Well Hello, Mrs. Robinson

Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits proved such a tremendous listen that I went and bought every album by the guy.

The exciting thing about discovering a prolific artist who is done making music is that you can buy it all at once. It’s like watching Six Feet Under on DVD. There aren’t any long interruptions between additions to the story—it’s all out there before you. Listening to a new band like Franz Ferdinand, on the other hand, is kind of like watching Lost: it’s fun anticipating the next installment, but I really wish I could go in a time machine and just buy the whole thing.

Looking back on it now, I can see that Billy Joel was a great introduction to pop music. His influences are so clear and disparate. When I first heard R.E.M.’s “End of the World (As We Know It)”, I thought it sounded like a ripoff of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”—little did I know it was the other way around. When I later I realized that Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” was a near carbon copy of “New York State of Mind,” I started to see how I could use Billy Joel’s music as a conduit to explore other artists. I met The Beatles through “Laura,” found Elvis in “Still Rock n’ Roll To Me,” and discovered Broadway during “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” When you listen Joel’s songs, you’re really just listening to his takes on different styles of music. His discography exposed me to so many parts of the Rock n’ Roll canon, and introduced me to a many great artists who made music before I was born.

The only problem was I was ten when this process started, and none of this could I talk about with my friends. Coming to school excited to discuss a 20-year old hit like “Pinball Wizard” doesn’t exactly win you cool points during recess. I found I could only share this budding, newfound interest of rock n’ roll with adults 4 times my age, so it goes without saying that after a while, I became a big hit with my friends’ moms. I never had any trouble sleeping at a friend’s house; while my buddy hooked up the Nintendo, I could always chat it up with his mother.

“Did you know, Mrs. Savitz, that ‘Only The Good Die Young’ was originally a reggae tune? Amazing, isn’t it? Now how bout those milk and cookies…”

A couple years later, I tried to use this power to get moms at temple to urge their daughters to date me.

“You should go out with that nice blonde Jewish boy,” they would say. “He knows The Jazz Singer!”

Too bad the best way to make a girl never date you is to get her mother to like you.

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The Apple Falls Far From The Tree

I know I have music inside of me. I just have no idea where it came from.

My parents never listen to music. My mom enjoys a little talk radio now and then, but my dad is the real mystery. He spends two hours in the car every day driving to and from work in silence. No talk shows, no radio, nothing. I guess the man’s got a lot on his mind.

When I started asking for piano lessons at age 8, he started to realize that music was more than just a passing interest for me. One day on the way to school, my dad asked me if I wanted to hear the kind of music he liked. I was intrigued, to say the least. I mean this was the guy I never saw once turn the radio on. When I finally got the balls to start flipping through stations in his car, I had to actually turn the air condition down just to hear what song it was. So with his son’s piqued interest and a smile on his face, my dad opened the little tray in his armrest and handed me a short stack of cassettes. His entire music collection was as follows:

1. Barry Manilow, Greatest Hits Volumes 1, 2, and 3
2. Barbara Streisand, Back To Broadway
3. The Secret Garden, Original Broadway Score; and
4. Jesus Christ Superstar, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

That’s it. No Stones, no Zeppelin, not even a Beatles record. My dad lived through every major milestone in rock history—Elvis’ shimmy, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Hendrix at Woodstock, Dylan Goes Electric—and here he was with nothing to show for it. I would’ve killed to see any number of artists from the 60s and 70s play live, and he couldn’t even remember if they rolled through town. Sit my dad in front of any jukebox, and I swear he wouldn’t know “Stairway to Heaven” from “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Thing is, my dad, like my brothers, was a jock. He kicked ass on his high school football team, and fought a few bullies when he was a kid. He even became an avid canoeist when he got older, so much so that he signed up for the 1980 Summer Olympic trials in Moscow, until the U.S. boycotted them and he never got the chance to compete.

My brothers Ivan and Adam shared my dad’s fondness for sports and even eclipsed his talent. Ivan picked up a tennis racket when he was 8, and within a few tournaments it became clear he was a prodigy. Fast forward 10 years later and Ivan is #1 in the world on the Junior tennis circuit with Adam not far behind—he became #2 in the nation at age 16 right behind Ivan.

So where does this leave me? Uh, not so good at tennis. Ever been in a fight? Nope. How’s your canoeing skills? Nada. I’ll tell you what though, my CD collection kicks ass.

