Mine is a story about a love of music. About 45s and 8-tracks and FM radio -- and sisters.
And about a fellow named Billy Joel, performing at M&T Bank Stadium Saturday night.
I was the younger of two girls, arriving nine years after my sister, Vicki. I was born in the summer of 1970 into a family of music lovers. Vick was a walking pop-and-rock-music encyclopedia, a human jukebox.
Growing up in the ‘70s in Owings Mills with our single mom, Vick and I shared a tiny bedroom. It was there that we connected over tunes old and new (and our other love, the Orioles, especially third baseman Doug DeCinces).
Vick and I were as different as day and night. She was confident, fearless, beautiful and devilish. I was the goody two-shoes — awkward, studious and shy.
And I thought she was the coolest person in the world. We always joked that if we weren't sisters, we'd have never been friends. But there we were, closer than close, always in sync, connecting over music, sharing a sense of humor, forging a bond unbroken.
In our little bedroom, we’d play games with the radio. While other siblings might quiz each other on multiplication tables or state capitals, Vick was quizzing me on song titles and band names, and schooling me on the nuances of singers’ voices – the smoky depth of Ann Wilson, the rugged tone of Paul Rodgers, the sweet tenor of Elton John. We’d make lists of the most distinctive voices in rock — Lou Gramm, Roger Daltrey, Geddy Lee, Freddie Mercury, Daryl Hall and so many more.
Most days our games would go something like this: “OK, Lor,” she’d say, quickly turning the radio volume off after a couple seconds of airplay. “Can you name this song and group?” After a moment I’d say, “Too easy. ‘The Vegetable Song.’ Ha! I’m kidding. Of course, it’s ‘The Logical Song,’ Supertramp.”
It was more fun than I would ever have. And little did I know that she was laying the groundwork for a lifetime of my passion for music.
She delighted in introducing me to her favorite artists. And I thrilled in exploring her vast and varied record collection — from Led Zeppelin to Diana Ross. Early on, I discovered that we had something special going on with Elton John and Billy Joel. She shared her love of both fellows with me, and I was hooked.
Our bond over Billy Joel came so easy. We loved his piano playing, his clever lyrics, his incredible sense of humor — and that impossibly long note he held in “Just the Way You Are.” And I was soon playing catch-up to his older music that my sister already loved, like “Turnstiles” and “Piano Man.”
On one drive home in the late '70s, Vick had the 8-track tape of Billy’s “The Stranger” playing in her little blue Plymouth Arrow. We were whistling to the title track, gleefully singing along to “Only the Good Die Young,” waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” And soon a song came on that I’d never heard.
“Slow down, you crazy child,” Billy sang. “You’re so ambitious for a juvenile.” What was this catchy, hypnotic little tune? I was enamored. I loved the swaying melody, Billy’s high-pitched vocals and the delightful accordion solo.
And as Vick pulled her little car into a parking spot in front of our apartment, I asked if I could sit in her car a while longer and keep listening to the song. After more than an hour, I had to will myself out of the car, but with that indescribable joy that only comes from finding a new, favorite song.
I had discovered “Vienna,” and I never wanted to leave.
My love for “Vienna” continues to this day. The song’s music and melody were always the magnet for me. And the lyric, about savoring the moments in life and not rushing through the years, would speak to me, always.
Over the years I kept busy discovering more of my sister’s vinyl gems. It was one album in particular that wooed me like none before: Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” was in constant rotation. Sure, I adored the hits "My Life," "Big Shot" and "Honesty," but I was soon savoring the sax and baseball analogies of “Zanzibar,” loving the percussive piano and mesmerizing metaphors of “Stiletto,” and wearing out the needle on the joyous “Half a Mile Away.”
It was around this time that I realized how gifted Billy was: Not only could he write a catchy pop song and an engaging, beautiful ballad, but he had the poetry in him to pen the accompanying lyrics. Both my sister and I spent many a night poring over his words. We would analyze the characters in “Piano Man” and “Angry Young Man” and “Big Shot” and discuss the people we knew who Billy could be describing.
In 1980, I was so fascinated with Billy’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” that my friends and I, as fifth graders, created our own rhythmic hand claps to the tune.
In the summer of 1981, my music world expanded exponentially: MTV launched. It presented a whole new arena for me and my sister to explore our musical passions. Vick and I spent, oh, roughly, 23 hours a day watching it, taping it, studying it.
