Billy Joel is ready to give Nassau Coliseum a fitting send-off. It will be filled with tales of village greens, baymen struggles and his own distinctly Long Island story that has been entwined with the Uniondale arena for nearly four decades.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Kennedy Center honoree says he has been working for months on the Aug. 4 show -- the final event before the 43-year-old arena shuts down for a $261 million renovation. Joel hopes it will be like the final concerts at Shea Stadium, where he mixed in songs and special guests with a connection to the place, including Astoria's Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney, who headlined the first concert at Shea with The Beatles and played the final song there with Joel and his band.
Joel's goal is to celebrate the Coliseum's history and what it has meant to him and to Long Island.
"I'm happy to do it," Joel says, sitting in the back of his Oyster Bay motorcycle shop. "It's like when we did the 'Last Play at Shea.' I was thinking, 'I'm closing Shea Stadium? Don't they know who I am? The Beatles opened it and I'm being asked to close it?' That was a real honor. It's a thrill. And that's the same vibe about closing out the Coliseum. It's history."
Since opening in 1972, the Coliseum has featured performers ranging from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears. The first concert was Three Dog Night on April 29, 1972. Johnny Cash played the next night. David Bowie's historic "Station to Station Tour" show was broadcast live from there in 1976 and Pink Floyd performed "The Wall" there in 1980, one of only two American arenas that landed that special performance.
The arena seemed out of reach for Joel in 1972, when he was a struggling singer-songwriter from Hicksville who had seen his debut album fail so badly he fled to Los Angeles and began playing the dive bar that inspired his classic "Piano Man."
But now, Joel is in the midst of a career resurgence so strong that he is selling out stadiums across the country and playing a monthly residency at Madison Square Garden for the foreseeable future. He hopes his first solo Coliseum show in 17 years will help launch a transformation for the arena, which is scheduled to reopen in December 2016.
"It was our Coliseum," Joel says. "Long Islanders have a little bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to New York City. We're like the country bumpkins, the cousins from out of state. . . . I used to go to the city and feel like a dumb tourist: 'Look at all the tall buildings! Look at all the people squashed together!' New York is really an impressive city. I've been all over the world. I've played all these cities, but New York is Gotham. It's gargantuan. I think Long Island people feel the same when they go to the city. . . . But we have things that are our own."
After all, Joel knows a thing or two about the power of transformations.
Watching Billy Joel today -- a newlywed and expectant father shaking his hips as he dances with a mic stand during "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" -- it's easy to forget that not so long ago he was seriously considering retirement.
Three years ago, he thought he was at the end of his career. Joel needed a hip replacement. He needed allergy shots to regain the strength in the upper register of his voice. He needed more love and happiness in his life. Now, the 66-year-old has found all of that -- and unprecedented success, too.
The final Coliseum show is one of many major events this summer for Joel, who married longtime girlfriend Alexis Roderick in a surprise July 4 wedding. The couple is preparing for the birth of a daughter next month. Of course, that's in addition to breaking the Madison Square Garden record for most performances by an artist and a stadium tour that will take Joel later in August to Chicago's Wrigley Field, Philadelphia's Citizen Bank Park and San Francisco's AT&T Park.
As important as the Coliseum is in music history, it plays a much bigger role in Joel's personal history. In a promo for his first TV special, "Live from Long Island," a concert recorded at the Coliseum in 1982, Joel sits in the 200-level seats and jokes in the interview about how far he is from the stage, saying, "It was a lot higher than this the last time I was here."
Because Joel had seen shows at the Coliseum as a music fan, it was always a goal for him to perform there. And none of his 31 shows at the Coliseum stands out more than the first -- on Dec. 11, 1977, as part of "The Stranger" tour.
"That was a big charge," he says, smiling. "All of a sudden, here I am playing in arenas after years of slogging away in the trenches. Now, I'm home and I'm playing the big room, so of course that was a thrill."
Joel says he initially thought of it as a "hometown boy makes good" accomplishment.
"We'd worked in the New York-Long Island area for so long that we thought this was the right place for us to start doing arenas," Joel says. "I also chalked it up to local following. I thought this hasn't translated nationally. I hadn't realized at the time that it actually had."
Dennis Arfa, Artist Group International CEO and Joel's agent since 1976, says Nassau Coliseum was the second arena Joel ever headlined. (The first was the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium on Nov. 29, 1977, at the request of Harvey Weinstein, who was promoting concerts there at the time and thought Joel was ready to move to the next level.)
"It took me awhile to catch up with what was going on," Joel says. 'The album ['The Stranger'] had gotten so big, but you don't know when you're out on the road just playing. The rooms get bigger, you think, 'Well, OK, more people heard about us.' But these hit singles, they have so much penetration. We started to see it."
The Coliseum show made Joel realize that he had become an arena-level star. "It was an adjustment, but we got used to it," he says. "I even started writing songs that were more arena-oriented -- bigger sound, harder, faster, more rock and roll."
