By: David Schultz
The recently played All-Star marathon at Yankee Stadium gave sports fans everywhere an opportunity to revel in the history of the storied ball park that will be closing its doors at the end of the 2008 baseball season. In the sports world, Shea Stadium, much like the Mets, has the unfortunate burden of living in the shadow of their crosstown rivals. When it comes to rock and roll though, Shea doesn’t have to take a back seat to any venue, especially that edifice Babe Ruth built in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium may have seen its share of Pontiffs and world championships but there are few images that equal The Beatles at Shea Stadium. With the ballpark in Queens in its final year of usefulness, it was extremely fitting that it should play host to one final concert and there could be no better artist than Billy Joel to write the stadium’s last chapter.
As the post-September 11th Concert For New York made abundantly clear, Billy Joel is the de facto voice of New York City. The Florida Keys have Jimmy Buffett, New Jersey has Bruce Springsteen, Detroit has Kid Rock and New York City has Billy Joel; he has become, without question, the go-to guy when New York needs “representation.” For more than 35 years, Joel has spoken for New York City and its constituents, eloquently giving voice to their collective feelings of rebellion, longing and discontent with his broad appeal lying in his ability to deliver anti-authoritarian songs in a non threatening manner. The underlying message of “My Life” doesn’t differ too greatly from “My Generation.” Billy Joel just never frightened parents or made people uneasy like The Who.
With all apologies to Lou Reed, there isn’t a performer more distinctly affiliated with NYC that could have credibly closed out Shea Stadium than Billy Joel. Despite the dearth of new material over the past 15 years, Joel had no trouble selling out two nights at Shea. If his twelve shows at Madison Square Garden in 2006 are any indication, he probably could have sold out more. Even before the appearance of Paul McCartney at the close of Friday night’s show, Joel’s second show irked a number of fans who gobbled up tickets for the Wednesday night show under the impression that it would be the Shea’s “Last Play.” Not only did those fans not get to see the final show, they didn’t even get to see McCartney return to Shea Stadium to add a footnote to the Beatles’ historic 1965 appearance.
Speaking of McCartney, let me digress. Anyone who has known me for a while or simply been with me at a show where I refused to leave early has heard me expound on my “Paul McCartney Theory.” It’s quite simple: what if you left a show early and Paul McCartney came out and played the encore? How stupid would you feel that you missed seeing a Beatle because you wanted to beat traffic or get an extra five minutes of sleep? Friday night resolved that conundrum. Once the last notes of “Piano Man” faded into the sweltering night, people did start to leave. Forget the fact that Joel played an additional song after “Piano Man” on Wednesday night, Paul McCartney surely didn’t show up at Shea Stadium just to make a brief five-minute appearance! Shockingly, rather than wait for the house lights to go up, a good number of people hurriedly flocked to the exits. Each of those people that got up and left after “Piano Man” can live the rest of their lives knowing that they are unquestionably a jackass. Joel quickly returned to the stage but immediately stepped aside so McCartney could sit down at his piano and close the show (and Shea) with a beautiful rendition of “Let It Be.” It was one of those moments you hope to see every time you purchase a ticket for a show. The Paul McCartney theory has been tested and proven; it is now Schultz’ Law of Paul McCartney.
Rumors of McCartney’s appearance had run so rampant that had he not appeared, it would have cast a pallor over Joel’s remarkable three hour plus show. McCartney’s rumored guest spot may have been the most anticipated appearance of Joel’s two “Last Play” concerts but it was hardly the only one. In addition to the former Beatle reviving “I Saw Her Standing There” before a crowd doing their best to recreate Beatlemania hysteria, recent VH1 honoree Roger Daltrey hit the stage, twirling his microphone with abandon through a fine rendition of “My Generation” and Aerosmith’s Stephen Tyler slithered though an energized version of “Walk This Way.” With Joel moving far away from center stage, Daltrey and Tyler had to generate their own fireworks as the band, which perfectly suited Joel’s style and repertoire, didn’t have the grittiness or abandon to give the songs the proper feel. In 1997, Joel appeared in Central Park as Garth Brooks’ guest and Brooks returned the favor at Shea for an ardent run through “Shameless.” By donning Mets attire and replacing his trademark black hat with a Mets cap, Brooks' delivery of the song outweighed the memories his outfit brought back of his comical attempt to try out for the San Diego Padres. Tony Bennett, the only singer to cameo at both Shea shows, strolled out during “New York State Of Mind,” and the singer who famously left his heart in San Francisco made himself a bi-coastal troubadour by dueting with Joel on his signature tune.
Due to Joel’s wonderful performance, the guest appearances were just icing on a cake that didn’t need any. Other than the fact that the placement of the stage in centerfield accomplished the difficult feat of making every existing seat in the building a pretty terrible seat - unless you were sitting on the field, you had a pretty distant view of Joel and his band – there was little to complain about. After opening with “The Star Spangled Banner,” careened into “Miami 2017” whose vision of a decimated New York City fit the night’s theme of honoring the decaying stadium. He dove into “Angry Young Man” and “My Life” with a feistiness belying his age and by using “Spanish Harlem” and “Under The Boardwalk” as a preface to “An Innocent Man,” he gave a historical context and added texture to an otherwise throwaway song but highlighting its shared structure with the doo wop beats of The Drifters’ classics.
Joel didn’t leave out any of his greatest hits, making sure Shea Stadium reverberated with the strands of “Captain Jack,” “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and “Only The Good Die Young.” He also played a lot of beloved songs that didn’t have a life of their own on FM radio, relishing the reaction to his personal favorites like “The Entertainer,” “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Root Beer Rag.” Another album track, “Zanzibar” became a soundtrack for a New York Mets highlight reel and “Don’t Ask Me Why” lived up to its name by featuring a Benny Agbayani home run on the video screen. The video screens employed throughout the night provided a significantly unobtrusive enlargement of what was transpiring on stage. Only during “We Didn’t Start The Fire” did the video provide an unnecessary distraction by depicting images to go along with Joel’s rhyming recitation of political and pop culture events from the past fifty years. Even though the theatrics of swirling spotlights to emulate the helicopter effects on “Goodnight Saigon” came across as a superfluous trifle, the proper mood was restored by the end of the song with a number of New York City police officers and firefighters poignantly booming out the song’s chorus.
In the sports parlance, Billy Joel knocked this one out of the park. Unfortunately, as any Mets fan will tell you, what Shea Stadium really needs is someone who can throw middle relief.