“For the folks they loved to tell about/When Billy the Kid came to town” — “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” by Billy Joel
This Friday night, July 26, a good chunk of Baltimore Jewry will likely be on hand at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to catch Billy Joel and his band in concert. It will be an historic evening, the first-ever concert performed at Camden Yards in its 27-year history.
An unabashed, lifelong Yankees fan (we won’t hold that against him), Joel, 70, is one of the biggest concert draws in the world. Over the course of his long career, the Jewish native of The Bronx, who grew up on Long Island, has sold more than 150 million records, scoring 33 consecutive Top 40 hits, and ranks as one of most popular artists in history.
In honor of his upcoming sold-out concert in Charm City, Jmore staff members offered their thoughts and reminiscences of the “Piano Man,” the pride of Hicksville and Oyster Bay, Long Island.
Son, Can You Play Me a Memory?
My first tape cassette was Debbie Gibson, but that quickly went to the wayside after I stole my dad’s Billy Joel albums – “52nd Street” and “Glass Houses.”
I spent a lot of time listening to them, belting out “My Life” when my mom would ask me to clean up my room at the tender age of 9.
When I was 13, my older sister bought Billy’s double-CD greatest hits. While she was out with her friends, I would steal into her room and listen on her new CD player. It brought out my inner choreographer, making up dance routines to “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “Only the Good Die Young.”
I was able to attend his concert the last time he was in Baltimore in 2015. I really enjoyed the show and surprised myself by knowing the words to every song he sang. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I had listened to him over the years.
I wonder how sick he is of singing “Piano Man.”
After that concert, my stepdad made me a CD of Billy’s lesser-known stuff. It was like discovering a whole other side of this artist. And exciting to hear new — to me – songs.
Through all of the different types of music that have come and gone in my life, Billy Joel’s music has always been a constant. Often brings a smile to my face or a tear – “Goodnight Saigon” and “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” — get me every time.
Couldn’t Go Back to the Greasers
My favorite Billy Joel song?
That’s a no-brainer. It’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” of course.
I was never a Brenda-type — not a prom queen nor part of a popular couple — yet I knew people like Brenda and Eddie in my suburban New York high school, and my identification with the song is powerful.
The song took on special resonance for me about 10 years ago when I started using Facebook. Though I’m not a big fan of the social media site nowadays, when I first discovered it, I was intrigued by the opportunity Facebook provided to track down people from my past — especially my old high school and college crushes.
Though it’s embarrassing to admit, I spent hours poring over my old classmates’ Facebook pages, fascinated by how time had altered them physically, who they’d partnered up with, when they’d divorced or remarried, and how many children they had.
Sometimes I reached out, and usually I heard back. A guy named Daniel who I’d been in unrequited love with in college wrote, “Of course I remember you, Simone. You were a soulful and passionate person …”
After receiving that response, I don’t think the smile left my face all day!
After my divorce, when I was afraid to reenter the dating scene, I used Facebook to practice on a guy (still single) who I had dated 25 years earlier. Call it a different form of internet dating …
I can see us now — sitting across the table from each other (him and I, face-to-face) in an Italian (or maybe Greek, but close enough) restaurant, catching up and reminiscing about old times. Would it be “a bottle of red or a bottle of white”? White for me. Scotch for him … (Not everything was exactly like the song). There were several dates, but the reunion never amounted to much.
The attraction was still there, but so was his terminal fear of commitment and his extreme unavailability. At first I was very disappointed, just as I had been 25 years earlier, but eventually I recovered.
As it turned out, my love for him faded, but I doubt my love for “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” ever will.
Don’t Ask Me Why … I Still Like Billy
As a young, pretentious college student journalist, I once panned a Billy Joel album. Just absolutely decimated it.
It was “An Innocent Man,” which featured the smash hits “Uptown Girl,” “Tell Her About It,” “The Longest Time,” “Keeping the Faith,” “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” and the title track.
I don’t recall the particulars of my unhinged rant against this album, but I know I felt such lightweight fare was well beneath Billy. After all, the man had produced seminal albums such as “The Stranger,” “52nd Street” and “The Nylon Curtain,” not to mention gems like “New York State of Mind,” “Captain Jack” and, of course, “Piano Man.” (By the way, I can play a spot-on rendition of the harmonica solo on that latter tune.)
“An Innocent Man,” to my young collegiate mind, was simply rubbish, dross, drivel, dreck. It seemed to be a means of Billy cashing in on his prodigious songwriting talents, stealing from the nostalgic likes of James Brown and Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, and boasting to the planet, “Hey, check it out – I’m hooking up with Christie Brinkley!” (So much for how that turned out.)
