The Times, They Are A-Changin

April 26, 2007 at 11:10 PM | Posted in Music | 1 Comment
  Billy Joel came to town to see me, so I felt obligated.  Even though I don’t think we were ready for house guests.  Here’s the thing:  I’ve known since December that he was coming in, but I had not the money.  I was bitterly consigned to my fate, that I would not see him in concert again, and this may be the last time to see him before he gets tremendously old.  I mean, seriously.  He’s totally ancient now–not, like Rolling Stones old, but he’s up there.
  He’s not at his peak.  I saw him at his peak.  But he is still top-notch; he has not yet been resigned to the oldies tour with Frankie Vallie, The Turtles, Three Dog Night, and a one-hit wonder band from the 70’s that no one heard of–Just play "We Had Joy, We Had Fun," over and over again for 38 minutes.  He can still fill up a 20,000 seat hockey arena by himself.  And so, this wasn’t a tour with a new album out, even:  Just a tour.  He played his old stuff.
  And here’s another thing:  I heard it said that this was a risk-taking venture for him, partly because he didn’t have a new album.  But this makes five times that I have seen him, and I was amazed, completely amazed, by the number of songs he played that I had never heard him do live.
  Based on some of what I’ve said here, you may have guessed I am a pretty big fan of his work; I am.  His big Grammy-winning album, 52nd Street, was the first one I ever got, back in 1978.  I remember the first album, although new, was defective and all the songs skipped badly, so my mom had to replace it for me.  Then I played the piss out of it.

