Many of you are reading this while sitting at the kitchen table in the house you grew up in. That is not possible for me. My parents sold my childhood home on Long Island, shortly after I got my first apartment in NYC. I seldom get back to Long Island. But when I do the memories come back to me in droves. Earlier this week I ventured to “The Island” for a wake. It took me three hours to travel fifty miles, quickly reminding me why I no longer live there. If you grew up on Long Island in the 70’s, musically that means two things…Southern Rock and Billy Joel. For some reason I put Billy Joel on my iPod and the flood of memories began.
WBAB and WLIR played Billy’s music a great deal. He was a mainstay of WNEW-FM and Q-104.3 may be the only Classic Rock station in America that still plays Billy. Billy seldom gets the respect he deserves. Many songwriters consider him a hack and if you ask any Midwestern rock music fan, they will tell you he is a wuss. I don’t subscribe to either of these opinions. He has recorded some of my favorite albums and many of his songs occupy a special place in my heart. A relatively obscure song, “You’re My Home” was one of the songs Mary Beth and I used in our wedding ceremony over 31 years ago.
As I passed the exit for the Meadowbrook Parkway and the road that leads to my alma mater, Hofstra University, I remember Billy’s first album, “Cold Spring Harbor”. It was mastered at the wrong speed and Billy sounds like a chipmunk. I worked at the radio station (WVHC) and I used a variable speed turntable to slow down the track and carted “She’s Got a Way”. We played it regularly. It was later released on “Songs In the Attic” and it is a really great track.
I remembered commuting to college and hearing “Captain Jack” and “Piano Man” from what is usually considered Billy’s first album. That was followed by “Streetlife Serenade. A commercial disaster that nearly lead Columbia to drop Joel. “Turnstiles”, lead by great songs like “Summer Highland Falls”,”Angry Young Man”, “New York State of Mind” and “I’ve Loved These Days”, saved Billy’s butt and extended his career on Columbia.
As I traveled another exit east (probably took an hour), “The Stranger” running through my mind. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Only the Good Die Young” are just a couple of the reasons why this is a Desert Island record for me. We all knew kids like Brenda and Eddie and every red-blooded Long Island male that tried to change the life of a young Italian girl can relate to “Only the Good Die Young”.
This is about where my professional life with Billy began. I was playing softball for WLIR and we played a game against Billy’s team, the “North Shore Excitable Boys”. After the game, Billy invited us back to his home for some beers. I remember standing on the patio of the infamous Glass House and talking with him about the Eagles new record. He said “how can you follow Hotel California”. I responded, “how do you follow “The Stranger”. He just looked at me and smiled. To this day, I don’t believe he considers himself a great songwriter. Billy later joined the WLIR team for some games. Below is a picture of that team. Also on the team were Billy’s keyboardist Richie Cannata and Billy’s bass player, Doug Stegmeyer, who took his own life several years after this photo. I am on the top right. I had a lot of hair in those days.
Not long after this picture was taken I went to work at Columbia and began working with Billy. He was everything I expected. Irreverent, down-to-earth, funny and generous with his time to his fans. I have lots of great memories, but there are several that stick out. There was the night he did his best impression of Dudley Moore’s signature character Arthur to convince an annoying and excitable syndicated radio producer that he was drunk. This of course was just minutes before he was going live on the air to over 100 stations across the country. I vividly remember bringing my daughter Jessica (8 at the time) to Philly to see Billy perform at The Spectrum. He was so gracious to Jessica and practically came to tears when he realized she was almost exactly the same age as his daughter Alexa Ray. He hated the fact that touring kept them apart frequently.
The next exit I passed was for Roslyn. This was the exit for My Father’s Place, the premier music club on Long Island. At one point or another everyone played there. Below is a picture from a night where a Columbia/415 band named Translator played and Billy showed up. Pictured is my friend Bob Kranes, iconic Columbia A&R man Don Devito, Billy and the band. Billy performed “Miami 2017 at a gathering of friends following Don Devito’s passing last year.
As I reached my destination, “An Innocent Man” came on my iPod. This album is essentially a collection of love songs to Christie Brinkley and the most optimistic record he ever wrote. “Nylon Curtain”, “Storm Front” and “River of Dreams” show the maturation process of Billy as an artist and are terrific albums. All three of these albums are jam-packed full of memories for me. Among them is a dress rehearsal for the “Nylon Curtain” tour, which was held in a hangar on Eastern Long Island. It was great to be there for such a special event. A few years later I realized that this was the same hangar where the remains of the plane and victims of the TWA flight that exploded off the coast of Long Island were taken.
Everyone has a band or an act that is special to them. But if you lived on Long Island in the 70’s and 80’s it is different with Billy. In the memories of every girl I ever dated, every concert I ever saw, every friend I had in college, runs the thread of Billy Joel. Whether you consider him a pop star or a rock star, he spoke to all of us. He hasn’t released an album of pop/rock music in nearly 20 years. He once told me that for him reality has surpassed his dreams. I am sure this makes it difficult to conjure up the motivation needed to commit yourself to the effort and writing and recording an album. Also, as the years go by, the fear of your work being rejected must get greater with each turn of a calendar page. The last song on his last studio album, “River of Dreams” is called “Famous Last Words”. I truly hope he changes his mind.