Madison Square Garden, New York, NY – May 9, 2019
Lacking a traditional alternative to fill the role, I have long thought of music in practically religious terms. I play it; I listen to it; I know and revere its history. I share it with friends, and the bonds between us are invariably enriched by both the effort and the act. Music means the absolute world to me. Certain scientific studies have played up its druglike effects, and I suppose it’d be disingenuous as a longtime user to vociferously deny them, but I have always seen music more as a source of legitimate personal nourishment, an indispensable renewable resource, fuel or balm for the soul as needed. Rock and Roll in particular has been my constant companion since the year I turned ten, that proverbial source of comfort in times of trouble, as well as, for my money, the most damned fun you can reliably compress into the space of three minutes, or five, or twenty, or ninety, or more, however long your playlist or evening plans might dictate. I experience live music whenever plausible, and, sometimes, in my saucier moments, even take extreme measures to render the implausible possible. Think then of my journey, after near a lifetime of uninterrupted admiration, to see Billy Joel play the latest show in his historic residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden as something of a pilgrimage: to New York, a city I had never before visited for pleasure, despite idealizing it just short of forever; to Madison Square Garden, the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous arena”, where the feeling of history both made and in the making would be palpable even if not already bleeding off the walls in the form of the omnipresent, aesthetically pleasing factoids that decorate its higher ground like crown molding in a Victorian mansion; and to finally see Billy Joel, at this intersection of specific place and occasion that had been the stuff of daydreams, at a minimum, for the five years it has been plausible but heretofore out of reach, though it felt so very much longer.
New York City moves in a manner, at a pace, and with a willful collective determination with which I have neither meaningful practical experience nor basis for comparison. Confined to a subway car or maximizing your unofficial sidewalk lane, there’s precious little time to organically process the scope, scale, and grandeur of what you’re looking at. After a white-knuckle introductory ride from LaGuardia to the Financial District and a lovely Lower Manhattan happy hour, I arrived at the Garden more than an hour before showtime, wide-eyed, adrenalized, and goofily grateful. At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. The only thing separating Madison Square Garden from other imposing buildings in the vicinity appeared to be its marquee, grafted onto a subjectively impressive but otherwise nondescript building facade and bearing the iconic venue name and picture of the smiling Piano Man. Nonplussed but still tickled, with the clock barely yet ticking, let alone a factor, I made the excellent decision to take my time and explore instead of pressing ahead. Exploring was fun – now here was the famous towering, circular MSG exterior I knew from folklore, emerging out of urban obscurity after just a single street crossed and a fortuitous direction change, already lit up like a beacon amid the slowly gathering dusk, but with no visible entrance open to the public – though once I had a handle on the situation, simple observation proved even better. For close to thirty minutes, I ambled around MSG’s front plaza, people-watching, idly snapping pictures of anything and everything that caught my eye, enjoying immeasurably the scene that stretched before me. A light breeze blew as a nearby busker played “Uptown Girl” and “New York State of Mind” on his saxophone. Enthusiastic couples young and old walked past me with charming purpose. I silently pinched myself half a hundred times, took a cleansing breath, turned decisively and found a phantom merge lane (the only kind I’m convinced exists in NYC) into the heart of the jolly thousands streaming in.
Billy Joel doesn’t employ a traditional opener anymore, or at least doesn’t appear to have during his residency so far, because, frankly, it’s no longer necessary. Midtown Manhattan is his opening act. Madison Square Garden is his opening act. What stereotypical miser arrives at a Billy Joel concert in 2019 expecting to somehow squeeze out additional value? The whole thing simply is, and, for once, “as-is” carries no negative connotations whatsoever. You paid for the experience. You have your great time, sing along, smile broadly, cheer, take your memories, pictures, and maybe a souvenir or two, and move on, whether to destinations across the island, across the river, across the country, or elsewhere. Which reminds me… despite my stubborn preoccupation with New York’s general oeuvre, established if still temporary loiterist tendencies, and desire to digest as much MSG history in bite-sized nugget form as possible, I still had over twenty minutes to take in the view once I found my seat, where it soon became abundantly clear I was not the only pilgrim in the house. “Send Billy your birthday wishes with #BillyJoelMSG and #BillyJoel70Bday to see your message on GardenVision!” shouted one of the arena proper’s many self-refreshing LED billboards. I eagerly complied. While awaiting my big screen turn, the row around me filled in with pleasant, chatty groups of older friends, one each from Long Island and Philadelphia.* Though I never did see my own tweet in lights, several dozen others played on a repeating loop, including gushing, in-person e-greetings from folks from Rhode Island, Indiana, Texas, and France, among the run-of-the-mill tri-staters. Only the hardiest among us wore the commemorative paper hats we found piled up at the foot of the stairwells**, but it was pretty obvious that everyone here was ready to party.
