Billy Joel doesn’t pause after hearing how tickets to his upcoming Shea Stadium shows - “The Last Play at Shea” - were being resold online for several thousand dollars apiece, with some being priced at nearly $100,000.
“Yeah, I can tell you right now, I’m not worth that,” he says, calling from his Sag Harbor home. “Maybe if The Beatles could somehow get back together or if Jimi Hendrix came back from the dead, I would pay $1,000. But if you pay that much for me, you’re not going to be happy. I’m not worth more than the face value of the ticket.”
There are, of course, many who would disagree with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, the Grammy winner whose name hangs in the rafters of Madison Square Garden commemorating his record-setting 12-show sold-out run there, the Tony Award winner whose greatest hits album is one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Coincidentally, many of those disagreeing may also have been shut out of Joel’s shows at Shea Wednesday and Friday, because the 55,000 tickets for each historic concert sold out in record-setting time - in 48 minutes for the first show, then 46 for the second.
He could easily have charged twice or three times the $95 ticket price and still packed the place. But true to his Hicksville, N.Y., roots - the same sensibilities that have had him recently pairing his working-class anthems “Allentown” and “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” in concert - Joel insisted on keeping prices affordable, and he has been working overtime to make the Shea Stadium shows special for everyone involved.
“We don’t have a lot of blowup balloons or floating pigs or laser lights going on,” Joel says. “We’re hoping to make music the basis of what the show is going to be. It’s all about the music. I’m fairly static onstage. I’m locked into a piano. I can’t be jumping around like Mick Jagger or Bono running all over the place. And even if I could, at my age, I can’t run like I used to. Hopefully, the music will speak to that.”
Joel wants the show to sound bigger than normal, so he has added a string section, a larger horn section and backing singers to his usual band. He has also lined up some special guests to help out, though he doesn’t want to spoil the surprises just yet. (One rumor that he does shoot down is that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will perform together at the shows. At this point, both have other commitments, Joel says, adding, “That doesn’t mean we won’t be doing some Beatles songs, though.”)
As his nod to The Beatles proves, Joel understands that the concerts will be part of Shea’s storied musical history. “It’s the end of an era at Shea,” he says. “I’m going to do some songs I haven’t done in a long time.”
Joel says he has had the bulk of the set list mapped out for a while. “There are certain songs you have to do,” he says. “‘Piano Man’ - you have to do. ‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant’ - absolutely. ‘My Life’ - some of the bigger hits. ... Keeping in mind the New York theme and the era that Shea Stadium existed and the songs that would represent that, a nod to summer and baseball and the hometown crowd - you mix all of those in and you pretty much come up with the theme of the show. The backbone of the show will be some songs that are, I suppose, iconic in a way. And last minute, you never know. People tend to show up at gigs like this. We don’t know who might show up, who will be there and want to play. We have to leave room for that as well.”
Considering Joel has scored 33 Top 40 hits in his career, as well as dozens of album cuts that are often just as recognizable, some of his hits will get left out, though not for the reasons some people think. “I was hoping to get Frankie Valli to sing ‘Uptown Girl,’ but I couldn’t get that to happen,” Joel says. “Now, I don’t even know if I’m going to do that song. I can’t even hit the notes. When I first recorded the song, the reason I did it is because I figured this is the last time I’m going to be able to hit these notes. I think I was about 34 years old at the time. I said, ‘OK, I’m going to kiss goodbye all these notes on this album,’ not knowing that I was going to have to keep doing these songs for another 20-some odd years. For ‘Uptown Girl,’ I was at the extreme edge of my register. I was actually straining to hit the notes at the time. So now, it just destroys me for the rest of the show. People think that I don’t do that song because of some kind of animosity toward my ex-wife. It has nothing to do with that. It’s just a pain in the a—to sing. It’s as simple as that.”
Joel says the process behind the Shea concerts has been completely different from the other two concerts in his New York stadium hat trick - a feat that no other artist will ever be able to lay claim to since both Shea and Yankee stadiums will come tumbling down this year.
“I think the set list for Yankee Stadium we just looked at as just another gig,” he says. “There were so many other things going on with that show. We were the only act they ever really let play there and then there was the whole parking situation. It was a lot more daunting logistically than Shea has been.”
Bob Buchmann, WAXQ-FM’s program director, says Joel’s Yankee Stadium show in 1990 was a thrill because the team and its history is so ingrained in Joel’s music. “The thing I remember most is he played all of his tunes that referenced the Yankees and the place just exploded,” he says. “I think the excitement is greater this time ... because it benchmarks the last time music will ever be played in the Mets’ home. The Mets obviously wanted to close in style, with a world-class superstar. Who better than a guy who happens to live 20 miles away? ‘From The Beatles to Billy’ has a great ring to it.”
Joel is looking at the Shea shows in terms of his career differently as well. Last week, he saw the release of the 30th anniversary edition of his breakthrough album, “The Stranger,” and this week, he gets another example of how far he has come in his career.
“I did actually play at Shea Stadium in 1965 when it was brand new, so it’s really an interesting dynamic here,” Joel says, laughing. “We played at the World’s Fair at the New York State Pavilion in 1965. We came in second. I was in a band called the Lost Souls - somebody’s still got this trophy somewhere. It was one of those battle of the bands things and we were the Hicksville band. There was another band called The Pumpkins and they won. We were really crushed because we thought we were better than them.”
Joel says he sees symbolism in being chosen to play the final concert at Shea.
“The subtext there is that it’s the end of an era,” he says. “Shea Stadium has gone from new to needing to be torn down within my lifetime and the thought is also ‘When are they gonna replace me?’”
Joel says his daughter, Alexa Ray, recently asked him why he still works so hard. “I said, ‘Because I can,’” he says. “This is what I started out wanting to do. People always ask about why I’m not writing and recording new pop songs. Well, for me, I didn’t start out as a recording artist. It’s not a lot of fun for me in the studio. Writing is certainly not a lot of fun. But playing in a band is a gas.”
Joel says the Shea shows are part of his “final chapter.” (“What else is there to do?” he asks, laughing. “Fly over New York State, play in the airplane and charge everyone a dollar?”)
But when he’s asked if there are things he still wants to do, again, he doesn’t pause before he rattles off a list. “There are plenty of things,” he says. “I’d like to see Istanbul. And China. I’d like to catch a giant tuna and a swordfish. In terms of my career, though, I don’t know what else I could do, but something will probably present itself. Who knows?”
Once Billy Joel completes his Shea Stadium shows this week, he’s in the market for a new challenge.
After all, what could top being the only artist ever to complete “the hat trick” - playing Giants, Shea and Yankee stadiums? The only obvious possibility would be one of those massive, free Central Park shows with more than a million concertgoers, but Joel says his team has inquired and the city isn’t allowing them any more. (The free Bon Jovi show at Central Park’s Great Lawn was a ticketed concert and only 50,000 of those were made available.)
So what comes next? Well, Joel plans to take the rest of the summer off and he’s heading to Australia and Asia in the fall. After that? “I’ve learned not to make plans,” he says, laughing.