My Life With Billy Joel

Billy Joel Wrigley Field marqueeSome items on my bucket list–like eating at every Portillo’s location–most likely will never come to pass. Then there are other items that are decidedly more attainable, provided the timing works out.

On Thursday night, I was able to cross off an attainable bucket list item that had been staring up at me from the list for more than two decades. I finally saw Billy Joel in concert. And at Wrigley Field, no less!

The wheels to put this in motion began spinning in late January, when Theresa left me to the horrors of my bone marrow aspiration at the hospital to go home and get online and buy the rather expensive tickets. When I awoke from the grogginess of the procedure, one of my first questions was whether or not the tickets had been acquired, as I had tried and failed to get tickets in previous years. Her quest was a success, however, so I then had yet another reason (aside from the obvious one of being done with cancer treatment…) to look forward to late August.

I think it’s safe to say that there is no other artist on the planet whose music I have enjoyed for so long and so thoroughly as Billy Joel. Given the fact that he hasn’t written a new pop song since the early 1990s, this is a testament to the staying power of his hits and the depth of his catalog.

Yesterday I had the chance to hear many of these songs performed live by the very man who wrote them, and it was nothing short of electrifying. I vividly remember sitting in the passenger seat of my Dad’s red Buick LeSabre as a child and listening to a cassette of “Greatest Hits Volume I & II“–staring back at the guy on the album cover with the sardonic expression, bulbous nose and unruly hair–and picturing him singing all of the songs. Aside from the nose, Billy’s physical appearance has drastically changed in the 30 years since that photo was taken, but when he’s belting out Keeping the Faith today along with a face-melting horn section, the effect remains the same.

I am far from the most emotional person in the world, but I found myself alternately getting chills or being worked into an excited frenzy by the simple reality of hearing him perform his music as well as it has existed in my mind and in my ears for all these years. The other 40,000+ in attendance seemed to be experiencing this as well, and the whole evening had the vibe of gathering around the piano of a longtime friend who kept asking what we wanted to hear next or pulling out songs that he knew we would like. By the time the encore rolled around, Wrigley Field was literally quaking–a TV monitor hanging in the upper deck rafters near our seats was precariously swaying along with the crowd.

Appropriate to a concert at Wrigley, Billy would offer a “fielder’s choice” of two different songs and allow the crowd to pick his next number based on the level of joyous applause. It was a fun “Choose Your Own Adventure” way of enhancing the show and a reminder of just how many songs he has that I wanted to hear, but also a little bit disappointing if one of my favorite songs lost the battle and slipped out of playable contention. That said, there was no way he could play everything, and things slipping out of contention at Wrigley Field is not a new feeling for me anyway.

But why does Billy Joel’s music have such an effect on me? Although much of his music already existed before I was born or was released during my early childhood, the Piano Man’s tunes have provided a soundtrack to my life in different ways at different times, giving his songs a lot of personal meaning for me, as they are tied to various memories and emotions. At the risk of musical navel-gazing, I want to explore some of those connections.

Uptown Girl
Billy’s ode to ex-wife/ex-muse Christie Brinkley not only spawned a classically hilarious music video, it is also one of my earliest encounters with his work. I was fortunate to grow up with parents who gave me a firm grounding in the oldies that barely exist on the radio these days. If it was popular in the 1960s, I most likely know every downbeat and every word of the song. Perhaps for that reason, Billy’s 1984 album An Innocent Man–an homage to the early rock ‘n roll sounds of the 50s and 60s–got lots of play in our household. There isn’t a song on this album that I don’t like, so I always answer the icebreaker question with An Innocent Man as the album I would take on a desert island. I have every note and vocal inflection of it committed to memory, and if I happen to hear a song from the album out of context, I always expect that when the song ends, I’ll hear the opening notes of the next track. If I were on a desert island, I certainly would.

My love affair with this album began with Uptown Girl, a song done in the style of the Four Seasons, that features strong drumming and undeniably catchy “whoa-oh”ing–a surefire recipe for musical success.

While I don’t specifically remember this myself, my Mom has often told the story of me singing Uptown Girl to her as she gave me a bath when I was a barely literate two-year-old. All that the press seemed to get out of last night’s concert was the titillating nugget that comedian Amy Schumer and actress Jennifer Lawrence showed up to dance barefoot on top of Billy Joel’s piano as he performed Uptown Girl during the encore. I didn’t care much about that. I was too busy reveling in a live performance of what was apparently the first song that ever got stuck in my head. It was a magical moment.

Tell Her About It
Upon further reflection, it looks like Billy Joel made a hilariously dated music video for every single off of An Innocent Man, and Tell Her About It is no exception. There are plenty of other songs on this album that remind me of various parts of my childhood, but this song is burned in my brain as a track that was quite clearly giving romantic advice to me in first grade. I was head over heels in love with a girl named Molly (actually there were two Mollys and, ironically, a Theresa, whom I spent much of grade school and middle school pining for at various times). At any rate, Billy Joel wrote and recorded this song to tell me exactly what I needed to do to accomplish whatever a first grader’s romantic mission might be.

Tell her about it
Tell her all your crazy dreams
Let her know you need her
Let her know how much she means…

I didn’t elucidate all my crazy dreams, but I did cut out a heart, write a brief and since forgotten message inside the heart, and sneakily placed it inside her desk. I later watched her find it from afar, but Billy Joel had forgotten to remind me of one crucial component of effectively telling her about it: The object of your affection will only know she’s being told if you sign your name. Live and learn. I’m only human.

