Thursday, June 12, 2008

You ain't just whistling, Dixie

My wife and I are going to see Billy Joel tomorrow night at Mohegan Sun. Based on the number of sold-out shows he's doing there, it's possible everyone in New England has, or will have, seen him by the time his residence (if that's what it is) is over. I don't pretend that he has the vitality or applicability a contemporary (or at least always thought of as a contemporary) Bruce Springsteen has, but I have always been very fond of him and we have a history even if the only one who thinks of 'we' is me.

I first saw Joel perform in 1973 at the Rutgers University Field House, not the RAC-the old field house with the Olympic pool upstairs in the balcony behind the stage. He was touring behind Piano Man which was his second album, though he was reluctant to talk about the debut, Cold Spring Harbor, because the master lathe for the pressing had been a tad too slow and unless you had a variable speed turntable (like we did at WMMR-FM) he sounded kinda whiny and squeaky.

Anyway, halfway through the encore, he was joined on stage by Springsteen who was still struggling to rise above "the Next Dylan" label that had been slapped on him with Greetings from Asbury Park and for about six minutes on stage, neither one of them seemed to care what had been written about them. They were Elvis and Jerry Lee and they hit all the high points of that whole "Good Rockin' Tonight" vibe like two twenty-something guys, full of sass (or other four-letter words that end in double s) and vinegar going for it and loving it.

We roared for more and got it. It was a great night for everybody on stage and everybody in the audience and the only bummer was the realization the following day that the WRSU-FM engineer (the station was closed-circuit in those days and had no transmitter) had left for the night and NOT threaded up and started another reel of audio tape so NONE of the encore was recorded.

I saw him twice in Germany in later years-once in the Frankfurt Palmengarten (he was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by the venue, calling it a bus station and having short words for Bettina and Dagmar from CBS Germany backstage like they had had anything to do with booking the gig) for The Stranger and in the Jahrhundrethalle for Glasshouses. He was a great interview, deeply in love with Phil Spector's Wall of Sound (whom he, and another Phil, Ramone, successfully channeled for some classic elpees and a greatest hit, "Until the Night" that was never a hit but was a perfect evocation of The Righteous Brothers).

I was working for American Forces Radio and he had a great line that he wanted me to believe he'd come up with when he failed to graduate high school, 'back in the day.' He told his mom "I'm going to Columbia Records, not Columbia University."
As for dealing with fame and fortune and all that it brought, he observed, "if you look up 'star' in the dictionary you'll find that it means 'a ball of gas, surrounded by flames'-helps me keep things in perspective."

I look at recent photos of him and in the mirror and am grateful that if one of us had to be married to an Uptown Girl, better him than me (and talk about 'don't ask the question if you can't stand the answer', eh?). But I'm not really looking at the present or the future when I go to see him, and I don't think anyone else is. He was an important part of the soundtrack of my life at a specific point and place in time so if all I have are memories, leave me to enjoy those. They're the faces of The Stranger and I love to try them on.
-bill kenny


Frank said...

if you want to know how to deal with fame and/or fortune have a look at


dweeb said...

When you don't know where you're going, Frank, any road will get you there so your map is probably as valid as anything offered by anyone NOT named Tom-Tom.