Remembering Elton John's surprise Milwaukee concert — where thousands booed

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Editor’s note: Elton John’s farewell concert in Milwaukee had been scheduled for Feb. 19, it but was postponed on Oct. 19  “due to a necessary window needed in the tour schedule to make some technical production adjustments,” Fiserv Forum said in a press release (see separate story). 

Elton John, without a doubt, is one of the most accomplished and celebrated artists of all time, in the midst of a blockbuster farewell tour that brings him to a sold-out Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee Oct. 19.

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But there was one show in Milwaukee where thousands of people weren’t so happy to see him – the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary in 2003, where John performed as the big surprise headliner. 

If you don’t remember, the centennial celebration for the Milwaukee motorcycle company was a very big deal. With more than 200,000 bikers expected to attend, all the hotel rooms in the region were booked a full seven months in advance, and homeowners were getting paid to leave town so their houses could be rented to guests for a week. (How much was the going rate? $1,900 for a four-bedroom, and even as much as $1,500 a night for mansions.)

And all the festivities that final week in August — including a three-day festival dubbed “The Celebration” at Maier Festival Park — were leading up to a free concert Aug. 31 in Veterans Park.

Rockers like Billy Idol, Joan Jett, Poison and REO Speedwagon were booked for the fest. As for that grand finale, dubbed “The Party,” Harley-Davidson officials opted to keep the lineup a surprise until the acts took the stage. 

Between the unusual secrecy and all the hype around the Harley happenings, imaginations ran wild. 

Nearly two weeks before the big show, the Journal Sentinel’s Dave Tianen, via industry sources, pegged John as the likely headliner — “an odd choice for a biker crowd,” he suggested. 

And perhaps Harley riders didn’t want to believe it, because rumors spread anyway that the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen would show up — even though the Stones were in Europe around the time of the Harley bash, and the Boss was scheduled to play Miller Park the following month.

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About 150,000 free tickets for “The Party” were distributed through Harley dealerships, and before John even appeared, there were other problems that day at the park. 

Lines for hot dogs lasted up to three hours, and some stands ran out of beer before 7 p.m., the Journal Sentinel reported. 

Actor Dan Aykroyd seemed unprepared as the MC, Tianen wrote in his review, resorting to “lines like ‘I love all of you!’ … After about 10 minutes, the crowd was clearly tired of the patronizing.”

The Doobie Brothers played first, backed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which was completely drowned out by guitars, Tianen said. Then came fan Tim McGraw, a Harley fan who didn’t have many fans himself at the 100th bash, Tianen wrote. 

“Guys behind me were yelling ‘Take the rest of the night off’ or ‘You’re done. Thank you. You’re done,'” Tianen wrote. “McGraw certainly didn’t help his cause with love songs like ‘She’s My Kind of Rain.’ These guys came to party, and he gave them a romantic weather report.”

In the middle of McGraw’s set, Kid Rock came out for a three-song set, the bright spot of the day, Tianen wrote.

But then came John, and “monster hit after monster hit” — including “Bennie and the Jets,” “Rocket Man” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” — “was met with scattered applause and a smattering of boos.” 

“At the end the crowd had thinned out so much up front that the concert staff let down the barriers and let everybody filter into the VIP area,” Tianen wrote. “It wasn’t so much an outright disaster as an unmitigated flop.”

On the bright side, traffic out of Veterans Park wasn’t so bad. Instead of having 200,000 people leave at once, thousands bolted early, Capt. Chris Luedke from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department told the Journal Sentinel.

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But as fans rode out of town, they drove under a handmade sign on the interstate on Milwaukee’s south side apologizing for Elton John.

“Harley-Davidson officials need to admit that they screwed up horribly,” Roger and Phyllis Brown, of Fergus Falls, Minn., wrote in a letter to the editor. “This was a big big moneymaker for Harley-Davidson, and Elton John was our reward? What were they thinking?”

“It took only one opening chorus to kill the 100-year mystique that has made Harley-Davidson motorcycles so popular,” wrote John Laatsch of Milwaukee, who left the show early in protest. “The last image that several hundred thousand people have in their minds is of Elton John playing his piano under the Harley-Davidson logo.”

In a Journal Sentinel column, Jim Stingl said John at the Harley 100th would be as ludicrous as seeing Metallica at German Fest or Carole King at Metalfest.

“Harley threw a fantastic bash. It was fun, it was peaceful, it came off with surprisingly few mishaps and serious crashes, and it showcased and enriched Milwaukee,” Stingl wrote.

“But final impressions count, and Elton John belting out his pop hits for a Harley crowd Sunday night was like mixing engine oil and water. … His music … speaks not at all to the rugged, rebellious, road-hardened rockers who ride Harley motorcycles, and those who pretend on weekends to be those things.”

It was such a fiasco, it became shorthand in Milwaukee for momentous hype followed by crushing disappointment. When the Packers blew a game against the Minnesota Vikings early the following month, the Journal Sentinel headline suggested the team fared “about as well as Elton at Harley bash.”

Two years later John would return to a much friendlier crowd at the Bradley Center, a show Tianen wrote was his best in Milwaukee in years.

And when Harley-Davidson announced at its annual meeting in 2007 plans to host a 105th-anniversary bash in Milwaukee, then-CEO Jim Ziemer promised John would not be back, to the sound of cheers.

He was true to his word. For the grand finale in Veterans Park, Harley booked one of the rockers Harley fans most wanted to see in 2003, Bruce Springsteen.

And they made sure Harley fans heard the news, eight months in advance.

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Piet Levy talks about concerts, local music and more on “TAP’d In” with Jordan Lee, 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9). Follow him on Twitter @pietlevy and on Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.

Published 5:58 PM EST Feb 13, 2019