I went to a Billy Joel concert at the Asia World Arena with a few friends last night. Shawn, a good friend of mine, got a bunch of free tickets from his firm and I was first to jump on the opportunity to watch one of my favorite singers/songwriters make his debut in Hong Kong. Over a career that spans four decades, Billy Joel has put out enough hits to make a Broadway jukebox musical Moving Out out of them.
It was my first time watching the piano man live in concert. Billy in person was light-hearted and unpretentious. His humor was self-deprecating without being cynical. He introduced himself to the audience as “Billy Joel’s dad” – an allusion to his baldness and the few extra pounds – and poked fun at his very public failed marriages. Song after song, he regaled the audience with classic hits like Just the Way You Are, Honesty and, my personal favorite, Always a Woman to Me, which pushed the evening to its climax. The thrice divorcée crooned:
She can lead you to love
She can take you or leave youShe can ask for the truthBut she'll never believeAnd she'll take what you give herAs long as it's freeYeah, she steals like a thiefBut she's always a woman to me
Just as Shawn and I had predicted, Billy Joel ended the evening with The Piano Man, a chart-topper that propelled the songwriter to huge commercial success in 1973 and gave him his nickname. The song describes his early career playing at a piano bar in L.A. and holds a special place in the 60-year-old’s heart, a sentiment that came through in his raspy voice as he alternated between the harmonica and piano with equal ease and grit.
I have always been a fan of Billy Joel. His working class upbringing – he was a high-school dropout and a boxer at one time – and bumpy road to stardom gave his music authenticity and a certain existentialist charm. The songwriter achieved great popularity not only on the East Coast (the subject of much of his music), but also in the industrial heartland of the Midwest. Hits like Allentown and Pressure became anthems for blue-collar America throughout the 80s and 90s. Whenever I listen to Billy Joel’s music, I have this image of a GM plant full of auto workers bobbing their heads to the radio and turning a hard day’s work into moments of musical bliss.
During my college years in Philadelphia, I would play his Greatest Hits box set over and over again as I studied into the night. I was particularly fond of his bluesy number New York State of Mind, released during his best and most productive years in the late 70s. Hearing that song again at the concert last night reminded me how much and how little I have changed over the years.
I will never forget Billy Joel’s performance of New York State of Mind at the “Tribute to Heroes” benefit concert after the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was a perfect song choice for one of the most harrowing moments in American history. Sitting by his piano on a candle-lit stage, the piano man sang from his heart to a nation in mourning. Hearing the opening piano solo alone was enough to send goose-bumps all over my body and tears streaming down my cheeks.