#354: Billy Joel, "52nd Street" (1978)

I was going to do it. Honest, I had all the sound bites rehearsedof relationships running their course, of it’s-not-you-it’s-me, of better-off-friends.

But then her cat died.

And then it was her 29th birthday.

And then she had to console her best friend who got cheated on.

And then I got the flu and she brought me soup, damnit.

And then we started watching Gilmore Girls and I thought if I dumped her she’d change her Netflix password.

Then Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years.

And now it’s fucking Valentine's Day and she got us Billy Joel tickets.

She has a thing for over-the-hill rock stars, like she was born in 1956 instead of 1986. She’s dragged me to see Springsteen, Dylan, Simon without Garfunkel, Neils Young and Diamond. Dudes whose influence I can’t deny. But that's the thing about influenceit’s a death notice. The writers kill you off, making way for the person who sounds like you but younger and more attractive and with a Snapchat account. The day a critic calls you “influential” is the day you should stop making music, because everything you produce from then on out will be considered shit, even if it isn’t.

“He’s still got it!” she always says, and I wonder which Instagram filter she’s using, because all I see in front of me is a burlap sack of a man, jowls wiggling with rasp. She told me once that she likes this music because it reminds her of her father. Maybe I hate it because it reminds me of mine. Or maybe she just has really shitty taste in music.

Lucky for me, they’re all starting to die off now. At least I’ll never have to see the Eagles.

So here we are, in line at the baseball stadium. Billy Joel, this one is especially troubling. The guy whose biggest hit is an ode to why he’s too good to be playing at dive bars, a song I only hear at dive bars. I just paid 120 bucks to see the musical equivalent of thousand island salad dressing.

I’m reading Gawker articles on my phone about how uncool Billy Joel is when she taps me on the shoulder.

“Jack!” she says. “This guy just invited us to the front row!”

“Oh, I just meant you,” said the security guard, earnest in his regret. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were with someone. I’m afraid I can’t let him in.”

“But why?” she asks.

“Billy likes to have pretty girls in the front.”

She faces me. “Well then, no thank you.” But her disappointment is obvious.

“Go ahead,” I tell her.

“Are you sure?” And we waffle for a few more rounds, both knowing she’s going to end up in the front.

“I’ll be fine in the back.” I tell her. “This is your big chance. Honestly.”

“You’re so selfless,” she says, pouting her lips. “I’ll text you.”

Sitting alone in section 436, row X, I’m back in planning mode.When breaking up with someone who’s done you no wrong, you have to strike when the iron is cold. She’ll have a post-show glow, that’s going to set us back at least three days.

My phone vibrates. She’s tagged a photo of us on Facebook waiting in line, cheeks pressed together, smiles aligned. Her caption: “We’ve been waiting...For the Longest Time! lol.” We look happy. God, everyone must think we’re so happy.

I flick the screen, scroll more selfies. She is pretty, Billy Joel’s security guard has a point.

“Are you here alone?” A Long Island accent from above. A 50-something woman with crispy bangs and an “I Started the Fire” T-shirt is in the seat directly behind me.

“Oh no, my girlfriend’s actually in the front row.” I say, pointing to the closest of six jumbo screens. I can’t actually tell which girl is her thoughthey all have long brown hair. Not a blonde in sight in this post-Brinkley world.

“It’s okay,” Long Island says. “I’m here alone too.”

The lights go out and the crowd erupts over a layer of manic piano chords. And for a minute, it sounds like a carnival.

But then, the bass kicks in and Billy’s before us, bobbing his fat bald head, whining: I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life. Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone.

I ask myself, as I have so many times before, what the fuck I am doing here.

I know, I’m here for her, doing what the boyfriend is supposed to do. Her happiness should make me happy.

The set goes on, some songs I recognize: “Uptown Girl,” “New York State of Mind,” that song Elton John ripped off for the Lion King soundtrack. I promise you, I’m trying. Trying to acknowledge the cross generational joy around me, trying to gleen some kind of greater cultural insight out of this experience. I got nothing.

At least this time I don’t have to put on a show for anyone. Not for her, not for the world wide web. She’s told me before that she wishes she’d grown up in the 1960s and 70s, that she could have heard the records released in order and watched rock ‘n’ roll turn the world to technicolor or whatever. But I wonder who she’d be without likes and shares and retweets. I wonder who we’d be.

Now she’s posted a video to  Vinethe “ack a tack ack ack ack ack” from “Movin’ Out” looped over, over, and over again. Grating.

“Get off your phone, young man!” Long Island digs her hot pink nails into my shoulder. “You’re missing out on a legend!”

He’s singing another moany ballad, called “Honesty,” which I only recognize because she made me listen to the Beyoncé cover on the ride here.

Hoooooooonesty, is such a lonely word.

C’mon man.

Hooooooonesty, is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.

I hear him. I have to end it, tonight. No more delaying, there’s never going to be a good time. It’s only fair to her.

Billy gets up from his baby grand and moves to the synth stage left. It’s time. The familiar riff reignites the crowd.

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray….

Like a vision, she appears on the Jumbotrons, smiling 30 feet across, her woo streaming back on thousands of shiny rectangles in the stands. She doesn’t notice at first, but when she does she looks right into the camera. Hi Jack! she mouths.

“That’s my girlfriend!” I shout, jumping to my feet. I turn around, and Long Island is methodically reciting eight decades of American history at the top of her lungs, tears streaming down her face. I don’t catch her attention.

Rock and Roller Cola wars, I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!

I get a text. “did you see me??”

I swipe to Twitter. Breaking: “Netflix Announces Gilmore Girls reboot in 2017.”

I can’t do it.

—Susannah Clark