A candid and irreverent Billy Joel delivered lessons in music and life Monday night to an SPC-only, sold-out crowd of 850 at the Palladium. These intimate college settings, dubbed “An Evening of Questions and Answers … and a Little Music,” have replaced Joel’s concert performances recently, giving music students an inside look at what it takes to make it.
“When I was starting out, there was no one to ask how to do my job,” Joel said in his opening. “I said if I ever get the chance, I’m going to help someone out. I’ve made every mistake in the business, and I’m still here.”
During the nearly three-hour performance, Joel bounded between the the Palladium’s Steinway Concert Grand and an electric piano to punctuate his points with song. Running the sound boards and lighting alongside Joel’s team were students from SPC’s Music Industry/Recording Arts program.
“They’re getting to work with world-class people,” said Mark Matthews, lead instructor for MIRA. “Theory is great, but there’s no substitute for an experience like this. This is big. He wants to focus on the students.”
Responding to a question about advice for budding songwriters, Joel broke out Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, urging lyricists to concentrate on writing words and finding musicians who are willing to use them.
While Joel’s singing impressions (and there were many) were spot on, there was no mistaking who was behind the microphone. Launching into Just the Way You Are, a song written for his first wife, Joel said, “The most meaningful songs are those written about a real person, from one person to another, because other people will hear that as a real human statement.”
At 62, the six-time Grammy Award winner has not produced a rock or pop hit for nearly 20 years, but has returned to the music that first inspired him as a piano student. His 2001 release, Fantasies & Delusions, featured a collection of his classical piano pieces that debuted at No. 1 on the classical charts.
“I had this passionate affair with rock and roll for 40 years or longer … and now I’ve returned to the girl next door” he said of the classical music he now writes.
Having a strong musical foundation with an instrument is key to success, even for singers, he said.
“When you see kids on Amerian Idol, I can tell some of them they don’t know how to play an instrument because they don’t know how to phrase with the music … they’re not attached to something that makes music that’s not their own voice,” said Joel, whose music will be featured on Wednesday’s episode of the hit show. “I believe it’s always good to learn some theory, some music history and some basis of an instrument,” Joel said to a round of applause. “I was a piano player before I was known as a lead singer.”
For MIRA student Chris Hill, who introduced Joel on stage, Joel’s piano playing partly inspired him to study music at SPC. Hill, who has a bachelor’s degree in business, found his previous profession lacked passion.
“I’m trying to stay calm.” Hill said before the show. “The first album I ever bought was The Stranger on LP. I can remember how big he was … and still is.”
The Stranger, released in 1977, was Joel’s fifth effort and the one that catapulted his career. That level of patience from the music industry is now long gone.
“Today, if you don’t have a hit the first time out, you won’t get another record,” Joel said. “Record companies don’t spend money developing musicians anymore.”
The real game changer, however, has been the advent of digital music production.
“You can record at home now,” Joel said. “Digital equipment makes it possible to have a professional recording in your house. A garage band now can be a superstar band. It’s not just a joke anymore, it’s reality.”
His advice to up and coming musicians: “Make a demo tape, and put your best stuff up front. Send it to record companies and if you get asked, play for them where they can see you. You may have to do a little travelling.”
While Joel was one credit shy of graduating from high school, the game changer in his own life was a teacher. Cutting class to play piano in his high school auditorium, Joel impressed his chorus teacher who overheard him.
“This guy was a really good teacher and I really respected him,” Joel said. “This was the first time an adult said this to me: ‘You should consider becoming a professional musician.’ It was like a door opened and the light shone. Kaboom! … And then it all became possible. So other than musicians I admired, that teacher changed my life.”