to those fans who can prove they were at the farewell gig. Was it all an act? Did fans unknowingly shell out top dollar for a gimmick? Murphy was surprisingly upfront in his answer to The New York Times in August, saying that the idea for a farewell show was born out of concerns about low ticket sales.

“My theory was, if I make it our last show, we’ll sell it out in two weeks,” he said. “It wasn’t a total lark, but it was a bit larky.”

Murphy is hardly the first artist the exploit the farewell show/tour for the cash grab that it can be. Few in popular music have been as opportunistic as KISS, who launched a year-long farewell jaunt in March 2000 only to reneg on their retirement to embark on 12 tours since. Garth Brooks cashed in on his public announcement in 2000 that he was retiring from touring, but he eventually found his way back to playing in 2005, including a blockbuster five-night run at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and later an extended residency in Las Vegas. Cher also made a home for herself onstage in Vegas, just six years after her three-month farewell tour in 2002.

Black Sabbath netted $85 million on its farewell tour, which fittingly wrapped in the band’s hometown of Birmingham in February 2017. But Ozzy Osbourne still saw some wiggle room for a second goodbye, this time as a solo act. Ozzy announced last month that he will hit the road for the “No More Tours 2” Tour for 20 dates from April to October. But even by the Prince of Darkness’ own admission, the tour isn’t a farewell in the truest sense.

“I’m still going to be doing gigs, but I’m not going on tour for six months at a time anymore,” he told Rolling Stone last month. “I’d like to spend some time at home.”

These few examples alone are enough to cast some credible skepticism on the integrity of shows and tours billed as last hurrahs. Some artists knowingly go into a farewell show or tour on shaky moral ground while others maybe simply have a change of heart. After all, regular folks come out of retirement everyday, so why should our musical heroes be any different? However you look at it, “farewell” feels like too finite a word for something that’s repeatedly proven so easy to go back on. In most cases, when talk of retirement comes up, we’re talking about artists with serious skin in the game, acts with decades of high-profile success to their credit. Looked at in that light, it’s easy to see how we’re not talking about someone’s work, but more aptly their lives. When you’ve made your name and reputation on a stage for three, four, or five decades, walking away is easier said than done, even if the idea of stopping sounds good or, better yet, feels right.

With a recent rash of farewell tour announcements from the likes of Elton John, Paul Simon, and Joan Baez, it feels like an opportune time to think about what fans might be walking into. Simon, who announced his 31-date “Homeward Bound” trek through the US and UK in February, has already sold out two shows at the Hollywood Bowl and a third in Amsterdam. Verified resale tickets through Ticketmaster run as high as $5,833 for a balcony seat (that’s not a typo) and $2,200 for a floor seat at the TD Garden in Boston. Elton John’s “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” Tour is also commanding some steep prices, with floor seats topping out at $1,581 at one of his upcoming Madison Square Garden shows in October. Baez’s ticket prices look incredibly modest by comparison. Even still, an orchestra seat for her show at the Verizon Hall-Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on September 26th as of this writing will cost you $282. It’s also worth noting that these prices do not include fees commonly associated with Ticketmaster events.

[Read: So, This Is What Retirement Looks Like for Rock Stars]

Between the hefty ticket prices and the farewell tour’s anything-but-spotless track record, fans angling to attend these shows would be wise to proceed with caution. At the same time, though, it’s easier to look at these upcoming tours as a safer bet than some of the farewell jaunts that have preceded them. Unlike Garth Brooks, who was a laughable 38 years old when he announced his ill-fated retirement 18 years ago, Simon, Baez, and John are a median age of 74. They’ve logged some incredible miles, both literally on the road and figuratively in the studio, so the thought of them walking away is hardly stunning. Simon and John both cited a desire to spend more time with their families as the rationale behind their respective farewells, which is a good enough reason for any musician to decide to walk away from a life of layovers, bus rides, and hotels.

But what these farewells don’t account for is how someone will feel 5, 10, or 15 years down the road. Simon, for one, has already left the door open for, as he described on Twitter, “the occasional performance in a (hopefully) acoustically pristine hall,” with proceeds going to charity. The lesson here is to read between the lines. Simon’s upcoming trek is a farewell tour, not a vow to hang up his guitar for good. Baez, meanwhile, admitted to Billboard earlier this month that she’s already anticipating the withdrawals that are sure to come from leaving a life of touring behind.

“That I will miss,” she said of touring. “My travelling family.”

In the end, it’s difficult for fans to tell what they’re going to get with these farewells. Sometimes they’re an opportunity to watch lightning get caught in a bottle one last time, and other times they fail to live up to their billing. Some will say it doesn’t really matter. After all, if you’re a die-hard Elton John fan, aren’t there worse things than having the opportunity to see the legend in action again? I don’t know, but maybe try asking the guy who bought the $1,500 seat.