There is something disconcerting about having a personal chat with one of your heroes on the telephone. I knew going into it, intellectually at least, that Billy Joel was just another hominid, like you, I, or anyone else. But the whole rest of the day after talking with him I can’t shake this strange feeling. It is a form of disappointment, I suppose, though not quite as straightforward as that. In many ways, Billy exceeded all of my expectations for the interview. But having actually spoken with him, it now registers on some fundamentally deeper level – beyond merely an abstraction – that my hero is just a guy, just some dude. It felt like I was having a chat with my high school music teacher – someone older, that I looked up to, who shared my love of music and who was more knowledgeable and experienced. It felt no different than that. I was surprisingly calm and even-keeled during the interview, and it was not a struggle to be so, despite the anticipation beforehand. And there is something disappointing about that! William Martin Joel, an icon to some – myself included – is, quite simply, just a forty-six-year-old dude.
Am I having a “Wizard of Oz”-type moment? Of course I knew it was just a man behind the (nylon) curtain. And unlike the fictional Wizard, my hero never professed to be otherwise. Still, I had apparently constructed a divisive curtain of my own, separating and placing him (among numerous other heroes) behind it with a booming megaphone and all kinds of special effects. This illusion – a collaboration, perhaps, between my own mind and pop culture – has now been kind of shattered.
The upside of this disillusionment, though, is the implicit suggestion that being human – rich/famous/successful/musically talented/“important” or not – is the great equalizer. Maybe it is the case that no matter who you are or what your circumstances, there is a spectrum of feelings and emotions that make up the human experience, and we all have more or less equal access to it. The thing that I most wanted to know – what does it feel like to be Billy Joel? – has a both disappointing and awfully reassuring apparent answer: it feels like being anyone else. Duh. And yet…not duh. Not duh at all.
On Wednesday, after traveling in two planes, a cab, and two Greyhound buses for a total of nine and a half hours, I finally arrive in State College, PA, where I am greeted by Matt, my old friend and junior-year college roommate, who still lives up here. We are going together to Eisenhower Auditorium for the first of Billy Joel’s two appearances.
I arrive at the venue with a disposable camera and my answering machine tape in hand, and as I am about to enter the front doors I see a trio of young women with laminated passes. One of them says to the others: “we’re supposed to ask for Max Loubiere.” Uh-oh. Not only do they know the password for getting backstage – they also have laminated legitimacy, which I do not. I merely have Billy Joel’s voice on a micro-cassette (and no device on which to play it back on, come to think of it) granting me permission to meet him backstage. “Shit!” I feel like my rendezvous is in jeopardy now, like my claim will appear fraudulent without the almighty pass.
As soon as Matt and I step into the lobby of the building, I flag down a middle-aged woman wearing a “Penn State/Eisenhower Auditorium Staff” badge and plead my case to her. She tells me to stay put and she will get right back to me. Upon her return she informs me that “Billy doesn’t want anyone backstage before the show” (which is fair enough), and that I should ask someone about it once the show is over. Her message does not inspire confidence, but I thank her politely and Matt and I go in and find our way to our seats.
When Billy appears onstage, he says that we can ask him any questions we want, but he reserves the right to answer as he sees fit if the questions get too personal. He also asks that people refrain from giving him any demo tapes of their music (yes, I of course have brought one along myself). “When I see a demo tape coming, to me it’s like someone handing me a subpoena!” he comments, explaining how litigious opportunists have, in the past, falsely accused him of plagiarizing their work and caused him lots of grief. When he is done with his introduction and setting the ground rules for the evening, he begins taking questions from the audience.
