Book excerpt: 'Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography' by Fred Schruers
For Billy Joel fans, Fred Schruers' new biography has been long awaited. Drawn from hours of interviews with the performer, originally conducted for Joel's memoir (which was later canceled), it's the first in-depth look at the Long Island native's life and music. This excerpt from "Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography," on sale Tuesday, revisits one of his career highlights: the Last Play at Shea.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 18, 2008, before the final concert at Shea Stadium, Billy Joel found himself standing on the yacht club dock in Oyster Bay looking at one of his favorite things in the world, a black beauty with great curves, an impeccable pedigree, and a name out of a James Bond film, coursing across that flat, glassy surface of the bay at low tide.
Designed to emulate industrialist John Hay Whitney's Aphrodite commuter boats of the 1930s, Vendetta was mostly custom-built, down to the hatches, chocks, and cleats. She cost a couple million dollars and guzzled fuel, but Billy couldn't imagine any better way to travel down to Shea: "We planned to dock a stone's throw from where, in 1964, my old band the Hassles came in second in the talent competition at the New York World's Fair."
According to Billy, the equation goes something like this: "You can grow up poor in a Levittown tract home, but if you keep working at your trade, down the years and decades till your back aches and your hair goes, with a little luck you get to have your Jay Gatsby moment, you get some ownership of the things that you once thought belonged only to the privileged class."
Even during the Depression that followed the Crash of 1929, John Hay Whitney and some of the other swells from this neighborhood -- people with names like Vanderbilt and Pulitzer -- had used powerful commuter yachts much like Vendetta to zip down to Wall Street, avoiding traffic and the street-bound common folk. Billy had made the same trip to Shea just two days before, and at 45 knots, it had taken just half an hour to coast out of Oyster Bay Harbor, then round the top of Centre Island, head west through Long Island Sound, and wind south to a channel in Queens that leads to the stadium, just in time for the first concert.
The Wednesday event had gone well, though Billy had begun with something of an apology: "After all, that Wednesday night crowd had bought tickets to Last Play at Shea, and there they were watching the Second to Last Play at Shea. When I said into the mike, 'I want to apologize to those of you who bought tickets thinking this was the last show at Shea,' some of those present gave me what you might call a rousing New York welcome or, as one magazine described it, 'a chorus of jeers.' I added, 'I know. I suck. A lot of scalpers got ahold of tickets, and a lot of people who wanted to go couldn't get in. They don't enforce the frickin' laws in this state anymore!' "
The upshot was that the Friday show, the last of the last, was indeed pressurized. "If this had been a show at any other arena, I wouldn't have been so concerned. But living up to that tag 'Last Play at Shea'? In many ways I felt unworthy of the whole thing. I've had a great career, but it was mind-boggling to think that I would be the guy who turned off the lights at that stadium. So I was really grateful for the backup."
Billy had persuaded some big names to perform with him that night -- Tony Bennett, John Mayer, Roger Daltrey, Garth Brooks -- but there was still that one person he had fervently wanted from the beginning: Sir Paul McCartney. "I don't care who you are," Billy says, "as far as I'm concerned, that stadium still belonged to the Beatles. It was still their room."
"Billy had always wanted to have Paul play at this show," says Steve Cohen, Billy's friend and lighting designer who produced the documentary "Last Play at Shea." "He had asked him before we went on sale, asked him after we went on sale, and the line that we had heard back was he had to respectfully decline because he believed that the Beatles at Shea Stadium was a onetime event and could never be topped.
"But deep down inside we knew what it meant to Billy. No matter what goes on in Billy's life, there's always something more that he wants, there's always something more in his mind that's going to make this thing perfect."
As Billy made the journey to the stadium, Lee Eastman
attorney to both Joel and McCartney] was in touch by mobile phone to let him know that Paul was willing to try his best to appear, if only he could arrive in time. Paul had told Lee, "Tell Billy, 'I Saw Her Standing There' in the key of E," Eastman recalls. "I said, 'Key of E, right? If I can make it.' So it was this high-wire act for the next few hours or so, where it was unclear if Paul's plane was going to be late." McCartney had boarded a plane at London Heathrow, bound for JFK, but there were no guarantees. He was due to land perilously close to the end of Billy's show, sometime after eleven p.m.
"Friday afternoon, it was about four o'clock, we were in the corridor backstage, and I walked into the production office and there was a bit of a flutter," says Cohen. "Noel looked at me and said, 'Paul's coming.' " The potential flight delays that might have undone the plan had been avoided. "And then I walked right into Billy's dressing room, and the first thing out of his mouth was, 'Paul's coming.' "
Whether Paul showed up or not, there were a whole lot of people out there who'd come to see an epic show. Says Billy, "We started, as we tend to, with 'Angry Young Man,' and I was pounding out that intro when I realized just how sweaty I was going to get under those lights on such a steamy night. Then, during 'My Life,' Steve put the lights on the whole house, and I looked out and told the crowd of 55,000 exactly what I was thinking -- 'Is this cool or what?' " Then Billy mentioned how the place really still belonged to the Beatles, and the impact that band had had on him in 1964, the first year he joined up with a band and started playing rock and roll, a year before the quartet played Shea.
