Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music for a Wall to Fall By

When I was a kid, my favorite performing artist was Billy Joel. I loved to hear his piano work, which was so strongly influenced by classical music, and his lyrics, too—I knew the words to every one of his solo pieces from Cold Spring Harbor right up through Glass Houses by heart. His 1981 album of live versions of his lesser-known works, Songs in the Attic, was not new to me, except for the fact that these were live performances. I already knew the songs and still listened to them frequently. And Billy Joel was a real New Yorker, just like I wanted to be (my family moved upstate when I was still very young).

My parents knew how much I liked Billy Joel’s music. (There was no way they couldn’t know; I had it playing on the stereo in my room all the time, though at low volume.) When he performed in Madison Square Garden in 1980, my father bought tickets from a scalper so that I could go, and my mother took me there and sat with me through the entire concert. Heroes, both of them.

Before I go any further, I should make it clear that I’m not much of a fan type. I don’t follow celebrities. I don’t think that a person is great or even good just because he can sing, play an instrument and write good lyrics.

But shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, I saw Billy Joel acting like a mensch, if not a tzaddik.

During one of his concerts in the Soviet Union in 1987, a film crew was lighting the audience. Billy Joel asked them several times to stop, and when they didn’t, he stopped the song in the middle and proceeded to throw a tantrum onstage, during which he overturned a grand piano.

Here is how my thought processes went as I watched the events unfold on television. At first:

Good grief! The man just overturned a grand piano, and all because the film crew didn’t obey him! Ugh, disgusting! What a prima donn—

And then, a flash of a fraction of a second later:

No, this man is no prima donna. No way. This is still the Soviet Union, still the repressive Communist regime. He deflected the authorities’ attention from the audience to himself in the best way possible: by throwing a fit onstage. He would rather have millions of people think he’s a jerk than risk exposing his audience to harm. That’s pretty amazing. This guy is a real mensch.

There was also a scene in which a Russian man, a lifelong fan of his (Victor of the incredibly moving song “Leningrad,” I believe), met Billy Joel for the first time and showed unrestrained admiration for him. Billy Joel’s response showed, immediately and unequivocally, that he was completely down to earth.

I have no idea what Billy Joel is like in real life. And really, it’s none of my business. But for me, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall are bound up in those moments from his trip to the Soviet Union: his attempt to protect his audience at the expense of his own image, and his insistence that a long-time admirer treat him not as a celebrity idol but as an ordinary human being.

If he ever comes to play here, I’ll go and see him just for that.

(Here is Billy Joel’s recounting of the episode during the concert in his own words. Scroll to the bottom of the page.)

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