“Oh, he doesn’t look that bad.” This is my thought as Billy Joel’s weathered, goateed mug first alights on multiple enormous Shea Stadium video screens; I was prepared for Batman-villain depths of hideousness for some reason. (Perhaps that long profile in a recent Saturday Times that boiled down to OLD OLD STOCKY OLD RICH OLD OLD OLD.) But really he looks like any other (stocky) (rich) near-sexagenarian, suddenly popping on-screen during “Angry Young Man,” which is supposed to be funny, I guess, but Billy ain’t laughing; instead, he wanly smiles and wearily regards the rapt sellout crowd, eyes flitting about the stadium as though searching for an exit. You feel bad for the guy sometimes, the second-most-critically-derided superstar act in rock history, eclipsed only by the Eagles. (Don Henley will be joining us as a surprise special guest shortly.) Not to say Billy’s not capable of the occasional dick move himself, e.g., initially declaring this Wednesday-night gig the Last Shea Stadium Concert Ever, and then, upon selling the joint out in 45 minutes, promptly announcing another Last Shea Stadium Concert Ever two nights later, wherein Paul fucking McCartney joins (not) us as a surprise special guest.
“I know,” Billy Joel tells us. “I suck.” He mumbles a few words about scalpers, accommodating all the fans, etc. He receives a smattering of boos, but not nearly as many as a short while later, when he recalls his ill-advised, short-lived relocation to California. BOOOOOOO.
He is ours, you see. A hometown hero, bombastically blunt and jovially crass, a guy preternaturally fond of the word frickin’, as in “I haven’t put out an album of new material in 15 frickin’ years.” But such a straight nostalgia trip is perfect for this Shea-canonizing gig, as he barrels through “Movin’ Out” for a raucous stadium full of devoted fans who never did, or, like him, maybe did once but quickly moved back.
His first song is the national anthem. His 33rd song, three hours later, after a touch of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” is “Piano Man.” The critical establishment’s long history of Joel-based denigration notwithstanding, there is very little not to like here—the air palpable, electric, historical in its portent, the rare Big Deal concert to actually sustain that Big Deal aura—so let us quickly address and then discard these lowlights. Billy Joel’s bad songs get way, way, way out of hand. “Zanzibar,” bizarrely accompanied by on-screen Mets highlights, is ludicrous cruise-ship prog, like a Supertramp jazz odyssey meant to frighten livestock or reform terrorists. Same goes with the vaudeville jazzercise debacle “Root Beer Rag,” which Billy accurately intros by saying: “If you have to go to the bathroom, this is a good song to go to the bathroom on.” Furthermore, his most boisterous anthems tend to sound like 10 mawkish Broadway musicals blaring simultaneously: The chirping crickets and whirring helicopter blades that announce “Goodnight Saigon” practically scream “A Max Fischer Production,” and that’s way before the military choir appears to give that “And we would all go down together” chorus just that much more poignancy.
But even this only drives the throng to greater heights of ecstasy, not to mention chants of “USA! USA! USA!” Succumb to Billy Joel. Acknowledge that “Pressure” is the jam, even though he doesn’t play it; admit that deftly melodic numbers like “Don’t Ask Me Why,” “She’s Always a Woman,” and “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)” are, quietly, jams too, and he does play those. Marvel at his expertly affable showmanship: There’s a flyswatter resting on his piano, and also a thing of throat spray, which he surreptitiously squirts into his mouth at one point before realizing that he’s still on-screen, whereupon he starts theatrically squirting it in his mouth. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” is still pretty funny. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” features the wordiest full-crowd sing-along in arena-rock history (those verses are Pynchonian), which counts for something. And though tonight Billy will merely praise the Shea-storming Beatles to the skies and toss around a few covers (“Please Please Me,” “She Loves You,” “A Hard Day’s Night” mercifully carving up “River of Dreams”), as opposed to two nights later when he actually brings out Paul fucking McCartney, the slate of guest stars tonight shan’t be sneezed at. My whole section doesn’t really stand up until Tony Bennett saunters out and jazzes up “New York State of Mind.” The ladies in our midst don’t achieve collective orgasm until John Mayer saunters out to noodle harmlessly over “This Is the Time.” Cheer on Don Henley as he fetes “The Boys of Summer”! Commiserate with John Mellencamp’s ad-libbed outrage over exorbitant oil prices as he pounds out “Pink Houses”! (Shouldn’t have bought that gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe, eh, John?) And though for those last two cameos Billy is hardly a presence at all—a barely audible piano line, maybe—even this is a welcome respite, a palate cleanser, a born showman’s shrewd decision to temporarily cede the spotlight.
Nevertheless, by the time “Piano Man” rolls around, our hero is plainly exhausted, and so are we. It’s always been an indulgent song, “Piano Man,” with its timeless, easily relatable theme of Look How Hard It Is for Me to Entertain You People. (A song genre of which I am inordinately fond; one of Tom Waits’s most underrated songs is “I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute.”) But Billy does, undeniably, make it all look both insanely hard and nonchalantly easy, toasting a rickety, butt-ugly, oft-derided but overwhelmingly beloved stadium, whose doubtlessly much prettier and more polished successor we may turn out not to love nearly as much. Shea doesn’t look that bad.
His parting words to us are: “Don’t take shit from anybody.”