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Billy Joel Is In a New York State of Mind

Billy Joel and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Madison Square Garden press conference on December 3, 2013.  Photo by Jay S. Jacobs.

Billy Joel and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Madison Square Garden press conference on December 3, 2013. Photo by Jay S. Jacobs.

Billy Joel Is In a New York State of Mind

by Jay S. Jacobs

It isn’t often that a musician is considered to be almost synonymous with a venue where they play.  On the rare occasions that something like this does happen, it is usually small clubs played early on in a career – like The Beatles at the Cavern Club, or Bruce Springsteen at the Stone Pony.

It’s not easy to reach those heights in arguably the most famous arena in the United States.  However, if one musician’s name comes to mind when you mention MadisonSquareGarden, that musician would probably be Billy Joel.

The Long Island, New York native has played the arena over 40 times in his career, many as the headliner but also as a driving force of “The Concert For New York” after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 and “12-12-12: A Concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief.”

That number is about to go up quickly.  Joel had taken a few years off the road, but he is jumping back into live performance with both feet, as Joel and the Garden have recently made an agreement to essentially give him a residency there.  They have decided that he will play a gig every month at the Garden indefinitely: basically until Joel, the venue or the fans grow tired of it.  This is not likely to happen any time soon, as he has already sold out five shows at the Garden every month through March, with two more just about to be announced and others on the drawing board.

These shows were recently announced at a packed special press conference at the Garden, in which executives for the venue also honored Joel as a Garden “Legend,” a musical franchise of the arena just like the Knicks and the Rangers are the place’s sports franchises.  We were lucky enough to sit right up front as Joel sat humbly as his praises were sung by Garden executives, local sports legends, including former Knick John Starks and former Rangers Rod Gilbert and Adam Graves and New York governor (and someday maybe even Presidential contender) Andrew Cuomo.

Jim Dolan, the Executive Chairman of the Garden, had this to say: “Billy, having you as our music franchise feels a little bit like having the Pope as your parish priest.”

“I have a lot to live up to with those words, and I hope that I don’t let you down,” Joel said modestly when he took the podium.

Governor Cuomo perhaps captured the feeling the best, stating simply, “Billy’s music and his words voice the challenges of ordinary New Yorkers.  The struggles they face, the dreams they share: from high school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie [from the song ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’] to the struggle of the working middle class in “Anthony’s Song” to economic challenges of the Long Island bay men in ‘The Downeaster Alexa.'”

These songs, of course, are just a few of the classics in which Joel has used his youth in the New York area to lend vividness and nuance to his musical short stories of being poor and scrapping to attain your dreams.

For Billy Joel as a young man, those dreams included the Garden.

“I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about what Madison Square Garden means to me,” Joel said from the podium.  “Growing up as a young aspiring musician in Hicksville, NY, Madison Square Garden appeared larger than life.  Like many other aspiring musicians, I dreamed of playing the Garden.  But it was more than that, Madison Square Garden was New York to me.  It’s the place where artists become stars and players become legends.”

However, it took a while for Joel to become one of those legends.  In a musical career that started in the 60s, Joel put in lots of hard time before capturing overnight success.  He started with short-lived bands (The Hassles and Attila, anyone?) that came and went with little or no notice.  His debut solo album Cold Spring Harbor received a certain amount of acclaim, but also hardly touched the pop culture consciousness – even though the songs “She’s Got a Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” later became staples of his repertoire.

Billy’s first breakthrough came when a Philadelphia DJ named Ed Sciaky of WMMR, started playing a 7 minute concert recording of Joel’s song “Captain Jack,” giving him his first radio hit and bringing him to the attention of Columbia Records, the record label which became his home for the rest of his career.  Even at Columbia, things went a bit slowly.  Though he had his first hit single with the title track of his Piano Man album, his first three albums for the label were minor hits at best.

That all changed in 1977, when Joel recorded arguably his masterpiece, The Stranger.  The album housed four top 40 hits, including his biggest hit yet, the gentle ballad “Just the Way You Are.”  Hot on that album’s heels in 1978, Joel’s follow-up album 52nd Street also topped the charts, spawning more hits including the classics “Big Shot” and “My Life” and making Billy Joel an official superstar.

“In 1978, I achieved my dream of playing this iconic venue for the first time,” Joel said.  “I thought it didn’t get any better than that moment.  Now, thirty-five years later I’ve had the incredible fortune to experience 46 of those incredible moments, right here, including both the Concert for New York and 12-12-12, which were so important to this city.  I said it in ’78 and I’ll say it here again: there is no better venue in the world.  The best audience, the best acoustics, the best reputation and undeniable history that is palpable from the moment you step up on stage.”

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