At the Elton John concert at the White House, tears and a trip down memory lane

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When Donald Trump asked one of his favorite musicians, Elton John, to perform at his inauguration in 2017, the knighted singer politely declined in an email:

“Thank you so much for the extremely kind invitation to play at your grand opening,” John wrote. “I’ve given it a lot of thought, and as a British national I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to play the inauguration of a US President. Please accept my apologies.”

On Friday night, Sir Elton offered a different statement in the form of the exuberant six-song solo piano concert he performed to a crowd of 2,000 on the White House South Lawn at the invitation of President Biden and of first lady Jill Biden.

” I do not know what to say. What a dump!” laughed John in a gleaming black blazer as he gazed through red-tinted glasses at the lighted columns of the south portico above him, playing under a glass-paneled tent, while members of the Marine Corps Marching Band fanned out along the steps to the Truman Balcony in red uniforms, “I’ve played some places before that have been beautiful, but that’s probably the icing on the cake.”

Tears and joy were more on the agenda than politics at an event the Bidens said they intended to be a concert for the American people called ‘A Night When Hope and History Rhyme”. The evening ended with President surprising John with the National Humanities Medal, at which the singer shed tears, but it felt like the cornerstone of the larger message of the Elton John AIDS 30th Anniversary Celebration. Foundation and the bipartisan unity needed to end the disease by 2030 – as John and the United Nations have said, that is the goal.

The last time John performed in the White House was at a 1998 state dinner during the Clinton administration in honor of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

According to a video feed of the event and interviews with those in attendance (media access was restricted), John looked genuinely delighted as he performed under a glass tent, with the audience surrounding all sides of his stage. He went through many of the biggest hits: “Your Song”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Rocket Man”, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, “Crocodile Rock” and “I’m Still Standing”.

Teachers, first responders and LGBTQ activists made up the bulk of the crowd and were all allowed to bring extras. They were the ones John thanked first, long before acknowledging the Bidens: “They’re the heroes to me.”

Other guests included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and her husband, Chasten, and Attorney General Merrick Garland – not to mention actress Anna Kendrick and John’s dear friend Billie Jean. King. For those who recognized her, Ruby Bridges, the civil rights lawyer who became one of the first black children to enter New Orleans’ all-white public school system at the age of 6, might have -to have been the most impressive luminary.

Charlotte Clymer, a DC-based writer and LGBTQ activist who was pleasantly surprised to receive the invitation, found herself overwhelmed with emotion. “I wouldn’t even say bipartisan, it was more nonpartisan,” she told The Washington Post. “Everyone was there because they cared about people living with HIV and AIDS. And of course they wanted to see Elton John perform. The White House had focused on inviting members of vulnerable communities, and Clymer said the crowd felt particularly diverse — racially diverse, politically diverse, even gender-diverse. For once, she added, “I wasn’t the only trans person at one of these events, which was nice to see.”

As appealing as the tale of Dark Brandon sub-tweeting his predecessor while praising his favorite musician was, this was not an event initiated by John as some form of high-profile trolling. The conversation had started with an invitation to a “History Talks” symposium Saturday at Constitution Hall, featuring Serena Williams and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, sponsored by the History Channel and A&E, which also sponsored the concert. . But that set date was also the day of John’s concert in the Nationals Park District, “so it evolved into the opportunity to perform the night before on the South Lawn of the White House. And, you know, what a spectacularly beautiful setting,” David Furnish, John’s husband and manager, said Sunday.

“Elton loved the idea and the whole night was presented to us as a non-partisan event even though President Biden is in the White House,” Furnish continued, “but a non-partisan event that really needed to be about common humanity. , unity healing, philanthropy.”

In the past, however, John had a friendly relationship with Trump. He performed at the former president’s third wedding, and Trump even went to tell people he got John for the inauguration. Although John asked him not to, Trump frequently used “Tiny Dancer” at his rallies. He also gave the nickname “Rocket Man” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Instead, at that concert, John recognized fellow Republican, former first lady Laura Bush, who came with her daughter Jenna Bush Hager and children, saying the Bush administration’s creation of the Plan d President’s Emergency Response to AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, “was the most incredible thing,” adding, “We never would have gotten this far without President Bush’s administration giving us this money. even honored Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) as an AIDS supporter, who, John said, “to his credit has always been successful.”

As John put together his set list, Furnish said, there was only one song he wanted to make sure he sang: “Crocodile Rock.” Years ago, when he and Biden, the then vice president, were on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” that same night, Biden told her that as a single father, he used to drive his two sons around and sing that song in the car. Later, Furnish said, he and John went to visit President Barack Obama at the White House when, unbeknownst to them, Biden’s son Beau was terminally ill with brain cancer and unconscious in the hospital.

Biden had asked John to meet with his staff, “which I think really said a lot about him,” Furnish said. As Furnish remembers being told, Biden went to the hospital and told the unconscious Beau that Elton John came to the White House that day and sang “Crocodile Rock” to him. . “He didn’t regain consciousness. But we were told he was smiling and that definitely, you know, sparked something,” Furnish said. “So we knew it was a song with a real journey that had been a real journey for the president. And so it was important to Elton that he was included in the set.

Before launching into “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, John also acknowledged Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of Ryan White, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 and became a symbol during her short life. life. of the cruelty endured by the victims of the epidemic. The White family was John’s entry to becoming an AIDS activist. He had met them, “and I have to love them and watch them and they faced such terrible hostility,” he said from the scene. “And yet when Ryan was dying in the hospital in Indianapolis, the last week of his life when I went and tried to help Jeanne do menial things, there was no There was no hate, there was only forgiveness.

“It was a very heartwarming experience to see someone who gives so much of themselves and doesn’t want any attention,” White-Ginder told The Post on Sunday, recalling those days. Six months after White’s death, John checked himself into rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction and became sober. Onstage Friday, he said family “saved my life.

The moment Biden presented John with the National Humanities Medal came as a complete surprise not only to John, but also to Furnish, who as a manager usually knows everything. John had said he was completely “flabbergasted” and broke down in tears during his quote.

“Elton had absolutely no idea he was going to get the medal. It’s very rare to see Elton speechless about anything, and when this came out he was completely stunned,” Furnish said. the world has felt the love.”

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