In his 1973 single “You’re My Home,” Billy Joel warbled “I’ve never had a place that I could call my very own.” You wouldn’t have known it from the way the crowd treated him at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday night.
In a concert turn that featured the energy of Joel’s music, the nostalgia of his lyrics and the cheese of his appeal, the musician played a sold-out show at the historic dilapidation that is the Coliseum, soon to be wrecking-balled and gut-renovated after 43 years on its parched suburban earth.
Raised in nearby Hicksville and for decades a Long Island resident, Joel was selected to close the arena, home over the years to acts as varied as the Grateful Dead and Elvis Presley. The choice was no accident, a final sendoff to a building from both a famous neighbor and a master of melodic goodbyes.
Joel, who enjoys a rafter banner commemorating an earlier residency, played the first of some 30 shows at the Coliseum all the way back in 1977. But he hadn’t appeared as a solo performer in 17 years.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here on my own,” he said as he stepped on stage. “Without the other guy,” he quipped -- a reference to Elton John, the rival he appeared with on the Face to Face tour in 2002.
Joel then ran a marathon of sorts, playing a 33-song set over 3½ hours that included a host of standards and deep cuts, along with less expected numbers such as a cover of “A Hard Day’s Night” and a doo-wop medley. In one of the evening’s stranger turns, Kevin James came out to attempt the first bars of Joel’s dystopian rave-up “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” before Joel took over.
With his mix of self-deprecation and swagger, Joel pointed up his ongoing popularity despite a lack of new material. “I didn’t really know what I was talking about when I wrote this song,” he said introducing his 1974 music-biz diatribe “The Entertainer.”
’”I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts?’” he said, referencing a lyric. “Uh huh,” he continued. “I haven’t had a hit in 23 years.”
As he does in his regular gigs at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and stops across the country, Joel offered a spirited version of his Vietnam War opus “Goodnight Saigon” by bringing veterans onstage; he then went down the line shaking their hands at the song’s end.
And perhaps realizing this was a last opportunity of sorts, Joel both performed an anthemic version of his classic “Captain Jack” as well as a rendition of his 1993 cut “No Man’s Land,” two songs he rarely brings out on his regular circuit.
But the canon-jumping was only part of what set the night apart
It was an epochal set for the 66-year-old, whose normally nostalgia-tinged piano pop took on an added layer of meaning with the Coliseum closure. Loaded songs like “Movin’ Out” and “I’ve Loved These Days” were on the agenda, as was every seemingly every track with a Long Island shout-out. (The Cold Spring Harbor of “Everybody Loves You Now”? Of course. The Montauk of “Downeaster Alexa?” As unavoidable as the Long Beach boardwalk.)
“I started doing this 50 years ago. My first gig was the Holy Family church in Hicksville,” Joel said between songs, one of several anecdotes of a Long Island childhood and part of a show complete with crowd-approved references to long-forgotten supermarkets. “They gave me 15 bucks, which back then was like $15,000. And I was like ‘You get paid for this?’”
The night wasn’t entirely spent gazing in the rearview mirror. Joel introduced “Uptown Girl” with a slick product plug. “Seen ‘Trainwreck’ yet?” he asked with arched eyebrow, before launching into the Amy Schumer leitmotif.
But mostly Joel kept focused on what was. Even his raucous sing-alongs had a rueful, look-back quality. “Well the king and the queen went back to the green but you could never go back there again,” he sang in his sprawling lost-youth epic “Scenes from An Italian Restaurant.” The crowd lustily joined in, even as some seemed to register the arena implications. They’re tearing it down now, but fans didn’t think it was just as well.
Joel and Long Island are inextricable, the former often singing about unmet ideals and the latter the geographic embodiment of them. (This is a theme explored on “No Man’s Land,” perhaps one reason Joel chose to dust it off: “There ain’t much work out here in our consumer power base,” the song, presumed to be about Long Island, goes. “No major industry, just miles and miles of parking space.”)
The Coliseum, the area’s flagship venue, opened the same year that Joel signed his first major-label contract, and the pair have at times seemed to be in lockstep, two entities that have taken their knocks but gritted their way through. When Joel on Tuesday sang “Allentown,” his 1982 ode to working-class perseverance, he didn’t change the lyrics to the original title of “Levittown.” He didn’t need to.
With the shuttering of the Coliseum, Long Island is also losing its beloved hockey club, the Islanders, which is moving 25 miles west to gentrified Brooklyn. That lent the evening an unlikely sports vibe, and loud between-song cheers often gave way to the team’s signature “Let’s Go Islanders” chant — a sign that when it comes to local pride, there is little distinction between pop tunesmiths and goonish left-wingers.
It was a surreal night in other ways. The concert saw the booing of: a) an opening-act Billy Joel cover singer (he made the mistake of admitting he rooted for the rival New York Rangers) b) Paul Simon (ditto) and c) New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (just because).
Later, when Joel paused between songs to introduce individual members of his elaborate horns ‘n drums band, many were from Long Island, and they drew cheers. But a few, from New Jersey, were less warmly received. “That must make Gov. Cuomo feel better,” Joel deadpanned.
Incidentally, Simon, whom Joel backed on piano for three of the folk legend’s songs, would have been unlikely to endear himself to an Angeleno crowd either. After the (rightful, in this reporter-fan’s view) booing finally stopped over Simon’s Rangers fandom, the singer threw a bone to the locals. “The idea of the Islanders leaving Uniondale to go to Brooklyn is as sad as the idea of the Dodgers leaving to go to San Francisco [sic],” he said. No cry rallies like the cry against urban renewal.
Near the end of the show, Joel, seeming to sense that in a way this was an end of an era for him too, made explicit what until then had been subliminal, and offered a thought about how he’d liked to be remembered. “If they don’t name a road after me that’s OK, I’d rather be alive,” he said, then as if seeking to convince himself, emphasized, “I’d much rather be alive.”
Shortly after, at just about midnight, Joel ended the concert with a flurry of his Top 40 hits, finishing with “Only The Good Die Young,” his playful nod to Catholic-school seduction.
“Thank you, Long Island. Thank you, Nassau Coliseum,” he belted out before departing. Then a mass of stonewashed jeans and Islanders jerseys undulated toward the exits, the lights came up and workers streamed past the boards to disassemble the stage for the last time.