Billy Joel didn’t connect his career to baseball until Shea Stadium was shuttered.
The former home of the New York Mets closed in 2008, but before it did, the Bronx-born and Long Island-raised music icon was enlisted to perform the final two concerts staged there. A lasting result is the 2010 documentary movie “The Last Play at Shea,” a combined profile of the Mets and six-time Grammy winner Joel that has its Showtime premiere Friday (Nov. 11), underscored by numerous classics from Joel’s 40-year catalog.
“It had never occurred to me that there was such a parallel,” Joel tells Zap2it of his own arc and that of the Mets, whose combined histories made the Shea shows such major events for everyone present. “What I recognized and appreciated, right off the bat, was that the audience was a great deal of what was going on. The Shea crowd was sort of all the Brendas and Eddies (immortalized in Joel’s ‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant’).
“I have this theory that the audience is at least 50 percent of a performance. It’s an exchange of energy; you give your energy, then they return that with applause or noise or body language and enthusiasm … and then you give it right back again. It’s just a constant exchange that goes on for some three hours, and at the end, everybody is spent. And that’s the way it should be. It’s almost like sex.”
Over the two nights, 110,000 fans packed Shea to hear not only Joel, but also such guests as Tony Bennett (who joins in a duet of Joel’s “New York State of Mind”) and in a surprise appearance — even to Joel, who didn’t know it would happen until literally the last minute — Sir Paul McCartney.
“When I originally asked Paul,” Joel recalls, “he looked at his schedule and said he’d love to come, but he couldn’t make it because he had a visit scheduled with his daughter. I certainly understood that, so we didn’t expect him. When he suddenly showed up, it was a total surprise to everyone. I got a call saying, ‘The eagle has landed,’ and he had to get from JFK [Airport] all the way to Shea on the other side of Long Island.
“That usually would be impossible with the traffic, but everybody from the police to the FAA got involved and got him there, right when we normally would have ended. He must have been exhausted, but he walked from an international flight right onto the stage without a sound check and started playing. He was tuning his bass with a butter knife; I couldn’t believe it. All of us had been in bands that played Beatles songs so often, we knew anything he would have asked for.”
As many times as he’s performed in front of cameras, Joel maintains it’s something he’s never gotten used to. “I’m camera-shy,” he admits. “Actually, one of the reasons I became a musician is that a lot of our work is done behind closed doors. We’re heard and not necessarily seen … or, at least, that’s how it was until the advent of MTV.
“In the old days, the only way people saw who you were was on an album cover. And that could be doctored up, or you could even not have your photo on the cover. Nobody really knew what anybody looked like, then they started making videos and it was like, ‘Oh, boy. Now we’re going to be exposed for what we really look like.'”
To Joel’s way of thinking. “That kind of killed some of the magic, because music becomes part of your own imagination. You hear something, then you form your own visual until you’re directed to look at something specific. I always resented that. I hated the whole process of making videos. To me, it was reducing music to sort of a cartoon.”
Still, Joel has produced anything but cartoons over a career that has yielded a lengthy list of song standards from “My Life,” “Uptown Girl” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” to “She’s Got a Way,” “Honesty” and “Just the Way You Are.” They’re all included in a just-released boxed CD set that compiles every album Joel has made, but he still enjoys the challenge of giving a concert, many of which he’s done in tandem with Sir Elton John in recent years.
“Nothing replaces the particular effort of playing live,” Joel reasons. “You can go into a recording studio and work for years, but it’s not the same. A live performance is the real test of music: Is there an immediate response from the audience? Are you any good? Are you doing it right?
“I knew that early on, from the time I joined my first band and girls started paying attention to me when I was on stage. I was like, ‘Hey! This is really cool!’ It’s a very heady experience, and you have to recognize that’s what the gig is.”