The show is, simply put, pure magic. I’ve heard and seen countless interviews with Billy, read everything I could get my hands on about him, and have even heard him do a previous “master class” before (which he did at the University of the Arts in Philly years ago that was broadcast on the radio, and which I recorded and listened to numerous times). So I figure there probably aren’t many stories of his or about his songs that I haven’t already heard before. But I am totally charmed and blown away by him throughout the evening, as is the crowd as a whole. The show is like a free-form mixture of Q&A, storytelling, musical performance, and stand-up comedy. Billy is hilarious, generous and down-to-earth with the students and their questions, insightful, engaging, and as always in his live performances, hugely entertaining and inspiring. It is a treat beyond description, so much so that I’m already scheming how I can get tickets for the following night’s show.
When it is over Matt and I file out the auditorium exit closest to the stage at stage right, and while most folks are veering left toward the lobby to exit the building, I make my way over to the security guard standing to the right of the dispersing crowd.
“Hi,” I say. “My name is Eric Teplitz. I interviewed Billy two days ago, and he told me I could meet with him backstage. He said I should ask for Max Loubiere, his road manager.”
The guard does not seem impressed.
“No one’s allowed back,” he tells me.
“I’m sure if you check with Max, it’ll be okay.” I say.
The guard, impatient, tells me to wait one moment. He steps away and within a short amount of time, not long enough to convince me he has actually spoken with anyone, he reappears and says, “They said no.”
“Who said no?” I exclaim, trying to contain my indignation.
“They said no,” the guard repeats himself, clearly immovable on the matter.
Matt witnesses the whole interaction and offers his condolences.
I fight the disappointment now coursing through my veins. It doesn’t make any sense. Billy easily could have told me it would not be possible if he had not wished to allow me backstage to meet him for whatever reason, and that would have been that. So why would he tell me yes only to refuse me now?
Despite the seeming lack of logic of this, I am powerless under the oppressive regime of Asshole Security Guy. I hang around and wait a while longer and watch as he occasionally lets folks through who have the proper ID, but otherwise the path remains impenetrable. As the auditorium dissolves itself of its patrons, the situation appears increasingly hopeless. Matt hangs around and watches from a short distance away, aware of my inconsolability at this injustice, and patiently waits for me to come to a place of acceptance.
Twenty minutes or so after having done my best to rationally plead my case to utterly no avail, I give in to the stench of defeat that is engulfing me. The gatekeeper won’t let me through, and causing a scene will likely only result in my being asked to leave, then escorted out of the building, possibly even in handcuffs depending upon the level of my resistance! I turn towards Matt, who is standing several paces behind me and shake my head back and forth as I approach him.
“I can’t believe it,” I say.
“It’s a bum deal,” he sympathizes.
I look back towards Goliath, knowing that just beyond his station is the pathway that leads to Billy Joel. It’s right there, and yet there is nothing I can do. I breathe a heavy sigh and, realizing the futility of hanging around any longer, motion to Matt that I’m ready to go.
A few paces into our exit march I hear a female voice calling from behind: “Eric?”
I turn around and see a familiar face. It’s the woman I spoke with in the lobby before the show, the one with the Eisenhower staff badge. She motions me towards her. “Billy is ready for you. You can come back.”
My face, my whole body, lights up. I raise my eyebrows and, looking back and forth between her and Matt, I point to my friend, asking with my body language if he can join me.
“No,” she says. “Just you.”
I say a quick apology to Matt but he brushes it off and wishes me well. “I’ll wait for you in the front lobby,” he says.
I proudly march forward and grin at the security guy. “Billy’s ready for me now,” I say as I walk past him – escorted by this woman, this princess, my savior – all too aware that this moment easily could have never happened had I not randomly solicited her help before the show. Talk about luck. And timing.
I’m a little surprised that no one frisks me or anything. I’m wearing a long winter coat (it being March in Pennsylvania) in which I easily could be concealing a weapon. I suppose I must appear as harmless as I am. The woman leads me down a hallway and stops just in front of a nondescript doorway. Backstage could not be any less glamorous. She points directly into what is apparently a dressing room and says, “He’s right in there,” motioning for me to go ahead.
To be continued….