Dad’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Tour with Billy Joel

Dear Marty,

I was hoping to see you at the reunion in April for the one-year anniversary of dad’s death, and I’m sorry you couldn’t get off work at the hospital. It was a pretty cool weekend; you would’ve liked it. Monte, still back in St. Louis, acted as our able-bodied host. I flew in from Seattle and stayed in his guest room. Mark came in from Denver and Matt from Anchorage. They stayed at a hotel down the street. You were the only brother missing.

When cancer took mom from us in ’78 and dad went into the “nut house” as he called it, our family crashed to Earth like a meteor as you well know. We were all decimated and went our separate ways to survive as best we could, including the old man once he was released. It hurt like hell that we couldn’t find you for all those years until Monte tracked you down in Cape Girardeau, MO. I’m not sure how you ended up there, but I surely know why you left. You were only fourteen and with no heat in the house, no food in the fridge, and Pops all doped up on evangelical Pentecostalism, speaking in tongues, and Christian TV, you didn’t have much of a choice. I still feel like hell for going back to the university in AZ after her funeral. I could have stayed and tried to keep everyone afloat. I should have. I guess I had to leave, too, just like you did. It was just too sad to stick around. But let’s don’t fall out of touch again, OK? Seriously. Because I don’t think my heart could take it.

And though we choose between reality and madness / it’s either sadness or euphoria.
“Summer, Highland Falls”

We arrived on Thursday, April 10, and on Friday, April 11, Monte had tickets to Billy Joel. I’d seen Billy thirteen times already, the first back on February 2, 1974, my senior year in high school, when mom was still alive but fighting with dad non-stop. It was Billy’s first concert in St. Louis, Piano Man was getting heavy airplay, and I used to listen to that album over and over at my friend John’s. I remember at the concert a late-arriving, well-dressed couple walking down the center aisle toward the front rows. Billy says, “Table for two? Right this way.” And the whole place cracked up. From that moment on, I was in love with Billy Joel.

So you play your albums and you smoke your pot / And you meet your girlfriend in the parking lot / Oh, but still you’re aching for the things you haven’t got / What went wrong?
“Captain Jack”

So Monte tells us he has upper-bowl tickets but surprises us when we park at the venue with second row. Second-freaking-row! I almost fainted. It must’ve cost a small fortune. I had just mailed Billy a long letter with a copy of my first novel a few months earlier, to a vintage motorcycle shop he owns on Long Island. I’m not saying he ever received the book much less read it, but if I’d’ve known I was going to be that close to him, I would’ve handed the damn thing to him myself!

Anyway, remember those old Blu-Blocker sunglasses the old man used to wear everywhere? The ones with the black frames and amber lenses? It’s the only thing I got from his estate, the only thing I really wanted, and I was wearing them the entire weekend including the night of the concert. There was a certain esprit de corps about those glasses. It’s like they could turn darkness into light. It was a phenomenal show as usual and when Billy did his last number, the crowd went wild. As Billy was about to walk off-stage, Monte gets all excited (you know how he is), snatches the glasses which are perched on the top of my head, and tosses them onstage. Billy doesn’t see them at first but, to the howling of 18,000 people, comes back for the encore, picks the glasses up, looks into them, and sets them on the piano.

After five more songs, the lights go down, the party is over, and all I could think is: I have to get those glasses back! I concoct a lie to an usher, a balding middle-aged man with a red plaid sports coat. I say an intoxicated woman behind me had thrown the glasses onstage and if I had wanted to throw my father’s glasses to Billy Joel, I would have done it myself. I explain the context, that we’re there for the old man’s one-year memorial, and the glasses are the only thing I have from his estate. “Sir, I really need those glasses back!”

The usher shakes his head. “We’re trying to get everybody out of here.” He looks me in the eye. “OK,” he says reluctantly. “Let me see what I can do.”

He walks up to a roadie, they look back and point at me, and then the roadie circles the piano, searching. Five minutes later he returns to the usher who returns to me. “Billy picked up your glasses and has already left the building.”

So… the bad news is, I no longer have the old man’s glasses. The good news is Billy Joel has the old man’s glasses! Still, some way somehow, I had to get them back. I’m not sure why they were so important, maybe because they represented the truce the old man and I came to before he passed away. Maybe they represented the light slipping back into the darkness of our relationship. I don’t know. I just knew I needed them back.

The next day we all go to the cemetery and visit mom and dad’s graves at Mt. Carmel. It’s a solemn occasion and nobody says much. We notice some soulless vandal had rolled a tombstone down the hill, a very old tombstone circa 1906, and the four of us are bound and determined to roll it back into place. It’s quite an ordeal – we could have used your help! We shimmy it up a long piece of wood a little at a time and finally get it back into its rightful spot. It takes almost an hour and by the time it’s over, like Sisyphus pushing the mighty boulder up the hill, we’re all bathed in sweat. Hopefully the decedent, somewhere out there in the cosmos, appreciated the effort. The way we wrestled with this immense slab of granite was not unlike the way we wrestled with the death of our parents, each in our uniquely awkward way.

