Town Hall with Billy Joel and Host Howard Stern
Ron Seifried | On 30, Apr 2014
The benchmark has been raised back in time to album-oriented rock radio, and Howard Stern once again is at the forefront. On Monday, Stern hosted a Town Hall interview and performance with singer/songwriter Billy Joel at The Cutting Room in New York City for over 2.5 hours of commercial-free radio in front of an intimate audience of 100 people.
This is not a new format. Billy Joel has been hosting town hall events on college campuses for over two decades, mixing solo performances on his piano inspired by questions from the student body. This time, his good friend Stern and his regular co-host Robin Quivers, asked inquisitive questions most soft-ball interviewers shy away from, at the same time inviting over a dozen audience members (including Matt Lauer & Rachael Ray) the opportunity to ask their own on a Sirius/XM mid-afternoon special. Joel was joined at times by guitarist Tommy Byrnes & saxophonist Mark Riveria on some amazing performances.
Included in the mix were a few special guest stars only Stern can arrange. Artists including Indina Menzel, Pink, Melissa Ethridge, BoysIIMen and Tony Bennett, performed live Joel-tributes with some Q&A with Stern. An extraordinary town hall event that hopefully Stern can repeat with other artists in the future that may be wary to perform in the early morning hours.
The first few minutes including revelations that “Laura” was about a family member; “Scandnavian Skies” was about the only time Joel took Heroin: and “It’s Still Rock N Roll to Me” has the same chord structure as Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay.”
Syosset native Indina Menzel revealed that she used to drive around with her high school boyfriend looking for Billy Joel’s house in Huntington, almost losing her virginity (or did she?) waiting for the piano man to emerge from his gate. She then performed “Honesty” accompanied by Joel, sweetly mixing up the words in the last verse in a sound check-like environment in an intimate setting.
Topics included his thoughts on his daughter Alexa Ray (proud for her singer/songwriter talents); one relative poking fun early in his career, only to ask or $50k when stardom was obtained; current tastes in music (mostly classical) and how he hates all his album covers with his picture.
Pink revealed she walked down the aisle of her wedding to “She’s Only a Woman” then attempted a duet with Joel that needed one more rehearsal, but their beautiful performance made enough to make her proud mom cry.
Stern and Joel have been friends for several years, but Joel performed live on the shock-jock’s radio show only once, complaining that a singer’s voice does not get warmed up until the afternoon hours. You can say this town hall event was a second attempt to get it right.
Melissa Etheridge came out an performed “Only the Good Die Young” a song she never got to sing when playing in cover bands, but always resonated with her. Etheridge went on to explain that a girl was never able to sing this song due to its sexual theme, but she delivered the most powerful rendition of the event.
“The Vatican just called; the new Pope was dancing” said Stern.
Joel performed one of his favorites “Vienna” after a false start, explaining the song’s theme of seniors place in society as its core theme.
The Russia concert tour from the 1980’s personally cost Joel more than $1million, but he felt it was an important to perform behind the Iron Curtain when relations were strained with the U.S. Any contemporary artists attempting this today? He does admit that the Columbia pushed for the live album to be released against his wishes, a collection o performances Joel says he was never satisfied with, mainly because he was suffering from a sore throat.
Who else but Stern could ask Joel about the time he met his idol Ray Charles, if the blind singer actually touched his face. Yes he did, and Ray Charles told him to relax when he was intimately examining the details.
Other Joel trivia covered included his piano playing on the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack” as the age of 16 (not sure to this day if it was the demo or the actual record); only watching one episode of “Bosom Buddies”; his obsession with the History Channel; dislike for Wolfman Jack’s 1970’s TV show; the prelude to “Angry Young Man” inspired by the drum part to “Wipeout”; “Los Angelos” was written for Rod Stewart to cover (never happened); Joel was supposed to play Rocking in Rio but was replaced by Prince at the last minute, but he got paid anyway and one time discussed forming a supergroup with Sting and Don Henley.
And who knew Billy also does impressions, including Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Rod Stewart.
And Billy tells some jokes: “This is a throat spray, it’s called ‘The Entertainer’s Secret,’ and it keeps your vocal chords moist. I used to make a joke about seeing Madonna use it, but I changed it to ‘I saw Ted Nugent use it once, but it didn’t really make him sound any better, because he probably wasn’t spraying it up his ass.'”
BoysIIMen flew in on the red-eye from Las Vegas and performed an excellent acappella medley of “Just the Way You Are” and “The Longest Time.”
Going into the event blindly without any tipoff’s to any of the questions, Howard later admitted that he requested one personal favorite cover song of Joel’s. Billy performed a stunning version of Procul Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Howard asked Billy to stop riding motorcycles which segued into Joel’s accident in my hometown of Huntington, Long Island in 1982. With Billy’s hand swelling up while sitting on the sidewalk after the an elderly woman hit him on New York Avenue, fans came up asking for an autograph, only to be followed by the police man yelling “hey lady, you just hit Billy Joel!”
But Joel admits there was one advantage to riding: at the age of 20 he rode his motorcycle to the Woodstock concert, weaving around traffic on the NY State Thruway, making it the festival for 36 hours and not getting laid at the same time.
Tony Bennett surprised Joel and then proceeded to close the show (with Billy on piano) for “A New York State of Mind.”
It was nice listening to the self-confessed agrophobe Howard Stern out of the comforts of his studio and his elements, asking questions in front of a live audience which he admits is not his preference. Both appeared relaxed in the strange setting and with each other, to the point Joel was comfortable talking about him being a rock star losing his hair, exclaiming “it sucks!”
The extensive interview is something Howard has perfected the last few years. On a regular basis, the seemingly short conversations last over an hour. This was by far Howard’s longest uninterrupted interview and it wasn’t completely flawless. One has to wonder why the staff at Sirius supplied an electric keyboard instead of a piano, causing Billy to calmly complain about the sound a couple of times. Some of the questions Howard asked sounded more like internet rumors instead of well-researched background material. The duets were sometimes sloppy, but that did not bother me since it felt more like a spontaneous performance.
Then again, this was the first time for this format, in what Stern later described one of the “best radio shows I hosted.”
Not quite his best, but definitely a unique experience.