Mr Nice Guy. It’s hard to find anyone, anywhere, with a bad word to say about Billy Joel. (Trust me, I looked.) And this story is just another example of why.
I always thought – suspected – Billy Joel was a great bloke.
I’ve no idea if he really is, but he comes over that way, and I saw him once at Kooyong in Melbourne and the show just rocked along with great good humour, and awesome music, of course.
His marriage to Christie Brinkley – for whom he wrote Uptown Girl, and made the memorable video with her – was very publicly on the skids, and that she had not accompanied him to Australia was the cause of some speculation.
Someone called out from the audience “Where’s your wife?” He paused, looked down momentarily, then looked up and smiled. Leaning into the microphone he murmured:
“I know where my wife is, man. Which is more than we can say for you.”
Needless to say the audience erupted into applause. Very classy put down.
Another reason I like him is he does those “Masterclass” things in schools and colleges, which is an incredibly generous thing for a huge star to do. At one, recently, his natural good nature shone out.
When lifelong Billy Joel fan Michael Pollack stood up to ask his childhood idol a question during the Piano Man’s recent Q&A at Vanderbilt University, he had no idea the answer would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Pollack, a piano player himself, asked Joel if he could accompany him in a performance of “New York State of Mind” — Pollack’s favorite song.
“He thought for a little – he took a second – and then he just said ‘Okay,'” Pollack would later tell the Vanderbilt Hustler.
That was good enough for Pollack, who took off toward the stage to prepare for whatever came next. After just a 15 second exchange with Joel, Pollack began to play. And the results are a rather wonderful rendition of what has always been a seminal Joel classic: I recommend you watch it.
Pollack recounted — or tried to recount — the next few minutes:
From there, it was just … foggy. It’s hard to remember. I just started playing. I had practiced it a little bit thinking maybe I’d get the chance to go up … I kind of lost myself playing. Then afterward he said to me … he said that I was great, where are you from … and I said, “I’m a Long Islander just like you.” He was like, “Cool.” Then I walked off, and that was it. It was probably the greatest moment of my life, up to date.
Joel’s advice to attendees to remember Pollack’s name won’t likely be much of a task: the young musician recently signed with the performing rights organization BMI and has already started working on some songs of his own. By the looks of him, there’s another Piano Man in the wings. Wonder if he needs any lyrics?
Alexa Ray, Joel and Brinkley’s daughter, is “all growed up now”, of course. At the time of writing, she’s 26 and developing her own career as a painist and songwriter. “Lullaby” is her favourite song of her father’s.
If I am writing about Joel, I may as well chuck in his immortal song Lullaby, also titled “Goodnight, My Angel”, seen performed here with an explanation of its genesis to another fascinated student audience.
As the video explains, it is his answer to a question from his daughter, “Daddy, what happens when we die?”
It is, without doubt, one of the most moving – and effortlessly simple – meditations on family, dying, death, and memory that one can possible imagine.
As the father of a daughter myself it invariably moves me to tears – you have been warned. Halfway through it appears to affect Joel similarly: he breaks down, and has to continue in a little while.
It’s been covered so many times now that people forget it’s Joel that wrote it.
It may be his most lasting gift to us all: that, and his good nature.
“So many things I still want to say.” Amen.
The video that was released with the song is here. And very lovely and beautifully produced and thought provoking it is. But I prefer the unvarnished live version. Then again, I’m just an old softie. What can I say?