The last time Billy Joel played South Florida was New Year’s Eve 2017 at the BB&T Center. As a lengthy career tends to do, Joel, now 69 years old, has developed a more methodical and slower approach to the rock-star shtick. If you didn't know him, you'd probably walk right past him on a Manhattan corner. He doesn’t wear flamboyant clothes or hold a guitar like a Viking wielding a sword; he's often found wearing a black suit while performing with little accompaniment besides his piano.
Joel is set to kick off the decade this Friday, January 10, at Hard Rock Live. Although his career spans more than 50 years, his iconic sound came shortly after he quit the metal band Attila. He took the lonely piano-player route through New York City bars until his first hit song, 1977's "The Stranger,” garnered acclaim. Over the next four decades, Joel would go on to create and produce some of the greatest rock ’n’ roll tunes of our lifetime and accrued a following by blending the trappings of New Wave, rock, and other trends in his jubilant piano riffs.
Joel's cheerful, head-bobbing music, combined with his Long Island charisma, can leave the impression that his music is all fun and games. But when you scope out the lyrics, you'll notice his tunes are surprisingly grim: His magnum opus, “Piano Man,” depicts an improvising musician trying to make it all work amid a crowd of very fallible people. His 1975 song “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” is based on the time New York City came close to bankruptcy and is symbolized through a man’s escape to Miami after the Big Apple has crumbled into the sea; “Miami 2017” also reinforces the well-worn and documented stereotype of old New Yorkers moving to Florida for retirement.
Despite Joel's lengthy hiatus from 2008 to 2015, Miami seems like the quintessential spot for him: a city that's at once a paradise and a metropolis teeming with the grit that shaped him. Until 2018, Joel had a Manalapan mansion in West Palm Beach to escape the cold of New York, so South Florida represents a large constituency of fans: the ones who grew up in the Northeast and then went full snowbird.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Joel released his last studio album, 2001's Fantasies & Delusions. He has said his distaste for record executives, combined with the crowd's taste for the “classics,” are the main reasons for his retirement from the studio. In an interview with the New York Times, he stated, “They own the recordings, so I’m writing for them. I saw it happening with Elton [John], other big-name artists. The last album didn’t sell as much, got to put out another album, and they end up diluting their legacy by putting out albums that are no longer good.”
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However, his time away from the studio doesn't mean his artistic brilliance has been dormant: Joel is always writing music; he simply keeps it in his head. In the same New York Times interview, he said. “I tell that to the audience sometimes: ‘We’re going to do your favorite songs. I’m not going to play anything new.’ ‘Yay!' But then I get accused of pandering. ‘He only gives them what they want to hear.' Well, they paid a [expletive] of money to see me; they should get what they want. That’s my job: I’m an entertainer.”
Whether he's releasing new tunes or not, Joel has sold more than 150 million albums; hosted a residency in Madison Square Garden since 2014 that sells out about every show; and has been sober for 15 years, his proudest achievement. His performance this Friday will see him play the fan favorites such as “It's Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “She's Always a Woman,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Piano Man,” a song he doesn't think is all that great. “I don’t think it’s that good a song. It’s a story song, like 'Taxi' with Harry Chapin, more of a folk song than a pop tune. It’s in 6/8 time, which is a waltz, about these losers in a bar. But people love it. [Shrugs] There’s a lot of my songs I could never hear again and live quite happily.”
Mere days into 2020, Australia is battling horrific wildfires, and U.S.-Iranian relations have crumbled. Let's deal with the impending apocalypse the Billy Joel way and get to Miami fast.