On the road: From a Piano Man to an Innocent Man
by Steve Cohen
One is privileged to be part of the evolution of a major talent. As I reflect on my ten years on the road with Billy Joel, I remember the hard times and the great times. But throughout the years, I always knew that Billy’s star would one day shine.
Long before the hit records and albums and videos, we made our living by performing live. From the fall of 1974 to the release of The Stranger in 1977, we were touring at least nine months of the year, performing in clubs and at colleges, opening for groups like the Beach Boys and the J Geils Band. A schedule like that precludes anything that might be considered a “normal life”; the concert and the performance were the thing. Records, at first, were something that Billy made in his time off — and the songs that he was composing always had a special magic when they were performed live.
Those early years were fun and a time for learning for all of us — about the business and ourselves. We used to travel in big rented Oldsmobiles and we called ourselves the “Mean Brothers”! — Doug Stegmeyer, Brian Ruggles, Billy, and myself. Tasting the local root beer (read what you want into that!), rating Big Macs, chatting on the CB radio, we went wherever there was an opportunity to work. If a campus had a concert department, we played it, sometimes twice a week.
During those years, there was one concert hall that we enjoyed playing in more than all the others: The Academy of Music in Philadelphia. After all the gyms and clubs, the Academy was the Big Time. And what a thrill to see “Standing Room Only” Wow! A reason to dress up and strut our stuff. We always loved to turn that place inside out — and we did!
Means to an end
Many of you may only know Billy as a flying, orange-jacketed rock and roller. As his lighting designer, I had the opportunity to witness Billy’s growth as a songwriter and performer from the beginning. Billy never set out to be a performer, but he knew early in his career that, if he wanted his songs heard, he would have to deliver them on stage himself.
When I first saw him perform live in 1974, I knew I was experiencing something extraordinary. Billy has a natural ability to captivate an audience, and project his power from a small area on stage to the very farthest rows.
His shows began as two-hour performances and soon ran longer than three, stretched by his delight in talking with the audience. His monologues, embellished by favorite phrases from movies and real life encounters, quickly established a tradition at his shows: When you came to see Billy Joel, you not only heard the Piano Man, but you met the Piano Man.
From small stage to arena
As a lighting and stage designer, the big question facing me then was — and it still remains the big question: How do you take a theatrical show and adapt it effectively in an arena setting? For almost four years, Billy never got up from behind his piano, so the focus was solely on his voice and keyboard playing. We took our first sustained break from touring when Billy went into the studio to record The Stranger with producer Phil Ramone.
Upon the release and subsequent success of that album, it was clear that arena touring was to become the norm rather than the exception. My challenge was to design a set that would accommodate Billy’s unique talents as a performer, for audiences of more than 15,000 people in an area constructed primarily for sporting events.
At first, Billy objected to playing arenas, because his back would have to be to some part of the audience while sitting at the piano. We solved this problem by using two pianos, each one facing the other and each one on a different level of the stage. The stage itself was horseshoe-shaped with ramps and stairs. The intention was to provide Billy and the band with a clean, carpeted, unobstructed playground.
With the design of the physical set out of the way, I could turn my attention to the lighting system. I was careful not to call attention to the system itself, as so many do. I think too many lighting systems are used not to light a performer, but rather, to distract the audience. Consider the various mirrors, smoke bombs, space ships, lasers, and all the other rock and roll special effects.
Billy requires the exact opposite style of lighting, one which only calls attention to the artist. Billy is the special effect, and my job is to complement the artist and his performance, and nothing more. The audience is thus given a chance to see what it wants to see and hear what it wants to hear: Billy Joel center stage. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been around when Billy has written the material for the past five albums. In the studio, we’d always be thinking about how the new songs would work live. I remember being at A&R Studios in New York and listening to a song that would become a breakthrough. It was “Big Shot,” his first legitimate stage rocker, and it became the catalyst for Billy’s stand-up act. It quickly became the pivotal song in the live show. As the last song, the final burst of unrestrained energy before the encore, “Big Shot” allowed Billy to use all the props an arena offers.
From the first time he performed it in 1978, he’s been jumping on speakers, hanging from cables, and going wild! Billy was excited about getting out from behind the piano and the positive reaction of the audience motivated him to write more songs that gave him the freedom to move about the stage. The 1978-79 tour season was strenuous but electric. We were playing to sold-out houses everywhere!
The “Mean Brothers” and their cousins were traveling the same roads, but this time around they were paved with the success of Top 10 singles and a number-one album, 52nd Street. Everyone’s energy and interest were high. Billy was performing new songs and trying out new bits. During a break in the tour, he did something unusual: He wrote only one song and recorded it — but not as part of an album. “You May Be Right” was the song, and it was so strong that I pushed for it to be the opening number.
The opening song
The opening song is a crucial element in that it sets the tone for the entire show, but is somewhat lost to the audience, which is so engulfed in the tangible excitement that is generated when Billy first appears. It was also during this tour that songs like “Sometimes A Fantasy” and “All For Lenya” were written, setting the mood for Glass Houses. After the Glass Houses LP was recorded, we were off to Europe, and then Israel. By that time, we were considerably road weary, and welcomed a break from traveling–and from one another — which lasted almost a year.
In the summer of 1980, we hit the road again, but there was an additional purpose to this tour: We were going back to our roots to play the small clubs again with the intention of recording the entire tour. The album was to be called Songs In The Attic, and it was a great challenge to all of us, a project that would test our memories and experience. The emphasis was to capture the textures and harmonies created by Billy and the band live; the subtleties and contradictions of Billy’s live performance; and the powerful exchange that exists between Billy and his audiences. We were after it all.
We recounted the reactions of different audiences to various songs, the difficulties at different clubs, the logistics of taking a traveling recording studio on the road. Small clubs were not equipped to handle 300 lamp lighting systems, trusses, and follow spots. The mood had to fit a club again — darker, closer, more intimate. While the album succeeded in capturing all that, there were of course some exciting performances that never made it to the final collection. (“New York State Of Mind” was one of them — but then, it’s always been one of my personal favorites.)
From Glass to Nylon
The Nylon Curtain was a departure from the rock and roll texture of Glass Houses. With this album, Billy committed himself to a more serious tone and theme, and the tour reflected those changes. We incorporated the same staging principles which had worked so well in the past — two grand pianos, freedom of movement for the band — and introduced new production elements inspired by the videos produced for Billy by Russell Mulcahy.
Those videos marked the first time Billy allowed someone to interpret and conceptualize the lyrics of his songs. “Allentown,” with its working man’s environment, provided the scenic elements; and Pressure was a source of great energy and symbolism. It was a complicated and demanding show involving freight elevators, piano lifts, and a moving lighting system. But, as usual, Billy made it look easy.
It is now a year after Goodnight Saigon. I wonder how quickly “Tell Her About It” and “Uptown Girl” will become our favorite old BJ hits? I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic these days. After ten years of touring, Billy and I have grown up together — along with a wonderful group of very special people who are part of Billy’s show. I suppose our only certainty is that Billy Joel will continue to surprise us all with a new direction, a new sound, and some great music and words. Thanks for a great decade, Billy — here’s to the next!
Steve Cohen, January 1984 – Written in association with Kirk Morris for the 1984 tour program