Rio Grande,Billy Joel, and the Fire
"Don't ask for favors. Don't talk to
strangers. Don't axe me why".
How does Billy Joel get away with
pronouncing "ask" in the same manner as Samuel L. Jackson does in some of his
older films where he blows gangstas away with an AK-47? Sure, Joel was hooked
up with Christie Brinkley for a while, but that's hardly a green light to bust
lyrics like Jay-Z. Well, the justification for this predicament is quite
simple: he's the Piano Man, and he can do whatever the hell he pleases. Sure,
the Entertainer's looks, hair, and driving abilities may not be quite as good
as they were when he was cranking out Uptown Girl and The Longest Time, but
Billy Joel's songs are still relevant now more than ever. Yeah, I know, Billy is
no longer married to Ms Swimsuit Issue, and he hasn't exactly been a mainstay
on the hit-charts, but none of that mattersÖit's still rock and roll to me.
I spent my undergrad years studying
education in Southeastern Ohio at the University of Rio Grande which was,
compared to most stereotypical college experiences, a rather uneventful four
years. But a few things did take place that I will always remember quite
vividly. To the untrained eye, Rio is merely a semi-charming little campus lying
amidst acres of corn and wilderness that function as Rio's scenery. However, although
small, URG compensates its lack of size with Appalachian mystique. The only
things more mysterious than the student-body of Rio are the less than exciting,
yet, somehow unforgettable memories they help create. The enigmatic level of
these events is above and beyond measure. You just had to be there; only in Rio. One particular
(and rather insignificant at the time) situation always makes me laugh out loud
when I think of it. And if I could reach Billy Joel somehow to tell this to
him, I most certainly would.
Most of my collegiate friends were on the
soccer team. They were from various towns throughout the United Kingdom and
were attending Rio on athletic scholarships. I guess I had a few things in
common with these hell-raisers because from 1997 to 2001, I (A) was also
attending Rio via full-tuition scholarship (although academic) (B) was
infatuated with international soccer, and (C) wanted to be British. So I
naturally became acquainted with a fine group of goal scoring, lager-guzzling
footballers that not only told great stories, but also were quite good at the
actual telling of the stories. They somehow managed to take a pungent dorm
room, a case of Miller High Life, a twelve inch television, and a few U2 albums
and create one hell of a good time. And to be quite honest, Bono had very
little to do with our fun-filled evenings. These lads knew how to party, and I
feel lucky to have met them.
Well, my soccer friendships weren't limited
to foreigners. The Americans were pretty cool as well. So in a dorky, yet, not
completely lame kind of way, I had become to the Rio Grande soccer team what
Jack Nicholson had become to the Lakers: a consistent presence on the sideline.
And although I didn't have a role in "A Few Good Men" and am relatively uncool,
I did, however, go to all of the home games and yell at the referees.
As the dorky friend/super-fan, I would
usually make a trip to campus in late-Summer to watch a few pre-season practice
sessions. It was always fun to hear about the two months of vacation that the
boys spent back in the U.K., aggressively making up for lost time spend on the sedated
Rio Grande campus.
Anyway, when athletes report to campus
early, they are assigned to the "New Dorm" on a temporary basis. This leads to
dozens of somewhat irresponsible college students picking a room, and basically
throwing their possessions into a massive pile. The doors to these rooms, for
the most part, were usually unlocked. Well, one particular summer, one of the
American players had brought his entire CD collection with him to help make the
dorm-life of pre-season a little less grueling. This guy was an affable
walk-on, and was one of the first people I had met during my freshman year. He
was an all-around good guy, and was quite passionate about soccer. Although he
had a knack for purchasing cool soccer jerseys, his taste in music was probably
similar to that of most of his fraternity brothers, rather than his teammates.
Nonetheless, he probably owned approximately 70 CDs, and among those 70 were
probably albums by C+C Music Factory, Limp Biscuit, and DMX.
So what does any of this have to do with
the man who has seen Christie Brinkley completely naked? Well, unfortunately
for my friend, some gutless bastard ended up stealing all of his compact discs
but one: Billy Joel's Greatest Hits (which is actually a double-disc).When I
first heard about the situation, I couldn't help but laugh. Sure, I felt sorry
for the guy, but thinking about some thieving piece of crap taking the time to sort
through my friend's collection of mediocre albums, and then after much thought,
deciding that all were worth stealing but the essential tracks of the Piano Man,
is, to say the least, absolutely hilarious to me.
Initially, I would laugh at that story in a
manner that somehow sent the message that I wouldn't have stolen that album
either. But as years go by, the more I think about it, that CD is probably the
only one of my friend's albums that I would even consider to be worth stealing.
At that point, I had already owned the best of Billy (along with every other
disc available through BMG). However, it hasn't been until recently that I
truly realized that Billy Joel's music is badass. He can make you dance with You May Be Right. He can make you cry with Lullaby. Crank up Scenes from
an Italian Restaurant and it's quite possible that you'll do both. Yes, Billy
Joel's songs still matter in a way that Carson Daly could never convince a
generation of after-school channel-surfers. And Billy may have the only song
in the history of songs that quizzes your knowledge of pop-culture with every
In 1990, when my agent, Master P, and his
cousin spent an entire Friday evening listening to We Didn't Start the Fire,
they most certainly had no idea how to identify Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red
China, Johnnie Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, or Joe DiMaggio. Nor did I,
well, with the exception of DiMaggio. But I am willing to bet that all three of
us had heard of Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, and Disneyland. And as
time went by, we continued to understand the names, places, and events of that
lyrically chaotic song. Now, after a few years of living, growing, boozing, and
finding some higher education, Dylan is my hero. Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book. And I'm obsessed with the
Kennedy brothers (Teddy, not so much). And although I hate Disneyland and have
very little interest in Pope Paul, Malcolm X, and British politician sex, I
know that one thing is certain: I didn't start the fire. I would like to thank
Billy Joel for that moment of realization.
So if you find yourself in Southeastern
Ohio in search of one final scenic cruise before the leaves turn completely
brown, maybe you'll end up in Rio Grande. If so, do me a favor: listen to the
greatest hits of Billy Joel, turn it up, and smile. For some of us, that hasn't
happened for the longest time.