You Can't Get Any More Long Island than Billy Joel Re-Opening Nassau Coliseum
The show included an appearance from Kevin James and a giant hoagie, for some reason.
There is a certain ability held by all in the New York metropolitan area to wholeheartedly love things which are objectively garbage. There might not be any alternative; to simply make a clear-eyed pro and con list of what it's like to live in New York City, North Jersey, and Long Island would be depressing and could only lead to mass evacuation of the area. That joyous ignorance was in full effect when Billy Joel, the most Long Island of Long Islanders, opened up the newly redesigned Nassau Coliseum to a sold-out crowd of about 16,000.
The old Nassau Coliseum—now technically the NYCB Live Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum—was one of these objectively garbage things. Having opened in 1972 and remained basically unchanged until it closed in 2015, the Coliseum lies in Uniondale, between a smoke-spewing power plant and a section of Hofstra University, only a dozen miles from Queens and Brooklyn but in another world. It was a brutalist cement hockey puck, as flat and overcrowded as the land on which it sat.
Nobody appears to have liked the old Nassau Coliseum, which did not stop anybody from loving it. Long Island, like chunks of Northeastern New Jersey, is not really like other suburbs; 40 percent of the total population of New York State lives on Long Island's narrow 118-mile length. It is one of the most densely populated and expensive places in the world. And yet its relative proximity to New York City—I say "relative" because it took me two hours to drive the 20 miles from my apartment in Brooklyn to the Nassau Coliseum—has meant that it's long been culturally underserved and ignored. Up until the 1970s, New York's attitude to Long Island seemed to be that if you want to enjoy anything besides your house, required amenities, and the beach, just come to the city.
The Nassau Coliseum was thus not just a stadium but a beacon: finally a place for sports and music that was wholly of Long Island and not just a place that Long Islanders could theoretically trek to. That meant international superstars—Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Springsteen, Morrissey, The Grateful Dead, Madonna—came to town, but it also meant that Long Island could finally host events that spoke specifically to Long Island, without worrying about whether those rich dickheads in Manhattan would like it.
The New York Islanders came into existence basically wholly because of the Nassau Coliseum. The New York Nets—this is before they became the New Jersey and then the Brooklyn Nets—won two championships at the Coliseum. Indoor soccer and lacrosse and other sports nobody cares about also played there, sometimes successfully.
Some combination of Long Island's high population and its you-can-almost-touch-it proximity to New York City has made it a generous provider of artists, musicians, dancers, writers. Even if, as is usually the case, we ignore Brooklyn and Queens when talking about Long Island, the musical output of the island is pretty astounding, from every genre. Public Enemy and Leaders of the New School, Blue Oyster Cult and Lou Reed, Mariah Carey and Ashanti, Pat Benatar and Paul Simon, Taking Back Sunday and Aesop Rock.
Looming over all of those is Billy Joel.
I honestly cannot tell if Billy Joel is good. My dad grew up on Long Island, maybe a ten-minute drive from the Coliseum, and plays piano, which means that Billy Joel to me is something like an uncle who doesn't know I exist. My entire childhood is my dad playing piano along with Billy Joel songs. I think I probably haven't actively chosen to listen to a Billy Joel song in 10 years, and somehow I still know most of the words to most of his songs. Joel's music exists to me outside criticism; he just is.
Joel first played the Nassau Coliseum in 1977. He was the final performance at the old Coliseum, in 2015, before it shut down for two years to retool. Last Wednesday, he opened the newly nice Coliseum with a three-hour show. A representative for the Coliseum told me the 16,000 tickets sold out "within minutes."
Joel is the international representative of white Long Island culture. There was actually a surprising number of Joel lookalikes in the crowd: stocky, tan, shaved head, grey-to-white goatee. Many of those wore Mets or Islanders gear or concert tees from Joel tours in decades past. (Joel wore black jeans, a black suit jacket, a black button-down shirt, and a black-and-white striped tie).
The new Coliseum itself seems, despite efforts to carry local Long Island beers and stuff like that, infected by Brooklyn to the west. The stadium was designed by the same guys who did the Barclays Center, the stadium the Islanders abandoned the Coliseum for, and it looks... basically like Barclay's. The outer curved metal cladding is silver rather than rust-colored, but it is very clearly a cousin of Barclays. Faux-wood beams and exposed fittings cross over the concession stands. The projector screen hanging over the stage is split into asymmetrical vertical strips, sort of like the Black Flag logo. Even the fonts on signs are the same.
None of this stopped the concert from being wholly Long Island. (Besides, Brooklyn is, despite the best efforts of marketers, a part of the Island). Joel played nearly every song he ever wrote with a reference to Long Island—"Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," "The Downeaster Alexa," "New York State Of Mind," "Piano Man," "It's Still Rock 'N Roll To Me"—and sometimes changed the lyrics to songs to have more Long Island references. He made a point of listing where his band members are from: the trumpeter from Baldwin, on the South Shore, the sax player from Brooklyn, the keyboardist from New Jersey. At one point the stars of The King of Queens, a sitcom that has been off the air for a decade, came out and did an interpretive dance. Kevin James ends up dancing with and eating a very large sandwich. Eventually Joan Jett comes out and does a couple of her own songs while Joel looks like he's having a great time.
Vietnam veterans from Long Island, their hats bearing the names of towns like Syosset, Levittown, and Plainview, come to the stage to sing along with Joel's 1982 song "Goodnight Saigon," about the treatment of Vietnam vets coming back from the war. It is, despite being sort of exploitative and despite the short-lived "U-S-A!" chants that break out after the song, touching.
Joel's stubby sausage fingers can still play. (He maybe passes off some of the faster stuff to his keyboardist these days, but not much of it). He can still hit the high "ya-ya-yo" notes in "The Downeaster Alexa." He still frowns at his microphone as if trapped in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, his eyebrows forming a sinister V and carving deep furrows into the bridge of his nose.
The guy plays, with no intermission, for three straight hours. He's 67-years-old. And the show is great: his god damn piano is on a revolving platform and he curses sometimes and belts out all those great songs as well as he has for decades. He throws in Easter eggs to the crowd, makes references to his rocky past personal and professional relationships. Everyone knows what he's talking about when he mentions his first wife, or the discontent with the record industry that birthed "The Entertainer." At one point he asks whether the fans would like to hear "Just the Way You Are," a massive and schmaltzy hit, or "Vienna," a B-side that everyone knows is one of Billy's favorite songs. It's one of our favorites, too. No self-respecting Long Islander would ever choose "Just the Way You Are" over "Vienna."
The Nassau Coliseum no longer looks like Long Island. Actually, the fact that I even had that thought is probably indicative of my shithead New York City attitude. What does that even mean? It's too nice? Too clean? Nobody seemed mad at the new Coliseum. They were too busy remembering every single lyric to "We Didn't Start the Fire." I know them, too.
Top image by Kevin Mazur/Getty contributor; Second image courtesy Getty via NYCB Live; Last image by Michelle Farsi via NYCB Live