Billy Joel: Long Island Origins as Defined by the Piano Man

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Readers' Poll: The 10 Best Billy Joel Deep Cuts - Rolling Stone

I’ve been thinking about musical origins lately. I can’t put my finger on why exactly. As many of you know, I grew up on Long Island. Save for one year in my twenties when I lived in Lexington, Kentucky, I’ve spent my whole life on Long Island. More specifically, I grew up on the South Shore. Babylon, West Islip, Lindenhurst– that was my area. I also spent a significant amount of time in my youth in a small, blue-collar fishing town called Hampton Bays, and that is also currently where I make my home today.

When most people from out of state hear I’m from Long Island, they immediately think I come from money, and that I live in Manhattan (not Long Island), or the wealthy area of the Hampton’s (think Montauk). I’ve never understood why this is the case. In truth, most of Long Island is blue-collar, and you guessed it– I grew up blue-collar, but not just blue-collar – really blue-collar. The kind of blue-collar where when the muffler falls off your twenty-year-old Chevy, you tie it back up with coat hangers, and patch the holes with duct tape. The kind of blue-collar where my Mother, in between Marlboro Red cigarettes puffs, would say, “Andrew, it’s bill week. Don’t eat too much so we don’t run out of food.” Yes, that really happened. Many times. Anyway, I guess the point is, I’m not from Manhattan. I’m not from Montauk and I certainly don’t come from money. Growing up on Long Island, you learn that life can be boiled down to a few simple truths: We have the best pizza, the best bagels, the best beaches, and Billy Joel is awesome, if not essential.

Music is intrinsically tied to culture, more specifically – local culture. This was never more true than in the case of Billy Joel. Like most self-respecting Long Islanders, I grew up listening to and adoring the music of Billy Joel. I have dozens of memories littering the annals of my life, and countless numbers of them are sound-tracked by Billy Joel. I distinctly recall sitting in the back seat of my Dad’s 1980 Chevy Impala as a young kid. The faded burgundy headliner sagging, stapled up, and flapping in the breeze. My Mothers cigarette smoke and ashes being blown downwind into my face, while ‘Blonde Over Blue’ from Billy’s River of Dreams album played via cassette through sun-baked speakers recessed into the cracked dashboard. I will forever remember the lyrics, “In Hell, there’s a big hotel where the bar just closed and the windows never opened. No phone so you can’t call home and the TV works, but the clicker is broken.” My Dad would always attempt to turn the radio down for the brief second Billy said “Hell” even though my Mother cursed like a truck driver in daily conversation. This was my reality, albeit warped, and somewhat deranged. Is there anything more Long Island than that for a kid growing up in the 90s?

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 01: Billy Joel performs live on stage during his 1980 US tour (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Billy Joel is a staple of Long Island. So much so, that I believe most of us actually, and sadly take him for granted. While it’s true that Billy has a massive global fan base, in my travels I have come to find that he does not garner the same appreciation in all areas of the country as he does here on Long Island. For example, when I lived in Lexington, Kentucky, everyone seemed to completely dismiss him entirely. Their loss. I suppose it makes sense, as he is the Island’s favorite son. He grew up in a Levitt house (most of you won’t know what that is – Google it), his Father was a bayman (you may need to Google that, too), who, along with thousands of others, (my Grandfather being one of them) – fished the Great South Bay dry. A huge part of my life’s journey is forever intertwined with his music. The reason why is simple – his songs are littered with imagery reflecting the life and culture of Long Island. For example, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” talks about cruising Manhasset’s Miracle Mile (you’re good friends with Google at this point!), and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is a semi-autobiographical account of what it was like for Billy to grow up in the town of Oyster Bay. Who could forget “The Downeaster Alexa?” AKA the legendary homage to Long Island’s baymen, which mentions the plight of the men fishing the Block Island Sound and Gardiners Bay. This song was always especially meaningful to me as both my Uncles and Grandfather were fishermen on vessels called Snoopy and The Amanda Jessica, and my Grandmother, all five feet of her (on a good day), worked in the Cor-J fish market right here in Hampton Bays.

