There was a time when I wanted to be Billy Joel. In tenth grade, a teacher asked everybody in the class to name the person, presumably famous, he or she would be if being that person were possible. I wrote down Billy Joel. And I think I meant it.
52nd Street was out then and its lead single, “My Life,” spoke to me, maybe for me. It followed The Stranger, which also spoke to and/or for me. I was 16 years old and from Long Island. If Billy Joel couldn't speak for me then, he was in the wrong field and I was on the wrong Island.
From roughly the end of junior high to the middle of college, Billy Joel was my spokesman and every album Billy Joel released was a personal milestone, each a defining benchmark in my life; go ahead with your own life; leave me alone. Every year for a half-dozen years, BJ (as one stoner kid in that class called him — “yeah, BJ!” — when Mrs. Alcabes read my answer aloud) came through with those deep thoughts I was sort of thinking or was bound to if he hadn't already thought them up. Things were OK with me those days when I had Billy declaring he'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. His suggestion that sinners had much more fun was all the license I needed to cut ninth-grade geometry, even with finals and a Regents on the horizon. And if I never cruised the Miracle Mile per se, I knew it was on the North Shore somewhere, in the same county I lived, in the same county where he grew up.
My life. My troubadour. My favorite artist.
It's thirty years later and by no means would I say I want to be Billy Joel nor have been Billy Joel.
• I would have made a ton of money, but I would have been gamed out of it by relations.
• I would have married a supermodel, but I would have divorced a supermodel.
• I would have bought a sweet ride, but I would have driven it straight into a tree.
• I would have written some gems, but halfway through these three decades, I would have would have stopped writing almost altogether and I would have gone from The Stranger to just getting on strangers' nerves.
Billy Joel wasn't an ideal role model, not even retroactively. Sometimes a fantasy is best left unfulfilled. But he was still my piano man, my angry young man, my main man straight through The Nylon Curtain, the album whose “Allentown” made me think, whose “Laura” made me wary, whose “Pressure” made me nervous, whose “Goodnight Saigon” made me well up with tears. One side, four songs, total immersion…and “She's Right On Time” awaited on the flip side.
By god, how I loved Billy Joel for that roughly five-year period marked, in my mind, from the first bottle of red to the final whistle that blew ominously on those steelworkers in Pennsylvania. He was it for me, a category unto himself. There were two kinds of music by my reckoning: Billy Joel and everything else, in exactly that order.
So why am I not unqualifiedly thrilled that he's going to play the last non-Merengue concert ever at Shea Stadium? Why does this melding of two of the avatars of the two passions of My Life, music and Mets, not feel quite right? Why do I want to tell everybody who's been leaving nasty comments under the picture of Billy Joel in a Mets cap, cutting this awesome entertainer down to 3:05, to cut it out but can't quite convince myself to be his most forceful advocate on this particular issue?
NO, IT'S NOT the Yankee thing, not really. Sure, it's always annoyed me that the carrier from Norfolk (the Tidewater area, for crissake) picked the Yankees up for free. And I never liked that the Yankees grabbed the headlines every time (though Pete Rose could always go screw himself). And if “Brooklyn's got a winning team” and “Mickey Mantle/Kerouac” could be a part of “We Didn't Start The Fire,” then “Amazin' Mets” could have been subbed for “Bernie Goetz”. In fact, every time I sing along, I indeed insert “Amazin' Mets” after AIDS and crack (though maybe that's not very good company). It's not that or the pictures of him a couple of times in the vertical swastika. I can only do so much ideological purity on non-baseball matters. “You spoke to me and for me, Billy, but you invited Rick Cerone up on stage one night in 1980 — get lost.” Can't do it.
NO, IT'S NOT the lack of Met thing. Billy Joel's Mets cap last week fit all right (once they gave him one that wasn't a size too small). He sang the national anthem before Game Two in '86. “New York State of Mind” was a postgame staple circa 2001. His concert at the Garden on October 15, 1986 made for legendary accompaniment to the winning of the National League pennant. He even managed to pull the name Vinegar Bend Mizell out of the recesses of his memory at the press conference (available for and worth viewing at mets.com if for nothing more than the theater of it) that announced his July concert. I give him the celebrity dispensation, same as I've given the likes of Paul Simon and Chris Rock, New Yorkers who have shown up at Shea and other local stadia as mood and opportunity dictate. Paul McCartney became running buddies with Joe Torre circa 2003 while Bruce Springsteen was trading licks with Bernie Williams and forgetting whose pitching he featured in the “Glory Days” video. Do we rip their faces out of the they-played-Shea montage? Celebrities, with rare exception, are too busy becoming and staying famous to be fans like the rest of us. That's probably why we appreciate it so when one of them truly commits to a team (or detest it even more when they commit to the wrong team).
NO, IT'S NOT that somebody else would be more or perfectly appropriate. The Beatles can't come together in 2008. I would assume that somebody reached out to Paul and he said no, so if you can't get him for your stadium show, then it's up for grabs. Ringo? Liberty DeVitto's seat is waiting. Ringo can totally sit in (Ringo's current single “Liverpool 8” includes the line, “In the U.S.A./When we played at Shea/We were number one/And it was fun”; all hail Ringo). Hard, however, to see Ringo fronting Shea all by himself, even with his All-Starr Band. The Beatles would be more appropriate than anybody to play the last concert at Shea. Everybody else followed in their footsteps. The Beatles opened Shea Stadium to rock 'n' roll. Everybody else was just playing where the Beatles played. While it would be nice, on merit, if somebody whose commercial and creative peak came after Jose Reyes was born were a logical candidate, it's not so bad that someone who has never not attributed his rock 'n' roll inspiration directly to the Beatles kind of squares the horseshoe.
