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"I Am the Entertainer"

"I Am the Entertainer"In a special appearance at Tufts, music legend Billy Joel conducted a three-and-a-half hour lesson in music, history and his life.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.14.01] For a night, Tufts was his classroom -- and Billy Joel made the most of it. For three-and-a-half hours, the music legend captivated the capacity crowd at Tufts' Cohen Auditorium as he whipped up a whirlwind of songs, stories and reflections on his life, career and music.

At many points, Joel sounded like an excited professor -- pulling together lessons on history, music theory, writing and even career advice. Bursting with energy, Joel ran around the stage as he dissected his music career down to its roots -- his life and his stories.

He structured the night around questions asked from the audience -- which covered everything from his roots in music to his advice for young song writers. Joel's honesty and charm made the evening seem like a one-on-one session between the music legend and each person in the room.

In addition to some of his familiar favorites, Joel and pianist Richard Joo played a few pieces from Joel's new album of classical music. Though strikingly different in sound, Joel's old hits and new creations blended seemlessly.

Two hours into the evening, an alarm clock among the musician's equipment started beeping -- presumably to warn the performer to wrap up the show. Without losing a beat, Joel jumped across the stage, grabbed the clock and smashed it into the ground, treating the audience to another 90 minutes of stories and music.

While the roar Joel received as he walked on stage paid tribute to his legendary status as "The Piano Man," a similar ovation at the evening's close (nearly four hours later) proved that Joel is a performer unlike any other -- truly "The Entertainer."

"You Mean I Get Paid For This?"

From an early age, Joel was drawn to music. But it wasn't until he was 13 years old that he realized he wanted to be a rock star.

"At 13, I discovered rock and roll -- about the same time I discovered that I liked girls," explained Joel, who said he joined a band that played Beatles songs at dances in his neighborhood.

While he hammered away on his "cheesy organ," the young musician realized that girls who never used to pay any attention to him, suddenly were.

Only later in life did Joel realize why.

"Women are so much smarter than men, because they see stuff in us that we don't look for," he said, like "souls" and "intellect."

But at age 13, the new-found attention from girls wasn't the only thing that set him on his journey to rock and roll stardom. It was a $15 check from the church where they played their first gig.

"You mean I get paid for this?" Joel said. "I thought, is this cool or what?!"

"I was tired of the tyranny of writing music"

Joel's classical pieces are far afield from the "clanging and crashing" of rock and roll, but the recording artist said he needed a change after his last rock album was finished in 1993.

Appropriately called "Famous Last Words," Joel's last composition contained his final words.

"They were the last words I had to say," he said. "And I meant it at the time."

Writing music is a tough and exhausting process, Joel said. Reaching inside and pulling out his creations is one of the hardest things he's done.

"I always found it painful." Joel said. "By the end of the process, I've had it."

So Joel turned to classical music.

Though a major departure from his previous creations, his newest album "Fantasies and Delusions" has followed in their footsteps. For the last six weeks, it has been at the top of the classical music charts (a fact Joel happily repeated through the show.)

"Wherever the Muse Leads Me, I'm Going To Write"

For now, Joel appears to be consumed with creating classical music. But the award-winning artists wouldn't rule out the possibility of a return to rock and roll.

"I'm not cutting myself off from the possibility of writing songs," Joel told the Tufts crowd.

After the completion of his last album in 1993, Joel said he had nothing more to say. But as the lyrics of "Famous Last Words" hint, a new era in his life might bring new possibilities.

There are some signs he had already begin to write again. In a bit of a surprise, Joel treated the audience to a "work in progress."

Though the lyrics and music weren't finished, Joel's signature sound came through loud and clear. The tentative title: "Champs Elyees" -- named after the famous avenue in Paris.

"I Believe Music Is A Form Of Medicine"

While the singer/song writer was somewhat guarded about future rock and roll songs, Joel was candid about another project he's like to start -- a requiem.

"Ever since Sept. 11, I've been trying to figure out what I'm going to say," Joel said.

He doesn't expect the words to come quickly, but he said he's willing to wait. Times like this, Joel said, call for "eloquence."

In the past "we've had a Shakespeare, or a Winston Churchill," Joel said. "In 1941, they had Franklin Roosevelt."

Their words were powerful, moving and intense. Joel said a requiem carries a similar weight.

"I was thinking about writing a requiem because we need a lot of masked voices... voices who aren't here any more," he said.

It's that power that attracted Joel to music in the first place, when he was just a young child.

"Music gave me such a thrill -- it was powerful stuff," he said.

Calling it alchemy and sorcery, Joel said music can shape people's moods -- from love to loss, joy to pain.

"For Me, The Music Always Comes First"

So how does Joel craft his masterpieces? According to the artist himself, he does it all wrong.

"The traditional way to write, is to set poems to music," Joel said, adding that Elton John is a great example of an artist who has mastered that process.

"He writes exactly the opposite of me," Joel said. "I look at him and go: 'How the hell do you do it?'"

For Joel, the process works backwards.

"First, I think of the music," Joel explained, "Then -- if I like the music -- I jam words onto it."

The process may not be pretty, but it has helped him create a repertoire of stellar songs.

While he won't pick an all-time favorite (he says each one is like a child of his), he's not shy about talking about some of his worst creations.

"We all have our stinkers!"

With a smile, Joel told the audience that his lyrics for "Falling in the Rain" -- from the Cold Spring Harbor album -- couldn't have been any worse.

"That was the most self absorbed album! I was contemplating my own navel so much, I was bent in half," he said.

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