The kids in Billy Joel’s Long Island neighborhood were a bit harsh on artistic types. His piano teacher also taught ballet, making his walks to and from practice literally painful.
“… So I used to get my ass kicked a lot,” Joel said, recalling his first trips to the piano and his peers response to it. They were more knuckles than art. “It was tough enough taking piano lessons. They used to beat the sh-t out of me.” So to become the Piano Man, Joel first learned to fight back by taking boxing lessons. He liked boxing so much he briefly considered pro boxing. He thought for a while he even liked taking a punch. He changed his mind after meeting with an amateur boxer.
Joel settled on the piano.
Last Tuesday night as he retold that story and countless others for a sold-out show at Tufts University’s Cohen Auditorium entitled “An Evening of Questions, Answers and a Little Music,” it seemed like Joel still remembered how to throw a jab – and how to take one.
While fielding questions and going into detail about his own experiences, Joel made light of his ex-wives’ vanities, George W. Bush’s public speaking, Elton John’s extravagances and his own song lyrics written when he wore a younger man’s clothes.
While fielding questions and going into detail about his own experiences, Joel made light of his ex-wives’ vanities, George W. Bush’s public speaking, Elton John’s extravagances and his own song lyrics written when he wore a younger man’s clothes. After getting a bit long-winded on one story, Joel sensed the audience yearning to hear a song rather than listen to another one of his stories. Recognizing this, he punched back.
“Entertain us, Piano Man,” Joel said, mocking the audience and himself. “We don’t want to hear what you have to say, just shut up and sing.”
Joel’s last visited Tufts in the 1970s as one of his first college concerts. These tickets sold out much faster. Online student tickets for the 620-seat auditorium were gone in 44 seconds.
Of the six universities Joel chose to tour, the tickets at Tufts were the most expensive, but for Tufts senior and devoted Joel fan David Michaels, the cost could have been worse. If Joel had come in the spring, Michaels would have had to fly back from Scotland to see him.
Tufts junior Marjorie Affel could not believe this was happening at her school. Jessica Green, a Tufts junior who grew up just shouts from Joel’s Levittown home, added university planners will never outdo themselves on this one.
“This is the music I grew up on,” she said. “I wanted to call my parents and tell them about it, but it was too late.”
The visit was arranged as part of Tufts’ 150th anniversary festivities, said Tufts Assistant Director in the Office of Student Activities Ed Cabellon. As the representative of one of 55 schools in New England hoping Joel would show, Cabellon said it took creative finagling.
“I pretty much offered him any date in November,” Cabellon said. “I said pretty much anything to get him here.”
During the show, Joel, who was playfully shameless when promoting his new classical album, “Fantasies and Delusions,” played selections with guest piano virtuoso Richard Joo. Joo said he was surprised at the new direction Joel was taking.
“The first time we met it was like a waterfall,” Joo said of Joel’s thirst for classical music knowledge. “He had me saying to myself, `Wait a minute, this is the `Uptown Girl’ guy?’”
In the end, Joel proved to have a boxer’s stamina, outlasting the alarm clock (which he smashed) and an electric piano that ran out of battery power and playing a 3 1/2 hour long show.
When he put on the harmonica to play his defining song, “Piano Man,” the crowd erupted. When the show finally ended, Joel left the audience with this fighting advice.
“Don’t take any sh-t from anybody,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to be brave.”