I’ll Meet You Anytime

Billy Joel at the piano at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY on April 13, 2018. Photo Credit: Myrna Suárez & Mike Colucci

Billy Joel at the piano at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY on April 13, 2018.
Photo Credit: Myrna Suárez & Mike Colucci

I’ve seen Billy Joel perform twice in my short life. Both times have been at Wrigley Field in Chicago, at the end of summer. There is something supremely American about a Billy Joel show. He’ll dedicate a song to the troops and invite service members up on stage while an American flag graphic waves on the huge screen. His unapologetic Long Island-ness is refreshing. My best friend and I relish the uniqueness of being young at a Billy Joel concert. We eat Italian beef sandwiches and belt all the words—because it’s Wrigley, it’s Billy, and it just feels right.

The highlight of the shows has to be one of Joel’s most beloved tunes, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” from his album The Stranger (1977). Clocking in at 7 minutes and 37 seconds, the song is longer than most of his other songs. But, as the track navigates through three vignettes, each with its own emotional arc and sense of place, my attention doesn’t flag. The song sounds like it was plucked out of the ether, a perfectly intact gift from the gods of pop, and like a beacon for the authorial, crafty possibilities of songwriting. His saga of Brenda and Eddie is a timeless tale of the high school couple that peaked too early, faced the real world, and couldn’t hack it. Joel’s narration weaves us through this emotional headspace of nostalgia.

My favorite chapter of the song, though, is the second, where Joel slips into a first person-narrated dinner scene with an old friend. They’re catching up, and he reassures his friend, “things are okay with me these days, got a good job, got a good office, got a new wife, got a new life, and the family is fine.” The pace is decidedly frantic, and he’s almost convincing himself of the facts that he lays out for his old pal. He’s eager to present the image that growing up has been good for him, though he quickly gets lost in the nostalgia of the past.

He then gets to the meat of memory, remembering “cold beer, hot lights, my sweet romantic teenage nights.” It’s Americana imagery at its most personal. The image encapsulates an idea of a suburban summer free of responsibility. He generates a sweeping atmosphere of heat, romance, and innocence — a fleeting sensation that none of us will ever be able to go back to, or that none of us ever truly had. I’m still a teenager, but I often find myself searching for those moments that I’ll write a song about one day, refusing to accept any of my own memories as perfect enough to fall under this dream.

I did extensive research on whether or not I could go to the actual Italian restaurant Joel references in the song. The speculation is that it’s a place across from Carnegie Hall called Fontana di Trevi. I imagined that if I went there, some of my nostalgia regarding the song would be validated – things might start to come into focus and the memories would flow perfectly. But, the restaurant is out-of-business. So, I decided, and I'm sure Joel would endorse this, that my local Chicago Italian restaurant (Tarantino’s) that my dad and I have been going to every Friday for the better part of a decade, would have to do. Besides, the restaurant itself is merely a vehicle for the memories, right?

My best friend and I have memorized every word of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and we sing it all the way home from the train station. I’m sure we look ridiculous, two young girls full-voice belting a song from way before their time. But I’m starting to think that moments like those are the real “teenage nights,” the ones I’ll write a song about one day. –  JR Atkinson

JR Atkinson is a freshman at Wesleyan University, from Chicago, IL. She is planning on majoring in English and Film.

Find Billy Joel’s upcoming tour dates here.