The Piano Man returned to Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night, answered questions from students, played some tunes as part of his answers, served as music box to some Karaoke singers, and generally imparted some of his hard-earned wisdom from his four decades as a professional musician. The audience laughed, sighed, and stood to applaud Billy Joel.
A high school drop-out who has been awarded honorary degrees from six universities, including the Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, Joel for several years has visited college campuses to offer his common sense advice to aspiring musicians and to offer insight into his songwriting. He said that as a youngster he wanted to be a teacher but found early work as a musician, and after dropping out of school to become a working musician, he did not think it would be possible.
Joel’s self-deprecating wit, easy rapport with his audience and, yes, the adulation of his fans, came together in Storrs at the event sponsored by the Student Union Board of Governors.
When two sisters told how they had tried to see how he played the rapid-fire introduction of “Prelude to an Angry Young Man” – which Joel said was his effort to emulate the drum solo to the old surf song “Wipeout” – he invited them on stage to watch him do it.
A female student told how her “go-to” song when singing Karaoke is “Only the Good Die Young,” he offered her the microphone while he played for her rendition of the tune.
A young man saying he wanted to sing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” with Joel was handed the microphone and belted out a credible rendition of the song, as did a student who asked to accompany him singing “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the songwriter’s biting political satire of the 1980s.
Joel’s format was an evening of questions and answers, not a concert performance. He offered advice for those aspiring to a career in music (be committed to a love of music, not all the trappings of fame or trying to make a hit recording); related anecdotes about how songs were inspired (such as when his musical hero Ray Charles called and asked him to write a song, leading to “Baby Grand”); and revealed some of the highlights of his long career (performing in the Soviet Union).
Not every performer is able to leave the comfort of their usual stage environment and the security of their ensemble of musicians. Fewer still have the ability to improvise at a moment’s notice, as when a woman asked Joel to sing a song saying “hello” to a friend about to move away and he fulfilled the request with a humorous blues riff.
The lessons he learned from the six months he spent playing piano in a Los Angeles bar in the early 1970s, providing the inspiration to his signature song, have served Joel well over the years. They have allowed him to survive the ups and downs of the music business, cross over to different generations of fans, and earn the respect of his peers. Asked by a student how he felt about the fact that his music has attracted fans across three generations, Joel said simply: “Flabbergasted.”
When this reporter interviewed Joel for a newspaper story in 1976 before he played a concert at a small community college gymnasium in New Jersey, we discussed his reasons for pursuing a career in music.
“I like to play, to perform,” he said at the time. “Some people basically want to be rock and roll stars. You identify with that and get into elitist trips. I don’t lump myself into that. Basically I got into it as a songwriter.”
While he has continued to perform the hits that fans come to hear in sold-out stadiums and arenas, Joel has not released a recording of new songs since 1994. In the recent documentary about the final concert at Shea Stadium in New York City that he headlined, Joel says that he continues to write new music but focuses his attention on instrumental tracks, mainly classical in nature, because he chooses to improve his craft.
As evidenced by the long list of his career accomplishments – which include induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and being the only musician to perform at Yankee and Shea Stadiums, Giant Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in his native Long Island – Joel has demonstrated that like the classical music he so reveres, good music will stand the test of time.