This article originally ran in August 2013.
There will never be a party like the Harley 100th anniversary in 2003.
I have a bunch of memories from that bash. I rented out my house to some bankers from Boston for $2,000. I got LASIK surgery that week, and spent the time recovering at my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s house.
But most of all, I remember "the show." The one that we all speculated might be the Rolling Stones or U-2 or Bruce Springsteen, but as the pieces came together, we here knew would be Elton John. (Our Managing Editor Bobby Tanzilo, in fact, won a Milwaukee Press Club award for accurately predicting the headliner.)
I remember being at Veterans Park all day. I remember watching a drunken Dan Aykroyd rambling on forever, and I remember some really good opening acts before Elton immediately killed the buzz. I remember the fireworks show after, because my still healing eyes were burning from the smoke. And I remember jogging back to our East Side office at midnight to quickly write the best concert review I’ve ever written.
Here it is, in its entirety, from Sept. 1, 2003:
Elton John silences the Harley roar
Unfortunately, OnMilwaukee.com was right in predicting that Elton John would headline the secret Harley show Sunday night. John, along with Tim McGraw, Kid Rock and the Doobie Brothers comprised the lineup of the baffling, yet packed, show at Veterans Park.
A deafening hush came over the enormous crowd as it realized the big secret was John, hardly a rocking choice for a group that came to party. With the Harley folks clad in black, it looked more like a funeral as the stunned crowd stood motionless as John launched into his set of new, soft rock tunes and old favorites. Then, people started to leave. In droves.
Elton John. Elton John? He's not American, certainly not very manly, and far from hard rock. The last rocking song from John came at a time when H-D was still owned by AMF.
After a few new songs, John played his classics, like "Daniel," "Rocket Man," "The Bitch Is Back" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues." But the damage was already done. The once jam-packed crowd began to thin out. Perhaps, though this is just a guess, as many as 30 percent of the audience just went home. John didn't help his cause by announcing to the crowd, "I'd play you a song about motorcycles, but I don't have any."
Anticipation has been building for weeks about who would play the final night of the Harley party. An overweight and not very funny Dan Aykroyd served as emcee of the event, improvising between acts and stalling for time. Hearing his "Rubber Biscuit" routine was almost painful. He thanked everyone, including the guy who co-wrote "Coneheads" -- twice. Of course, in the litany of thank-you's Sunday night -- to riders, veterans, Willie G., etc. -- none of the presenters thought to thank Milwaukee itself for hosting the party. Oh well.
Eventually, Aykroyd introduced The Doobie Brothers, who played the kind of greatest hits set you'd expect to hear at State Fair. Solid, but sleepy.
Tim McGraw took the stage next. He played flawlessly, but this crowd came to rock. And that they did, when McGraw introduced Kid Rock. Clearly the highlight of the evening, he got the crowd going with a handful of anthems like "Cowboy."
After a long and uncomfortable wait, John emerged as the final act. As one woman in the generally disappointed crowd said, "It would be a good show, but not tonight."
John's best moment of the concert came when he brought McGraw out to join him in "Tiny Dancer" and Kid Rock for "Saturday Night's Alright." Tepid applause brought him out for a brief encore.
All the performers sounded great, but one has to wonder what Harley executives were thinking by bringing the guy who sang the "Lion King" theme to a party that was supposed to be completely bad-ass. Whichever intern at Harley who ran that focus group needs to be fired, since he completely missed the boat on his target demo. Maybe someone should have listened to the emcee before the show, who asked the crowd who they were hoping to see. They cheered for U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, KISS, you name it. But they booed for John. Granted, a few people did seem to enjoy John's act. The others stayed just because they waited three hours to hear some music (or hung out in line for nearly as long just to get a slice of pizza).
The one redeeming moment came after John left the stage, when organizers set off the biggest and loudest fireworks and confetti display Milwaukee has ever seen. Hopefully, the crowd went home with one positive memory of the most underwhelming show of the year.
It was clearly a lackluster finale to an otherwise spectacular week.
Milwaukeeans took the giant crowds in stride. The police acted like champs, staying mellow and reacting only when emergencies arose. Even the bikers themselves remained well-behaved and orderly.
Unfortunately, they were also nearly lulled to sleep with the surprise dud that unfolded to the dismay of thousands.
Maybe Harley can coax Cher out of retirement for the 105th anniversary.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.