Been reading Fred Schruers recently published biography of Billy Joel and for the most part enjoying it very much. It's a good time for the book given Billy's string of record-setting shows at Madison Square Garden--clearly there's still a huge amount of interest in him, especially in the New York area. One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is when Billy runs into his ex-manager Frank Weber in a parking lot out in the Hamptons--the same Frank Weber who robbed him blind of untold millions--and instead of accosting him angrily (or decking him) as many would have done, says hello and asks him how he's doing. That's Billy.

I always really liked Billy because he was a really nice down-to-earth guy with a good soul. I first met him circa 1968 when he played our high school dance with his group the Hassles.  At the time his stage personality was more memorable than the music they played. A few years later he came to play my college in upstate New York. This was circa 1972, when Billy was just starting to build a foundation after the debacle of his first album with Artie Ripp.  I remember going to his motel to say hello. We liked to welcome all of the incoming bands by getting them good and high before they played but some of my friends got his band so wasted that they could barely play (Billy didn't appreciate this too much)... 

I wrote about Billy here and there over the years and during the music vid era shot a cool little doc around the making of his album The Bridge. Although it was not one of his favorite  albums by any means, it did contain his gorgeous duet with Ray Charles, "Baby Grand"--his love song to his piano, and arguably one of his great ones. It was around that time that I found myself drinking with him in the bar of a Holiday Inn upstate along with some of his crew where he was getting ready to kick off his tour. I'm relating this episode because it's not in the book.  It's the kind of thing that probably happened to him hundreds of times but it's something I'll never forget.

Billy was fun to drink with because he loved to tell stories. Of course he was a born storyteller and also probably one of the best-read high school dropouts in America so he was damn good at it. The story he  happened to be telling was about the tie-breaker game for the American League East pennant, played at Fenway Park between the Red Sox and the Yankees on October 2, 1978--one of the most tense and dramatic games ever played. Billy was playing in Boston and being a huge baseball fan there he was sitting in the stands with his Yankee hat on when Bucky Dent--or "Bucky Fucking Dent" as he would be forever known to Boston fans--hit the pop fly that somehow made it over the Green Monster for the three run home run that plunged a knife into the heart of Red Sox Nation.

As a foul mood settled heavily over the stunned crowd a Boston fan saw fit to display his feelings by snatching the Yankee cap off of Billy's head and racing away down the aisle with it, to the delight of the crowd. And Billy, being the pugnacious fellow that he is--"Never take shit off anyone", he always tells his audiences--took off after him, tackled the guy, grabbed the hat back…And there they were, duking it out before the security guards raced over and stropped the melee before a riot broke out and escorted Billy out to his car, where another riot of sorts ensued as his car was surrounded by throngs of furious Sox fans thirsting for the blood of the first Yankee fan they could get their hands on, and this one happened to be a rock star from Long Island.

While Billy was telling the story nobody was paying attention to the lounge singer setting up with his electric piano, but when he broke out into the familiar strains of "Just The Way You Are" it stopped Billy cold. The song was Billy's first Top Five hit and a Grammy for Song of the Year, but it was also perhaps the most syrupy song in his whole catalogue, and this guy was ladling it out with such goop that it seemed a parody of everything that Billy probably always wrestled with about the song, precisely because it became the staple of wedding and lounge singers.

It was pricelessly funny, exactly like Bill Murray would have done the song in his lounge singer guise on Saturday Night Live--except he was serious. He had no idea Billy was there, who could only watch, a bemused grimace spread across his face...

 Billy waited until the set was over and went over and blew the guy's mind by graciously thanking him for doing his song.

That was Billy...



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