That new sound became even more successful for Joel. It was fully on display in his 1978 album, "52nd Street," which featured arena-ready classics such as "My Life" and "Big Shot." From then on, Joel's tours kept getting bigger and arenas became the rule rather than the exception, but no matter where he played, Joel still loved returning to the Coliseum as a point of pride.
Joel says that was one of the many reasons he wanted to have his "Greatest Hits Vol. 3" tour end at the Coliseum in 1998 with a record-setting nine-show run.
"That was kind of a victory lap," Joel says. It had been five years since he had decided to stop recording popular music, following the "River of Dreams" album in 1993. His popularity, though, was still growing through touring and the release of three greatest-hits collections. Joel's greatest-hits albums are the third-biggest-selling albums in history, behind only Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and The Eagles' "Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975," selling 23 million copies.
"There was all this talk of 'Where are we going to do this?' " says Joel, whose name hung in the rafters of the Coliseum following the record-setting run, alongside banners celebrating the Stanley Cup-winning Islanders teams. "We're doing it at home. The momentum was there. The demand was there. I thought, 'Really? They want us to play that many times? We can sell that many tickets? OK.' It felt good."
The final show of that tour -- on May 4, 1998 -- was the last time Joel played the Coliseum by himself.
Joel says the long absence wasn't by design.
"We got busy touring for a while," he says. "And then there was the mutual exclusivity [agreement]. If you play the Coliseum, they don't want you to play the Garden. If you play the Garden, they don't want you to play the Coliseum, so we ended up playing Madison Square Garden a lot and not the Coliseum."
With Joel's record-setting monthly residency at the Garden still going strong, the mutual exclusivity agreement had to be waived for him to play the Coliseum again.
"I don't know how we were able to do it this time," Joel says.
Arfa declined to discuss specifics of the deal, but says, "Everybody was very gracious about accommodating Billy's desires. . . . It worked out. Both venues said, 'Let him do something special.' "
And that's what Joel plans to do. Though he wants to keep the identity of the night's guests under wraps and keep certain elements as surprises, his goal is to use the concert to pay tribute to the arena and Long Island.
"We'll probably make the set list a little more local," Joel says, considering all the Long Island-influenced songs in his catalog, from his No. 1 hit "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," written on the Long Island Expressway on the way to a studio session in Manhattan, to his masterpiece, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." "We might change some lyrics here and there. And if some other musicians are around during that time, it might be nice to bring them onstage."
Joel adds, "It's going to be unique because it's a Long Island crowd."
That was by design, says Arfa.
"One of the happiest things I feel about the Nassau show is that most of the people are coming from Nassau and Suffolk," he says, adding that 68 percent of the tickets were bought by Long Island residents. "It is a real Long Island show. We only advertised on Long Island. It was a very Long Island-geared campaign."
Joel fans can usually manage to land tickets to see him at the Garden, but Arfa says the Coliseum show, which sold out in five minutes, is geared to a certain type of Long Islander. "I know a lot of people who feel, 'If it's not on Long Island, they're not going,' " says Arfa, who lives in Old Westbury. "The fact that he's going to come into that building -- there's so many memories. It'll be very sentimental. He's going to be coming home. The combination of him on that stage, in that building, in that way -- it's kind of the end of an era. I think it'll be very special."
That's exactly what Brett Yormark wants. Yormark, the Barclays Center CEO who will also handle the operations of the new Nassau Coliseum, says officials never considered anyone but Joel to play the final show before the renovation.
They wanted an artist who would be the Long Island equivalent to Jay Z in Brooklyn, Yormark says, an artist who was loved in the community and respected in the industry. "Obviously, it's Billy Joel," he says. "It was a short conversation."
Nassau Events Center, the company created to manage the Coliseum renovation and retail development around the arena, began negotiations more than two years ago to get Joel for the final show.
"He's the right person to do it," Yormark says. "We wanted to get people to believe, as we looked to renovate the Coliseum and re-create and reimagine it, that consumers in Long Island could get accustomed to big-time events. This is going to be a big event. In a very subliminal way, we're trying to get the message across to fans that, yes, it's the closing of a 43-year-old chapter. But, in some ways, it's also telling people to be on the lookout for something really big and different -- hopefully something incredible that's going to be brought to Long Island."
Joel says he is proud to play a part in the revitalization of the Coliseum. "When I first started playing there, it was a thrill to play Nassau Coliseum," he says. "Then, it kind of went downhill. It got kind of dumpy. It was kind of let go for a while. It was sort of almost sad. Then, they lost the hockey team and it looked like it was going to disappear."
Joel says he is eager to see the Coliseum's future. "They have all these plans for it now and they're going to redo it," Joel says. "That's what it needs. I mean, let's face it, Nassau County is a big music area. We deserve a great arena."