*When my backstory and the circumstances that had brought me from Central Ohio to that moment leaked out, they seemed to be a source of some limited fascination. My new friend in Philly’s wife, in particular, “had questions” for me. Everyone who offered an opinion seemed delighted, if still a bit surprised, that I’d made the trip.
**My party hat didn’t fit, in case you’re wondering, owing to insufficient/uncomfortable rubber band chin coverage. I blame a prohibitive combination of the remnants of my outsized Cro-Magnon skull and the giant brain housed within.
It’s a double-edged sentiment whose downward-facing blade grows sharper with each passing year, but I still contend that I could not have come of age as a music fan at a better time than the mid-1980s. When I was a child, see, MTV was both new and undeniably fun, and music as a whole was just fascinating, a melting pot of made-up upstarts slinging synthesizers and sporting runaway hairstyles, established names cannily using the new medium as a way to hotwire or expand their reputations and checkbooks, and all sorts of other goofy outliers. It was a multi-generational, stylistic free-for-all, and slots in the rotation were much more about being able to offer the channel eye-catching music video content as they were the ability to carry a tune. An earnest, literate singer-songwriter holdover from the 1970s, not to mention an unassuming piano virtuoso, Billy Joel always seemed to me the most genuine of the early-MTV megastars, a man so secure in his square but surpassing talent that he truly didn’t care whether you bought what he was selling. Billy was channeling Philly Soul and singing hallway Doo-Wop at a time when the glittery New Wave of Duran Duran and Culture Club ruled the charts otherwise, or at least that was my official introduction. Skimming his back pages revealed added substance and intriguing, unexpected depth, in both output and range – he is a criminally underrated everyman lyricist – and Greatest Hits Vol. I & II, released in 1985, became one of perhaps a dozen essential, foundational “religious” texts for me.*** He could’ve played those Hits front to back and taken a much-deserved bow for all I cared, but I knew there’d be much more to this night. Having made it to first NYC and then MSG on my own, I was content to roll with whatever happened next. I had checked my preconceptions instead of my jacket.
***Again, just in case you’re wondering, here is the dirty (baker’s) dozen that pretty much powered me from middle school through graduation and to the doorstep of college, from memory and alphabetized by artist: David Bowie – “Changesbowie”; Billy Joel – “Greatest Hits: Vol. I & II”; Iron Maiden – “Live After Death”; Megadeth – “Rust In Peace”; Metallica – “…And Justice For All”; Motorhead – “No Remorse”; Nirvana – “Nevermind”; Pixies – “Doolittle”; The Police – “Synchronicity”; Prince and the Revolution – “Purple Rain”; R.E.M. – “Document”; Ramones – “All the Stuff (And More) Vol. I & II”; Rush – “Moving Pictures”; ZZ Top – “Eliminator”. Showstoppers, all, and so what if the total is actually fourteen? My bakery doesn’t believe in maximizing profit over customer satisfaction. Plus I didn’t expect you to count.
Always more rocker than dancer at heart, the “Angry Young Man” of my youth and before has, astonishingly, now passed seventy, and though he took the stage to the requisite raucous applause a little slower and presented as perhaps a little rounder than the image in my head might’ve, showed few enough discernible side effects as the evening progressed, except perhaps a smirking amazement at what a mountain both his handlers and the sold out crowd seemed to be making out of his molehill-cum-milestone. Like a boxer’s punching power, Billy’s facility with a keyboard will surely be the last thing to desert him, but he was also upbeat and in fine voice throughout, backed by an ace band of longtime sidemen and women, ever cognizant if never distracted by his requirements as a showman. The set began, as was appropriate, in the late seventies, with Billy banging out the feisty verses of “Big Shot” on his trademark Steinway Grand, though it wasn’t until I found myself lip-synching the words to bass-driven coming-of-age story-poem “My Life” that I experienced my first of what would be several spontaneous spikes in emotion. Part protest, part promise, part prophecy, “My Life” has always meant a great deal to me, and each fresh listen (that’s more than a few since 1985) leaves me awash in beautiful possibility, not just in solidarity with the song’s eloquent protagonist but for me personally, and, by extension, everyone I love. “My Life” is a conduit that speaks directly to the latent part of ourselves that, when pressed, would refuse to yield to doubt or fear or complacency, that tunes out the naysayers and pushes forward, undaunted, toward new horizons. I listened to it on headphones in the airport terminal, beaming involuntarily. I choked up a little from my lower bowl seat while listening to it live. “I am here,” I told myself repeatedly, still bearing some residual disbelief. As it always does, the song backed me up.
