Despite this performer’s success, generally it wasn’t “cool” for a male high school student to like this guy in those days. In my school, it was cool to like Black Sabbath/Ozzy, AC/DC and for a bit more mainstream flavor, The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen, but Billy Joel? Really? The “Uptown Girl” guy? “Not cool, dude,” some would say to me in the hallways. But, guess what-the “Uptown Girl” guy was cranking out catchy hit after hit while dating a super-model. What’s not to like? I’ll never figure that one out.
So I carried on through high school keeping that admiration to myself. Even with all of the snide comments about Billy Joel, I didn’t pipe up to argue, I just secretly liked this guy. Actually I liked this guy since I was 10-years-old when my sister brought home The Stranger LP and later on, the 8-track version that could be heard on her 1970 Camaro Delco player.
I never understood that 8-track format – with its breaking up of longer tracks like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” – but, I loved listening to that record in the car, being able to independently visualize those descriptive songs. I’m thankful that concept music videos were rarely produced in the late 1970s because I was able to use my imagination.
I realized even at a young age that this guy was producing not only hits, but excellent full-length albums, entire 45 minute LPs thathave always been a treat to listen to from start to finish. I recall each time my sister brought those Billy Joel records home. When those records were brought into the house, I would secretly spin them, just marveling at their craftsmanship.
Then there were the legendary concerts where this guy with unruly wiry hair like mine was dressed in jackets and tie along with tennis shoes. That was “cool” to me. I heard that he jumped from his piano and ripped up bad reviews on stage. I would later feel that he spoke to those of us who were not in suburban America’s “cool club.” My sister saw Billy Joel during those piano jumping days during her college freshman year when his sixth solo album 52nd Street was getting released in autumn 1978. Oh how I wished to go to one of those concerts, but was far too young to attend.
I would go on to watch his performance and concept videos as well as the breakthrough Concert from Long Island on cable TV. By that point, Billy Joel was already in the pop star stratosphere while also getting quite deep with the release of The Nylon Curtain. Here we and Billy were in the early 1980s living our idyllic lives while Billy himself produced songs about unemployment, the effects of the Vietnam War and dealing with “Pressure.” To me, that was beyond gutsy in a time when Billy’s contemporaries like Huey Lewis was asking us, “Do You Believe in Love?” Kool and the Gang demanded that we “Get Down on It” and Loverboy was pondering why so many out there were “Working for the Weekend.” The Nylon Curtain turned out to be Billy Joel’s own Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He spent an unusual time producing this masterpiece which was both aesthetically and technically ahead of its time.
Then came An Innocent Man, a fun album derived from the pop sensibilities of my parent’s time. The album draws some inspiration from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Martha and the Vandellas. The anti-Joelites were all over this one.
“Now he thinks he’s Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show? So stupid, man!” one fellow student/Joel naysayer proclaimed, referring to “Tell Her About It.”
“Why’s he sounding like he’s on Sesame Street?” another one shout out to me in a literature class, criticizing the single “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” which contains harmonica verses courtesy of a man named Toots Thielmans.
At that point, I was old enough to drive with my friends to see a show on the From a Piano Man to An Innocent Man tour. From the moment Billy hit the ivory keys to ”Angry Young Man” on that March 1984 evening, I was mesmerized from my perch which seemed like miles from the stage below. Sure there was pop hit after pop hit in that night’s performance, but the sounds were that of true rock ‘n roll. This was not just a piano man sitting there with cigarettes replicating a lounge act, this was a full-on house rock ‘n roll. So, the encore came and we headed for the ramp. When the rumbling from the arena ceased, suddenly a convoy of police cars, limos and trucks quickly shot up the ramp and out of the arena’s parking lot. To this day, I wonder if Billy saw us suckers standing there with concert shirts in tow as he drove off into the Ohio night.
So, where was this so-called “wimp factor” too many in my world so labeled Billy Joel with for years? Sorry didn’t see it that night in 1984 or the next three times I saw Billy Joel over the years. I faithfully bought Billy’s albums when he was making them, subscribed to a newsletter and saw him at The Omni in summer 1990, with Sir Elton John over 20 years ago at The Georgia Dome and then eight years ago at Philips Arena. I finally scored decent seats to that show. I was not only mesmerized that time, but simply stunned. On Saturday, February 28th, I won’t be there at the end of a ramp waiting. I hope to be in the arena watching the encore finally confessing to the naysayers that I’m truly a “Joelfan” and proud of it.