  The first time I saw him was in 1983.  It was me, my cousin, my sister, a girl Jackie that I wanted to bang in my home town (I was in college at the time), and a guy named Bruce from college.  Bruce was disabled, and on crutches.  The show was at the Checkerdome in St Louis, named for Ralston-Purina before they split town, the bastards.  Handicap accessibility was a science fiction concept in those days.
  It was a good show.  1983, he was peaking.  This was right after Songs In The Attic, I believe.  That is a great album, a great concept idea.  He went back to his previous albums, before he got big–before The Stranger, and picked various songs that were "okay" on the studio album but totally rocked live.  Afterwards, after we took everyone home or dropped them off, I almost got laid.
  Almost.
  Early 90s–no later than 92, I guess I should look it up–I saw him again.  This time the Checkerdome was called The Arena, and it stayed that until they tore it down, the bastards.  I took the wife–did anyone else go?  Well, yeah, there were 20,000 people there, but did anyone else go with us?  I don’t remember.  I just don’t.
  What I do remember is this:  The first time I saw him, I saw (and Billy Joel explained, between songs) that because of how arena seating is, his stage is set up such that EVERYONE has a good few, he moves around his Z-shaped stage to face all directions at some point, even–and this is important–even the seats behind the stage.  At the first show, our seats were too the side; so much so, in fact, that with a normal setup we would have been consigned to a shitty view, similar to watching someone through the crack in a partially opened door.  Because of his stage setup, we had excellent seats, and were only 10 rows back.
  So, knowing this, I got seats behind the stage, about row G.  Seven rows back.
  We arrive, and get to our seats, and The Storm immediately erupts.  The show hasn’t started yet, of course, and so people are milling around, getting to their seats, and it’s relatively quiet, for an arena roughly half-full, about 10,000 people there so far.
  "What the hell did you do?  You stupid fucking asshole!  These are shitty seats!  They’re behind the goddamn stage!  What a fucking moron!  Goddammit!  We’re not going to be able to see shit!  You motherfucking dumbass!  Why did I let you get the seats!  Fuck!"
  This was typical, by the way, of the type of beratement I received from my wife, pretty much on a daily basis.  I said nothing, because she had trained me so that if I tried to talk back, defend myself, answer, or anything, she would continue and escalate.  "Let the bitch run down" became my motto.  Billy Joel must have heard her, because after he came out and played a couple of songs, he talked to the audience, like he always does.  He is a smart, funny guy.  He should have a talk show.
  But he explained to everyone about the seating, turning to us, and we were seven rows back.  He winked at me, rolled his eyes at her (It’s true!  I swear it is!  You calling me a liar?), and said, "And when I turn around this way–" pointing at us "–the guys in the front row will have the shitty seats!"
  Despite The Storm, it was a great show.  I really enjoy live music, and Billy puts alot of energy into his act.  When he was facing us directly throughout the show, I would look at The Storm for some indication, vindication–something.  Of course you know I never received an apology of any kind, nor any kind of acknowledgment that the seats were not only fine or okay but actually awesome.
  His stage show is something to behold, and this show was probably his peak.  Despite the conventional wisdom that he is a "piano balladeer," he is actually a rocker.  It was loud and hard and fast.  He was all over the stage when he wasn’t at the piano.  Sometimes he was on the piano, threatening to do a back flip off of it.  He would run the course of the stage, facing all directions during a song.  He played with his band, he mocked, he joked, he spun the microphone stand, he played to the audience.  He is a true showman.
  Long about 97, I believe, he came to town with Elton John.  I went with The Storm, of course, and also my friend Bunny and some of her friends.  We all rode together, but their seats were different from ours.  It was in the 50,000 seat Busch Stadium, and it was awesome.  I wonder if a concert DVD was made of any of this tour–if so, I’d like to have it. 
  It started with both Billy and Elton on stage, two grand pianos end-to-end.  One white, for Elton, and one black, for Billy.  They played together, a couple of Elton songs, then a couple of Billy songs.  Then Billy Joel left, and Elton did his thing.  He played mostly his stuff, and couple of Billy Joel Songs.
  Then there was a break.  They switched out the bands, too, and set up Billy Joel’s band.  Again, they both came out, played a few of each of their songs, then Elton left.  Billy Joel did his thing, mostly his stuff, and couple of Elton tunes.  This is in the gigantic, 50,000 seat Busch Stadium, and Billy Joel’s band was noticeably louder.
  Elton then came back out, and they did a few of each of their tunes again, close to the finale.  The finale was a Billy Joel song.  Piano Man, of course.  They were both playing the piano, and then Elton just stopped.  Billy Joel was playing, but not singing.
  50,000+ *other* people were singing.  Elton sat there and watched, mouth open as everyone sang Piano Man.  It gave me chills then to witness it; it does again to write about it.  It was an awesome show.
  We saw him again in 03.  My sister says she asked me to get her a ticket, and I didn’t.  One of the advantages of being a man is that I can conveniently forget things, but I don’t remember this; it sounds like bullshit to me.
  This time it was either the Saavis Center or the New Kiel, depending on what they called it at the time.  It was a good show, but not his best, and I’ve seen him enough to know that he was a bit off his game.  We were expecting a very high energy show, and it was somewhat less than that.  It was still a very good show, just not his best of the four I had seen.  Later I heard that this was not a tour he wanted to do; he had to, he was forced to, due to the fact that although he had been a quad-jillionaire, he had been ripped off by friends and business partners and actually really needed money.  He did cancel a few dates due to illness as well, so that may have accounted for it also.
