I Am Optimistic the Piano Man Can Keep Me Sane (or At Least Less Homesick)

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Look, I’m not proud. I’m not here to argue Billy Joel is “good” or “cool” by the measure of people who know about such things, which has never been me. And I’m definitely not going to defend Long Island, New York, where both Billy Joel and I are from, especially after the viral clip of anti-mask protesters harassing a local reporter in May did such a wonderful job encapsulating many things I neither love nor miss about “the Island.” 

But now, more than six months into shelter-in-place, I’m in the same boat as a lot of people: It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen my family, and Facetime, at this point, just isn’t cutting it. So when I tell you a 96-page songbook of the Piano Man’s classics boiled down to a 3rd-grade music-reading level is giving me life, it’s not out of self-respect. It’s because I’ve found a silly, precious source of hope to cut through daily panic, homesickness, and tedium.

Billy Joel might be solipsistic sentimental slop, but I am too, lately. And to me, his songs are home: the album permanently entombed in our old CD player, a mainstay of every local classic rock radio station, the omnipresent soundtrack to shopping and dining out, car rides, and family get togethers. Listening to Billy Joel on Long Island was like breathing air. We—my sister and I—could never get away from it, which was honestly fine. We knew the words. Sometimes we sang them, sometimes we didn’t.

But today, from the other side of the country and looking at God-knows-how-long until I can safely take a flight back to visit my folks, I’m belting out “My Life” and “Movin’ Out” at the keyboard while my fingers struggle to catch up to my enthusiasm. I haven’t practiced reading music since high school, and it feels like reactivating a part of my brain that slipped into anesthesia long before the pandemic numbed the rest of me. But every so often, as I stare at the staff, my right hand will hit a few intervals in a riff that feels like something approximating rhythm. And my left hand, without involving my head, will identify and press the correct note from the bassline.

I have this vision of going home “after COVID,” whatever that means, and playing some of these tunes on my parents’ old upright. Maybe at that point, they’ll sound a little better. Maybe I’ll be a little better then, too. After 2020, it’s something to look forward to. —Madison Pauly

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