When I flew back to Seattle the next day, all I could think was I have to get those glasses back! In his defense, Monte bought me a new pair of sunglasses (you know how he is), which were worth a small fortune – ten times more than the old man’s Blu Blockers. But still, I was completely obsessed with getting dad’s glasses back.

Tell me how much do you think you can take / until the heart in you is starting to break? / Sometimes it feels like it will.
“I Go to Extremes”

It turns out my friend Jenny is friends with Billy’s tour director, Max Loubiere. She contacts Max and he does what he can to locate the specs but to no avail. So I figure, OK, that’s that. At least I tried. Then one day, my neighbor Zane and I are shooting the breeze out in the driveway and I tell him the story. “Mike,” he says, “I manage Ampeg, and we made the guitar that Billy’s bassist uses. I’ll call him tomorrow, Andy Cichon. Don’t worry, we’ll get your dad’s glasses back.”

A week later I see Zane again. “Sorry, Mike. No glasses. A guy on the crew looked everywhere.”

So I kind of forget about it, thinking I’d done all that could be done. But it stung. A lot. Those glasses symbolized atonement, forgiveness… grace. But if I had to lose them, at least it was at a Billy Joel concert. I remember once that our brother Mark had written out the lyrics to one of my favorite songs “An Innocent Man.” Mark loves Billy as much as I do. In fact, he told me once, “Billy Joel didn’t just entertain me with his music, he taught me how to live my life.” This was about five years after mom died – you had already gone MIA by then. Mark wrote out the lyrics to that song on a piece of notebook paper, and the old man found it on the kitchen table. He thought it was a poem I’d written about him! Can you imagine that? I remember I had a dream about it once. Billy Joel was sitting on a porch swing across the street from our house, and I walked over and asked him if he wanted to get high. He politely declined, and then I thanked him for writing that song. “No problem, man,” he said.

Some people see through the eyes of the old before they ever get a look at the young / I’m only willing to hear you cry because I am an innocent man.
“An Innocent Man”

Then the miracle happens. I come home from work one day, and Zane emerges from his back door holding dad’s glasses up in the air. “Hey Mike, look familiar?” I shit you not, bro, my knees literally buckled and I drop to the driveway. I look at the glasses, mesmerized, and give Zane a massive, tear-streaked bear hug. It seems the old man showed up in Quebec!

On August 15, I get this message from Andy, Billy’s bassist, via Facebook:

Well Mike, what a great turn of events. The guy that looks after me at Ampeg told me your story and I asked the crew but no one had seen them. We have stuff thrown onstage all the time so… Here’s what happened four months later. I emailed my guy at Ampeg with a picture of the Blu Blockers. “You are never going to believe what fell out of Billy’s piano wrapped in a towel when they unloaded in Quebec City on Friday morn. Where do I send them??? Amazing!!!” So there you go. I’m glad you got your Dad’s specs back.

Incredulous, I wondered if the glasses had actually gone “on tour” with Billy or if they had just shown up in one of his many pianos. Here’s Andy’s reply on August 21.

Wayne, Billy’s tech, stores towels in the piano. I guess the glasses fell in there and went on tour with us until Quebec when they were shaken loose. Same piano every night so yeah, your dad’s specs went on tour with Billy Joel!

Ironically, on what would have been dad’s 87th birthday on May 27, he was cavorting with Billy around LA and playing the Hollywood Bowl. Pretty cool, huh? Nice, too, that the glasses showed up in Quebec. According to Monte, the old man always wanted to visit Canada.

It took me a long time, but eventually I learned to let go of the old man’s anger and violence. When I turned fifty and my first child was born, I started to realize all the sacrifices that the old man had made for us. He never went on vacations, played golf, or drank cocktails with the boys. He worked forty hours a week, every week, and built our house practically by himself. He was just a poor kid from the Depression who lied his way into World War II and was trying to keep our mother happy any way he could. He’d be the first to tell you he was in over his head with her. With us. In a private moment, he could sing like Sinatra, and I think the Piano Man would appreciate that. I hope you’ve been able to forgive dad, too. It’s important that sons find a way to forgive the sins of their fathers.

So, brother, that’s the story of dad’s rock ‘n’ roll tour with Billy Joel. I hope to see you someday soon and to tell you in person that whenever I think about you, I think of this old BJ lyric:

I’ve lived long enough to have learned / The closer you get to the fire the more you get burned / But that won’t happen to us / Because it’s always been a matter of trust.
“A Matter of Trust”

I trust that we’ll not fall out of touch again. We are a family of survivors, diving to the surface from the belly of the shipwreck below. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to survive together than survive apart. You know what I mean, little brother?


your brother

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