Many years ago, I asked Billy Joel if there were any songs he was tired of singing. He named two.
The first was “Just The Way You Are,” which he said had been sung to death at every wedding from 1977 to 1987. He had kept it as part of his stage show until he started to sound to himself like a sappy wedding singer, then dropped it.
The other was “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” where the problem wasn’t sappiness but the lyrics he had written. They were a dense, fast list of historical events, and if he slipped up, the whole song fell apart. He solved this at many concerts by concentrating on a random teenage girl in the front row — imagine that, a rocker checking out the young women near the stage! Billy said he watched them because they always knew all the lyrics by heart and sang along, so if he felt himself losing his place, he could see what they were singing and get right back on track.
Last week, in Toronto, while performing that song, he derailed after the first verse so completely that he stopped the band. After some banter, he said, “Let’s go to the next song,” but the crowd wouldn’t have it, so Billy explained, “It’s the same thing verse after verse…one of the worst melodies I ever wrote.”
The irony is that for years, Billy used to keep a looseleaf on his piano with the lyrics to all of his songs. The guy wrote hundreds of tunes, so in case he got lost among them, he had the printed words in front of him. In the last few years, he started using a teleprompter like many other singers, from Springsteen to Bono to Beyonce, who have them as a safety net, just in case.
For several of his songs, Billy leaves the piano and moves center stage to sing, sometimes while playing guitar, and there’s a prompter there, too. But as you’ll see in this video shot on the night in question (March 9th), as he began “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” Billy looked offstage at his roadies while pointing at the monitor to let them know it was not working. Perhaps it was that distraction that made him lose his place. Moments after he stopped the band, a crew member walked to the front of the stage and fixed it.
At that point, Billy picked up where he’d left off and played the song through to the end, and then remarked, “Well, that’ll be all over YouTube tomorrow. It’s okay. It was an authentic rock and roll fuck-up! You don’t see many of them anymore.”
Previously on Harris Online…