So yeah, you may have heard about me a little bit. I’m that weird guy who supposedly kidnapped Billy Joel. Perhaps not supposedly. Maybe more like probably.
Okay, yeah. I did it. And to be completely honest with you it really wasn’t all that difficult to pull off.
More on that later. But first, the origins.
My introduction to the wonderful musical stylings of one William Martin Joel, known to all the world as “Billy Joel: The Piano Man” started in Mrs. Kobe’s sixth grade class, where every Thursday had us doing “chorus,” which was simply kids standing awkwardly in front of their classmates singing to the scratchy turntable music of our favorite artists. I seem to recall lots of disco since this was after all, the late 1970s we are talking about here, along with some Rod Stewart, The Police and I remember someone always loved singing along to The Steve Miller Band.
It was Nick Oreskovich who got up in front of the class with some other mates and belted out “Big Shot” by Billy Joel. Another time they mangled “My Life,” which was a catchy tune, one that would ultimately serve as the theme song to “Bosom Buddies” a few years later, a fun show starring a young Tom Hanks dressed up as a woman.
Mrs. Kobe wasn’t one who tolerated foul language in her classroom, and if your “chorus” song included any vulgarity you were either sentenced to write a 250-word theme or do some self-editing of your selected tune by shouting “beep” when the objectionable word came up in the song. Ironically, I remember Mrs. Kobe allowing students to “perform” the song “Hot Child in the City” with no beeping whatsoever, even though the song was a filthy tune about child prostitution. It feels strange to write that word in a post. I will forever have the visual of Michael Keaton in “Night Shift.” You either get the reference or you need to rent the movie.
Nick and company cruised through “Big Shot,” and I was instantly hooked.
Well you went uptown riding in your limousine
With your fine Park Avenue clothes
You had the Dom Perignon in your hand
And the spoon up your nose
And when you wake up in the morning
With your head on fire
And your eyes too bloody to see
Go on and cry in your coffee
But don’t come bitchin’ to me.
Of course that final line of some outstanding lyrics was sung:
But don’t come beepin’ to me.
To keep a certain sixth grade teacher happy.
“Big Shot” and “My Life,” along with the classic, yet sappy hit “Honesty” were all a part of Joel’s 1978 album called “52nd Street.” One Saturday following another session of “chorus” I made my way to the Licorice Pizza music store and purchased the album for something like ten bucks and listened to it all weekend. I can still recite from childhood memory the tracks on both sides of the album:
Side 1 was “Big Shot,” “Honesty, “My Life” and then the completely underrated “Zanzibar,” and Side 2 featured “Stilleto,” the beautiful “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” “Half a Mile Away,” then my personal favorite, “Until the Night” and then finally the title track.
I played that album to death and soon joined other Billy Joel balladeers in “chorus” as we sang and beeped and had a mighty good time.
A few years later our family friend Paul Swank was driving us around during the summer and entertaining passengers with Joel’s latest work, “Glass Houses,” which of course picked right back up where we last saw him on “52nd Street.” I won’t bore you again with the entire list of every song title, but I will tell you that Paul gave me a copy of “Glass Houses” on an 8-track tape, and what a wild ride that experience was.
For anyone old enough to have enjoyed 8-tracks you can likely relate to the fact that the more you played it the more you knew what songs would be playing at precisely the same time on the other tracks while you listened to say, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” on Track 2. You just knew that it would be “Sleeping With the Television On” on Track 3 and very likely “Through the Long Night” on Track 4.
Whatever all of that means I can tell you that my Dad died in 1980 but the love of Billy Joel music was birthed in my ears and in my heart, perhaps if for no other reason than to fill a void.
I quickly turned back the clock and discovered the joys of 1977’s “The Stranger,” which of course included chart-toppers “Just the Way Your Are” and “She’s Always a Woman,” but also featured FM radio standards like “Movin’ Out” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” As for me, “Vienna” has always been my go-to single from that album. Turning back the clock further, I was introduced to “Turnstiles” from 1976, “Streetlife Serenade” from 1974, “Piano Man,” (1973) and the comically-botched recording of his initial album, Cold Spring Harbor from way back in 1971.
Interestingly, all of the greatness of these earlier recordings is magically captured in much of the follow-up to “Glass Houses,” which was “Songs in the Attic,” a mash-up of live recordings from tours supporting Billy Joel’s earlier and less-appreciated albums.
So yes, I pretty much had a man-crush on Billy Joel, and ultimately saw him in concert a number of times. I think every girlfriend I ever had was forced to endure not only a Billy Joel concert with me, but ultimately also had to listen to the non-stop barrage of Billy Joel music in all of my awful cars. I think they were all more than patient with me, and perhaps even a few of them grew to appreciate the music as well.
I’ve forever been perplexed by Billy Joel’s decision to walk away from pop music following the 1993 release of the successful and pleasing “River of Dreams.” Did he run out of things to say? Did he simply lose it overnight? Did he burnout? I had so many questions, and while he has always been forthcoming in interviews that he simply didn’t want to be an aging musician telling people what is right and what is wrong, he also classically confessed that the song-writing experience “puts him through hell.”
Still, I just want to know more.
I also have this strange feeling that Billy Joel has in fact a vault of new music that for one reason or another he is reluctant to release. I don’t claim to have any insider knowledge about this. Just call it a hunch, and Mrs. Kobe always told us that hunches were to be trusted.
It was with that thought in mind that I wandered into Starbucks in the Riviera Village in Redondo Beach. I carried with me my old, weathered copy of “Cannery Row,” and feeling very much like Doc on this morning, I played my hunch that I could learn a bit about everybody and everything on this cool morning. I secured a regular dark roast and settled into a cozy corner of the establishment and looked over the occupants. A couple was planning their hike while a family was frantically throwing down coffee and snacks before one of their kids’ soccer matches.
A woman was meticulously applying makeup and getting lipstick all over her drink lid.
There was an older looking guy across from me who looked vaguely familiar. He wore a Mets baseball cap and sported a goatee that was stragglier and greyer than my own. He looked tired and suspicious, but he also seemed friendly and approachable.
So, um, Billy Joel was the guy in the Mets cap and goatee if you hadn’t guessed it by now, and the reason he looked so familiar to me was, well…duh! It’s freaking Billy Joel.
Why wasn’t anyone going up and chatting him up? I mean, this is one of the top musicians and performers of the last 30+ years. Was it the Mets cap? Was it because he was sipping tea while the rest of us were gulping coffee? I’m not sure, but there I sat, tantalizing close to my favorite musician of all time, yet I was more burdened by the fact that he was going unrecognized. I felt the need to stand on a chair, punch a barista and shout to the world that The Piano Man was in the house!
I instead planned to kidnap Billy Joel and keep him all to myself.
To be continued…