I remember in 2008, we found out the home of the New York Mets, Shea Stadium would be closing for good and torn down to make room for the Met’s new home, Citi Field. I’m admittedly a Yankee fan, but my best friend Joe is a lifelong Met fan, and as a result, most of the baseball games I’ve attended in person have been Met games. Shea Stadium was a dump in many regards, but it was a lovable dump. It was our dump. So, in 2008, when we found out that Billy would be closing out the stadium for the Last Play at Shea, we knew we had to go, and so we did. That evening is truly one of my greatest musical memories. Billy was his usual on-fire self. Probably more than slightly buzzed, and in his typical honest and jovial form. He had an array of guests come out and sing with him. I recall, Tony Bennet, Garth Brooks, Roger Daltry, John Mayer, Paul McCartney, John Mellencamp, and Steven Tyler all joining him over the course of nearly thirty songs. Watching Billy and Paul McCartney close that show, and that stadium out with a live rendition of “Let It Be” was the stuff of legend, and I’ll never forget it. Again, I am not a Met fan, but I still miss last-second, eight-dollar-cheap-seat games there. Joe, our good friend Brian, and I would polish off an eighteen pack of Bud Light on the hour-plus LIRR train ride, and go watch the Mets get toasted by the Braves. It’s classic Long Island. These days, the Mets still kind of suck, Shea Stadium is gone, and I can’t drink nearly as much beer, but Billy gave us one last night to remember in that lovable dump.

Billy Joel show announced for Bankers Life Fieldhouse

In my travels, I’ve often found that New Yorkers get a bad rep. Most people think we’re loud, curse too much, drive too fast, and spend too much money. In reality…that’s all true (I started cursing extensively around the age of eight), but there’s a side to things here that people don’t see from the outside looking in. We are more than Manhattan and Montauk. We are filled with sleepy blue-collar communities, buoyed by hard-working people of all shapes, sizes, and colors. For the most part, we are decent people, even if we do say “Fuck” all the time. These are the reasons Billy Joel is so important to us here. No matter how famous he’s become, he’s always come home to Long Island, and he still lives here to this day. I’ve personally seen him out in the wild on several occasions over the years, and he is as nice and humble as he seems, and he’s always good for at least one yearly news story. Whether is him wrecking yet another motorcycle, or him randomly playing the piano on the side of the road for all to see (yes that happened!), Billy Joel truly is an everyman. For all the Grammy’s, accolades, and platinum albums, he still feels like one of us, and that’s why we love him here.

Billy is still that same working-class hero he sings about in all those songs. He’s “Anthony who works in the grocery store” from his song “Moving Out.: He’s the drunken loudmouth from “Big Shot.” He’s “Eddie” from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and he’s the bayman from “The Downeaster Alexa.” Billy swears too much, drinks too much, and gets fat on pizza and bagels, just like the rest of us. For all his fame and fortune, he’s left pieces of himself everywhere he’s been, and in each song, he’s created for us. These are our local anthems. Our memories are laced with them, and some of our life stories are defined by them. Billy Joel, in short, feels like home. My life’s story, all thirty-plus years of it, is heavily and happily enveloped in the Piano Man’s words and music. I have memories of block parties and BBQ’s all defined by Billy. I have taken road trips where I’ve listened to Billy for hours, and I recall the Christmas of 2017 when I received tickets to see Billy at MSG as a gift. At $350 dollars a pop, I sat just behind the stage, and it was another one of my favorite musical moments, even if I did sorely miss the bombastic drumming of one Liberty DeVito. My life, and so many others, simply would not be the same without the presence of his music.

So, if you want the true flavor of Long Island, ignore what the media says, or what you find on the internet. Listen to Billy Joel, and through the stories and characters he’s created, you will truly understand our story here. Start with Cold Spring Harbor and The Stranger and don’t stop until you’ve listened to the very last song on River of Dreams. If there is one man or artist that has defined and embodies what it means to be from Long Island, New York– it’s Billy Joel.

So yes, we are too loud. We do curse too much. Sometimes we drive too fast, and yes– we spend too much. So what? That’s how we do it here on Long Island. Every place you go has its local flavor, and the fast-paced, in-your-face, no-holds-barred hustle is ours. So, next time you’re here, visit one of our local bars, pull up a stool, order yourself a Blue Point and some fries with ketchup, and choose “Piano Man” on the jukebox if there is one because there’s nothing more Long Island than a drunken Billy Joel sing-along with all your closest friends.

“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 got us feeling alright.

Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Stories from the Stacks, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/stories-from-the-stacks-archives/

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
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2 thoughts on “Billy Joel: Long Island Origins as Defined by the Piano Man

  1. Very nice article and sentiments. Just one nit, Billy’s father was not a bayman. He worked for Dumont which was owned at some point by GE. And he left to go back to Europe when Billy was young. Billy sings that line in “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” but he is not referring to himself or his actual father.

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