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The First Album I Ever Bought

Billy Joel
Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2

I was 8 years old when my mom took me to the grocery store and the song “Piano Man” came on the radio. At first I thought the voice sounded like a girl’s, it was so high. I can’t remember if she said it was Billy Joel, but when I think back on it now I can probably guesstimate that she had no idea who it was. You see, my mother never listens to music. Not only does she never listen to music, but the last time I came home to Florida to visit family and she picked me up from the airport, she actually had FOX News Radio on in the car. FOX News! Ugh, it hurts the heart…

Anyways, I found out some way or another that it was Billy Joel. I didn’t find it out on the Internet because we didn’t have computers back then. Shit, how did people figure things out 15 years ago? Did I go to the library and look up “old man making love to tonic and gin” in the Dewey Decimal System? Whatever, whatever my 8 year old self was a very resourceful young man, and he found out that Billy Joel’s voice was once very high, and he was, in fact, the Piano Man.

So I went to my local Spec’s and spent a whopping $30 on the double-disc album. And I fucking loved it. I didn’t know a thing about music, the piano, rock bands, nothing. I just knew that when I played this record, it made me happy.

My folks had a baby grand piano in the living room and I sat down on the tall piano bench and tried to figure the songs out. Finally, one day I asked my mom for piano lessons.

My mom told me she tried giving piano lessons to my brothers, and they hated it. She was sparing me from something I wouldn’t like, she said. But I pressed on, and my mother found this nice Jewish lady who advertised in my elementary school yearbook so I got a piano teacher.

This album was my introduction to the piano. My introduction to music itself, really.

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Borderline, or How To Lose A Band In 10 Days

As soon as I got the chance to be in a rock band, I took it.

I was 16 years old. My best friend Scott was (and still is) an immensely talented acoustic guitarist who got a lot of shit for loving Duncan Sheik. I was a classical piano player who got a lot of shit for loving Billy Joel. In the end, we bonded over our mutual love for Dave Matthews, Jewish humor, and gargantuan meals.

Scott introduced me to his best middle school comrade Sean who had an encyclopedic knowledge of alternative rock. Sean was the first to introduce me to Nirvana (“The chord progressions are too simple!” I would say), Radiohead (“This music is so weird! What instruments are they even using?”), and Tribe Called Quest (“Where’s the melody? What is this rap stuff?”). For some reason, I had no patience for Sean’s obviously abnormal taste in music. For that same reason, Sean thought I was an idiot.

One day in between classes, Scott told me he met this drummer named Chandler who just moved out from California. Chandler pretty much blew our minds because a) he never wore jeans, only khakis; b) he had an infectious laugh and immediately dominated any conversation he took part in; and c) Friends was a huge hit at the time. Chandler was the type of guy who when he casually walked into rehearsal one day and proclaimed that he was going to get The Police back together if it was the last thing he did, no one was going to challenge him.

So Scott, Sean, Chandler and I got together in my parents living room and started a band. Scott and I split lead vocals, because after all, The Beatles and The Eagles did it, so why couldn’t we? (…crickets…crickets…)

Oh, and there was no bassist. Does that make Borderline a real band? Discuss.

One day I was in the car with my brother Adam and we were stopped in traffic because of some work they were doing on the road. I told him how I just formed a band with my best friends and how we were having a tough time coming up with a name. We were surrounded on all sides by Bob’s Barricades and he just blurted out, “Why don’t you call yourselves Borderline?” And just like that, the name stuck.

During our first gig at a house party, I noticed this one long-legged brunette standing by the pool. She was the hottest girl there, if only because she wasn’t paying any attention to me. After we played our first set, she came up to me and asked what my name was. We talked for about 5 minutes then she slipped me her number. I went back to keyboard feeling like a rock star. This is so easy, I thought. Being in a rock band really makes you cool!

Here’s the rub: that never happened again. And since I was approached by a hot girl the very first time I played live, I was basically set up for disappointment at every one of the hundreds of gigs I’ve played since. Talk about high expectations!

Borderline lasted all of junior year and the first half of senior year. We took it so seriously that rehearsals became these tension-filled nightmares where your best friends became your worst enemies. How dare Sean complain about not wanting to play that Billy Joel B-side that nobody knows or ever wants to hear! How dare Scott suggest that he sing that Dave Matthews tune that I completely botch when I try to sing it! What do you mean the piano’s too loud in the mix when the vocals and guitars are on mute?

By the end of a year and a half we were tired of being at each other’s necks and more interested just being buddies. Scott and I are better friends for realizing that we have different tastes in music (I couldn’t quite get him into Bruce Springsteen, and he forgives me for loathing Jack Johnson). I still call Sean regularly to say that I’ve discovered this amazing new band, only to hear him say that he tried to get me into them like 5 years ago. At least now I like In Rainbows more than he does. Take that, Sean!

After we graduated college, Chander took a job at the local concert arena in Florida booking bands and special events. Around the same time he was talking to booking agents and band managers, The Police got back together for a reunion tour. Coincidence…?

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