He’s been a big part of my life. He may not have ever sent me a card on my birthday or made it to my high school graduation, but he’s always been there for me when I needed him. His insight and personal stories have helped me get through tough times and celebrate wonderful ones. So naturally, when I got an email saying he would be in Portland this fall, I made arrangements to see him. I’m not sure what to expect, to be honest. We’ve never met, or even spoken, and this November will be the first time Billy Joel and I have ever been in the same building at the same time. Considering he’ll be performing on stage and I’ll be watching with my dad and tens of thousands of other ticket holders, it might not be a very personal moment.
My mom claims she went to grade school with Billy Joel in upstate New York. She says he would play the piano at lunch for anyone who was listening. Although she has no reason to lie, I can’t imagine this is true. To me, Billy Joel is bigger than life. He was never a child. He has always known love and heartache and been eloquent and talented. He was never a little kid who played in the mud and learned how to ride a bike by falling the right number of times.
Like most people my age, I was introduced to Billy Joel through “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which topped the charts when I was in first grade. My cousin Emily and I were inseparable when we were younger, and she used to dance around her living room and sing the chorus over and over, with feeling. She explained to me that it made you sound like a real singer if you said, “fie-yah” instead of “fie-urr.” I took notes. We didn’t know any of the lyrics except the chorus.
Side note: When I was in middle school, my friend Ben showed my the lyrics sheet for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and explained that it was a list of significant world events. He had memorized the lyrics, so of course I did, too. This came in handy approximately ten years later at a Waterton barbecue when the song started playing and my uncle John said, “Now, if you know all the words to this song, THAT is impressive.” Not one to be shown up, I then demonstrated my ridiculous knowledge.
I still remember sitting in the living room with my dad and listening to Innocent Man on his record player. I asked my mom and dad to teach me how to use a record player when I was about ten so I could listen to that album and Revolution by The Beatles. My dad and I would sit on the floor and play cards while we listened to a story about a woman and a man (“Christie Lee”) and heard what a quartet of Billys would sound like, serenading us (“For the Longest Time”). I learned who Christie Brinkley was when my dad explained that she was Billy Joel’s then-wife and the subject of “Uptown Girl”. In a rare moment of musical reflection, my dad told me he always liked the song “Innocent Man” because of the drastic changes in it. The chorus is much louder and more passionate than the softer, more delicate verses.
Years later, my mom bought River of Dreams (on CD this time). We would listen to it at our cabin on Lindbergh Lake – I have a generic memory of sitting on the couch with the fire blazing in the evening (although the sun sets around 4 p.m. in the winter, so it could have been any time after that) with “Lullabye” and “River of Dreams” playing while my mom cooked dinner. After that CD was over, my mom would put on Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time. Then we’d all put on our flannel pajamas and get cozy in our warm beds while the snowflakes fell outside.
When I went to college, I became friends with a guy named Sean and we discovered we shared a love of Billy Joel. Sean, however, had seen the man in concert and owned the full 3-disc set of Billy’s Greatest Hits. I borrowed them for a road trip to Bellingham one weekend and didn’t listen to anything else. Shortly after that I purchased the collection myself.
I became intimately familiar with most of the songs on the Greatest Hits album in the months and years that followed. Although I didn’t like all of them (I still think Garth Brooks did “To Make You Feel My Love” better than Billy… In fact, I feel the same way about “Shameless.”), I found some that resonated. The most astute readers may remember that “And So it Goes” made it onto my list of Top Five Songs About Heartbreak. I also like both “She’s Got a Way” and “She’s Always a Woman” because they capture the feeling of loving someone unconditionally while acknowledging their imperfections, however great they may be. And this may be one of the most embarrassing and cliche things I’ve said on this here blog, but “Tell Her About It” so perfectly describes the way I’ve felt (numerous times) when boys fail completely to tell me how they feel, and screw everything up in the process. The beauty of it for me is that the song is from the man’s point of view.
In twenty-six years, Billy Joel has seen me through moments of insecurity and confidence, love and heartache, confusion and clarity. He has helped me make new friends and has put my feelings into words perfectly when I didn’t even understand them myself. In approximately five months, my dad and I will get to see him perform next to Elton John at the Rose Garden.
Do you think he’ll recognize me?