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Billy Joel Is In a New York State of Mind

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Billy Joel

Is In a New York State of Mind

by Jay S. Jacobs

It isn't often that a musician is considered to be almost synonymous with a venue where they play.  On the rare occasions that something like this does happen, it is usually small clubs played early on in a career – like The Beatles at the Cavern Club, or Bruce Springsteen at the Stone Pony. 

It's not easy to reach those heights in arguably the most famous arena in the United States.  However, if one musician's name comes to mind when you mention Madison Square Garden, that musician would probably be Billy Joel. 

The Long Island, New York native has played the arena over 40 times in his career, many as the headliner but also as a driving force of "The Concert For New York" after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 and "12-12-12: A Concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief." 

That number is about to go up quickly.  Joel had taken a few years off the road, but he is jumping back into live performance with both feet, as Joel and the Garden have recently made an agreement to essentially give him a residency there.  They have decided that he will play a gig every month at the Garden indefinitely: basically until Joel, the venue or the fans grow tired of it.  This is not likely to happen any time soon, as he has already sold out five shows at the Garden every month through March, with two more just about to be announced and others on the drawing board. 

These shows were recently announced at a packed special press conference at the Garden, in which executives for the venue also honored Joel as a Garden "Legend," a musical franchise of the arena just like the Knicks and the Rangers are the place's sports franchises.  We were lucky enough to sit right up front as Joel sat humbly as his praises were sung by Garden executives, local sports legends, including former Knick John Starks and former Rangers Rod Gilbert and Adam Graves and New York governor (and someday maybe even Presidential contender) Andrew Cuomo.

Jim Dolan, the Executive Chairman of the Garden, had this to say: "Billy, having you as our music franchise feels a little bit like having the Pope as your parish priest."

"I have a lot to live up to with those words, and I hope that I don't let you down," Joel said modestly when he took the podium.

Governor Cuomo perhaps captured the feeling the best, stating simply, "Billy's music and his words voice the challenges of ordinary New Yorkers.  The struggles they face, the dreams they share: from high school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie [from the song 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant'] to the struggle of the working middle class in "Anthony's Song" to economic challenges of the Long Island bay men in 'The Downeaster Alexa.'"

These songs, of course, are just a few of the classics in which Joel has used his youth in the New York area to lend vividness and nuance to his musical short stories of being poor and scrapping to attain your dreams. 

For Billy Joel as a young man, those dreams included the Garden.

"I'd like to take a moment to talk a little bit about what Madison Square Garden means to me," Joel said from the podium.  "Growing up as a young aspiring musician in Hicksville, NY, Madison Square Garden appeared larger than life.  Like many other aspiring musicians, I dreamed of playing the Garden.  But it was more than that, Madison Square Garden was New York to me.  It's the place where artists become stars and players become legends."

However, it took a while for Joel to become one of those legends.  In a musical career that started in the 60s, Joel put in lots of hard time before capturing overnight success.  He started with short-lived bands (The Hassles and Attila, anyone?) that came and went with little or no notice.  His debut solo album Cold Spring Harbor received a certain amount of acclaim, but also hardly touched the pop culture consciousness – even though the songs "She's Got a Way" and "Everybody Loves You Now" later became staples of his repertoire.

Billy's first breakthrough came when a Philadelphia DJ named Ed Sciaky of WMMR, started playing a seven-minute concert recording of Joel's song "Captain Jack," giving him his first radio hit and bringing him to the attention of Columbia Records, the record label which became his home for the rest of his career.  Even at Columbia, things went a bit slowly.  Though he had his first hit single with the title track of his Piano Man album, his first three albums for the label were minor hits at best.

That all changed in 1977, when Joel recorded arguably his masterpiece, The Stranger.  The album housed four top 40 hits, including his biggest hit yet, the gentle ballad "Just the Way You Are."  Hot on that album's heels in 1978, Joel's follow-up album 52nd Street also topped the charts, spawning more hits including the classics "Big Shot" and "My Life" and making Billy Joel an official superstar.  

