Billy Joel's Garden Residency Begins With Salty Jokes and Sing-Alongs

Long Island hero launches Madison Square Garden run with self-deprecating humor and plenty of "Zanzibar"

Billy Joel performs Madison Square Garden
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
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When Billy Joel announced, "I have no idea how long this is gonna go," he didn't mean the trumpet solo on "Zanzibar." He was talking about his historic residency at Madison Square Garden, which he kicked off in grand style last night. No other rock star has ever attempted anything like this: a gig a month for as long as he wants, on his home turf, in the white-hot spotlight of the world's most famous rock arena. His house. A crazy scheme? Maybe. But as the great man has spent his career proving, you should never argue with a crazy mind. "Twenty-fourteen is my fiftieth year in show business," he told the crowd. "So what was I thinking?"

Flashback: Billy Joel rings in the new millennium 

It was a momentous occasion, yet the Piano Man was his usual salty self. Trying to remember when An Innocent Man came out, he guessed 1985, two years off, but he just shrugged: "Aaah, we all lost two years in the Eighties." Catching a view of his mug up on the video screen, he cracked, "I didn't know I was gonna end up looking like that. I look like my dad — 'Hi, dad.' But I thought I was gonna look like Cary Grant." When he used a spritz of throat spray between songs, he confided that it was "the entertainer's secret," then added, "I saw Madonna use this once. It didn't help her much."

For most of the show, Joel held back on the hits, busting out surprises to the delight of a Garden packed with hardcore fans: "Blonde over Blue" from River of Dreams, "Summer, Highland Falls" from Turnstiles, "All for Leyna" from Glass Houses, even the excellent "Big Man on Mulberry Street" from The Bridge. He played a rotating piano, backed with an eight-piece band mostly composed of local dudes who understand the occasion. (MVP: Sax man Mark Rivera, my former counselor at Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp, a mensch who tried valiantly to teach me the tambourine.)

He did "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" (his "Jungleland"), "Zanzibar" (his Katy Lied), "Don't Ask Me Why" (his This Year's Model) and "River of Dreams" (his Graceland). He also did his greatest song, "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," the best rock & roll Scorsese rip of all time, plus an unspeakably awesome "She's Always a Woman." After a rare and gorgeous performance of his doo-wop homage "The Longest Time," Joel said, "It sounds better in a men's room, actually." (The best thing I heard in the men's room all night, from the next stall: "Isn't it a bitch when Billy Joel says, 'This next song is from 1983' and the asshole in front of you is like 20. Fuck you 20-year-old humps.")

All night long, he played to the local crowd, as well he should. The rest of the country loves Billy Joel madly, but America's B.J. is a totally different guy from New York's B.J., with a totally different songbook. NYC is the place where "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" and "Billy the Kid" are classics, but "Just the Way You Are" is a deep cut. (Fact: The couple next to me sat down for "Movin' Out" but stood up for "Where's the Orchestra?") When Billy blew up nationwide with The Stranger, he moved up but never moved out, so he retains the cred of a local rock hero, like Michael Stanley in Cleveland or the J. Geils Band in Boston, except his town happens to be the world's show-biz capital. It's like the old Henny Youngman joke: "My dad was the town drunk — in New York City."

For the encore, B.J. and his Affordables went for the hits, with the headbanger classics "Big Shot" and "You May Be Right." He finally got up from the piano, doing some dancing and mic-stand-twirling for his new wave satire "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," which remains an extremely weird song (all you Gary Numan fans from 1979, you are still so totally sonned) even if it inspired Weird Al's lost classic "It's Still Billy Joel to Me." ("Now everybody thinks that new wave is super / Just ask Linda Ronstadt or even Alice Cooper.")

"Only the Good Die Young" has always sounded like a lesser item from The Stranger, truth be told — when you're making a concept album about pretending to be an Italian Catholic guy, it's kinda cheating to throw in a song mocking Catholic girls. But there's no denying it was a perfect way to send all these thousands of screaming Brendas and Eddies home happy. And every minute of last night's show was a reminder of why Billy Joel can keep these monthly blowouts going as long as he's willing to show up. (Needless to say, they're all sold out through September.) As the man once sang, it's no big sin to stick your two cents in if you know when to leave it alone — but Billy Joel's greatness is that he never knows when to leave it alone.

Set List:
"Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)"
"Pressure"
"Summer, Highland Falls"
"The Longest Time"
"Blonde Over Blue"
"Everybody Loves You Now"
"All for Leyna"
"Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) "
"Where's the Orchestra? "
"Allentown"
"Big Man on Mulberry Street"
"New York State of Mind"
"Zanzibar"
"The Entertainer"
"She's Always a Woman"
"Don't Ask Me Why"
"The River of Dreams"
"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant"
"Layla (Piano Coda)"
"Piano Man"
Encore:
"Big Shot"
"It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"
"You May Be Right"
"Only the Good Die Young"

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