The New Chairman of the Board

Billy Joel during a tribute concert at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., November 19, 2014. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)
Now 70, Billy Joel has all of the swagger & sangfroid of late-period Frank Sinatra.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE H e is 70, and expansive across the midsection, and with his shaved head he could be a barroom bouncer. There is a line running up from his right eye into his forehead. That eye looks like it took a punch, or maybe it’s just being squeezed by the years. Billy Joel used to race around the stage in tennis shoes, sometimes jumping up on his grand piano. “Don’t take any s*** from anyone!” would be his Long Island valedictory at the end of an evening. Now he limits his movements, spends nearly the entire evening seated at the piano, which is on a turntable that does a half-turn once in a while. He brought on a surprise guest — “the world’s greatest violinist!” Itzhak Perlman added his beautiful violin to two numbers. Perlman is 74. We’re none of us as young as we used to be.

So: Let’s party? The crowd was non-young on February 20 at Joel’s 118th Madison Square Garden concert, but 40,000 creaky knees got a workout beneath that giant sports-style banner in the rafters (currently reading JOEL 118) up there with the Knicks and Rangers jerseys. Joel spoke for all of us who are old but feisty: “Last time I was here they hit my house!” he cried at the top of the show. “They knew I wasn’t home, so . . .” Joel was referring to the strange break-in at his Centre Island, Long Island estate (14.6 acres) the weekend of January 25. The burglars didn’t steal anything; they merely damaged several specimens of Joel’s prized motorcycle collection. Who breaks into a man’s home and beats up on his bikes? “This time I got dogs, I got guns, I got everything,” Joel said. “I hope they come back.”

Laughing off a weird and disturbing attack was a moment of Rat Pack cool. Joel has turned into the Sinatra of rock — he took the blows, but the record shows he did it his way. Just as Sinatra kept being Sinatra till Sinatra-ism eventually came back in style, when the Chairman was in his last decade, Joel is sticking to what he does, and what he does is perform some of the most enduring popular songs of the past 50 years. When he chugged into “Piano Man,” late in the show, he took a few breaths as he regarded the harmonica holder around his neck. Not again! said his face. Again, said the crowd. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” wasn’t even released as a single, yet it occupies a place along with “Stairway to Heaven” and “A Day in the Life” as album tracks that became monuments of pop radio. Classics adapt over time, and “Scenes,” which sounded like a despairing love song at the time, now serves as a time capsule of the Seventies, with its references to “a big water bed” and “a couple of paintings from Sears.” Joel found the perfect, telling details. Who knew Sears and water beds would ever go away?

Likewise, a decade later, merely by setting out to be a bit clever, Joel found himself skipping through a generation with his Gilbert-and-Sullivan-meets-Walter-Cronkite rock-and-roll nursery rhyme “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” with which he kicked off his encore. With that track he distilled Baby Boomers into a single shot of pop, doing what (five years later) it took Forrest Gump two and a half hours to do. The show opener, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” a dystopian vision of a now-past future that contained more poignance and power than virtually all of the same movies built on the same ideas, was conceived in response to New York City’s fiscal crisis of the mid-’70s, became a story of terrorism and loss after 9/11, and today simply sounds like a paean to retirement living in a state that, unlike New York, will at least let you use a plastic bag to take your groceries home. Well, as Joel once put it — at age 26! — just surviving is a noble fight.

There is a lot of looking backward in Joel, who stopped releasing pop albums 27 years ago and has been content to play the oldies ever since. You have to be pretty old to get the joke he wove into the opening piano solo of “My Life,” which he intermingled with the melody of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” If you were alive in the winter of 1978, you have both songs (released two weeks apart) filed beside each other in the memory drawer, as Joel does.

Why dissemble? Joel’s nostalgia is unabashed and unashamed. He doesn’t have to play these shows. He doesn’t need the money, he isn’t trying to put across new material to prove he’s still relevant. He doesn’t care if the kids know his name. Just like late-period Sinatra. If Sinatra could have written songs, he would have written ones like Joel’s — tunes of merry swagger (“You May Be Right,” which closed the show and rendered 20,000 people delirious), local pride (“New York State of Mind,” backed by gorgeous postcards of the cityscape on video screens overhead), and admiring disbelief at feminine duplicity (“She’s Always a Woman”). At the conclusion of that melodious attack, Joel announced, “and then we got divorced!” Ring-a-ding-ding. Joel even wrote songs bursting with Italian pride — not just Brenda and Eddie’s tale but also “Movin’ Out” and “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” a ditty about Little Italy backed by a Big Band–style brass section straight out of a mid-century Billy May orchestration of a Sinatra swing album.

Joel is really quite Italian for a Jewish guy; he grew up running with Italian Americans, talks like an Italian American, and even used to go to Mass with Italian Americans as a kid, until a priest told him to knock it off.  In a recent conversation with a Los Angeles Times writer, “Joel came off like a supporting character from The Sopranos,” wrote his interviewer.

“Where’s the Orchestra,” a bleeding chunk of despair from The Nylon Curtain  that Joel unexpectedly pulled out, would have been perfect for Sinatra (maybe on the Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely album, or No One Cares, the one Frank called his slate of “suicide songs”). Sinatra’s manic-depressive mood pendulum anticipated Joel’s.

Joel and Sinatra didn’t cross paths that much when Frank was still alive, though Sinatra did cover “Just the Way You Are” (a song Joel doesn’t much like and didn’t play Thursday). Joel played a few bars of “New York, New York” the other night, a nod to that strip of real estate between Sinatra’s New Jersey and Billy’s Long Island, but he probably doesn’t feel worthy of singing Sinatra standards. On one memorable occasion they appeared on the same stage: at Radio City Music Hall for the 1994 Grammys, at which Sinatra was giving a tearful acceptance speech upon receiving a lifetime-achievement award when the CBS broadcast cut him off and went to commercial. Joel followed up minutes later by interrupting his own performance of “River of Dreams” to look at his watch and say, “Valuable advertising time going by, valuable advertising time going by. Dollars, dollars, dollars.” Sinatra must have laughed at that, backstage, over his Jack Daniel’s.

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