It’s Billy Joel’s birthday today and he is turning 66, so my first music blog is a little birthday tribute.
I’ve been to Billy Joel gigs across the UK and can remember when he could do a cartwheel off the piano. When he plays gigs these days, he may not resort to those kind of theatrics any more, but it’s no loss. The music and the lyrics that goes with it are so strong and meaningful and varied in style that all the audience needs is a selection from his repertoire that fills a couple of hours to be more than happy.
Joel had recently split from Christie Brinkley when I attended one concert in the mid 1990s. It had just been in the papers. He played his first song, and bearing in mind that actor Richard Gere and model Cindy Crawford were reportedly splitting-up at the time, Joel’s singular comment on the subject came after that first song: “I suppose you’ve heard about me and Cindy Crawford”.
He didn’t play Uptown Girl – his only UK Number 1.
I imagine that after all these years, and with a daughter from that marriage that he adores, he probably regrets the comment, but that night, that solitary sour moment accompanied a conscious decision to drop his most popular UK song from his set-list for his UK concerts. And you know what? It wasn’t missed. At least not by me until it was pointed out to me afterwards.
Billy’s Joel’s repertoire is such that he can do that. I’ve been to gigs where Just The Way You Are wasn’t played, either, and the audience went away more than happy anyway, because even though it is one of his most famous songs, he doesn’t need to play it. He can mix it up and still send the audience home happy.
But, the one song that has become the must-play song of his career, as well as perhaps the most requested song of a piano player in a piano bar or hotel bar, is Piano Man. Often played late-on or even as the final song of the night, it has become his signature tune, and perhaps, the bane of his and every piano player’s life.
Joel has not written a song for over twenty years, although he still composes music. He still performs (I last saw him in the UK in 2013) and is currently on an unprecedented run at New York’s Madison Square Garden where this Summer he is due to perform for the 65th time.
This Summer is also going to be momentous for Joel for another reason. After three marriages and divorces and with a daughter who is now 29, Joel is now expecting the birth of his second child with his current girlfriend.
One of Joel’s achievements in music was his tour of Soviet Russia in 1987 – whilst still a communist state during the Cold War. During that tour, which not only included taking his his band, but then wife Christie Brinkley and young daughter Alexa Ray, he met a Russian called Viktor and they became friends. The following song that appeared on the album Storm Front, tells you why.
What I’d like you to take from this song right now is the last lines in particular:
We never knew what friends we had
Until we came to Leningrad
Given the current political climate, I think you can guess why.
Happy birthday, Bill.