The Piano Man has a song for every occasion, including the apocalypse.
On May 11, as part of the Rise Up New York benefit telethon for COVID-19 relief, Billy Joel played his 1976 tune “Miami 2017” accompanied by a light show on the Empire State Building and a King Kong-sized feed of his face over a barren Times Square.
With all this pageantry, it’s easy to overlook how consistently callous this song choice has been every time Joel has carted it out amid the backdrop of a major crisis.
Joel’s intentions were good when he first penned the song in the 1970s. Then, the ballad, which imagines “The Empire State laid low,” was a matter of speculative fiction rooted in a sad economic reality. The city was on the verge of defaulting, Washington refused to help and many wondered if the once-mighty metropolis had a future. In the song, the city decides they’d rather go bust, exploding bridges, sinking Manhattan out at sea and, in an act of clemency for Joel’s native Long Island, ruling “that Queens could stay.”
The then far distant year of “2017” — the date the imagined narrator is recounting the destruction of the city (presumably from Miami) — is enough to suggest that what Joel was conjuring was some time away. Cut to 2001 and Joel sang the song in the aftermath of 9/11, telling the crowd at the Concert for New York City, “I wrote that song 25 years ago. I thought it was going to be a science fiction song; I never thought it would really happen. But unlike the end of that song, we ain’t going anywhere!”
A nice sentiment that drew raucous applause. Still, Joel was, in October 2001, singing a song about watching “the mighty skyline fall” to a group of New Yorkers. A bit tin-eared, and not really saved by the coda, “There are not many who remember/They say a handful still survive/To tell the world about the way the lights went out/And keep the memory alive.”
As events crept closer to the date of the song, Joel serenaded a state wracked by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy with visions of the power going out and ferries at the Battery refusing to sail people to safety because of a union strike.
Now we’re three years after Joel’s projected date, and Governor Andrew Cuomo (who we learned from the broadcast is the godfather of two of Joel’s kids) came on to introduce him. The lights are out on Broadway, as the song predicted, and we’re not sure when they’ll come back on.
So are we supposed to feel better after hearing Joel’s prognostications so consistently coming true? With the song’s premise of snow birds fleeing the city en masse likely to become a reality as more people leave for the suburbs? With economists predicting a devastation of the city’s commerce equal to the 1970s and the federal government, once again, resistant to offer support? Should New Yorkers be striving to merely “keep the memory” of this time alive once it’s passed, or be less fatalistic in the face of our challenges?
Luckily, Joel had some parting words that lend the song essentially zero context, saying “stay safe New York, wear a mask and that way you won’t catch shit from anybody.”
With so many watching confined at home, Joel’s evocation of churches burning in Harlem and the ruins of 42nd Street offer little comfort and potentially quite a bit of distress. He’d have done better to invoke the freedoms we miss — the ability to wander through Chinatown or Riverside Park or even take a Greyhound bus, as abject as that experience seemed in pre-corona days.
Next time, Bill, just play “New York State of Mind.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.