It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me

Where I come from, Billy Joel is rock and pop and songwriting royalty. I imagine that one day, when Billy Joel dies, thousands of Long Islanders will descend upon the Nassau Coliseum (or whatever it’s called these days) for vigils and group renditions of Piano Man. It’ll be sort of like when Prince died, but with much less purple. You see, I like Prince’s music – I do. I respect his immense talent and I understand his deep, deep roots to Minneapolis. But I’m not from here and I didn’t grow up with him or his music. I have no stories about First Avenue or knowing his cousin or being at Paisley Park for one thing or another. For me it was Billy Joel, hometown kid and never shy about it.

To be clear, I’m from Queens and Billy Joel is from Long Island – Nassau County to be precise. But I spent a ton of time on Long Island as a kid and far more than I ever did “in the city.” So Billy Joel was THE guy.

But is he Jewish? Well, he does consider himself Jewish, but he was also baptized and went to Catholic school (where the girls start much too late, of course). Regardless, he’s from New York – and I like to think that New York is an ethnicity all by itself. With that attitude and that accent, he has always been one of us.

Recently, there have been a number of pieces written about Billy Joel, his current mini-tour, and his ongoing residency at Madison Square Garden. The Atlantic asks: The Piano Man hasn’t released a new pop album since 1993. How does he continue to sell out stadiums?

The tone of these pieces is that Billy Joel is beyond uncool, his music irrelevant, and his audiences too old to know any better. Here in Minneapolis, Billy Joel could never be as cool as Prince because packing Target Field is a sell-out to corporate America, damn it!

Well, here’s what I have to say about that. After reading this piece, I really thought what it is about Billy Joel that has me coming back for more after all of these years. I believe the July 28 show at Target Field will be my 12th Billy Joel show. Honestly, it may very well be my last – with Billy getting up in age and me living in a city that only gets one show every few years.

I think what initially drew me to Billy Joel’s music was how local many of his songs were. Familiar street names and towns are sprinkled throughout his song lyrics and that always made me feel like I was somehow a part of it all. That’s why when he plays Miami 2017 – some 40 years after it was written – people from where I come from still scream when he gets to “they said that Queens could stay.” That’s why we smile when he changes “The New York Times, The Daily News” to “The New York Post and Newsday too.”

Billy Joel’s 1987 concert album, recorded in Moscow and Leningrad, had two covers – “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “The Times They Are A Changin’”. I was 12 and that’s how I was introduced to The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

As a teenager, I would sometimes sit in my room with a lock on the door (my plaques and medals were on the walls). I’d turn up the volume on my old Sherwood receiver and lie on the floor mouthing the lyrics to Angry Young Man.

In 1990, I went to my very first stadium show – Billy Joel at Yankee Stadium. Yankee Stadium didn’t have a lot of concerts, so this one was special. It was a big deal back home and I got to go – with my best friend and my mom (she was our ride). It was the first time I ever felt a stadium shake.

In 1993, I was a freshman in college in Boston. Like many newbies, I was a little homesick, a little lonely, and a little lost in my new city. So when I heard that Billy Joel was playing at the old Boston Garden, I had to go. For that one September night, I wasn’t homesick – because home came to Boston. I knew all of the words and so did thousands of other college kids from New York packed into that old, decaying sports temple. Sure, there were Celtics and Bruins banners hanging from the rafters, but it sure felt like the old Nassau Coliseum to me.

In 1999, most of the world was freaking out about Y2K. No one knew exactly what was going to happen when the clocks struck midnight. Well, what better way to go than with a big sold out Billy Joel show at Madison Square Garden? The Millennium Concert was the longest Billy Joel show I have seen – and also probably the best. He gave it his all for almost 4 hours well past midnight and into 2000. When the show was over, we walked out onto the street, mere blocks from Times Square. It was empty and quiet – and for a moment or two, we thought something had indeed happened when the clocks struck midnight. It was quite an experience and one that I will never forget.

And a few years ago right here in Minneapolis, I once again saw Billy Joel in concert. It was at this show that I realized how complicated my life was about to become – but the music that comforted me so many times before comforted me once again.

So here I am – about to see Billy Joel one more time. The old guy can’t hit those high notes anymore and he’s a lot more stationary. He’ll play what we want to hear and maybe throw out a surprise oldie. I’d put my money on a few chords of Purple Rain or something from Dylan – you know, to make it local. The show will end and the lights will go on. All of my Billy Joel memories will flash before me as I know that this might be the last time. But I’ll peek to my left or to my right and realize that it’s all new again.