Billy Joel On His 100th Madison Square Garden Performance: ‘I Can’t Get My Head Around It’ (Q&A)

Billy Joel
(Photo by Mike Colucci)

He’s Got a Way: Billy Joel performing at Madison Square Garden on August 20, 2015 in New York City, the 20th of his ongoing residency at the New York City Arena.

On the eve of Billy Joel’s monumental 100th lifetime Madison Square Garden performance, a streak which began in 1978 and ramped-up in 2014 with an unprecedented monthly residency at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” Pollstar caught up with the artist himself to get his take on this historic accomplishment, his longtime team, how he commutes to the “office” and the secret to his success.

Pollstar: 100 shows at the Garden. All sellouts. How does that resonate with you?
Billy Joel: I really can’t get my head around that. I haven’t even done the show yet, so I’m probably going to have to have a little distance from it to let it soak in and understand what that means. It’s still kind of an abstraction to me, it doesn’t seem like a reality.

I remember there was a goal for you to play the Garden by the time you were 30, now you’re looking at 100, which is quite a milestone.
I know, and it doesn’t seem that long ago we started to do the residency at Madison Square Garden, which was already an unreal concept to me. Franchise at MSG, like a sports team? And now we’re at 100, which is all very surreal.

You seem to turn it up a notch and find another gear when you play New York City.

We’re having fun with it, and we’re not locked into one particular way of doing it. We try different stuff all the time and try to keep it fun.

How so?
People show up, we throw ‘em on the stage. We change up the set list, dive into the obscurities. We do covers, we do silly stuff. We’re just having fun. We’re not as over-awed by the Garden as we were when we were first starting out back in the ‘70s. We have a reverence for it, but we also kind of mess with the whole concept. We try to be as spontaneous as possible. If I start to get an idea for a song that I want to do at the moment, not even my song, we just go ahead and do it.

Miley Cyrus, Paul Simon, Billy Joel
(Myrna Suarez)
– You May Be Right?
Paul Simon and Miley Cyrus turned up on Sept. 30, 2017, for show No. 44 of Billy Joel’s record-breaking residency.
You just got back from Europe, how did that go?

We just got back a couple of days ago, so I’m still jet laggin’. It was great, we played the Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester. We played the Aviva, a new stadium in Dublin. The Irish are great, maybe the best audience in Europe is the Irish. And we played Hamburg, another stadium, that was a great show, too.

Any plans to do more international?

No plans to date, but that’s always a possibility. If I’m gonna keep going, I have to consider that, yes.

Working with Dennis Arfa [his longtime agent] for 42 years has been a successful partnership.
I’ve been fortunate to have a great group of people that I’ve worked with a very long time. We’ve kind of kept the gang together. Dennis goes back 42 years. My sound man has been with me at least as long, if not longer, Steve Cohen has been doing lights about the same amount of time.

Have you worked out a routine for doing the Garden shows?

Sometimes I take a helicopter from my house to the Garden, which only takes 15 minutes.

Now that’s rock ‘n roll right there.

[Laughs] That’s a great way to go to work, man, let me tell you. Do the show, run back to the helipad, fly home, that’s it.

Dressed to Kill Or For Studio 54:
Courtesy Bill Joel Archives
– Dressed to Kill And/Or For Studio 54:
Dennis Arfa (left) and Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden circa 1978. The duo has worked together for 42 years.

What about the band, do they have a routine as well?
The band, everybody scatters to the winds. Sometimes, their only gig with me is that once a month at the Garden, so they have all kinds of irons in the fire.

Your Pollstar Boxoffice the past decade puts your gross at $500 million in box office and over 4.2 million tickets sold, and you’re not even working that much compared to the old days.
I know, go figure! Maybe I should work less more. I kept getting asked, “What’s the secret to this late-in-life success?” and I always say “just don’t die.”

I think there may be a bit more to it. Maybe if you’re working less, you probably can give a bit more to each show.
That’s true. Yes, it’s a good way to pace myself at this age.

You’ve also been establishing a pretty remarkable run at the stadiums over the past few years.
I never thought of myself as a stadium act, but now we’re almost a residency for five years at places like Fenway and Wrigley.

Are those stadium shows different for you in terms of preparation and delivery, or do you approach them like any other show?

There’s a lot more physicality that goes into those shows. They’re such big venues, I think you just physically work harder, maybe not even being aware of it. You feel the need to push, to really stretch, to get to the nether regions of those big venues. By the end of the night, you’re pretty well wiped out after playing a stadium.

Dennis first started bringing those stadium offers to you, was that intimidating?
It was intimidating at first, like I said, I didn’t think of myself as a stadium act, and I’m not as physical as I used to be. But after doing places like Citizens Bank and Fenway, I realized that the audience is appreciative, they’re vociferous, and they like what we’re doing, and it works.

Anything special you’re planning for the 100th show at the Garden?
We’re just planning on doing our show, like we always do. If someone shows up and wants to play, that’s great, but so far I’ve got no plans. If something pops into my head, I’ll do it. The crew may be planning some kind of surprise that I don’t know about, they love to do that. They love to throw me off guard. I may get a pie in the face, who knows.

How long will you keep going? Are you having fun out there?
Yeah, I’m having a lot of fun. This is what I do. As long as there’s a ticket demand and I can physically do it and I think we’re doing it as well as I want to, yeah, why not? What else am I gonna do, sit around and watch TV?