Truly, I could draw you the best fishing routes off the coast of Long Island before I even set foot in New York (thank you, “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’ ”). I was introduced to the complexities of dating beyond your station without the help of Jane Austen (“Uptown Girl,” indeed). I still sprint to see Bizet’s Carmen because it reminds me of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” And the first drink I ever ordered in a bar was a gin and tonic (though not a tonic and gin, as I’d first heard it in “Piano Man”).
In 1982, while my sister Amy was mooning over Barry Manilow’s “The Old Songs,” I was crushing my first 45, Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” My first favorite T-shirt was a blue-and-white ringer emblazoned with his name and a glittering keyboard. (That’s it in the picture above. I’m 6, my sister is 8.) My first CD was his two-disc Greatest Hits Volumes I and II. But until last week at Madison Square Garden, I’d never seen Billy Joel perform live—even though I’ve come to realize that he is the longest-running nonfamilial relationship of my life.
Billy and I first started riding high during 1983’s An Innocent Man. I was 7. “Tell Her About It,” “Keeping the Faith,” “The Longest Time”: All that glorious doo-wop with ’80s sax overlay had me wondering what I was doing in karate class when I could be taking piano lessons so that I could perform in a revolving bar someday. The album was the perfect introduction to Billy. Its lyrics didn’t require the level of introspection that songs on Piano Man, The Stranger, or Glass Houses did—I’d get into those soon enough. Though early exposure to “She’s Got a Way” did result in a misguided interpretation that caused me to sing tearfully into my pillow after saying goodbye to my favorite teacher on the last day of fifth grade. Like I said, some of his material was initially a bit out of my grasp.
Sure, I had fixations on other artists. There was my Willie Nelson phase (ages 6-9), an Aretha Franklin era (11-14), a stint with Steve Miller (15-17), and a nice run with Dr. John (17-22). But while I flirted, no one stuck around like Billy. His vivid character studies—”Big Man on Mulberry Street,” “Goodnight Saigon,” “Captain Jack”—were like Raymond Carver short stories told in new time signatures.
When I heard that Billy would be doing a monthly residency at Madison Square Garden, I knew I had to go. And despite my sister’s early-onset Manilow mania, I knew I had to bring her. As we took our seats, I learned she’d been harboring a secret: This was her fourth Billy Joel concert. Still, we sang, we swayed, we even teared up. And—like 99 percent of the 20,000 fans who fill the Garden for Billy every month—we didn’t sit down once while the Piano Man wailed wonderfully through classics like “Pressure” and “You May Be Right.” “Allentown,” “She’s Always a Woman,” and “Everybody Loves You Now,” too.
People often ask me what my favorite Billy song is, and my answer always changes. The day before seeing this show, I learned I’d lost my incandescent friend Aylie to an aneurysm at 38. “Only the Good Die Young” can seem like a trite sentiment—until it doesn’t. It was the final encore Billy performed at MSG the night I was there. So for now, that one’s my favorite, for Aylie. And because life is life and Billy is Billy, I’m looking forward to the next time my answer changes.
Joel is booked at Madison Square Garden through February 2015 or “as long as there is demand.” (So presumably, forever.)