Hitting the road: It’s always a bittersweet time for me. But before I can say hello to Troy, N.Y., and points beyond, I have to say goodbye to Hollywood (Video). Looks like some other assistant night manager will have to arbitrate late-fee crises for the next two weeks, because the road calls. You know what they say: Working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. It’s time to play!
I packed my gear, my sheet music, costume changes, a few extra boxes of Just for Men, the sleep apnea kit, and a whole lotta luck. Then I left a note for the cat sitter with feeding instructions for Brenda and Eddie and headed out to pick up the guys.
Troy, N.Y.—Kevin Doogan’s Ale House
Sometimes the god of soft rock has a cruel sense of humor. Tonight marked two firsts: our first tour date and our first minor setback. It started when I decided, for due diligence’s sake, to call the owner and founder of Kevin Doogan’s Ale House (who shall remain nameless) to sort out some last-minute details before the show.
Me: “So, about the marquee…”
Him: [lip-smacking sounds] “Yeah?”
Me: “Usually we ask that the marquee read, ‘Presenting North America’s Only Five-Member Billy Joel Tribute Band, The Piano Men.’”
Him: “Hold on, lemme get a pen. North America’s what?”
Me: “North America’s Only Five-Member Billy Joel—”
And this is where he cuts me off, explaining that he doesn’t even think he has enough plastic letters to write all that out, and even if he did, he wouldn’t have room on his marquee to fit all of it. By means of example, he tells me that when the surviving members of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band played there last month, the marquee just said “John Cafferty & Beaver” and the band seemed pretty cool with that.
Although the news bothered me, I decided to get into the zone and ask myself: What would Billy Joel do? And not the Live in the U.S.S.R.-era Billy Joel—because I cannot pretend to know what he’d do; that side of B.J. is an utter mystery to me—but what would the struggling, young, Long Island-based singer-songwriter version of Billy Joel do? The one in the pea coat and shaggy hair, bracing himself against the bitter winter of Cold Spring Harbor? He’d roll with it, so that’s what I did.
I told the owner, “I understand, brother,” adding, “and I appreciate your showing us the same professional courtesy with which you treated Mr. Cafferty. Just please make sure the marquee says ‘Piano Men.’”
“Piano Man?” he replied.
“No, m-e-n. Plural. There are five of us.”
“I don’t get it. Then which one of you is Billy Joel?”
“We’re all Billy Joel.” This was the prelude to a conversation I’ve had many, many times before.
“All five of you? All Billy Joel?”
Yes, we are all Billy Joel, and each of us performs as B.J. from a distinct period in his career. I do all the Cold Spring Harbor through Streetlife Serenade material. Terry Fusco, a phenomenal key-stomper, does 52nd Street and Glass Houses. Farouk Chabali does Nylon Curtain and An Innocent Man, etc., but I left it at, “You’ll just have to see us to believe us. And you will not believe us. When you see us.” Man, I wish I had a do-over on that one.
Everything seemed as chill as a Long Island breeze until we rolled up to the gig 15 minutes before the sound check and saw that the marquee in front of Kevin Doogan’s Ale House read “Piano Man & Beaver.” We almost had a partial band walk-out over that one, but cool heads prevailed.
Even the most die-hard B.J. fan is going to feel limp after a two-hour B.J. assault.Then it went from bad to worst. The Doogan’s stage was tiny, and could only accommodate four Billy Joels at one time. This meant Travis, who covers the entire post-Innocent Man B.J. catalog, had to watch the show from the audience. I hate making executive decisions like that, particularly since Travis has already (on numerous occasions) expressed a feeling of alienation from the rest of the Billys, but I had to be practical about it. I put it to Travis by asking him, “Who else should sit out tonight? Should I tell Terry to take a breather, then cut ‘Big Shot,’ ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll,’ and ‘Rosalinda’s Eyes’ from our set list just so you can perform ‘The Downeaster “Alexa”’?”
Travis, of course, said yes, to which I responded, “You may be right, Travis, and I may be crazy!” Inside joke. Travis didn’t think it was very funny, but he took the bullet for the band.
The good news is that Piano Men blew the leaky roof off Kevin Doogan’s Ale House last night. We powered through all of disc one of B.J.’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1 in sequential order, just rotating on the piano bench, one after another without missing a beat. I had all 22 patrons screaming “Captain Jack’ll get you high tonight,” right along with me, and it was so loud and impassioned we nearly drowned out the six flat-screen TVs over the bar. Even Travis got in the mix, adding chopper noises for “Goodnight, Saigon,” and joining us for our traditional five-man version of “Piano Man,” where we change the lyrics to “Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Men.” I love it when the Piano Men are totally synchronous; it’s what separates us from the poseurs.
After the show a woman who smelled like blue cheese came up to me and said, “When you were singing ‘She’s Got a Way,’ it was so perfect that I can honestly say, if there weren’t four other guys dressed like different versions of Billy Joel all onstage with you, I would have sworn I was seeing the real Billy Joel in concert.”
To me, that is the highest form of compliment.
Rutland, Vt.—O’Flannenernenney’s Ale House
Note to self: Rutland, Vt., was not feeling the Piano Men experience. And that is an understatement.