His nonchalant attitude about the big 7-0 notwithstanding – this was the 64th show of the MSG residency so far, a number less round but no less impressive – Billy Joel live at The Garden is business of the highest possible order and monetary return. I shouldn’t have to tell you it roared like big ocean surf and idled like an Italian sports car. For two-and-a-half hours, the outwardly sheepish but totally game birthday boy held court with his rotating piano from a stage without a proper back, entertaining his encircling throng of throaty well-wishers, and, occasionally, vice versa. The set was appealingly eclectic, a mix of predictable perennials and mild surprises shot through with playful musical digressions, a light, almost improvisational looseness, and, as befit the occasion, special appearances by a small army of “surprise” guests both in person and via satellite. P!nk appeared on video to serenade Billy with the first verse of “Just the Way You Are”. Informal, impromptu fan voting resulted in winning renditions of the lovely “Vienna”, which, as one of the few non-singles on Joel’s best album, 1977’s The Stranger, comes by its “deep cut” status dubiously, and a glorious, full acapella version of 1983’s “The Longest Time”, sung simultaneously by absolutely everyone on stage, as well as 4/5 of the audience. There were hairpin interpretations of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens, and “Start Me Up” by The Stones used to set up more traditional Billy favorites. A cocktail of amusement and incredulity gradually replaced Joel’s former poker face, as Brian Johnson sent him heartfelt FaceTime birthday greetings, followed, at conspicuous intervals, by messages from Garth Brooks, Don Henley, and Sir Paul McCartney. Peter Frampton materialized on stage to soak up some Garden love and lead the world’s best (temporary) piano accompanist through inessential but inoffensive renditions of his two hits. Speaking of hits, “Don’t Ask Me Why”, “Keeping the Faith”, “Allentown”, “Movin’ Out”, “Only the Good Die Young”, and “River of Dreams” were all solid shot multi-baggers. Daughter Alexa appeared a few songs after daddy’s ode to her namesake fishing trawler to duet on “New York State of Mind” and then lead the crowd in a communal “Happy Birthday” so monumental it featured guest vocals from Billy’s youngest daughter, Della Rose, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, in that order. There was even an opera break, ably provided by multi-octive backup singer Mike DelGuidice, that left Billy looking authentically impressed for the first time all night. The rest of this may have been old hat to him, but that certainly wasn’t. None of it was to me.
The main set ended as it must, with rousing, spirited versions of two primordial Joel signatures, the sterling “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and the immortal “Piano Man”, the latter a preordained, roof-rattling singalong, the former still his best song, period, and perfectly played. This is to say nothing of the spectacular encore, like I could possibly resist, which, after the contractually obligated word salad of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, hit the evening’s last and longest sustained high at the same time with a murderer’s row consisting of “Uptown Girl”, “It’s Still Rock ‘N’ Roll to Me”, and a fiery “You May Be Right” that saw Billy finally untethered from his Steinway and working the front row, twirling his microphone stand like Steven Tyler’s understudy, Frampton back on guitar with a smile you could spot from the upper deck, and an extended detour into Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” just to make extra sure the landing stuck. Trying to encapsulate this kind of show and repackage it for public consumption is only slightly less exhausting than performing it must’ve been, and I don’t have half of Billy Joel’s mileage or work ethic. Logistics, location, ups, downs, guest stars on the stage, starry eyes in the crowd, and amazing moment after amazing moment. Did I miss anything? Well, yes, quite a bit, actually…but I hit all the high spots. So did Billy. “Happy birthday, young man,” I thought from my relatively safe outdoor crowd-watching perch amidst the post-concert crush, watching the assembled masses flow past me and disperse into a night that was still young and strangely serene, against a backdrop of city and stars that, at that moment, was still one-of-a-kind to these eyes. The busker, playing through the exodus, had downshifted into a crisp sax interpretation of “The Longest Time”. I checked my phone, remembering the great pizza spot reported to be just across the street from MSG. “Many happy returns,” I said to the air, my feet beginning to move again.