Suddenly everyone was pulling in the same direction. Billy pounded out his set, with guests, as the road company clustered backstage to begin working the phones, contacting British Airways, U.S. Customs, the Port Authority, the state police, and the city police department -- all striving to speed Paul's arrival at Shea.
Sometime in the middle of the concert, Wayne Williams, Billy's piano tech, brought him a fresh towel and let him know that Paul had entered New York air space. It turned out that both Billy's doctor and his motorcycle-riding buddy, Rob Schneider, knew a guy in air traffic control. The controller had arranged for Paul's British Airways flight to land well ahead of schedule. Once Paul was on the ground, the police ran out onto the tarmac and escorted him all the way from JFK to Shea -- 11 minutes, door to door.
Says Paul McCartney, "I got off the airplane faster than anyone's ever got off a plane before, and they just whisked me through. It was, 'Ah, don't worry about that, you're coming with me!' And customs -- 'Just go through!' You know no one's ever had it so good -- the best ride ever. I said, 'I wanna travel like this all the time.' "
"Because I was so focused on Paul making it on time, much of the rest of the concert is a blur," says Billy. "But there were definitely some high points for me. Tony Bennett went wonderfully off script on 'New York State of Mind,' and we were joined onstage by some cops and firefighters . 'Thank you,' I said to the crowd, 'and thank them!' " The ovation for New York's finest and bravest, as Billy gestured to them, was huge. "Another moment was hearing John Mayer play so sensitively on 'This Is the Time.' He wrung music out of the song that I barely knew was there.
"Sometimes it's almost an out-of-body experience, hearing these songs you sweated through as a kid spilling out to so many people at once," says Billy. "But when we stuck a bit of 'A Hard Day's Night' into 'River of Dreams,' it was both a tribute to the Beatles and I guess a sort of tease. Would Paul make it? Everyone's having a good time, but the truth is, we were just vamping, stalling for time."
After "You May Be Right," Billy and the band stopped for a first encore. Then they played "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and "Only the Good Die Young."
Finally, Wayne put a scribbled note on Billy's piano: "Paul's here."
"Bringing Paul McCartney onstage -- at Shea Stadium itself -- was truly one of the great moments of my career," says Billy. The band started the intro to "I Saw Her Standing There," and Billy announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Paul McCartney," and the crowd went apoplectic. "We had barely rehearsed the song, but Paul gave it his all, hitting the high notes and giving them a good, subtle version of that famous head shake. I couldn't get the grin off my face." Then they played "Piano Man," which they always close their shows with. "As we walked off the stage, I knew we'd do one last encore; I just had no idea what song to perform. What song was worthy of the Last Play at Shea?"
But Paul knew. Backstage he said to Billy, "We should do 'Let It Be.' "
"I said, 'Hey, can I do this? 'Cause I know I'm stealing the top spot -- it's your show. I'm just a guest,' " says Paul. "And really, I should've done my thing and then Billy should've finished. But he was very gracious. He said, 'No, you're right -- you should finish it.' "
As Billy reflects on the night, "There's really no way to describe what a high point that was -- playing 'Let It Be' with Paul McCartney at Shea Stadium. And of course, with all the emotion and the sense of a circle being closed, with this great feeling of my career and my whole life's path coming together at that time, I had a deeper realization on that stage."
It had come to him, almost piercingly, in an off-the-cuff joke he made midway through the show, during "She's Always a Woman." There was a guy near the stage with his date, and Billy's crew had gotten word that he planned to propose to his girlfriend right there.
Seated not far away from the man was Katie Lee Joel, seen fleetingly in the live footage of the concert. The announcement that the couple was splitting up came not quite a year after that evening at Shea.
Billy's piano tech cued him when the big moment came, and Steve Cohen hit the guy with the spotlight as he was quite obviously proposing to her. Billy then tossed out the comment, "Are you gonna marry her?" He raised his arms high with a big grin.
"Yes?" Billy asked. The audience cheered. "Congratulations! Get a prenup!" Billy told him.
There was a big laugh, a roar, from the stands. "That's when it hit me," says Billy. "In this stadium filled with 55,000 exuberant people, I was the only one not enjoying the joke."
Reprinted from "Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography." Copyright © 2014 by Fred Schruers. To be published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House LLC, on Oct. 28.