I might have been a “child of the 80s”, but I didn’t really even watch a second of MTV and VH1 until I went over to a friend’s house in high school. My musical world mostly consisted of things on CMT (Country Music Television, for those of you who aren’t familiar) and concerts of performers like Randy Travis (and oh what a sea of rat tails that was). There were a few pop artists who slipped through and made their way to my boom box, such as the Bangles, Wilson Phillips, and Debbie Gibson, which comprised my tape collection. I only give myself partial credit for those since — let’s face it — I learned about those from quality birthday party time at the roller rink. And then there was my meager record collection — Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the theme song from Rocky. New Kids on the Block, Bell Biv Devoe, and Prince… I vaguely knew of them but n0, they didn’t make up my 80s. I remember feeling uncool for not being into New Kids on the Block, and not really caring that the brothers Wahlberg and company didn’t really hold my interest.
The first two non-country music artists I truly got into ironically had one thing in common: the piano. Tori Amos and Billy Joel couldn’t be more different — well, aside from said piano. I remember coming across a double tape of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 & 2. I loved the richness of his voice. The storytelling style of his lyrics. The way that New York was such a character in his songs. I swiped the tape and took it into my room, singing along about Chinatown, Riverside, the Palisades, Park Avenue, even the Upper East Side’s Elaine’s, as if I had a clue of where these places really were. Some of them sounded glamorous, though from the grunting incorporated into Pressure, I knew he’d thrown in some degree of harsh reality along the way. Having never been to New York at the time, I hadn’t the faintest clue but his version was the only New York that 10-year-old me knew.
And your mementos will turn to dust, but that’s the price you pay; For every year’s a souvenir that slowly fades away…
The cassette tape (along with one by the group Bread, which I found far less intriguing) was my mom’s, a present from my aunt. I seem to recall that it was still in its wrapper, though my memory might not be accurate on that point. I remember at the time, I had not found a lot to connect with my aunt on, but over time it would be music, namely Billy Joel, and a passion photography which would link us.
Almost a year after her unexpected passing, I found myself sitting alongside my friend at his March 16, 2006 show in DC at the then MCI Center, seated in the very last row at the top of the arena. I’d seen him live two other times, but this was the first time I wasn’t alone. I think it was meant to be that way. I don’t think I would have made it through the show without sobbing otherwise.
I’d been using her photography equipment as I geared up to start the Professional Photography Program at the Washington School of Photography. Having something tangible like that which I was using regularly proved to be both helpful and hard in those initial weeks and months after her passing. Typically a sound sleeper, I found myself waking up regularly, upset from intense dreams in which she played a main character. It seemed fitting that at this particular show, Billy chose to play River of Dreams, a song which so lined up with what I was experiencing — because I was tired. I was tired of walking at night through these dreams, trying to understand what was causing my subconscious to go into overdrive.
And even though I know the river is wide
I walk down every evening and I stand on the shore
And try to cross to the opposite side
So I can finally find out what I’ve been looking for…
Eventually, the photography program helped. I threw myself into the darkroom, printing and reprinting each photo until it was just the way I wanted. It was easy to get lost in perfectionism surrounded by minimal light in that dark, cold space. Over time, it became less of a haunting presence and more of a comfort — a subtle continual reminder.
It was fitting that last week, one of the final numbers Billy played was again River of Dreams. Eight years might have passed, but it sounded just as enchanting and energizing as it did all those years ago. Those sleepless nights have not returned, but the positive association with Billy Joel remains.
Billy Joel’s shows are just as energizing as the first one I attended in Florida 10 years ago. I find it fascinating that he still fills the room even though he has not released an album in 20 year. 20 years! And this year, marks his 50th year in show business.
So yes, his music is old. He’s not modified his show to make it any flashier (cause let’s face it, the crowds are coming regardless). But I’ll always have a positive connection with Billy Joel. His music will always make me smile. Remember that little girl who first got a peek into New York and that connection it forged with my aunt.
Sing us a song you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feeling alright…
Feel free to connect with Lara via Twitter with any feedback. She also writes regularly on her personal food-centric blog, Grits in the City, and is a contributor to Women & Co.