Piano Man
The most well-known song in Billy’s oeuvre–that he has publicly complained about being tired of performing–is honestly one of the greatest songs ever written. Everyone has been in a rut at some point in their lives or felt like they were wasting their talents or time. “And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, ‘Man, what are you doing here?'” It’s one of those songs where the music perfectly expresses the feelings the song is trying to explain. The characters in the piano bar–and Billy himself–are all sad sacks trying hard to forget their troubles, so they’re all in the mood for this melody, with its exuberant harmonica and accordion that they hope will further mask their pain.

This song is a definite classic for my family, but thankfully we’re not using it to mask any pain. My most vivid memory of it comes from a family road trip to Springfield in the 1990s, when it started playing in our minivan and we were all yell-singing along with it. My mom turned her thumb into a microphone and gave everyone a turn on the verses. As usual, the piano man “got us feelin’ all right.”

We Didn’t Start the Fire
This rhyming, chronological look at various decades of American history was particularly cool at the Wrigley concert, as the screen flashed a timely image of every person, place or thing that Billy mentioned. In terms of a personal connection, I realized a few years ago that he actually included my last name in the lyrics of the song. I’ll let you find it for yourself, but it comes in the third verse right between “Syngman Rhee” and “Kennedy.”

Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Billy’s rock operetta about the joys and sorrows of Brenda (Brender?) and Eddie was another musical highlight of the concert, as Joel’s instrumentalists really knocked it out of the park on their various solos. For me, this song represents my dive into Billy’s deeper tracks during college. I’ve done similar scuba expeditions through the works of other prolific artists like The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, and it’s always an incredibly rewarding experience to discover music that is “new to you” from an artist who’s obviously not producing new tunes anymore. Every once in a while, I feel like I’m still finding Joel gems that I hadn’t previously encountered.

River of Dreams (entire album)
But let’s not go overboard…Billy Joel has some not-so-great songs, too. Since he’s written a lot of love songs, it’s probably fitting that several of my connections to his songs relate to idiotic things I’ve done under the influence of my feelings for the female of the species. On a service trip in college, there was a lot of Billy Joel played on the 12-hour drive down to Mississippi–and the object of my affection was a huge fan of the piano man, especially his final pop album, River of Dreams. I had previously only heard the title song, so since she was responsible for bringing this album into my life, it of course became my new favorite and I started giving Billy Joel a pass on songs from his catalog that weren’t even that good. When I tried to force these on my family members, I was roundly mocked. With clearer eyes, it’s pretty obvious that the first half of the album is just a lot of overwrought rock drivel. But whatever it takes to make the song River of Dreams exist is fine with me. Another triumph of the concert, Billy took a break halfway through the song to lead his willing fans in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the show’s seventh-inning stretch.

Only the Good Die Young
In the bitter Chicago winter of 2013, I had been dating Theresa for a couple of weeks–a month, tops–and was heading into the city to meet up with her and some friends at a hole-in-the-wall dive called “The Drummin’ Monkey,” near the campus where she and her teammates served as Catholic missionaries. This was one of the first times that I would be meeting some of her really close friends, and it was karaoke night, so I knew that I would not be able to escape without doing a number. As I scanned the binders full of song choices, I tried to find something that would be easy for me to sing and also entertain the assembled patrons. I almost immediately scanned the book for “Joel, Billy” and looked for one of his more well-known songs that didn’t contain any of his ridiculous, howling high notes. I settled on Only the Good Die Young. It was only when they finally called me up to sing that I remembered that this particular song was probably the most sacrilegious tune I possibly could have chosen for serenading a group of Catholic missionaries. I got the last laugh, however, as I belted out what I thought was a pretty good rendition of the song and I ended up getting the girl, too.

For the Longest Time
This a cappella classic from An Innocent Man (surprise!) is another song that instantly transports me back to my childhood. There isn’t one particular memory associated with it, but it’s playing in the background of a montage of mental precious moments.

On the day that I was told that I had cancer but wasn’t yet sure if it was Hodgkin’s (the “good” kind) or non-Hodkgin’s (the “bad” kind), Theresa and I were obviously upset when we left the doctor’s office and had already shed a few fearful tears. At a time like that, it seemed like the best course of action was to head to a nearby Eucharistic Adoration chapel and turn our troubles over to God. We were pretty silent on the car ride to the chapel, so I flipped on the radio, and there was the piano man again, ready to provide the soundtrack to more important moments of my life.

If you said goodbye to me tonight
There would still be music left to write
What else could I do
I’m so inspired by you
That hasn’t happened for the longest time

Sitting in the car next to my new wife and pondering my own mortality, hearing a song that had followed me through so many happy moments in my life suddenly became too much for me.

Who knows how much further we’ll go on
Maybe I’ll be sorry when you’re gone
I’ll take my chances
I forgot how nice romance is
I haven’t been there for the longest time

In what was probably one of the most emotional moments of my entire cancer experience, I completely broke down behind the steering wheel. Thanks a lot, Billy!

In this way, the performance of this song at the concert served as a delightful bookend for me. With my cancer fight in the rearview mirror, I was at one of my favorite places on Earth on a perfect late summer evening with two of my brothers, being entertained by someone who was doing what he loves to do…and who has been entertaining me for the longest time. It was a concert I’ll never forget, and I can’t wait to see what fresh associations Billy Joel’s songs will take on for me as I enter new chapters of life.

I’m going to listen to my 45’s
Ain’t it wonderful to be alive
When the rock ‘n’ roll plays, yeah
When the memory stays, yeah
I’m keeping the faith


One thought on “My Life With Billy Joel

  1. oosorio456 August 29, 2015 / 7:19 pm

    New York state of mind. What a great musician


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