Miami 2017 (Live) (2001)
Originally composed during New York City’s fiscal, social and moral crisis in 1975, Billy Joel’s apocalyptic fantasy song would find a whole new, highly emotional and robust second life as one of the set pieces at the October 20th, 2001 Concert For New York. The concert was once described as one part fundraiser, one part Rock-N-Roll extravaganza and one part Irish wake.
The concert helped to rush financial aid to reeling families of fallen first responders who perished during the despicable mass murder of civilians on 9/11. It also brought a sense of human bonding – succor – in times of extreme duress. It may be pushing it slightly, but the big city began its psychological recovery that night in Madison Square Garden.
Billy Joel is known as one of the top-notch pop music writers and performers of the last 50 years. He is the third best-selling solo artist in the United States and the sixth for all performers – solo or group. The knock against him is that he doesn’t really rock except in live performances, perhaps calculating his market strategy just a little too carefully.
October 20th, 2001:
A listen to “Miami 2017″ will make you wave your hand at the criticism as you’re seduced by a master at his art and craft. Joel and his boys cook with a fury born of anger, helplessness and a life-affirming urge to do something.
The song is eerily prescient, foretelling by 25 years the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on the bright-blue September morning. It is the last line of the opening verse that is gripping in every dimension.
The show indeed did go on after a respectful period.
I’ve seen the lights go out on broadway
I saw the Empire State laid low
And life went on beyond the Palisades
They all bought Cadillacs
And left there long ago
They held a concert out in Brooklyn
To watch the island bridges blow
They turned our power down
And drove us underground
But we went right on with the show
The vision of the song is uncanny. It’s peppered by these kinds of lines:
I’ve watched the mighty skyline fall
The boats were waiting at the Battery
There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
To tell the world about
The way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive
While the loss of life in 2011 in New York was devastating and offended civilized people everywhere, the crisis of 1975 was an enormous threat to America’s largest city, the heartbeat.
Due to a series of bad decisions, the loss of a large percentage of the working and middle class over the previous two decades, long-neglected infrastructure and a good dose of corruption, the city teetered on the brink of long-term insolvency.
The city turned to appointed President Gerald R. Ford who had replaced his disgraced Republican predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, for loan guarantees to calm financial markets. The headline of The New York Daily News remains a classic to this day: “Ford To City: Drop Dead.”
It was in this atmosphere that Joel put together “Miami 2017,” told from the perspective of a grandparent explaining to the grand kids, what (might have) happened. Joel had moved to Los Angeles, which at the time seemed to be in the ascendent over New York as the country’s premier city, although that fiction was already fraying as can be heard in “L.A. Woman” by The Doors.
As New York began to unravel, native Long Islander Joel felt compelled to return to the East to share the big city’s fate. In the process, he knocked out a number of phenomenal songs that appeared on his 1976 album Turnstiles.
Of course, New York not only survived its municipal financial disaster, it came roaring back bigger and feistier than ever. By most quantifiable measures, the big town improved, became immersed in excellence again. (Although some would say it lost its grit and grease and has become a mere playground of the rich.)
New York was gliding on its merry way until it was brought up short by the murderers who said they killed in the name of god. With the smoke barely fading to a wisp, the Concert For New York took place.
It was initiated by Paul McCartney and, besides he and Joel, the all-star cast is practically ridiculous in scope:
David Bowie, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton, Mick and Keith, Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, James Taylor, The Who, plus many others.
Joel delivers his performance, which elides perfectly with the ode to the wonder city, “New York State Of Mind.” His voice is strong, clear, edgy without being nasty, wistful, uplifting and reassuring.
His band is as sharp as it ever was. It’s a group that never quite got the cred it deserved, perhaps because Joel focused so often on softer tunes and those made his reputation. But the guitars wail, the drums are like pile-drivers and the saxophone howls against the evil everyone went to MSG to push back on.
During the video the crowd shots are still incredibly moving. Sometimes overwhelming. Anyone who lived through those days will never forget the lows and the highs that came with unexpected violence on a mass scale, then defiance and recovery.
One of New York’s police officers summed up the concert:
“I am a NYC Police Officer who found comfort and catharsis at this concert. I am grateful to those performers and to the Americans celebrating this music. Seeing the faces of my fellow Americans who gave themselves over to Rock and Roll for a mercurial moment made me proud yet overwhelmingly sad. I know that a lot of my fellow civil servants often have trouble reaching certain levels of emotion and, through good old fashioned Rock and Roll, we were able to let go.”
Rock-N-Roll. After laughter, it’s the best medicine.
- Joel is a very wry kind of guy. When discussing his time with other artists back stage at the Hurricane Sandy relief concert, 12-12-12, he told the New York Times: “Nobody is a spring chicken anymore. Here comes Keith, and Keith is from the time of King Tut.”
- About Elton John he said: “He’s kind of like a mom. Yeah, he’s got mom hair.”