On March 9th, 2014 I drove to Toronto (solo – I couldn’t convince m’lady to go, not even for a free ticket) to see Billy Joel. He had always been on my Must See list so when I saw the Toronto date announced I pounced, picking up a pair of pricey tickets for his show at the Air Canada Centre.
I quickly found absolutely no takers on the extra ticket. My shock grew with every refusal; was I the only person I knew with an appreciation for Billy Joel’s back catalogue of brilliantly structured pop masterpieces? I mean, New York State Of Mind, Movin’ Out, Only The Good Die Young…these are great, great songs. She’s Always A Woman To Me? Sometimes the guy could be positively Beatlesque.
When it became abundantly clear that nobody appreciated Billy Joel enough to shell out any kind of money whatsoever for my extra I started scrambling just to give it away for free. And I succeeded, and then some. I traded the ticket for my friend Brian’s spare bedroom for the evening, which was a peach of a deal for both of us.
And the show was…meh. Though he played each of the aforementioned numbers and many, many more – including some out-of-the-blue covers like Up On Cripple Creek and snippets from the likes of Queen and Gordon Lightfoot – the show lacked any sort of oomph, any sort of feeling that the artist was interested in really putting on a show. This was no Bruce Springsteen, this was no Neil Young; Billy Joel was clearly not the kind of performer that puts his all into every performance. Rather, he put his all into songwriting, and he seems to be resting on that. His hard work is behind him – the guy knows he’s got a legacy of great songs, he played them and dusted off his hands with a job well done.
And sure, it was good enough.
The single greatest moment of the evening came at the top of his encore, during his horrible rappy hit We Didn’t Start The Fire (incidentally it was the only song he played guitar on, standing centre-stage). He was about a minute into the song, reeling off a string of names and disconnected pop culture references when he abruptly stopped the song.
“Those weren’t the right lyrics,” he said into the mic, turning to the band with a shrug. “I can’t remember the second verse,” he muttered, and then he started humming the song to himself, trying to find the lyric.
And then the best part:
“Whatever, let’s just skip it,” he said. When the audience started groaning in disappointment he turned to us all and exclaimed, “are you kidding?!? It’s the stupidest song I ever wrote!
“There’s no melody at all,” he said, pleading with the crowd, “It’s just ‘na-na-na, na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na-na’ over and over again.
“It’s dumb, let’s just move on.”
But the crowd persisted so he relented. Picking up the line he was lacking from a band member he cued in the second verse and took it from there. The rest of the encore was nothing but back-to-back hits (of course) so we could all walk out feeling like we got our money’s worth.
My friend Brian certainly did.
As for the rest of us, I guess it depended on how big a fan you were of his tunes. I’m a pretty big fan I guess – I certainly was back when I was a teenager – and while it was fun getting my nostalgia bone massaged for a couple of hours mostly I’m happy I went because now I now he’s not really worth seeing.
You won’t know if you don’t go.