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My Perspective - Old, new memories with the Piano Man

By Jim Palmer

As our kids have gotten older, my wife and I have been trying to replace “stuff” with “experiences” whenever we can when it comes to birthday and Christmas gifts. Last year, I took my son, Noah, to a Vikings game (that turned out to be the greatest comeback in NFL history). This year, it is Zachary’s turn.

Zach is our middle son, a junior in high school. He is a fun kid, is active in athletics (cross country, basketball and track), plays video games, and is often the life of the party. He also has a soft spot for music. Zach can often be heard singing in our house or listening to music. That love for music lead to his Christmas “experience gift.”

One might think that, because of his age (16), he listens to the pop hits of today... and to an extent he does... but much of his music listening centers around songs that were performed decades before he was born. If you scanned through the playlist on his phone, you would find some older titles and some unique titles. When he finds songs he really likes, he puts them in a playlist that he has titled “Ol’ Bangers.”

See how many “bangers” you recognize from that list: “Silhouettes” by The Rays (1956), “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell (1977), “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy (1976), “Lean on Me,” by Bill Withers (1972), “Brandy” by Looking Glass (1972), “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison (1970), “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong (1976), “Tom Dooley,” by Kingsman Trio (1958), “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire (1978), “Bang The Drum All Day,” by Todd Rungren (1982), and “Sherry” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (1962). And the list goes on...

And one name that comes up in his playlist often is Billy Joel. His top three are “Piano Man,” “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Vienna,” but he knows about 20 of his songs pretty well. So last month, we gave Zach an early Christmas present -- a ticket to the Billy Joel/Stevie Nicks concert at the US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (same location as the greatest NFL comeback game from last year).

Both concerts brought me back to my earliest memories of Billy Joel. I actually remember the first time I listened to Billy Joel. It would have been 1980 or early 1981 in Stewart, Minn. I was about six years old. I was playing Legos on the living room floor with my older brother, Mike, and his good friend, David Jaeger. We had an old AM/FM console radio that played both albums and 8-tracks. The radio was really big and wooden, much like the old Zenith TV sitting on the other side of the room. David put Billy Joel’s Glass Houses album (released that year) on the turntable, set the needle and cranked it up. As we played Legos, we learned the songs. And before long, we were singing along. Before long, we added “air” guitars, pianos and harmonicas. Besides a really cool album cover, Glass Houses also has several of Joel’s big hits including “You May Be Right,” “Don’t Ask Me Why” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” We listened to Glass Houses many, many times that year. The lyrics of every song, even the obscure ones, were imprinted in my brain.

The concert was in November and was the first concert that Zach has attended in a really big venue. The place was packed. Zach was familiar with a few Stevie Nicks songs (“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac made his “Ol’ Bangers” list) but his energy level rose when Billy took the stage.

A few things caught my eye right away. Most notably, was the age of the crowd. Despite Billy Joel turning 74 and Stevie Nicks 75 this year, there were more young concert goers under age 50 than over age 50. That really speaks to the quality of the music and how these songs, and these performers have stood the test of time. Not all music ages that well. For example, I used to really like Phil Collins music and now I can barely tolerate most of his songs. Not only were there a lot of young people at the concert, the vast majority of them were singing every lyric to every song. They weren’t just dragged to a concert by their parents... they were true fans.

Another observation -- both performers could still execute all of their songs to near perfection. Yes, their voices were a little deeper than they were 45 years ago when they first performed many of their songs, but the quality of their vocals hadn’t gone anywhere.

Finally, while they were playing “Piano Man,” I took a look around US Bank Stadium. The scene was uplifting and encouraging. In a country that has become more and more divisive, it was great to see people from every age, color, and walk of life, shoulder to shoulder, all swaying to the music. Music does truly bring people together.

I found this Billy Joel quote which summarizes what I saw that night...

“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” - Billy Joel

For me, this concert brought me back to 1980, back to the living room floor, playing Legos with Mike and David, singing at the top of my lungs and playing air piano, as our old wooden radio blasted tunes from Glass Houses. It is amazing how music can take you right back.

For Zach, this concert was a memorable night. He has been playing and singing more Billy Joel songs since the concert and has added a couple more to his Ol’ Banger playlist. Zach was a piano player when he was younger (now plays percussion) and he purchased some Billy Joel sheet music the other day, which is fun to see. And hopefully, if he has kids of his own someday, and they play “Piano Man” from their playlist, the music will bring Zach back to the sights and sounds of this concert, and memories of a special day with his dad.

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