Music is my milestone. It has always been this way. My rough-hewn road through this existence is very clearly marked by the music that changed and guided me. Not always straight – not always smooth – but guided nonetheless. You would see many well-worn faces there on the shoulder – from David Crosby to Geddy Lee to Van Morrison to Elvis Costello and Indigo Girls. You would see plenty of them several times over. But if I am to be honest, only two would be truly be necessary to track my trajectory: Elton John, and Billy Joel.
My children have grown up with Billy and Elton in their DNA – much to their perpetual chagrin. They have heard me play and sing their songs endlessly – publicly and privately in every room with a piano, poring over notes and lyrics until I get the nuances right. They were pretty ambivalent, frankly, which I guess is par for the course. But there is this part of my heart that needs them to understand the power and influence this music had over me, and how it had impacted my life choices and ultimate course – and in turn, theirs. This is their history too, and maybe if they understood it, they might understand their Dad a little better as well.
I bought tickets for all of us, but the kids didn’t seem to be too affected. Even on the day of the show, I halfway expected them to try to bail on it. But they didn’t.
So here we are, on March 9 2014, 16th row floors center stage. The room goes black, the spotlight up on Billy as he sways into the opening progression of ‘Miami 2017’. The sound and the view are spectacular, and I am immediately by myself, surrounded by the past 30 years and the dozens of Billy shows I have witnessed. And there he was. Older for sure. Just like me. When I first saw him, he was 31 and I was 13. He moved a little slower – hip replacement does that. But that piano. And the songs. They hadn’t changed. They never sounded so good.
As thrilled as I was to be bowled over by performances like ‘The Entertainer’ early on, I was way more astounded to realize that 12-year-old Sophie was on her feet, singing out loud to Vienna and Allentown, as if driven from some unknown force deep with her. “I don’t know how I know all these songs,” she screams “but I do!!” Well I know why, kid. You grew up surrounded by pianos and a Dad that coped with every challenge he ever faced by planting himself in front of them and playing until the pain dissipated. You and your brother never had a chance.
And so the show went. The mix of deep catalogue and hits thrilled me to no end but did not seem to please the pills around us who consistently cried out for ‘Piano Man’. Nonetheless, we alone stood and screamed during ‘Downeaster Alexa’, and through ‘Sometimes A Fantasy’ shook our butts in the faces sitting around us. It wasn’t until she looked over at me during ‘And So It Goes’ – a solo song about the fragility and vulnerability of the heart – that she saw that I was crying. I think that was when she started to realize that something otherworldly was happening to her dad in this room on this night. Then the strangest thing happened. She started crying too.
‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ roared at an unfathomable energy level past everything before it and landed exhausted on Piano Man to close the set. Me and Sophie were on our feet singing Piano Man word for word as we had countless times before, but now it was led not by her Dad, but by the man who helped create her Dad.
A five song encore of hits like ‘You May Be Right’ had Carey and Sharon dancing in the aisle where they were sitting, and Sophie and I went hoarse during the show closure ‘Only The Good Die Young’. When the lights came up, I was slumped in my chair wet from sweat and completely spent. My 12 year old daughter couldn’t stop laughing and said I looked like I had just been swimming.
The way home was lively in conversation as we all chatted about favourite moments and what albums certain songs came from, or which ex wife they were written for. There was no bickering, or homework talk, whining, or complaining. At least, I thought to myself, these kids had this experience with me, even if it doesn’t have a lasting impact. Even if it doesn’t change their lives, or affect them deeply, maybe it helped them understand the man I am a little more clearly. That would be OK with me.
And then it all changed again. I woke up to this 2AM Facebook post from my daughter:
Honestly, if you guys ever have the chance to see Billy Joel live, please do it. Trust me, it’s the best live performance I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Marianas Trench, and they were amazing. Billy doesn’t know it obviously, but he inspired so many people including my dad. Him and Elton John were the reason my dad started playing piano. My dad learned by ear, and Billy taught him. He’s the reason my dad is so dedicated to music to this day. It’s sad that he doesn’t know it (Billy), but, he’s part of my dad. My father grew up with him. I honestly, have never seen my dad so happy in his entire life tonight. He cried, laughed. danced, and the lady beside us had to switch seats with her husband because she couldn’t handle the amount of swag happening beside her. I’m not saying this because he’s my father, I’m saying it because I haven’t met other people who love him more then he does. If anyone deserves the name “biggest fan” my dad is one of the people who deserves it. I had a lot of fun tonight and I didn’t think I would. Thanks dad!
So my life changed once more last night. And again – as always – Billy Joel was there.