It was December 12, 1989. The day I met my musical idol, the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel. I know the precise date, because I still have the autographed ticket stub as a souvenir of the escapade.
You could say I’m a lifelong fan. I was introduced to the music of Billy Joel at a young age, the proud owner of vinyl records like “Glass Houses” and “An Innocent Man.” But it wasn’t until I first heard an older album, “The Stranger,” one memorable summer during high school that I became permanently hooked on this song-writing, piano-playing genius. Over the next several years, I acquired a collection of nearly all of his work through whatever means possible. Many on cassette tapes copied from college friends, which was all my limited budget could afford at the time.
Together with some of those very same college friends, I leaped at the chance to attend my first Billy Joel concert in the midst of studying for finals just before Christmas break of my sophomore year. I scraped together every last penny I had to reimburse the person in charge of buying the tickets, then used my dad’s credit card to cover the living expenses that the diverted cash otherwise should have gone toward that month. The credit card was only to be used for “emergencies,” but anyone could see that this qualified as an emergency. (Note to Daddy: Um, I might owe you a few dollars plus 19 years’ worth of interest.)
The concert was to take place at the Worcester Centrum in Worcester, MA, a good hour from Boston. The transportation there soon became an issue since none of us had a car and no rental company we could find would rent to drivers under 21. Eventually we did find a car (exactly how is one of the faulty points in my memory), so when the big night finally arrived we piled in, drove to Worcester, and had a wonderful time.
Under normal circumstances, the story would end there. But one of our party, the friend of a friend, suggested that if we hung around outside the arena long enough after the concert, we might have the opportunity to actually meet the object of our admiration. She claimed to have successfully done this before, and being a group unopposed to the prospect of an adventure, we followed her lead. Like criminals, we methodically scoped the exterior of the building, searching for clues as to which unmarked door would be the one he would most likely exit from. Eventually we found a large rolling door that masked an interior garage. An eagle eye among us spotted a tiny hole in the door, so we did what any respectable spy would do. We peered in. It was clear there was much activity inside.
“This is it,” our experienced post-concert celebrity stalking friend was sure. “Looks like they’ll be driving. We’ll have to follow him.” We quickly retrieved our car and returned to wait for his eventual departure. Almost certainly we were illegally parked as we sat poised to follow in a flash.
Finally, it seemed our patience had paid off. The door rolled up, and out crawled a limo. Our designated driver prepared to gun the accelerator.
“That’s not him,” our expert friend guessed. “It’s probably the band. Or maybe a decoy. Let’s wait.” Then another limo. “Still not him.” We waited some more.
The third time proved to be the charm. The door rolled open once more, and this time an entourage of police cars surrounding a nondescript black van pulled out. We had our man. The chase was on. The police escorts flipped on their flashing lights and did their best to ditch groupies like us, but we kept pace every step of the way—running red lights, making illegal U-turns, and speeding down the highway all the way back to Boston. I think we broke every traffic law in the book. Billy Joel could get away with it, because he had police escorts leading the way. We did not. But we followed in civilized hot pursuit with nary a close call.
At last we arrived at Billy Joel’s destination, the Four Seasons hotel in Boston. As his van pulled into the porte cochere, a car immediately swung behind him to block entry from lunatics like us who managed to keep up for the entire drive. But that didn’t stop this troupe of devoted fans. We simply parked in the middle of the street, and four car doors flew open as we all sprinted to catch up to the legend before he went inside.
Fortunately, I had the foresight to retrieve both my newly purchased concert T-shirt and my ticket stub as I sprang from the car, and had both handy to be signed. I got my treasured autographs, but I’m embarrassed to say that smooth 19-year-old me turned into a stupefied puddle of stage fright who could barely squeak out a high pitched “thank you sooooooo much.”
And of all things, at my big opportunity to impress the Piano Man with my intellect and maturity, I had to know if the pen he was using was a permanent marker. It made a difference, after all, in whether or not I could ever wash the autographed T-shirt. As if I would actually risk wearing it once it bore his signature! I asked the question, and knew as soon as it came out of my mouth that it was a dumb one. I don’t even remember if he responded. Perhaps to this day he remembers it as one of the stupidest, most irrelevant questions he was ever asked.
On March 2, 2009, nearly 20 years later, I’m going to see Billy Joel in concert again. For the fourth time. I’ve never had a repeat opportunity to meet him and redeem myself, but maybe, just maybe, if I skulk around the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena afterward looking for garage doors with pinholes and nondescript black vans with police escorts, I’ll have my chance once again.