Of course, Billy could’ve cared less what I thought and laughed all the way to the bank. Also laughing was one of my colleagues at the college newspaper, a decidedly cynical pseudo-hipster who felt that expending so much time, energy and ink on someone like Billy Joel (even if it was a bad review) was merely an exercise in folly.
“Who cares about a bourgeois hack like Billy Joel?” he said, chuckling. “We’re not talking about Lou Reed, The Cure or The Clash here.”
The world has always seemed to have a love/hate relationship with Mr. Joel. (Full Disclosure: I married someone who does not care for Billy Joel and finds his music rather boring.) But there’s no doubt that Billy has made his mark on our popular culture, even though critics and fans still debate the merits of his oeuvre, and despite the fact that the man has not written any fresh pop material in nearly three decades.
Billy’s songs continue to resonate with millions of people and summon waves of idyllic memories, and (as Sir Paul McCartney would say) what’s wrong with that?
I have a few favorites, of course. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” takes me back to the now-defunct Christiano’s of Syosset, N.Y., the Long Island bistro which served as the inspiration for that epic medley, according to my old college buddy Heath, a proud Syosset native. Dining there with Heath years ago, I kept waiting for Brenda and Eddie, “the popular steadies and the king and the queen of the prom,” to burst in and order two heaping plates of pasta fazool.
Another track from that same “Stranger” album, “Vienna,” has offered wise counsel to me on many a turbulent, soul-churning evening: “Slow down, you crazy child/You’re so ambitious for a juvenile/But then if you’re so smart/then tell me why are you still so afraid?”
Come on, admit it, that’s damned good stuff.
A deep cut from “52nd Street,” “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” never fails to wash over me and make me think of my good pal Mickey, a “Jewban” who left his homeland as a toddler after Castro took over and has always related to that lyric of great yearning, “Oh, Havana, I’ve been searching for you everywhere.”
The barn-burner rocker “You May Be Right” returns me to some of the rather silly, raucous soirees and episodes of my younger years. “Friday night, I crashed your party/Saturday, I said I was sorry.” Fluffy, frothy, frilly but fun. And great driving music.
And then there were anthems like “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon,” which made you think seriously about what people were going through in Ronald Reagan’s America of the early ‘80s and from the generation preceding mine. “We came in spastic/Like tameless horses/We left in plastic/As numbered corpses.” Those were powerful, evocative lyrics for a young person to absorb during the post-Vietnam era.
But then, thud, along came “An Innocent Man.” Oy, Billy. For about a decade, he kept churning out big hits (“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “A Matter of Trust”) after the release of that wildly popular album, but things were never quite the same for me.
I stand by my original college newspaper review. “An Innocent Man” – guilty.
Now I know that lots of folks in the local Jewish community will shell out the bucks and turn out to see Billy this Friday night at Camden Yards, just as they did in the summer of 2015 when he performed at M&T Bank Stadium. It will be, in some respects, like one big Jewish summer camp reunion or an outdoor bar mitzvah reception. I already anticipate seeing a lot of selfies and Facebook postings from the concert.
For a lot of middle-age Jewish folks, Billy’s become a cultural touchstone of sorts, especially since he became more identifiably Jewish and has worn a yellow Star of David in concerts in recent years to protest rising white supremacy and intolerance in this country.
I’m sure Billy will put on a terrific show, just as he did the one-and-only time I saw him in concert in March of 1990 at the old Capital Centre in Landover.
But I won’t be there at Camden Yards on Friday evening. I, for one, always want to remember Billy Joel just the way he was, back when he (and I) wore a younger man’s clothes.
Songs in the Attic: 12 of Billy Joel’s Best ‘Deep Cuts’ (In Chronological Order of Albums), Courtesy of the Jmore Editorial Team:
- “Why Judy Why” (from “Cold Spring Harbor,” 1971)
- “Travelin’ Prayer” (from “Piano Man,” 1973)
- “Root Beer Rag” (from “Streetlife Serenade,” 1974)
- “Summer, Highland Falls” (from “Turnstiles,” 1976)
- “Everybody Has a Dream (from “The Stranger,” 1977)
- “Until the Night” (from 52nd Street,” 1978)
- “All for Leyna” (from “Glass Houses,” 1980)
- “Miami 2017” (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) (from “Songs in the Attic,” 1981)
- “Laura” (from “The Nylon Curtain,” 1982)
- “Temptation” (from “The Bridge,” 1986)
- “And So It Goes (from “Storm Front,” 1989)
- “The Great Wall of China” (from “River of Dreams,” 1993)