Can you imagine the ultimate New York experience? A horse-drawn carriage through Central Park? Skating at Rockefeller Center? How about a tuxedoed, fit and trim Billy Joel sitting behind a glossy black grand piano, playing “New York State of Mind” on the 35th floor of a new hotel, with an eastern night view of the city as his backdrop?
Pretty cool, huh?
Well, that’s what we got Monday night when City Harvest held a fundraiser at the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel. You know the hotel is part of the massive and awful new Time Warner complex in Columbus Circle that, save for Jackie Onassis’ insistence and brilliance years ago, would be casting shadows through the Park. But I digress.
There’s Billy, on stage by himself, no band, with a wall of windows behind him and the twinkling lights of Central Park South dancing in the background. It was like a scene out of a movie. Of course, Billy joked when he sat down at the piano and picked up a glass of refreshment, “It’s just water!” He adjusted his harmonica, which looked like a dental appliance, and cracked, “The first time I saw Bob Dylan wear this I thought he’d been in a car accident. Then I heard him sing, and I knew he’d been!”
He sang “Piano Man” and “New York State of Mind,” which was supposed to be all. In between he did a riff on the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” substituting the name of the Mandarin. His surprise finisher was “Movin’ Out,” and that would have been it, except for a man who passed a linen napkin forward with a request. He’d make a $5,000 donation if Joel would perform “Just the Way You Are.” (I have this napkin, which Joel signed later, and will happily offer it to the highest bidder who wants to make a donation to City Harvest.)
“Remember, this was for my first ex-wife,” replied the singer who’s also been married to Christie Brinkley and is now dating a very pretty, very, very young woman named Kate Lee, who came to the Mandarin with Joel’s daughter, Alexa.
Like the other songs, “Just the Way You Are” was executed with great finesse. Billy sounded and looked great, like the Bobby Short of our generation. He’s a pro, and the musicianship comes out of him effortlessly. “We didn’t even rehearse this,” he said when he traded piano and sax licks with a horn player on “New York State of Mind.”
Billy is New York’s national treasure, sort of a modern day Gershwin. It’s a good role for him, but we do want more. It’s time for a new album of songs, Mr. Joel. I have an idea for you: Call up a bunch of diverse people like Randy Newman, Alicia Keys, Carly Simon, Jimmy Webb, Aimee Mann, Dido, etc. and do an album of collaborations. You never know what will happen.
“This is the 47th anniversary of our arguing,” Paul Simon quipped last night. He was on stage with Art Garfunkel for the first of three shows at Madison Square Garden. “We met in sixth grade, started singing together in eighth grade, and have argued ever since.”
The audience — sold out to the rafters, the largest number of well-heeled yuppies to be in one place since the Crate & Barrel warehouse sale — gave a uniform uneasy laugh. Everyone from my g-g-generation knows the legendary fights between these two Forest Hills friends now 61 years old. Garfunkel feels he doesn’t get enough attention. Simon feels like he’s pulling the load. Can you imagine fighting with someone for 47 years on the same subject?
And yet, together their voices make magic. What can they do, except shut up and sing? This show takes you through the history of their five albums on Columbia Records. That’s right: just five albums, about 60 songs. The songs are short, especially the early ones, but the very talented band they’ve assembled have fleshed out even the folky songs and given them a new, nice life.
There are some nice surprises. Garfunkel finally got to sing Simon’s best song, “American Tune,” written after the pair broke up. Simon also brought him in on his solo 1977 hit, “Slip Sliding Away.” The Everly Brothers — whom the pair admired — came out and sang four of their hits, which is one too many but a nice nod to Simon & Garfunkel’s influences. All the duo’s old songs were performed sharply and expertly, leaving smiles and inspiring standing ovations.
My only complaint: Garfunkel should be allowed to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” all the way through by himself. When Simon takes a verse, doing a Bob Dylan warble, it’s unpleasant.
The real treat of the show was hearing how Simon’s music progressed from slight folk songs written by a 22-year-old to the gorgeously complex works of later years. How did he get from “At the Zoo” or “Feelin’ Groovy” to “The Boxer” and “Graceland”? That’s the big question. Words flow through his lyrics that you’d be hard pressed to hear in a song today. “Factory” turns up a lot, for instance. “Jubilation” comes out of “Cecilia,” a clapping song. The line from “My Little Town”—“Twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun” — leads to an upbeat chorus: “Nothing but the dead and dying/back in my little town.”
See Simon & Garfunkel before this tour is over. After all, who knows when the arguing may start again. And if you know a young person who thinks Britney is da bomb, force them to go. They’ll thank you.
PS: Quite a lack of celebrity faces in last night’s crowd. Why? This was a no-comp show, and the famous — with the exception of Ricky and Ralph Lauren — didn’t fork over the bucks.
OK, so Gina Lollobrigida, by the book, is 75 years old. She was dressed in a sumptuous black gown with gold filigree appointments at the Mandarin party, and looked like the Queen of Italy or Spain. Some of the under-30 set did not know who she was, can you beat it? She was the J-Lo of 1955, I explained. Under the heading sexpot from that year was her name.
She’s in New York to scout galleries. She’s a sculptor you know. She has a big show up in Paris right now. “I was a sculptor before I was an actress,” she told me.
When Hollywood wanted to force her into bad movies, she retired gracefully and returned to the arts. If only others had this good sense. Her best films were John Huston’s “Beat the Devil” and “Come September” with Rock Hudson. Add Gina’s name to the list – with Richard Widmark, Doris Day, and others — for an honorary Oscar. Marone!
Does she see the new movies? “Not really,” she said, her accent still thick. Considering that was such a sex symbol, did she ever take her clothes off on film? “I never did nudity. I didn’t have to. It wasn’t something we needed to do.”
Some people did know who she was: actor John Leguizamo was one, and so were many of the society types decked out in the most ornate finery. Someone must have said "dress Oriental," because you wouldn’t believe how many people have Nehru-type or Chinese jackets hidden in their closets from visits to the mainland. Either that, or everyone still has souvenirs from the old Azuma chain.
Because of the onslaught of Michael Jackson news, I never did get to plug Jim Sheridan’s film, “In America.” What a grand film! You’ve got to see Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton as an Irish immigrant couple, with Djimon Hounsou as their neighbor. This is not “Angela’s Ashes” redux, but a contemporary and vivid story of new immigrants with a lot of humor and mountains of charm… Maybe he shouldn’t have removed the mole. Enrique Iglesias makes a poor showing on this week’s album chart, coming in at around 75,000 copies with his new release…Vacationland plays tonight, not last night, at Don Hill’s.