  So for the past year or so, I was a little bummed out that the last time I saw Billy Joel, it
  a) wasn’t his best show; and
  2) I saw it with The Storm.
  Tickets went on sale for this show, and being in the middle of a divorce as well as just in general not being good with money, I had nada the cashola to obtain the tickets.
  Out of adversity, a little good news falls my way.  From my dad’s recent passing, a small chunk of change was given to me.  I had some very serious things to pay:  past due taxes, insurance, loan payments.  The one thing I did splurge on for myself was tickets to Billy Joel.  By God, I’m going to do at least *one* thing for myself.
  We got the tickets.
  We got the tickets so late that most of the good seats were taken.  Actually, all of the good seats, all of the mediocre seats, and most of the shitty seats were taken.
  I bought tickets for Detroit and I, as well as my sister and her friend Lou.  These seats were not quite outside in the parking lot, but close.  I had an excellent view of the backs of the heads of the 20,000 people in front of me who had better seats.  Thank God for the Jumbo-tron, or whatever it’s called.
  It was a great show.  Billy has gotten older, as have I.  From down on the stage to straight out to me, a few hundred feet away, with thousands of people around, he gave me a private wink and a nod, and I nodded back.  We connected.  We both. . .understood.
  He generally covers some Beatles tunes, which he didn’t do this time, although he did do "Johnny B Goode."  And an old classic.  Very old.  "Rootbeer Rag," from Scott Joplin, from about one hundred years ago.  And he did something very few people could get away with.  He had a guy named "Chainsaw"–was he a roadie?  Who was he?  In the middle of the show, Chainsaw came on stage and performed an AC-DC song, "Highway to Hell."  And it was good.  It sounded just like them.  Billy Joel was nowhere on the stage during that song.  It was one of the oddest things I have ever seen, but it was good–it rocked.
  As I said, he has gotten older.  But he knew his limitations.  He didn’t run all over the stage, but he did travel it.  Instead of running himself ragged, he concentrated on performing.  The camera on the big screen caught him several times with his hands flying smoothly over the keyboard.  Since he didn’t run himself down, his voice was completely top-notch.  In the past, he has needed help in hitting the highs on "An Innocent Man," but this time he did it himself.  *Blow me, Frankie Vallie*, he seemed to say.
  And the set list itself:  Wow.  Having seen him several times, I thought I knew what to expect.  And a DJ referred to it as a "greatest hits" show, just because he had no new album out.  But it was more than that.  It was songs of his, that, after seeing him several times, I never expected to hear live.  Many old faves, to be sure, but definitely some new tricks thrown in there.
  Of course you’re going to hear "My Life," "Big Shot," "River of Dreams," and things like that.  Haven’t heard "She’s Always a Woman to Me" ever, I think, though.  That was good. But "Zanzibar"?  "Everybody Loves You Now"?  "The Entertainer"?  Come on!  "The Entertainer"!  Billy Joel himself described that song as what happens when people–record executives–want another big song like "Piano Man."  "Do Piano Man again.  But you know.  Different."  "The Entertainer" is kind of like "Piano Man Part 2:  Revenge of Piano Man."  Some of these songs may have never seen the stage before.
  He offered us a choice, by the way.  He said, I’m going to give you three songs, tell me which one you want to hear.  Fuck.  I wanted to hear ALL of them, dammit.  "Summer, Highland Falls," which is an unasuming little song that I really love that hardly anyone has heard from (I think) the album "Turnstiles."  "Vienna," the second track on the second side of "The Stranger," when you hold the precious vinyl in your hands, with the very appropriate accordian on it.  I had high hopes to hear either of these, and then he offered up "Captain Jack."  Fuck me.  Well, I know what the audience is going to pick.
  And it’s still good choice.  Captain Jack is one of the reasons Billy Joel did the album "Songs in the Attic."  It’s a song from the Piano Man album, and the studio version is just. . .lame.  His voice quivers, you can tell how young he is, from the early 70s.  There’s no depth or emotion to it.  The song is about a loser on drugs who’s life is going no where.  Sing it like you mean it, dammit!
  But it’s a well known song, and so that’s what the people chose.  Rather pedestrian.  Still, it was awesome.  The version on "Songs in the Attic," and the live version he performed for us, are full of power and emotion, and you can hear the sneer in his voice, the contempt for this character.  It rocked.
  I noticed this subtle little change:  On the live album, on the line, "So you play your albums, and you smoke your pot, and you meet your girlfriend in the parking lot," the crowd on the album cheers during "smoke your pot."
  This crowd, they be a bit older.  They didn’t cheer during that line.  Maybe they needed to turn their hearing aids up.  It reminded me that I have the live album he did in Russia in the 80’s, around the time the wall fell down.  He covers other people’s tunes on occasion and for that show, he covered Bob Dillon.  "The Times, They Are A-Changin’"
  Yeah, Bill, don’t I know it.

  At the end of the show, he says the same thing, and I realize, I realize now, that he was talking to ME, and I finally listened to him, I did what he said.  We did have a connection after all, see?  He was telling me to leave my wife:
  "Good night, St Louis!  Thanks alot!  Don’t take any shit from anybody!"
  Thanks, Bill.

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1 Comment »

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  1. I felt like I was right there at the concerts…
    I would have loved to have seen Elton and Billy.
    I believe he spoke to you personally, I do…really


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