Tuesday, November 20, 2001

He may forever be known as the “piano man,” but veteran hit maker Billy Joel makes a pretty fair stand-up comic, classical music composer, even impressionist when given the chance.

Mr. Joel bravely displayed all those skills in a sold-out show Sunday exclusively for Georgetown University students never mind that his first onslaught of hits was recorded before most of them were born.

“An Evening of Questions, Answers and a Little Music,” a no-holds-barred session with a whiff of self-indulgence, was part of Mr. Joel’s brief university tour before he rejoins Elton John on the road. (The pair are due here Jan. 13 and 18 at the MCI Center.)

Bawdy, loquacious and clearly in his element, Mr. Joel led the students along on his colorful career path while sprinkling songs old and new into the blend.

Swathed in a dark suit and shirt, Mr. Joel no longer fits into MTV’s image-driven world. The fiftysomething singer is puffy and balding, hardly the eye candy of today’s pop market.

That didn’t bother those assembled, who treated Mr. Joel like a rock god in his prime when he arrived.

Some camped out 24 hours for the honor of plunking down $25 for a ticket.

The event was held in Gaston Hall, and Mr. Joel stayed for more than 31/2 hours gabbing and singing.

The entertainer likened his rock career to a long-term relationship with a mistress whose appeal has waned.

“After 35 years of having this affair, she don’t look so hot to me anymore,” Mr. Joel said, his New York accent still front and center. His current passion is classical music. His composing debut, “Fantasies & Delusions,” sits at the top of the classical music charts.

He spent much of the show behind a synthesizer, telling how his famous ardor for beautiful women fueled his career.

“And So it Goes,” a mournful ode to a doomed romance, earned its inspiration from his fling with supermodel Elle Macpherson.

Women, even the non-supermodel variety, still serve as his muse. The selections played from “Delusions” were forged from amorous longings.

He began his longest-running courtship, with rock music, at 14 when he fronted a band for a local church concert. The gig earned him $15 and the affections of Virginia Callahan, a beautiful schoolgirl he later immortalized in “Only the Good Die Young.”

One of the few questions that penetrated his wall of chatter concerned the modern music business.

He detailed his own rise, then engaged in a humorous diatribe against everyone from Jennifer Lopez for her singing difficulties to the “bean counters” he said are hijacking the industry.

“Once in a while, something good sneaks through,” he said.

Mr. Joel’s daughter, Alexa Ray, is an aspiring songwriter who turns to dad for advice.

“You have people blocking talent,” he said. “Marketing is meaningless. It’s Campbell’s [soup]; it’s McMusic.

“Don’t worry about the radio,” he advised. “Do what you really like. Be true to yourself. If it’s really good, there will be a tiny hole in that wall [to burst through].”

Through it all, the students shrugged off any talk that Mr. Joel’s music belonged to their parents’ record collections, not theirs.

“Our generation grew up listening to his classics,” said Randy Rivera, the 21-year-old chairman of the university’s programming board, who helped arrange Mr. Joel’s visit.

Freshman Polly Burokas, 18, appeared tremulous moments before the show.

“Billy Joel is my life. I would marry him if possible,” said Miss Burokas with the kind of eye-popping enthusiasm usually reserved for Creed, Blink-182 or any other modern rock icon.

“The social commentary is as applicable now as it was then,” said sophomore Goutam Jois, 19, pointing to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a politically charged ode to American history.

Fans received the new classical music with exuberance, particularly stellar performances by pianist Richard Joo, who played Mr. Joel’s classical pieces live and on the album. They saved their hollers, though, for the few greatest hits rationed out.

“New York State of Mind” took on an added resonance given the tragedies that hit Mr. Joel’s home state September 11.

He could not leave the hall without peeling off an invigorated “Piano Man,” with his voice as wonderfully textured as his fans remembered.

A few eyes may have been opened to Mr. Joel’s classical music by his visit, but his rock hits powered the crowd’s enthusiasm.

In refusing to retire the songs of that old, abandoned love affair, Mr. Joel gladly acknowledged their relevance even while composing a new chapter in his career.

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