Billy Joel Story (conclusion!)

The door is open.

I walk inside and no more than several feet away from me is…a short, not-so-good-looking guy.  A la Homer Simpson, my brain launches into a conversation with me as I stand frozen in place: You see that guy?  That’s him!  You are looking right at him.  The source of all that music?  Right there.  Right in front of you.  There he is.  That’s Billy Joel.

The first thing that strikes me is how short he is – shorter than I am, even.  And that he’s really not a particularly handsome man.  In fact, he looks worse up close than in any pictures I’ve seen of him.  But it’s him, and my brain continues its attempt to explain this to me.

My number one goal at this point is simple: don’t do anything to piss him off!

“Hi, Billy, I’m Eric Teplitz.  We spoke on the phone on Monday.  It’s an honor to meet you.” Or who knows what I actually say.  It’s all so surreal.

“Why do they give guys flowers?” he says, holding a large bouquet.

I laugh.

This is my moment of truth.  My chance to convey to him, if it’s even possible, what an inspiration he has been to me.  I realize there is probably nothing I can say to him that he hasn’t already heard a million times before, so my hope is that at least the sincerity will come through.

I attempt to give him a very brief synopsis of his impact on my life: how much his music has meant to me since I was a little kid, how much it has been a part of my life, and how it was a huge inspiration for my own songwriting and my decision to pursue music as a career.  I mention how, as a student here at Penn State, I spent countless hours in the practice rooms of the Music Building trying to teach myself “Root Beer Rag” on the piano even though I’m a guitar player.

“Why’d you start with ‘Root Beer Rag’?” he asks (it being a challenging piece to tackle, particularly for a non-piano player).

“Cause it’s Root Beer Rag!” I reply, as if he had just asked why I liked sex or ice cream.

I finish my extemporaneous speech, having tried to the best of my ability without wearing his ear off to express my deep appreciation for his music and inspiration, and he is gracious without taking it all too seriously.

In the dressing room there are just two other people besides Billy and myself: Max the road manager, and Ed Sciaky, the well-known Philadelphia radio personality from WMMR who, by playing a live recording of “Captain Jack” on the air in the early ’70s, helped Billy gain the attention of Columbia Records (probably right around the time I was born).  Columbia signed him and in 1973 released his first studio album for the label, Piano Man.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  Billy and Ed have been friends ever since.

“Do you think I could get a picture with you for the article?” I ask Billy.  He agrees to it, and I withdraw from my winter coat pocket a disposable camera.  Ed Sciaky takes our picture, and before I outstay my welcome I say my thank yous and goodbyes and exit gracefully on my own initiative.

Of course the fantasy is that I would say something like, “Hey, if you like buffalo wings I know the best place around here to get ‘em.”  To which Billy would reply, “Sounds great, why don’t you come with us?”  And we’d hang out and become buddies.  But as fantastical as this whole scenario has already been, I remember my promise to myself (don’t piss him off!) and leave before I am asked to.

The whole episode is as if out of a dream and, much like a dream, I have no idea how much “real” time has elapsed in Billy’s dressing room.  Ten minutes, perhaps?  It’s hard to say for sure.  I meet up with Matt in the lobby and tell him the whole story.  It is nothing short of a dream come true.

The following day I proudly march into Old Main, the building on campus that is home to the Penn State Alumni Assocation, armed with my micro-cassette (though probably unplayable here) and disposable camera (with the as-yet-undeveloped picture of Billy and myself) in hand.

These folks, of course, know nothing about any of this.  I explain that I have an article to propose for The Penn Stater, secretly believing that I am bringing to them their best story in who knows how long, and ask if I may speak to the appropriate person.  I am escorted into an office and meet with a woman, possibly the same editor to whom I initially pitched my idea for the article on Mike Reid that was rejected rather coldly.

After delivering my pitch with much enthusiasm, the woman behind the desk says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s a fit.”

What???!!!!!  Are you kidding me???!

“Are you serious?” I ask. “Why not?”

“Well…the story just isn’t ‘blue and white’ enough,” she says, referring to the Penn State school colors.

I cannot believe this response.  “Not ‘blue and white’ enough???”  I spell it out as plainly as possible: “I am a recent Penn State graduate, pursuing a music career.  BILLY JOEL comes to Penn State, and I interview him, in conjunction with his shows here on campus, about his college tour and the music business…what angle are you looking for exactly to make it ‘blue and white’ enough???”

“Well, we might be able to include a paragraph or so in the back of the magazine on this, but I’m sorry, that would be about the extent of it.”

I’m thinking this lady is crazy, that she is turning down a great story, but I don’t feel the need to bother trying to convince her of this any further, and am pretty sure it would not have any effect at all if I did.  “Okay, suit yourself,” I say, and calmly excuse myself from the office.

I am dumbfounded, but it doesn’t really matter to me in the end.  I’ve already gotten what I most wanted!  I had the opportunity of a lifetime, the fulfillment of a many years-long fantasy of interviewing and then meeting in person one of my all-time heroes.  It’s a shame they aren’t interested, but that’s rather incidental by comparison.

Meanwhile, my brother and I attend the second show together that night.  During the Q&A, someone is bold enough to ask Billy if he can play “Baby Grand” onstage with him (a duet Billy originally recorded with his own hero, Ray Charles).  The audience cheers wildly in support of this gutsy kid.  Billy asks him, “Can you play?”  The kid assures him he can, and Billy then calls him up to the stage.  The kid holds his own, playing a second piano facing Billy’s and trading verses with his hero, as Billy Joel makes another guy’s dream come true in front of the entire crowd at Eisenhower Auditorium.  The place goes nuts and gives them both a standing ovation.

When I return to Nashville, I make a halfhearted attempt to find another outlet for publishing the interview, but it does not pan out.  I feel kind of bad that Billy will never see this in print after he was so gracious with his time, but I sense somehow that this is not something he will lose any sleep over.  The wish fulfillment factor on my part trumps any guilty feelings I have about this.  I do send a thank you letter to Keith at his office and ask him to forward it on to Billy.  [Fifteen years later, the interview is finally published for the first time, on this very blog.  Apologies to Billy for it taking so long!!!]

I have the interview copied from my answering machine tape onto a DAT (digital audio tape) and hire a duplication service to make cassette copies I can give out to friends.  When my pictures are developed, I have the photo of Billy and me blown up to poster size and framed.  I also have postcard-size copies cut out to distribute to friends, with an inscription printed underneath:

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4 Responses to Billy Joel Story (conclusion!)

  1. Lynn says:

    This blog gets better & better. This pic made my night Eric. Thanks.

  2. Matt says:

    You lucky man!! Billy Joel made not have been blessed with “Cary Grant looks”, but boy, he sure has a cool demeanor.

  3. Jayne Gordon says:

    Great article, Eric! And fantastic picture!!

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