Billy Joel made his first public appearance of the COVID-19 era on Monday night at the “Rise Up New York!” telethon to benefit the Robin Hood foundation and their efforts to combat poverty in the city during this very difficult time. The event was hosted by Tina Fey and featured Joel along with Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Idina Menzel, and Bon Jovi.
Many Billy Joel songs would have worked for the occasion, including “New York State of Mind,” but he went with his 1976 classic “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” He wrote the tune while living in Los Angeles at a time when New York was on the brink of absolute disaster. Not only had the crime rate spiked in recent years, but the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and the federal government refused to help them out.
The song (which is the closest Joel ever got to prog rock) imagines the city tumbling into absolute ruin, as churches burn in Harlem, the bridges collapse, the Empire State Building falls to the ground, and Broadway’s bright lights go dim. The survivors flee to Mexico and the song takes place in the then-distant year of 2017 where they are looking back at New York’s collapse.
“There are not many who remember,” he sings. “They say a handful still survive/To tell the world about the way the lights went out/And keep the memory alive.”
The song was never a single, but it popped onstage and it’s been a mainstay of Joel’s live show for the past five decades. (Here’s video of him singing it at a Connecticut concert in 1976.) It’s also become his go-to tune whenever disaster strikes New York City. He broke it out at the Concert for New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then again at the 12/12/12 show after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city.
Let’s all hope that this most recent event is the final time he’s forced to do this. After one or two more disasters large enough to generate an NYC-centric charity concert, New Yorkers really might abandon the city and flee to Florida just like in the song.