Joel at Princeton
Is he Mr.
Piano Man, or just a guy from Long Island?
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
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?"
Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Ray Charles singing the "Star Spangled
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.
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
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."
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.
Jack Nicholson, George W. Bush
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