Why The Optimists of the World Will Always Love Us Some Billy Joel

All hail The Piano Man!
Beth Stirnaman

On Saturday, May 13th, the house that Scully built will be the home of the Piano Man; at least for one night. It’s been some time since anyone from the Bronx was welcomed on this field of dreams. Billy Joel has earned that dubious distinction of being the New Yorker who can step foot on the hollowed grounds of Chavez Ravine and be truly respected and admired by Angelino’s. For the casual music observer, this is just another show. The truth is, it’s more than that.

Looking back as to why this is such a special day, consider Joel first hit the scene in 1971 with his freshman album Cold Spring Harbor. That album featured a song that set the tempo for his career with "She’s Got a Way". In ’73, the world lost its mind with the release of Piano Man. The album featured “Captain Jack”, but its title track, “Piano Man”, catapulted Joel to the elite of the music world. Then came the parade of hit albums that became the soundtrack to our lives. Albums like The Stranger, 52nd Street, Glass Houses, An Innocent Man and River of Dreams. Songs that catapulted him to early stardom include "Just the Way You Are", "Say Goodbye" to "Hollywood", "My Life", "Tell Her About It" and "Uptown Girl". There’s also You’re Only Human, a song embraced by those who have been touched in any way by depression or afflicted with suicidal tendencies. His fans bear testament to knowing through his words you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes, and if you play your cards right, life will give you a second chance.

In the late 70’s, the uber cool kids—you know, the Less Than Zero crowd—was listening to bands like The Who, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Social Distortion and Bowie. Secretly, those cool kids also had an ear for the Piano Man. Joel is seen through the eyes of the old, and that of the new; after all, Jack Kerouac once said music is truth, and Joel speaks a language we all can relate to. Millennials, and for some reason, everyday Joe’s from the Greatest Generation are drawn to him for reasons they can’t really explain. The bigger question we should all be asking is why do fans love Joel so much? Is it that he’s so relatable? That may have something to do with it, but another viable consideration is that we can fit in his footsteps.

Obviously, we love him for the great music, but great music alone doesn’t manifest into the love, devotion and the cartoon crazy fans he has. Like punk icon, Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Joel has had many public bouts with issues. Joel was born in the Bronx, and spent his early years in the hamlet of Oyster Bay, New York. Over his lifetime, he’s battled depression, addiction (substance & alcohol), the loss of loved ones and divorce. Clearly, we can all relate to him, and he to us. Although, his very public (TMZ-esque) split with Christie Brinkley is not anything most of us can say we’ve experienced. His music, specifically his lyrics, inject a truth that we can all appreciate. His life and lyrics are prophetic, his experiences are sad and sweet, and he played it complete when he wore a younger man's clothes.

The thing about young Billy, first, something you may not know... as a teen, he was an amateur boxer, and believe it or not, he held his own. The diehards know this part all too well; he attended Hicksville High School until 1967, but didn’t graduate. Like too many of us, his family had problems paying the bills, and while still in high school, he helped pay the bills by playing piano at a local bar. Despite being a decent student, he didn’t have enough credits to graduate at the end of his senior year. Being a diehard Beatles fan, he was emboldened by seeing four normal looking Dudes play the Ed Sullivan Show. Instead of going to summer school, Joel immersed himself in music and career. About high school, Joel once said “I told them, to hell with it. If I'm not going to Columbia University, I'm going to Columbia Records, and you don't need a high school diploma over there.” Joel eventually signed with Columbia. In 1992, he submitted essays to the school board from his music catalogue, and received his diploma. Albeit, it was 25 years after he was scheduled to graduate, Joel finally got around to it.

Honestly, Joel has so many studio albums, compilations, live albums, singles, and that fabulous greatest hits catalogue, there are just too many tunes to even try to mention them all. If you’re not a diehard, to know Joel’s music, you need to know his past. His songs have caused us all to relive our life, and through his words, we can close our eyes and believe we could be a movie star. For the diehards, there are countless children running around named Brenda or Eddie. Going way back to the beginning, he was born William Martin Joel aka “Billy,” and he’s the consummate New Yorker, and long-time Long Island resident. He came from a musical family; his father, Howard, was a classical pianist. His half-brother, Alexander, was a classical conductor in Europe. Luckily for us, his mother, Rosalind, made him begrudgingly take piano lessons as a kid. As a result of his mother’s efforts, and of course, his hard work, determination and talent, Joel became an accomplished artist.

His accolades are well deserved, fans often say he’s received the awards because of his years of wearing his heart on his sleeve for them. During that time, he had Top 40 hits from the 70’s to the 90’s achieving 33 Top 40 hits in the US; and here’s the kicker, Joel wrote those songs all by himself. He’s also sold more than 150 million records worldwide. That makes him one of the best-selling artists of all time. He’s won countless awards, most notably, 23 Grammy nods with 6 awards. In 1992, he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. In 1999, he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Also, close to his heart, in 2006, he was inducted to the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. In 2013, Joel received the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation's highest honor given to those that influenced American culture through the arts.

Some people say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In 1997, Punkers, Me First & the Gimme Gimmes (who love covers) took a stab at Billy’s tunes. What you should know is the Gimmes include someone who definitely knows cool, Fat Mike of NOFX. These cats immediately recognized music doesn’t have to be out of control to be cool; and Joel was more than cool enough to cover. The Gimmes released their version of “Uptown Girl”, which is still played to this day. This cover was very well received in the punkasphere; and consequently, the Gimmes turned-on a new set of fans to Joel’s music.

Joel stopped writing and releasing pop/rock music after River of Dreams in 1993, but he still tours. These days, Joel is enjoying life with wife # 4, Alexis Roderick. He has two daughters, Alexa Ray Joel and Della Rose Joel. When he isn’t on tour, he owns a bike shop in Oyster Bay called 20th Century Cycles. The shop manufactures custom-made, retro-styled bikes and accessories. He also writes; in 2014, he released a book simply entitled Billy Joel. As for his extra-curricular activities, he doesn’t practice politics with waitresses these days, but Springsteen; that’s a different story.

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As mentioned, Joel’s catalogue of great music is just too large to list all his songs. Despite that, there’s definitely a certain canon of immortal tunes that tens of thousands are pouring into Dodger Stadium to hear: “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “Don’t Ask Me Why”, “The Longest Time”, “Big Shot”, “You May Be Right”, “Pressure”, “Allentown”, “She’s Always a Woman”, “Honesty, It’s Still Rock n’ Roll to Me”, and crowd favorite, “Only the Good Die Young”.

Obviously on May 13th, there’s nowhere else the diehards would rather be. They’re coming out to enjoy the music of the Piano Man and simply forget about life for a while. In the end, this old familiar place we call Dodger Stadium won’t be electrified by the sound of the crack of a bat, or screams of balls and strikes, but instead, it will sound like a carnival. Joel’s microphone may smell like beer, and we’ll all be so happy that the kid from New York finally made it back here.


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