Whatever Billy Joel is as an artist, he is undoubtedly a romantic. He’s romantic about the times (“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Keepin’ the Faith”), parenthood (“Lullabye, Goodnight, My Angel”) and relationships (too many to count). He’s Keats on a piano, with odes to angry young men and uptown girls. He’s JMW Turner, painting musical portraits of downeasters on the high seas and landscapes that have evolved over 2,000 years. When Joel rolls into town this Friday, he’ll be here just one week after the 32nd anniversary of my first date with my wife. We have our respective favorite artists. She’s given to pop acts like Madonna and Bruno Mars. I prefer the bravado and rage of rap music and punk rock. But our common and undying musical love is Billy the Kid, now sixtysomethingish but still a romance music gunslinger.
We expect to be just one couple of many in the crowd who forged ahead in life from first dates to married life and parenthood, with the Piano Man sound-tracking our steps along the way. The following is a recollection of the times one couple saw Joel live in Houston and some commentary on how one artist’s work can truly be reflective of the day-to-day lives of his fans. Could there be anything more romantic than that for an artist?
NYLON CURTAIN TOUR
The Summit, Sunday, December 5, 1982
My wife and I weren’t yet dating when Joel came through on The Nylon Curtain tour, so we didn’t see this show together. It was my first time seeing him live, and I recall him running frenetically on lighted stage ramps and playing everything I wanted to hear, which was a lot of stuff from Glass Houses and The Stranger. My wife carpooled with me to high school that year, though, so every morning she had to endure the opening whistle to “Allentown,” my song choice once the entire carpool was collected. I’m sure the others were annoyed with hearing it every school day for an entire semester, but apparently it endeared me to at least one person.
The album released as Joel was transitioning from married to single. It’s not dotted with the love songs to come, but is fraught with existential stuff like “Pressure” and “Where’s the Orchestra?” It was the perfect album for a kid who’s beginning to question everything and one who’s about to find his answer in that old Beatles adage — all you need is love.
AN INNOCENT MAN TOUR
The Summit, Sunday, April 15, 1984
If there’s ever been a record better at capturing the emotions of a brand-new love than An Innocent Man, I don’t know what it is. The opening track aside, the rest of the album is a primer on how to open one’s heart to every possibility, good and bad, that comes with a new romance. From the vulnerability of the title track to the good advice to shut the hell up and “Leave a Tender Moment Alone,” listen, boy, it’s good information. I also was convinced it would bond my wife and me together because my pal Warren, who was single and looking, passionately hated the album.
Joel was in love when he came to showcase the songs. During “Uptown Girl,” he gestured toward the Summit’s suites, where we all knew Christie Brinkley sat privately watching her backstreet guy at work. Every song sounded triumphant and assured. It was my wife’s very first concert ever. One of the last ones she’s attended was our own son’s over at Eastdown Warehouse. It’s not a stretch to say she wouldn’t have been at that one had she not accompanied me to that Joel show all those years ago.
THE BRIDGE TOUR
The Summit, Monday, April 20, 1987
We were growing as a couple when The Bridge was released. The album is filled with songs that depict what happens past the honeymoon phase. We were right there with our musical idol as he came to terms with his “Modern Woman” and shared his own insecurities on songs like “A Matter of Trust.”
My wife, the fiscally responsible accountant, cleared out our paltry savings to buy a pair of third-row tickets. She loved Joel, too, but mostly did that for me. True love is conceding to eating ramen for a few weeks to see your favorite artist up close and personal. Now well-coiffed as a Beau Brummell, we were enthralled when our guy sang “This Is The Time,” just for us, we were certain. During some mike-stand acrobatics, Joel lost control of it and the entire thing came crashing down onto my wife’s head. He looked down at her and mouthed an apology. I was so amazed I never asked her if she was okay until the song was done.
STORM FRONT TOUR
The Summit, Friday, November 23 and Wednesday, November 28, 1990
This is the only time I can recall Joel playing more than a single date in Houston on a tour. We saw him twice that run, just days apart. On one of those nights, my kid brother accompanied us to the show. He’s a dozen years younger than me, so I’ve influenced his musical tastes a little. To this day, his go-to karaoke song is “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” perhaps because of Joel’s stirring live rendition of it.
Having a kid to watch over at the show felt parental for us. By now, Joel was a dad. My wife and I were freshly married when Storm Front rolled into Houston that fall, just four months into our marriage. We wanted kids and were trying, in spite of the Piano Man’s newest songs, which looked at the flaws any one person brings to a marriage on songs like “I Go to Extremes” and the title track. We weren’t afraid to sail those waters, though. Our first child was conceived after one of the Storm Front shows.
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SHOW ME HOW
2000 YEARS TOUR
Compaq Center, Thursday, December 16, 1999
If Joel toured 1994’s River of Dreams through Houston, we missed it. Probably time or money was too tight, now that we had two kids. So my wife and I didn’t see Joel again until December 1999, on a run of shows he performed to prep for his millennium show at Madison Square Garden. At that one, we sat in the upper tier of Compaq Center, hovering above the stage. Looking down at Joel performing songs like “Two Thousand Years” and “The River of Dreams” was like looking at a timeline of our lives together, spread out on a table for us to examine. As far as we could tell, we were the only two in the venue, which was already a religious place for us long before that other Joel would inhabit it.
As he once sang, maybe the 1900s weren’t the best of times, “but they’re the only times I’ve ever known.” So, Joel helped us step into the 2000s with all our trepidation. By then, his marriage had dissolved completely. Because he sang about it, we knew what to avoid. We still shared his fears going into something new — a true adulthood with kids who had to be raised properly, with love, no matter our own personal issues. Sitting in the upper deck, we were resolute that things would be okay.
Toyota Center, Friday, November 6, 2015
We’ll be at the show Friday. My pal Warren will be there, too, now also happily married for 15 years. He enjoys An Innocent Man much more today than he once did. My wife and I have now shared 32 years together, married 25 of those, with college-age kids who are both musicians. Billy Joel is coming to Houston. We haven’t seen him in 16 years. We’ll be welcoming an old friend back, someone who’s never met us but who has lovingly chronicled our lives together.