"In 1978, I achieved my dream of playing this iconic venue for the first time," Joel said.  "I thought it didn't get any better than that moment.  Now, thirty-five years later I've had the incredible fortune to experience 46 of those incredible moments, right here, including both the Concert for New York and 12-12-12, which were so important to this city.  I said it in '78 and I'll say it here again: there is no better venue in the world.  The best audience, the best acoustics, the best reputation and undeniable history that is palpable from the moment you step up on stage."

New York and Madison Square Garden return the love. 

Longtime New York DJ Jim Kerr told the story while introducing Joel.  "As you enter here today, I hope you had the opportunity to look at the extraordinary photos showcased in this room that represent a powerful snapshot of Billy Joel's exceptional career," Kerr told all the assembled media, pointing out a series of enlarged photos taken of Joel at the Garden over the years.  "These photos... capture one thing, an extraordinarily talented artist.  They are just a sampling of the enormous breadth and depth of Billy Joel's career and his longstanding relationship with Madison Square Garden."

"I'm lucky to have been born in New York City and we all wanted to play Madison Square Garden," Joel said in a short video previewing the honor.  "That was the temple.  When I finally played there, that was a watershed moment for me.  Wow, now I've really made it."

Former New York Rangers hockey star Adam Graves agreed.  "When you perform here, you represent New York and all that New York stands for," Graves said.

"Billy tells the New York story, because Billy is the New York story," Governor Cuomo continued.  Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, faced with hardship and challenges, his determination, hard work and talent overcame, time and time again.  Billy fights for what he believes in.  He speaks out against injustice and he remembers the forgotten.  He is a worldwide superstar who values most that he is a hometown hero."

"I'm getting a lot of credit here for how good I'm supposed to be," Joel admitted.  "But, I think a good deal of it is from the audience that comes to the Garden.  They are a great audience and if you have a great audience, you usually give a better show.  Believe me, I've played some venues where the audience was like ehhh."  He mimed clapping unenthusiastically.  "And the show was kind of ehhh..." He shrugged his shoulders.  "But here, it's mutual.  It's just mutual excitement.  We get excited from the crowd and they seem to like what we're doing."

52nd Street was just the beginning for Joel, who released several other best-selling albums, 33 top 40 hits and six Grammys before retiring from pop songwriting and recording in the early 1990s.  However, he never stopped performing, touring the world for years into the mid-late 2000s.  Problems in real life caused Joel to take a few years off, but now he is back and ready to make music.  The world has stood up and taken notice, including Barack Obama, the President of the United States, who will this week be giving Joel the Kennedy Center Honor, which is just a little bit further uptown. 

Just like Joel's famous "Uptown Girl," who was looking for a downtown man.  That's what Billy Joel is.  However, even with all the uptown girls in the rearview mirror, it is the city itself that will always have Joel's heart.

"Our prodigal son, who left New York for that other coast," Governor Cuomo said, "but he came back and he penned the greatest love song to the state of New York ever written: 'New York State of Mind.'  Billy Joel is truly one of New York State's great treasures.  It's only fitting that he joins another treasure, Madison Square Garden."

Joel's future and that of the Garden will be intertwined for quite some time to come, which is just fine by him.    

"To have the chance to play along the newly transformed Garden, alongside its legendary and original franchises – The Knicks, The Rangers and Liberty – it's quite a momentous occasion from that older, but still aspiring, musician from Long Island," Joel said.

"One thing I can assure everyone here today is that playing the Garden is an experience that never gets old," Joel continued.  "A show a month at the Garden, as long as there is a demand, means more opportunities to connect with music fans to provide an unique and memorable show every night we play there.  I'm honored to be a part of the Madison Square Garden family and I hope to see everyone back here on January 27th."

Copyright ©2013  All rights reserved. Posted: December 3, 2013. 

Photo Credit: © 2013 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.


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