Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

December 5, 2001:
Billy Joel at Princeton
Is he Mr. Piano Man, or just a guy from Long Island?

By Zachary Pincus-Roth '02

Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Richard Nixon...in fact, Billy Joel performed more impressions than songs during his Richardson Auditorium show on November 19. Officially titled "An Evening of Questions, Answers, and a Little Music," the three-hour event wasn't a concert, but rather a cornucopia of performance styles ñ a concert, interview, master class, personal essay, history lecture, and standup comedy show all rolled up into one memorable evening.

Since the University Student Government chose to hold the concert in Richardson, as opposed to the larger, less intimate Dillon Gym, seating was extremely limited. Winners of a USG lottery were allowed to buy two tickets, each of which cost $30 or $40 depending on seat location

—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, The Beatles—

The event was primarily a question-and-answer session. Student inquiries ranged from how to attract women as beautiful as Christy Brinkley (during a party, play "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano until you see a girl standing over you) to whether musical talent was innate or learned ("Those of you who aren't born with musical talent ñ tough shit"). One student said that the previous Saturday night he had made out with a girl while listening to "She's Always a Woman," but asked Joel whether he should have used "Uptown Girl" (Joel said he should have used "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin). Joel's entertaining, circuitous responses typically lasted around 10 minutes and included various piano demonstrations (at one point he began to play a reggae version of "Only the Good Die Young").

The audience appreciated Joel's Princeton-specific references. He mentioned that he stayed at the Nassau Inn and went to a "thai joint" in town while recording songs in Richardson this past spring. He even poked fun of the overly ornamented font on the Richardson signage: "Does that say EXIT or EXIZ? EXI7?"

—James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Ray Charles singing the "Star Spangled Banner"—

Joel intermittently played some of his classic hits. He stuck to songs that worked well with only a piano, such as "New York State of Mind," "Vienna," "And So It Goes," and the much-anticipated nightcap "Piano Man." He even poked fun of this constraint when, in the middle of his opening song "Summer, Highland Falls," Joel announced "soprano sax solo" in place of the real thing. Joel also performed "Miami 2017," an apocalyptic vision of New York City that takes on new meaning after September 11, especially with lyrics like "I saw the lights go out on Broadway / I watched the mighty skyline fall."

Joel also used the event to promote his recent foray into classical music. A few times he brought out Richard Joo, the pianist who performed on a recent album of classical piano songs composed by Joel entitled Fantasies & Delusions. Joo played songs from the album ñ some alone and some as a duet with the composer.

—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill—

Much of the evening's comedy played off of the contrast between Billy Joel the serious, artistically ambitious musician and Billy Joel the bouncy, more humble rock-star-turned-comedian.

For example, Joo called Joel "William," and jokingly referred to the new album as "so-called classical music." At one point Joo announced that he would perform a piece called "Lady from the North," and preceded to play a few bars of a frilly classical piano version of "Uptown Girl."

One student asked if Joel had any new causes, citing "We Didn't Start the Fire" as a past instance of him pushing a political agenda.

"'We Didn't Start the Fire' wasn't so much a political song. It was more of a laundry list," Joel said. "Do I have a political message I'm trying to put out? No. I'm a friggin' piano player."

—Beethoven, Napoleon—

To me, Billy Joel has always seemed like a two-sided pop icon. He is an uninhibited performer, and his popular songs "Uptown Girl," "Only the Good Die Young," and "You May Be Right" portray him as a wild man from the wrong side of the tracks. But he also strikes me as a rather reserved, clean cut, Long Island pianist, especially compared to other 1970s' rock stars. After he unexpectedly called on me for final question of the evening, I pointed out this contrast, and asked him which side he's really on.

"I'm just a shy guy and this [music] is my way to communicate," he said.

—Henry Kissinger, Jack Nicholson, George W. Bush—

You can reach Zach at zacharyp@Princeton.EDU