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Going For It

How I sang for Billy Joel. By Jesse Rubenfeld


I’m not alone in feeling most alive when something that I really want enters the world of the possible. What I wanted to do on November 6, 2001, was thank my hero for what he has given the world.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

In October, the DP proclaimed that Billy Joel was coming to do a master class, a musical Q&A session in Irvine Auditorium. I thought, I must join this committee now so I can go to the dinner they always have with the celebrity.

After attending several overcrowded meetings of SPEC Connaissance, it became clear that I was not going to dinner with Billy Joel. I presented the idea, instead, to perform an original song for him with a group of students to open his show. While Connaissance was charmed by the idea, Mr. Joel’s agents were not, and I was on my own.

I wrote the song anyway. Entitled “A Friend in Bill,” its words and music convey the important role his songs played in my ability to express myself. It was ready just in time for me to get it properly memorized. Now I just needed to get on stage.

That would be difficult without a ticket to the show. With only about 1,000 seats in Irvine available for students, Connaissance dealt them out in pairs by lottery (a one-in-10 shot)—which I lost. Todd Simon, in true friendship, graciously gave me one of his tickets. I returned his gift when Connaissance ultimately granted me a complimentary ticket for my work on the planning committee. I had a seat!

Seating would be general admission, and I (mistakenly) believed I would need a good seat to have a prayer. Fortunately, A&E would be taping the show—and would need volunteers from Connaissance to help set up. I signed for the four-hour time slot immediately preceding the show. I would have the best seat I could get!

The night before the show I printed several “RESERVED” signs so that any friends attending the concert could sit next to me and help me get Billy’s attention. I printed out a copy of the lyrics and pressed a CD with my recording of the song, signed both, and there was nothing more to do.

The next day, I spent four hours serving an A&E producer. Between fetching things, I sat in on his meetings. When he proposed to plant questions in the audience and instruct Billy Joel on who to call to control the direction of the show, I volunteered my idea.

“No,” he said, “we don’t want to hear your song.” Although I demonstrated that I could sing and asked him to sample my recording, he was dismissive. At that point, I thought I was particularly doomed because I believed he would tell Billy Joel not to call on the kid with the cowboy hat (which I therefore removed later that evening). In retrospect, it would not have stopped him from calling on me anyway.

Finally, the producers told me I had been assigned to work in the television truck during the show. Amused but then frustrated, I quit, left to eat dinner, used my “crew” badge to re-enter, and took my seat next to the front-and-center house microphone to watch the sound check. The busy people in charge didn’t notice me or care.

The seats reserved for corporate sponsors were very heavily monitored, so I waited until the house doors opened to post my signs. I managed to flag down six friends to sit around me.

An hour into the show, Billy Joel invited another question from the audience. My friend Yoni Rosenzweig yelled, “Yo, this guy’s got the stuff!” That got his attention and he called on me (or I just started talking—I really don’t remember).

“As a singer and a songwriter, your music has been important to me for a long time … and I wrote a song about your music … and in the spirit of the Master Class, I would like to play my song for you and ask for your
critique and response.”

With building applause, most of my 1,000 classmates voted in favor of my proposal. When he motioned for me to come up, I was home free.

I sang and played on Billy Joel’s Steinway Grand as he and classical pianist Richard Joo watched. I reached the final lines: “With your words and your music, I’ve changed and I’ve grown, and now I need words of my own … some music and words of my own.” I played the last cadence.

With a refreshingly empty mind and spirits in the steeple, I turned to get up. The rush I felt at the unexpected standing ovation was potent. The audience was sharing my dream; they felt it, too. Billy Joel walked on stage and thanked me, we shook hands, and he accepted the signed CD and lyrics.

It didn’t matter that he later called out to me several times by the wrong name: “Did your parents used to make you play for the company, too, Paul?” It didn’t matter when I heard he had left my gifts on the little stage-table with his emptied cup. And it doesn’t matter that he still hasn’t responded to any of my letters. In his eyes, I could have been another kid who “had to be a bigshot.” But none of it changes the satisfaction of going for it. And getting it. For an instant we were just a craftsman and an admiring apprentice.

Jesse Rubenfeld is a College/Wharton senior majoring in music and Jewish studies as well as management; he hails from Houston.

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