The audience was already pretty drunk and surly by the time we loaded in our gear. Most of them had just come from a bar league softball game and had showed up either to celebrate their victory or compete in the Friends trivia game immediately following our set. The crowd noise eclipsed “She’s Always a Woman” so much it was like the song was being raped. That’s what the Billys call N.C.—not cool.
Then, maybe three notes into “Uptown Girl,” a hot rain of Buffalo wings hit the stage, knocking Farouk’s Ray-Bans right off his face and covering him in hot sauce. Farouk is a gentle man, but, wow, he just lost it up there. In between Farsi curses he was screaming, “I am blinded! I am a blind person!” and feeling around frantically for some way off the stage. Thing is, for the first time all night, the audience seemed genuinely entertained. NC-17! (Not cool to the 17th power—I’d add an LOL but there’s just nothing funny about losing an eye.)
Then, while Farouk was using an eye bath in the kitchen, Travis stepped in, and it was like a train crashing into an oil tanker, and both of them flipping over on to a daycare center. I love the guy—I really mean that—but you’ve got to know how to read a crowd, and almost empathetically understand what they want to hear, vis-à-vis Billy Joel. That means when you’ve just watched one of your B.J. brothers almost lose his vision during a perfectly good mid-career Billy Joel hit, you’ve got only one choice: “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” It’s a lay-up. Classic B.J.
What you don’t do is get up onstage and play “Baby Grand,” a deep album cut from Bridges. But that’s exactly what Travis did. And holy Jesus, did they riot. Someone chucked a bread bowl filled with venison chili onstage, and a guy in a baseball uniform wrestled the mike out of Travis’s hands and started singing “Sweet Caroline.” There was almost a fistfight, and we loaded the minivan up so fast it took me three highway exits to realize I left my beard at the bar.
Figuring in the cost of the beard, Farouk’s ophthalmologist appointment, and the group’s dry-cleaning bills, our show in Rutland was a total wash. That’s the hard road for you.
Upshur County, W.Va.—McDooligan’s Ale House and Savings & Loan
When you’re on the road as a five-member Billy Joel tribute band, you tend to live life one tune at a time. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for things like child-support payments and newspapers.
My point is, if you gig in a town that’s still recovering from a coal mine explosion that killed 13 of its miners, don’t open your set with “Allentown.”
The journey continues.
Ajax, N.C.—O’Grady’s Church-N-Brew
When God hands you lemons, you gotta do something with those fuckers, is what I always say. But man, God has dealt the Piano Men a lemon flood of biblical proportions. If it weren’t for my love of someone else’s music, I would have been “Movin’ Out” a long time ago.
Asheville was a mess, mostly because someone at Don Logan’s Discount Ale House thought it would be cute to put us on a bill with two other Billy Joel tribute bands. That meant we had to follow Las Casas del Cristal, North America’s only Spanish-language Billy Joel tribute band, and the Long Island B.J. Queens, an all-gay Billy Joel revue. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) As a semi-professional musician, there’s one thing I know: You don’t follow cake with pie, and then pie with not-gay pie. Even the most die-hard B.J. fan is going to feel limp after a two-hour B.J. assault. By the time the Piano Men finally hit the stage, all we got from the audience was shrugs, not hugs.
Buford was an even bigger mess. The manager told us, right when we arrived, that he only had enough money for two Billy Joels. We drew straws and the audience ended up with four songs off The Stranger and, from Travis, a 15-minute block of joyless seafaring ballads from Storm Front. God dammit, Travis!
Thankfully, we rocked Littleton, North Littleton, and the TCBY opening in Hilton Hills, Tenn., where the audience seemed grateful for a little B.J. It’s those kinds of gigs that karmically balance out the shows where you show up only to discover you’ve been canceled without warning because the night before Billy Joel was detained by state troopers for drunk-driving his Range Rover into a daycare center.
Dirtly, Ala.—The Grand Dragon Tap Room
Just when things were starting to go our way, we lost Travis.
I should have seen this coming. Last night, a technical glitch during his “We Didn’t Start the Fire” sing-along slide show caused the slides to jump ahead two at a time. The audience became increasingly confused, unable to keep up with the breakneck pace of the lyrics. Then someone shouted out, “Leo-nard Bern-stein!” which seemed to tip Travis toward a complete and utter meltdown. I don’t remember everything that happened before he kicked over the slide carousel and stormed off stage, but I do recall thinking, I don’t remember the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start The Fire” being “JFK blown away / Alabama can suck my weenus!”
I asked Terry to cover for me onstage and followed Travis outside to see if I could cool him off, but he wasn’t having it. He said he was tired of being the butt of our band’s jokes and the lowlight of the show. He called us all sellouts and a few other choice names, then said he was finally ready to explore Billy Joel’s darker, more nuanced side.
I don’t know how long he’d been planning this, but he’d already made up flyers for his new band, Trawling Atlantis. I wished him the best of luck, half-sad and half-relieved to see him go, and broke the news to the rest of the Piano Men over Denver omelettes. I invoked B.J. and told the guys, “Looks like tomorrow the audience at Stuckey’s Ale House & Junior High School will only be hearing 80 percent of Billy Joel’s back catalog, but they’ll hear it with 110 percent of the effort.”
That nearly evens out, anyway.