SING US A SONG, YOU'RE THE PIANO MEN
SCENES FROM AN ITALIAN'S LOGE SEAT: SAL SEES BILLY JOEL AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN. If you've been following Billy Joel's career and loving it, from the early days of "Piano Man" right on through every unfortunate drunken car crash, or if you're just a casual fan, or even someone who is curious, then what you saw last night at Madison Square Garden could have only been as good as or better than expected.
For the longest time, the two things I most feared hearing were, "Sal, this is Dr. Bloom and it doesn't look good," and "You had to be a BEEEG SHOT, DEEN CHOO!" Billy Joel, a once respected singer-songwriter with more hits than Dave Kingman, had become an icon of sleaze. A buffoon, whose pretentious forays into classical music and the gossip columns turned off even the most loyal fans. But I did, and still do, like many of his records, and once I heard that this run of shows would contain some deep catalogue songs, I had to go.
Billy Joel was a gentleman, who stuck to the music and kept his "colorful" (read: obnoxious) banter to a minimum. His voice sounded younger than ever. And his choice of material was...well...not as interesting as promised, but still quite good. Early rehearsal setlists included such oddities as the Beatleque "Laura," from The Nylon Curtain, "The Great Wall Of China," from River Of Dreams, and my two fave Joel songs, "Until the Night," from 52nd Street and "Summer, Highland Falls" from Turnstiles. I didn't get any of those. I did get "Vienna," "All For Leyna," "A Matter Of Trust" and a surprisingly good "Highway To Hell" sung by a roadie named Chainsaw.
Songs that I expected to yawn or cringe through -- "Movin' Out", "Captain Jack," and "You May Be Right" -- were performed with such enthusiasm that I forgot how much I hated them, and enjoyed myself with the other 20,000 people.
Of course, there was nothing I could do about "Big Shot," which Joel performed sporting a backwards baseball cap and throwing his hands in the air like a Beastie Boy. And, the sight of a very "happy" couple, standing up and proudly shouting every word of "We Didn't Start The Fire," while pointing violently at each other to the beat. It was almost enough to ruin, not only the show, but a night's sleep. Fortunately, those two moments did neither.
He also performed "The Entertainer," a song that tells the story of someone who knows how fickle his fans can be. I can't help but think those same lyrics, if written by Fountains Of Wayne or some other hip new band, would be considered funny and clever. But instead, the "hip and clever" roll their eyes in contempt at Billy Joel. I think I understand, but I always put the music first, especially if the person in question is a musician. Billy Joel at MSG was a treat. I think I wanna go again.
WOULDN'T IT BE COOL TO GO BACK TO 1947? TONY SEES IRVING FIELDS AT THE FRIARS CLUB. Quick, name a 90-year-old cocktail pianist who wrote one of the biggest hit singles of 1947 and is still active today.
OK, name another.
If you either have a very long memory or a complete set of the "Your Hit Parade" CDs from Time/Life, you still might not know that Irving Fields wrote some classic hits in the '40s like "Managua, Nicaragua" and "The Miami Beach Rhumba," before becoming one of the best-known and most in-demand cocktail pianists in New York and recording a slew of albums in the '50s, including the lounge/kitsch classic Bagels And Bongos. Once piano players stopped being a necessity in the finer hotels and cocktail lounges in the '60s and '70s, Irving fell on hard times, but always managed to find steady work. Nowadays, at an age when most of his contemporaries are either dead or drooling into their Maypo, you can find him tickling the ivories six nights a week at an Italian restaurant on West 58th St., and loving every minute of it.
On Monday, normally his night off, Irving was booked into the Friars Club for two hours of piano wizardry and shmoozing with the crowd who had come to watch him work his magic, and he didn't disappoint. He played everything from Gershwin medleys to half-forgotten show tunes to a rhumba-ized version of "Hava Nagila," naturally called "Havana Nagila." You simply can't faze the man. Request any song written before 1950, and he'll play it. Ask if you can sing a standard off-key while he accompanies you, and he'll say yes -- usually. Sidle up to the piano between songs and ask about his career, you'll get a fascinating 10 minute soliloquy. He spent as much time walking from table to table and chatting up the Friars and Friar-ettes as he spent actually playing, but to me, especially in my inebriated state, that was part of the charm. The crowd, most of whom were getting their first toupees and facelifts before I was born, ate it up, too.
It's hard to believe that not so long ago, guys like Irving Fields were a fixture all over New York. Now, he's the last of a dying breed. The man may be in his 90s, but his fingers are ageless -- go check him out. And while you're at it, order a copy of "Bagels And Bongos," which has finally been reissued on CD. Irving rocks!