Listening to a Legend

by Sarah Luna

See my introduction to this series here.

I found my roommate excitedly cleaning when I got home. Our week from hell was done. We immediately cranked up our favorite Billy Joel songs while we hashed out our stressful days. For the first time in weeks, we each got prettied up. It was refreshing to do something as humanizing as going to a show.

We found our seats in the second row of the mezzanine wing and gazed expectantly at the two pianos on the stage. The lights dimmed and the crowd hushed as two sharply-dressed Cornellians read the impressive bio of our guest. And then…Billy Joel.

He walked on stage in jeans, a baseball cap, and a Cornell sweatshirt. He spoke plainly to us as if we were in someone’s living room rather than the formal setting of Bailey Hall.  He introduced the night as “not a concert, but a time to ask me anything you want to know”.

Hands shot up. Billy pointed to a student.

How did you support yourself when you were first starting out? 

He told about working on an oyster boat, in an ink factory, and whatever odd jobs he could find. Oddly, he had only ever worked in a piano bar for 6 months.  Of course, once he mentioned piano bar, the audience clamored for a song.

“Alright, I’ll play ‘Piano Man’! Let’s get this song out of the way.” He walked over to the piano, and I could feel the audience holding its breath. Chills ran up my spine the instant he touched the piano.

AND THE PIANO IT SOUNDS LIKE A CARNIVAL  There was so much going on at that piano; his own lyrics describe it best. I could only sit and stare with my jaw dropped.

Like most live concerts, he let the audience take over the last verse, and of course we enthusiastically obliged.





The next question was something along the lines of: “How do you write music?”  He looked at us and said: “I don’t try to write hits. Look at you, you’re all so different. How should I know what any of you like? I write the music that I want to hear. Or that my friends want to hear. If someone would have said to me that ‘Piano Man’ would be a hit, I would have laughed at them. It’s in 6/8 time and about 8 miles long and about a guy who plays the piano. And ‘Uptown Girl’ [screaming and applause]…that song was a joke. It was homage to Frankie Valli. I would never have thought that these songs would become hits. I write what I like.”

The next person wanted to know about “River of Dreams” and “Lullaby (Goodnight, my angel)”. Originally, the two were combined. He woke up one morning with the melody of “River of Dreams’ in his head, and it wouldn’t leave him alone. It had a gospel feel, and he didn’t feel serious writing a gospel song. He left it alone thinking he could just ignore, but when it started pestering him in the shower, he knew that he had to write it. The song is filled with Biblical allusions; I mean, I think of it as Psalm 23 from the sheep’s perspective…but that could just be me.

The melody of “Lullaby” had a more hymn-like feel, and as he developed the melody, he decided that it could stand alone as its own song. Like a hymn, it’s also known by the first line (“Goodnight, my angel”). The lyrics were inspired by trying to explain death and dying to his young daughter. I think it’s one of the sweetest expressions of fatherly love I’ve ever heard.

The next question that stood out to me was: “What do you like to play?” Sometimes I forget that singing and playing are his job, and that there are probably times that he gets tired. It was apparent at the beginning of the night that “Piano Man”–although brilliantly executed–was something he sang for us and not because he enjoyed it. (How many times do you think he’s played that song?) I sat up straighter to listen.

He smiled and started telling us a story about a time he had to write a song to sing with Ray Charles. He was so nervous: “What do I have in common with Ray Charles? What could he possibly want to sing with me?” He looked down at the piano and thought that’s it! I’ll write about the piano. He recorded it and sent a copy to Ray Charles. He waited on edge until he received a phone call: “Hey! Is this Billy?” “Um, yes, Mr. Charles.” “Billy! Great song you have!”

And with that, he walked to the baby grand.

Naturally, he was on his own for this performance. I remember where I was when I heard about Ray Charles’ death. He was the first musician that I cared enough about to be sad at hearing he passed. Billy Joel started his verse as himself, but when he got to Ray Charles’ part, he was Ray Charles. The voice, the stylings, the persona…everything. He was incredible. That was the closest I’ll ever get to seeing Ray Charles perform, and it was such a treat!

There were lots of other questions. Was he inspired by Paul Simon at all? What was he thinking when he writes songs? Can you come to my sorority formal after the show? Is it all rock ‘n roll to you?

But my favorite was when one woman stood up and asked him about “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’ “. She had grown up with fisherman and was amazed that he could sing like them. She and her young daughter Alexa would sing that song every night before bed. I had never heard of it, so I was curious to know what made it so meaningful. He looked thoughtful for a moment and then said: “I worked on an oyster boat for a while off Long Island when I was first starting out. I was so impressed with those men and the conditions that they faced. I saw that their livelihood was disappearing, and I wanted to write something for them.” He wanted it to be a folk song. It proved harder to write than he had thought until he switched the beat from the 2 and the 4 to the 1 and the 3. This mimicked the sound of oars in the ocean. After that, the song wrote itself. “You know what, I’ll sing it for you.”

I was already intrigued. While I can’t relate to the particular situation, the fields around my home have been disappearing, and I wonder what will happen when they are gone. I had no idea that this would be the most phenomenal performance of the night. If you can, turn up the volume as high as it can go.

From the very first lines, he threw his entire voice into the lyrics. He made the piano cry out. It sounded like the ocean. I’ve been trying to write this up since Friday, and I simply can’t think of an adequate description of how incredible this song was. I must have listened to this song at least 50 times since then.

The whole time, he laughed and joked with us and was completely open to all of our questions. It felt like we were just sitting around talking. He moved from one piano to the other, up and down, always walking across the stage, always moving. Sometimes he would just play snippets of melodies while he explained things.  It was as natural as speaking for him.

The last question was: “What was it like working with Twyla Tharp for ‘Movin’ Out’ ?”  The audience groaned when the girl asked this “waste” of a question.  At first, he was skeptical at the idea of dancers performing to his music. He pictured classical ballet and told her ‘thanks, but no thanks’ essentially. She insisted that he visit her dance studio and see the routines. What he said next was inspiring.

“I watched those dancers, and I left completely choked up.  I was amazed. Twyla had caught every rhythm and half-rhythm and nuance and emotion in each of the songs, and the dancers executed it perfectly. They were so athletic and so beautiful. I looked at her and said she could do whatever she liked. She had a vision, and I just got out of the way.”

Hearing that reminded me once again of why I dance. To hear admiration put so candidly by an outsider was refreshing. It also reminded me (and excited me) that I would be dancing in less than 12 hours in a city 5 hours away.

He finished the night with “Vienna”–the song to which every stressed, confused, overwhelmed student can relate.

Slow down you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight, tonight
Too bad but it’s the life you lead
You’re so ahead of yourself
That you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you’re wrong
You know you can’t always see when you’re right, you’re right

You got your passion you got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you

The hall was completely silent as he sang that song. Hearing it sung to you is so much different than simply hearing a recording. Especially after hearing him talk for two hours, it was much more personal than I ever thought a performance could be.

He wished us good luck in our studies, thanked us for coming, and played “New York State of Mind” as a farewell.

An incredible night.