Billy Joel rocked the house last night. It was, by far, the best live show I have ever attended. Joel is in his mid-fifties now, slightly paunchy with a spare white tonsure, but his energy was infectious. He began the show by introducing himself as "Billy's dad," but you would never have guessed that this amazingly vibrant performer had done this sort of thing hundreds of times over the last 3 decades. He was just that good.
I bought my first Billy Joel album (a cassette), in the summer before my ninth grade year, at a small shop in Bar Harbor, Maine. There, in a bin in the corner, I found a copy of Piano Man, Joel's second album. Jen was taking tap lessons that summer and when we got back to their house--a large structure with wood floors that Arn had built himself before Jen was born--we put on the tape and Jen tapped away to 'Ain't No Crime' and 'Travelin Prayer.' I had been taking piano lessons for a couple of years at that point and had just begun to break away from the sheet music and tomes full of music by talented dead guys to see what I could do, if I could play something I'd heard on the radio without seeing the sheet music first. I sat in that house in Maine and watched my beautiful friend dance and tried to imagine what it would be like to have people listen to me play.
Sing us a song, you're the piano man,
Sing us a song tonight
Cause we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling alright.
Less than a year later I fell hard for a boy who sat next to me on a piano bench during a party and played that song. I had listened to the song so many times I could play it with my eyes closed, but along came this boy who could somehow play it better. I felt instantly connected; here was someone who got it, who understood how the music gets under your skin, wriggles through your veins, makes you light-headed, compels you to a mostly untouched piano in the living room of a friend during a party in which sing-a-longs are most certainly not on the agenda.
I have so many memories like this, of times when this man's songs defined a particularly spectacular moment. In high school we discovered a copy of the sheet music for 'She's Always a Woman to Me' (or, as I like to think of it, 'She's a Manipulative Bitch but She's Always a Woman to Me') in the mailbox of a dowdy math teacher, delivered there, we surmised, by a secret admirer. Oh, how we cackled. Our 10th grade history teacher, Mrs. Thanski--married to Mr. Thanski, the physics teacher, who according to popular folklore, made all of their clothes himself--gave the class a choice: take her infamously impossible final exam, or use the lyrics of 'We Didn't Start the Fire' to tell the history of the modern world. (Most of us chose the latter.) And one of my most vivid memories from that era is of my friend Josh, who I met at Peace Camp (don't say it), going absolutely postal on the air guitar in my cabin as we blasted 'You May Be Right' over and over on the boom box. And Nicole, who confessed that she grew up hearing "you maaaade the rice (da-duh da-duh da da da), I maaaade the gravy."
There are so many memories. The last time I saw Billy Joel in concert, over a decade ago, in Orlando, I had just had my heart broken by the boy who played 'Piano Man' during that party many years before. I was shattered, breathless, confused. How could that connection I felt turn out to be false? How could this happen to me? Why didn't he love me? That bastard! When Joel stood under the spotlight and sang 'Innocent Man' I felt as though he was speaking directly to me, apologizing on behalf of this other person who had left me so devastated.
Some people say they will never believe
Another promise they hear in the dark
Because they only remember too well
They heard somebody tell them before
Some people sleep all alone every night
Instead of taking a lover to bed
Some people find that its easier to hate
Than to wait anymore.
Last night, as I stood with the other people on the floor of the Arena, I was flooded by memories, some bitter, some sweet, almost all a combination of both. Drawn in by the energy of the performance, I felt pulled back and forth between past and present, memory and reality. In the middle of a brilliant rendition of 'River of Dreams,' Joel and his band broke into 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' and the crowd, fairly contained up to that point, exploded. It was sheer exhilaration. When he played 'New York State of Mind,' I thought about how it feels to love a place so completely that you could never imagine living anywhere else, despite crime and disaster and rampant poverty. And later, when a 350-pound guitar roadie by the name of "Chainsaw" took the stage for the first time ever to belt out his version of 'Highway to Hell' (with Joel on rhythm guitar), I had a moment of such complete happiness that I briefly questioned what was really happening. Was I dreaming? Could I possibly make something like this up?
I left with the final bars of 'Piano Man' ringing in my ears. Today, the ringing has stopped, but the memories linger, all those songs and all those moments, my own personal soundtrack.