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Billy Joel: Still Kicking Ass (First Leg)

"Don't take any shit from anybody."
"Don't take any shit from anybody."

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, my wife and I watched the Billy Joel concert documentary The Last Play at Shea. When my daughter stumbled into the den to ask about breakfast, we were soiling Kleenexes and wiping tears from our eyes.

"Did you take your meds this morning, Dad?" she asked.

I tried explaining to her what a significant role the Piano Man played in her parents' lives (after I assured her that yes, I had not skipped my daily happy pills). It's not just that he'd soundtracked a good deal of our 30 years together, I told her, it's that he felt like a friend who had been there for big moments in our lives, then suddenly wasn't.

We hadn't seen him since a December 1999 show at The Summit, and we missed him.

What she learned, as we continued to talk, was the tears were, in part, tears of joy, since Joel is soon to return to the region. He's the April 27 headliner at this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Immediately, she insisted we all go together. What I learned from her was how few of his songs she was aware of, even though she's a musician who also plays piano.

"Which of his songs still kick ass?" she wanted to know.

10. "No Man's Land," River of Dreams Kicks Ass Because: It's Punk as Fuck

The first cut from the last album, which was released nearly 20 years ago, is Joel as Johnny Rotten, only better, because his cynicism is real and not just a fashion statement; the song is a scathing rebuke of the shallowness of suburban life.

Lines like "thanks to the condo kings, there's cable now in Zombietown" are perfectly aimed at a style of life inhabited by so many of Joel's fans. Drummer Liberty DeVitto's driving backbeat sounds like the machines that have come to pave the streets and knock down trees for the master plan.

9. "Scandanavian Skies," The Nylon Curtain Kicks Ass Because: It's Beatles Music

Any proper Billy Joel fan knows his career -- now in its sixth decade -- is mightily influenced by The Beatles. He's told us he decided to rock once he saw his idols perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. When his 2008 shows were the last concerts ever at now-demolished Shea Stadium (the subject of The Last Play at Shea), he came full circle as a fan by inviting Sir Paul McCartney to share the stage.

"Scandanavian Skies" is Joel's truest homage to the Fab Four. Phil Ramone, the legendary producer who passed away last month, was behind the boards doing his best George Martin. There are strings, chants, trippy lyrics and Joel sounding a lot like John Lennon.

8. "Summer, Highland Falls," Turnstiles/Songs In the Attic Kicks Ass Because: It's Smart

The rap on Joel is he was too cerebral at times, too philosophical, with observations like, hey man, your life basically boils down to a choice of "sadness or euphoria." Critics said his songs lacked the salt-of-the-earth factor of some of his contemporaries (make annoying coughing sound while saying "Springsteen" here).

Oh, really? Apparently, those folks never visited the Italian restaurant to reminisce over Brenda and Eddie. What about Paul and Davy (who's still in the Navy) from that smoky piano bar? Anyway, those haters who consider Joel's lyrics too academic and impersonal hate a song like this. Which is, of course, a good reason to love it.

 

7. "Code of Silence," The Bridge Kicks Ass Because: It's Personal

At a certain time in his life, Billy Joel was not just a musician, but also a red-carpet celebrity, married to supermodel Christie Brinkley. They were faces on People magazine, but they were people, too, and "Code of Silence" felt like the couple stopping by to drink beers in the driveway and talk marriage.

The song always seemed like a comforting embrace of Brinkley, who, by the time she married Joel, had been divorced and survived the death of a boyfriend in a horrific auto racing accident. Words like, "And if a vow is what it takes, haven't you paid for your mistakes?" seem like encouragement to his new wife. It's the sort of loving reassurance and understanding that spouses (or anyone who cares about another's emotional health) should afford one another.

Joel said in a recent Rolling Stone interview he plans to perform songs at some approaching shows -- his first in three years -- that are lesser known or infrequently played. Nothing against "Big Shot," he'd just prefer not to play it for the 10,000th time if it means playing something some of us have never or rarely heard live. I can live with that.

Jazz Fest would be my seventh time to see Billy Joel and I'm sure I've never heard this song in concert, so it's my choice. (It would be additionally sweet if he dragged crazy-ass Cyndi Lauper -- who co-wrote the song -- out to do the soaring guest vocals she added to this track).

6. "We Didn't Start the Fire," Storm Front Kicks Ass Because: My Brother Owns This Song at the Karaoke Bar

"JFK! Blown away! What else do I have to say?!"



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