As of Wednesday night at 8:31 p.m., no performer in history has played Madison Square Garden more times than Billy Joel. As he took the stage at the World’s Most Famous Arena for a record-setting 65th time, Joel was living the ultimate “fuck you” moment. On Wednesday night, Billy Joel won.
Over the years, the Village Voice hasn’t always been kind to Joel. Rarely would we pass up an opportunity to attack him for being self-important (“the Irving Berlin of narcissistic alienation” — Robert Christgau, 1973), a pompous arena-rocker of little substance (“a force of nature and bad taste” — Christgau again in 1989), or an earnest purveyor of schlock and shtick whose “basic instinct is to grandstand through a song like Ethel Merman” (James Hunter, 1982).
But, to be fair, the Voice‘s traditional stance on Billy Joel has differed little from most outlets that publish rock criticism. (Rolling Stone, for one, has called him “obnoxious,” and described his music as “self-dramatizing kitsch.”) Critically speaking, the Seventies — and most of the Eighties — were not kind to Joel, even while he was selling millions of records and playing to packed arenas all over the world. But those were fans, whom rock critics have underestimated for years. The criticism all seemed to come from the same place: To the cool people, the ones who were lucky enough to get paid to write about rock music, Billy Joel was never cool enough.
There was a moment in the Eighties where the critical tide seemed to turn. Critics — including our own here at the Voice — began to acknowledge his importance as an original American songwriter. But even still, few could resist taking the odd swipe at Joel as they begrudgingly praised his latest offerings. In an otherwise positive review of his 1982 album The Nylon Curtain, Hunter sneeringly referred to Joel as “on occasion a reasonably skilled writer of songs [who] has made records only a mother could love — keyed to his tiniest needs as they rear their slimy, unrequited heads in his whining-young-kid’s anti-Updikian portraits of suburbia.” Ouch, James. Longtime Voice music editor Chuck Eddy, in a near-rave review of Joel’s 1989 record Storm Front, closed with this line: “He’s living proof that half-wits can improve with age.”
Joel has essentially been retired as a recording artist since the 1993 release of what would be his final pop album, The River of Dreams. At the time of that record’s release, Joel was a 43-year-old father with a graying beard. Now 66, he has been out of the recording business for longer than he was in it. But he has remained a touring juggernaut over the years, both by himself and with fellow piano man Elton John, who has teamed with Joel for a number of successful arena and stadium shows. Attracting fans has never been Joel’s problem, especially in New York City.
His godlike status among New Yorkers (and Long Islanders — born in the Bronx, he grew up in Hicksville, and still lives on the Island) has never been more apparent than during his first-of-its-kind Madison Square Garden residency. Joel has been playing the Garden once a month since January 2014, and each show — nineteen in all — has been an instant sellout. Tickets can fetch up to $5,000 on the secondary market. Every few weeks, the immediate area around the Garden becomes a six-block Billy Joel street fair. Sports bars like Harrington’s, The Flying Puck, and Mustang Harry’s, which typically teem with Rangers and Knicks fans on game night, are overflowing with potbellied bridge-and-tunnelers in Piano Man merch. A dreadlocked bong salesman on Seventh Avenue blares deep cuts (“Get It Right the First Time“? Really?) from a boombox. Commuters emerge from Penn Station singing Joel classics with perfect strangers. For those who grew up in and around New York, seeing Billy Joel blow the roof off Madison Square Garden is as much a rite of passage as counting down the final seconds of another Knicks loss.
On Wednesday, those fans were in even greater spirits as they prepared to witness their native son make history. Few even seemed to know (or care) about Joel’s history with the critics. When he was cranking out hits, they were too busy singing along with his records to care what any of us had to say. “I thought everyone liked Billy Joel,” said Carla Dover, a middle-aged fan who was in from Long Island to see her “sixteenth or seventeenth” Joel concert. “Why didn’t the media like him?”
A fair question, that. More than two hours later, Joel had given the 20,000 in attendance exactly what they’d come to see. “Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the center of the universe,” he’d greeted them after opening with crowd-pleasers “Big Shot” and “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” He was subdued throughout the night — he doesn’t leap off pianos or break microphone stands these days — but seemed genuinely awed by his record-breaking achievement. “I didn’t know I’d play here 65 times. Amazing.” he said to a deafening roar. “I [thought] a long time ago that if I didn’t have a record every year on the charts, it would just go away. People would stop coming. I haven’t had a record on the charts in 22 years.”
Because of his long absence from the pop-music conversation, the reviews have gotten softer. No one wants to slag an elder statesman who looks like their dad and plays every show in a suit and tie. Yet he seems to have achieved a new sort of relevance, especially here in New York. There’s the Garden residency. There was an honest New Yorker profile in late 2014 whose headline referenced Joel’s career-long battle with critics: “Thirty-Three-Hit-Wonder.” In February, Vulture‘s Christopher Bonanos put together an unbelievably thorough (and quite accurate) ranking of all 121 of Joel’s songs. Queens rapper Action Bronson name-checked Joel and his Garden shows in his song “Terry.” Earlier this year he played Bonnaroo, and in August he’ll be playing another historic show at one of his longtime haunts when he performs the final concert at Nassau Coliseum before it closes for renovations. He’s far from finished.
On his minor 1974 hit “The Entertainer,” which he performed on Wednesday, Joel sings about the fleeting nature of rock stardom. It’s a sometimes cynical song that references struggling with record companies (“If you’re gonna have a hit, you’ve gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05”), groupies (“I’ve played all kinds of palaces, laid all kinds of girls”), and life on the road (“after a while and a thousand miles it all becomes the same”). He was most likely speaking from his own experiences. But there was one prediction he got wrong. In the chorus he sings, “But I know the game, you’ll forget my name, I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts.”