NO, IT'S NOT that the honor of playing the last non-Merengue concert at Shea requires a blood-soaked loyalty oath to the New York Mets and to the republic for which it stands. Unless you want to save the date for Yo La Tengo based on actual baseball fandom or Baha Men by pleasant association, Billy Joel of Hicksville is as appropriate as anybody else for this gig, more appropriate than most. (By the way, isn't Shea a city facility? If the Parks Department wanted to schedule An Evening With Mike Francesa as its closing act, would the Mets have veto power?)
NO, IT'S NOT the decline of his output followed by the dearth thereof. I bought An Innocent Man as soon as it came out in 1983, just as I did The Nylon Curtain and Songs In The Attic and Glass Houses when they came out. I liked a lot of it, but it struck me as overly self-indulgent. I bought The Bridge as soon as it came out in 1986. It was the first Billy Joel album since high school that I hadn't attempted to memorize every lyric from (though I appreciate that the otherwise cringey “Modern Woman” is the only song I know of that clearly mentions “1986”). I bought Storm Front as soon as it came out in 1989 and realized if Billy Joel were Joe Blow, I wouldn't have bothered. I bought River Of Dreams as soon as it came out in 1993. By then I was reconciled to being a creature of habit. I would have bought the next new Billy Joel album after that, but there wasn't one. Now it's fifteen years and counting, if not exactly waiting. I've bought the live albums and the compilations and such, but I can't say I haven't found other music to occupy the interregnum. From that last quartet of increasingly disappointing albums, however, there are enough gems to have created maybe a pair of good ones. Add those songs to all that Long Island soul-searching that got me through high school and a chunk of college, and I'm confident he could still blow everybody else's set list away.
All my Billy Joel concerts — I've been to four — came after I was sold on his brilliance as a songwriter and a spokesman for me. All his so-so recordings were what were being toured behind when I saw him in '84, '86, '87 and technically '93-'94 (New Year's Eve at the Coliseum). It didn't matter. Even the numbers I didn't care for from the studio exploded in person. I had never been to a big-time concert before Billy Joel at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. It turned out to be the one I was waiting for. That night, he turned the title track “An Innocent Man” into heartache live whereas it was schmaltz on cassette. I had the same kind of reaction to “Big Man On Mulberry Street” and “This Is The Time” on The Bridge tour.
• The afternoon after that St. Pete performance, I was up and at 'em and back across the Howard Frankland Bridge to take in the Mets and Jays at Al Lang. In a 24-hour period I saw Billy Joel and Dwight Gooden for the first time.
• In December '86, after his almost-Christmas show at the Coliseum, I stopped at a 7-Eleven on Hempstead Turnpike for a cold beverage and found the RC Cola cans that celebrated the National League and World championships of two months earlier; I loved him the most when the Mets were at their worst and now I could connect him to the Mets at their best. I still have those cans.
• Five months later at the Brendan Byrne Arena snapped a streak of 188 consecutive Mets games attended, watched or listened to, one that ran from April '86 to May '87, postseason gratefully included…and three nights later I met my future bride.
• I can't peg anything specifically Metsian to New Year's Eve 1993 except maybe that the warm way Stephanie and I and 16,000 stood and sang “Piano Man” as one has made me think it would work a lot better than “Sweet Caroline” at Shea. I'll bet it will be pretty good there even without a ballgame. (It was also lovely to officially end 1993.)
I don't know that Billy Joel can vocally deliver a concert in 2008 the way he did in those halcyon days when I saw him previously. Every time I've heard him attempt a high note on TV, the results haven't been pretty. But he'll work it. He'll be Al Weis if he can't be Donn Clendenon. He'll get the job done, and whatever band he convenes will throw strikes like Seaver, Koosman and Gentry. I don't doubt Shea's last non-Merengue concert will be a great show, even at 2008 prices (when Billy said at his press conference that he insisted prices be kept reasonable, as in under $100, I nearly gagged). I think those tickets to the Bayfront Center 24 years ago were fifteen bucks.
So it's not I don't think he'll be very good. It's not that I've gone from considering him an idol in teens to a bit goofy in my forties. It's not that — despite trying his best last week to invoke “The House That Casey Built,” seeing, he swears, more Mets games than Yankees game in his time — his favorite baseball team isn't our favorite baseball team. And it's certainly not because I consider myself some sort of Murray Hewitt and would write him off as not rock 'n' roll enough for the occasion or that it's somehow to his discredit that he can write memorable songs in a wide variety of styles. Why am I not utterly enthused that in mid-July on a Wednesday night, Billy Joel will crash our party and play Shea Stadium as the last non-Merengue act ever to do so?
I have two theories:
1) I don't want anybody to play the final anything at Shea Stadium because of all that implies.
2) When Billy Joel played Yankee Stadium in 1990, he said that when trying to nail down a venue for a really big show, he first considered Shea because the Beatles played there — but then he remembered Grand Funk played there and decided their legacy made Shea Stadium a far less special place for him. I found and still find that one of the most unnecessary and snotty things an artist on top of the world could have said about another act which by then had limited cachet in music circles. Unless Grand Funk Railroad trashed the Hassles' amps or TP'd their tour bus back in the day, that quip, more than any subsequent public or artistic misstep taken by Billy Joel, revealed feet of clay on my adolescent idol. Wouldn't play Shea because Grand Funk had defiled it? You can take your Downeaster Alexa and ram it into a tree, too, for all I care. Plus I saw Mark Farner at Jones Beach in 1988 on a Super '70s Fest bill that included Bachman-Turner Overdrive (who closed the evening, incidentally, with “Takin' Care Of Business”) and he was excellent.
Yeah, it's got to be that business about Grand Funk.