A little after 7:30 on Dec. 14, Billy Joel – dressed in black, head to toe -- breezed onstage at Durgin Hall with the barest of introductions and utterly without pretense.
A Night of Questions, Answers and a Little Music, delayed a week due to Joel’s “pretty bad cold,” brought the pop singer to the intimate, packed Durgin Hall on South Campus. Though he has avoided making new pop records for nearly two decades – his latest is a 2001 classical recording -- Joel could have easily sold out the Tsongas Center.
Landing Joel was a landmark moment in the life of UMass Lowell and one Chancellor Marty Meehan hopes draws due attention to the University’s music program, which has produced a steady stream of professionals and more recently, Grammy-winning recording engineers.
“Obviously, we love having Billy Joel at UMass Lowell,” said Meehan after chatting with Joel backstage before the show. “It’s a tribute to the world-class music department we have and an opportunity for the students to learn from a master. But I hope this puts the music department on the map, too. They’re deserving of it.”
From a slew of bids across the nation, Joel selected three schools: Cornell, the University of Connecticut, and UMass Lowell. The agreement between Joel’s camp and the University called for making 85 percent of Durgin’s 1,000 the seats available to students, the rest to faculty and staff.
It was a master class in the art, the inspiration and the business of being Billy Joel, ideally suited for the University’s music majors. He’s been hosting similar campus events over the years, and Joel has the mood and meter of such an event down. He opened by saying that he loves the job of rock star and vowed when he was young if he ever made it, “I wanted to be able to help people do this job,” to wade through the often “treacherous” and “larcenous” waters of the music business.
For a little more than two hours, Joel shared his craft and his highs and lows, answering audience questions, illustrating points with snippets of songs. Two pianos, a gong and a stool filled the stage. The stool was never used.
He led Christmas sing-alongs, honored requests for photographs and autographs and allowed two students to accompany him. His voice warmed as the evening went on, to where he was singing such young-man’s songs as “Innocent Man” to perfection.
His proudest achievement? His daughter, Alexa Ray. His career highlight? Playing the Soviet Union in 1987 and feeling his personal vision of the Cold War melt.
At 62, the New York native could simply feast upon the royalties from sales of 150 million records, polish his six Grammy Awards, or reflect on the night in 1999 Ray Charles inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Looking back has its joys, but Joel also winces at the past, having recently canceled the publication of his autobiography, The Book of Joel, though it was completely written. If there is one rear view mirror he enjoys, it is usually attached to a motorcycle. He recently opened his own motorcycle shop, 20th Century Cycles, in Long Island’s Oyster Bay.
Accolades keep rolling in. This week at the Steinway Hall in New York, the piano maker unveiled Joel’s portrait. Wearing a leather jacket, he is the lone non-classical performer to be inducted.
He has been boxed, too, with Legacy Recordings’ 14-disc Billy Joel – The Complete Albums Collection hitting stores last month. And no less than Lady Gaga has professed her fandom of Joel.
But last night was about passing along lessons learned, some of them hard-won. Joel said he worked making ink for typewriter ribbons, as an oysterman, a freelance writer and landscaper while playing music. He played the piano before he was tall enough to reach the keys, then took lessons at 6. By third grade, he was earning weak-kneed screams form the fourth-grade girls, crooning “Hound Dog” in the cafeteria.
He knew his fate.
Along the way, Joel revealed he wrote “And So It Goes” for supermodel Elle MacPherson during their “doomed relationship.” “She was 19, I was 30, she’s 6’2” and I’m 5’7,” he said. “I saw a picture of us walking on the beach and I looked like Bubbles the Chimp.”
Similarly self-deprecating throughout the evening, Joel also served up plenty of laughs.
When one audience member suggested he record a Christmas album, he dismissed the idea as something everyone else does without shame. “And besides, I’m a Jew!”
Leading into one tale with “Bono’s gonna kill me for this...” Joel recalled attending a U2 show in New York and wondering how four guys were making all of that sound. He said he discovered an additional band of musicians bolstering the sound from beneath the stage.
"Billy Joel and the UMass Lowell Music Department have a lot in common,” said John Shirley, chair of the Music Department who met Joel pre-show. “The unique combination of our four diverse yet interactive programs, Music Business, Sound Recording Technology, Music Performance and Music Education, complement the experiences and long career of Mr. Joel. In the past few years the department has also had the pleasure of hosting two of his most famous record producers Phil Ramone and Frank Filipett who interacted with our students individually as well as in the classroom."
Joel’s sound is infused with Fats Domino, the Gershwins, Aaron Copeland and that back-of-the-classroom wise-guy who discusses his Beatles and Brill Building obsessions while navigating Tin Pan Alley. He is a master of melody and last night he told the crowd he writes music before lyrics “99 percent of the time...I’m a music guy.” His writing lately, he said, has been confined to music, sans lyrics.
Joel doesn’t need to do this, nor did he need to select UMass Lowell from the hundreds of schools that applied to have him. But the University’s rich musical history may have held sway. The University is home to the nation’s first public music education school and over the years, it has produced more music teachers in Massachusetts than anyone else. UMass Lowell Sound Recording Technology program has produced Grammy winners and has hosted international recording summits, including one in 2008, where the keynote speaker was Phil Ramone, one of Joel’s producers.
The evening crystallized near the end, when Joel headed to the piano to render “Leningrad” after discussing his Soviet tour. He searched for the key.
“I know it! It’s in D!” The voice came from the floor seats. Joel looked down then called him up. Each took a seat on the stools of the two pianos facing one another. For the next few minutes, Joel and David Schockett, 22, played what sounded like a flawless version of “Leningrad,” a song that celebrates similarities hidden by fear. And the star was the teacher, and the 40 years between the two musicians melted away.
After the song, Schockett hugged Joel and pressed a copy of his CD into the Piano Man’s hand. His first concert was watching Elton John and Joel play Gillette Stadium, Schockett said later.
“And I got up there tonight and I was terrified at first. I told myself, get your head in the game! And the rest just came. And I looked up and across from me was Billy Joel. And I thought, oh my God, I’m Elton John.”