Billy Joel was all over MTV, and we were overjoyed. We would yell to one another when the video for “Pressure” would come on. And we’d analyze every detail of the video: the slow-motion of the water splashing on Billy, him sinking into the carpeting, the little schoolboy holding down his desk filled with water.
In 1983, MTV aired a half-hour special called “Night School,” which featured Billy answering questions from an audience of music students. It was another turning point in my sister’s and my fandom: We discovered that Billy was absolutely hysterical. His off-the-cuff responses to audience members’ questions tickled us. He talked about song inspirations, stage fright, forgetting lyrics and trying to be anonymous at a ballgame. He did his spot-on impressions of Steve Winwood, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker and Richie Havens.
And his bit explaining how his song “Allentown” came to be was something my sister and I would recount and sing to each other for years to come. He explained that while touring college towns years earlier, he traveled through Allentown. And he loved that name. He said it sounded like “America-Ville.” Or “Jimmy-Town.” Or “Bobby-Ville.” But at the time, he had no subject matter to write about regarding Allentown. All he would have to sing was: [Billy singing] “Well, we’re living here in Allentown. And we’re living here in Allentown. And we’re DYING here in Allentown. And then they put us under the ground.”
My sister and I were completely smitten by his humor. We would sing the “fake” lyrics again and again to each other. His delivery was as funny as the lyrics. And the entire “Night School” episode followed suit. It was Billy being Billy, which, we discovered, meant Billy being a stand-up comedian.
Vick was my favorite concert buddy, and I hers. And on Jan. 10, 1990, we ventured to our first Billy Joel concert, one that would cement our musical bond. When we got to our behind-the-stage seats at the Capital Centre that night, we spotted a keyboard placed about 15 feet away from us. We figured it was the keyboardist’s gear.
Billy finally emerged, center stage. And we were ecstatic. He sat at his baby grand piano and broke into “Storm Front.” And on he went: “Allentown” and “Prelude/Angry Young Man” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”
And then a funny thing happened: Around the 10th song or so, he suddenly walked up to the keyboard nearest to us, flung it around and faced us. There we were, looking at Billy Joel just 15 feet away.
He said, “I bet you all thought you had terrible seats, eh?” We cheered wildly. And then, on that very keyboard, he broke into the manic intro of “Pressure.”
Did I mention that he was about 15 feet away?
My sister and I squealed. And I mean squealed. And we never, ever squealed.
It was the most incredible concert we’d attended or would ever attend again. Never had we seen such energy, such theatrics, such playfulness. He exuded a connectedness to his audience like no artist we'd ever seen before. He joked, he bantered, he was as relaxed as could be. We talked about that experience again and again, and delighted in each retelling.
My interest in Billy Joel never waned. I’ve attended many of his concerts and master classes along the East Coast, collected a slew of memorabilia, returned to piano lessons.
And it’s all thanks to my sister. She groomed me and made me who I am. Through the years, Vick and I attended close to 100 concerts together — Elton John, Chicago, 38 Special, the Eagles, the Temptations, Kenny Loggins, Journey, the Four Tops, Def Leppard, Kool and the Gang. Our concert-going days lessened in the ’90s after Vick married and had a daughter and was working full time. But we would still talk music over the phone and share favorite new songs and bands with each other.
“Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true.” –Billy Joel, “Vienna”
If I had one wish it would be that she was attending the Billy Joel concert with me on Saturday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
But I lost her in 2007. She died unexpectedly. Life and music haven’t been the same since.
It took me years to even click the radio on in my car. I simply couldn’t turn the knob for about three years. It’s still hard. Every song holds a memory. I still can’t play certain CDs.
And I can’t bear the songs about loss.
Since my sister has been gone, I’ve cut down on my collecting and I attend far fewer concerts. Concerts are not the same without her, but I still have fun.
And when it comes to Billy Joel, I push myself. He doesn’t tour very often, and he hasn’t performed in Baltimore since 1977, when he played Loyola College. Vick would have loved to see him in our own backyard.
So, on Saturday, I’ll don one of my coolest Billy shirts, grab my ticket, “take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.” And I’ll have a most amazing time enjoying Billy with a dear friend.
And maybe someday I’ll even visit Vienna.