Just four years ago, Billy Joel basically considered himself retired. He hadn’t released a new pop album since 1993’s River of Dreams, was sick of singing his old hits over and over and a painful hip replacement surgery temporarily limited his mobility and made the thought of playing rock concerts highly unappealing. “In a way, everything after Shea Stadium [in 2008] was anti-climactic,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “That was a major gig, an epiphany. I was like, ‘Oh my god, where do you go from here?’ I mean, I played Yankee Stadium. Giants Stadium, Shea… What’s the next thing? You hire an airplane, fly over the States and charge everybody a dollar? Rent the state of Kansas?”
Without making any sort of announcement, he simply stopped taking on shows after a series of dates with Elton John in early 2010 and moved out of public life, devoting all his time to his motorcycle shop in Oyster Bay, Long Island and his family. “I was really kind of sick of celebrity,” he told Rolling Stone. “I know I’m not going to get a lot of sympathy from people for saying that, but there are so many nasty things about celebrity. It’s a whole industry onto itself now, and I was kind of horrified by it, though I do enjoy being able to get a table in a restaurant.”
In late 2012, however, he got an offer for a gig he had a hard time refusing. Superstorm Sandy had just devastated New York and New Jersey and a huge benefit at Madison Square Garden to aid the victims was coming together featuring Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi and Kanye West. By this point, Joel had recovered from his hip replacement surgery and was willing to sign on, especially since it only required a short set.
Few nights in rock history have featured so many megawatt rock icons on a single stage, but the next day many critics said that Billy Joel stole the show. (It may have helped slightly that many others had a bit of an off night.) He was in great voice and after his long absence people were euphoric to see him again. Here’s video of “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” which opened his set.
Speaking to Rolling Stone four months later Joel largely brushed off the praise. “I didn’t think it was that good,” he said. “We only did five measly songs, and it wasn’t really our audience or production. Madison Square Garden is my house! We’ve done much better shows there. Hello! Everybody seems to forget that.”
Still, the performance clearly buoyed him and he agreed to play at Jazz Fest and an Australian festival in early 2013. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. “I have to make up my mind about what I’m capable of doing,” he said. “When I sing, I’m singing really high. I’ve lowered the keys, but a lot of those things are really high. I need a few days to recover from every gig. But it would be silly to do just one gig every three months. You tie up the band and the crew. … It would have to be more work than that.”
A solution to that problem presented itself later that year when Madison Square Garden offered him an unprecedented monthly residency. It would allow him to limit his travels while keeping his band comfortably afloat. He still gigs around the country between MSG shows, but most nights he’s able to sleep in his own bed in Long Island. He even flies back and forth MSG from a helicopter that departs from his backyard. He had to postpone his September 30th date to undergo endoscopic sinus surgery this month, but he’ll be back on the stage October 28th and for the foreseeable future. If it wasn’t for 12/12/12, it’s hard to say for sure whether any of this would have happened.