Billy Joel’s a notoriously prickly figure, the kind of guy who’s burned enough lovers and interviewers to forever cement his legacy as a “difficult person.” Regardless, the man’s a star, even today. Since 2014, lest we forget, he’s sold out Madison Square Garden 40 times. He was even bigger in the ’80s, too, an era when he had the clout to make an animated dog a bona fide rock star. Just a year before Joel voiced the lead in Oliver & Company, however, his fame suffered some scary palpitations, the likes of which Noisey explores in a new piece on Joel’s fateful 1987 sojourn to the Soviet Union.
As writer Dan Ozzi outlines, the shows were important as they essentially served as a gesture of goodwill that would hopefully help thaw the notoriously icy relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Joel would be one of the first major American artists to play there since the construction of the Berlin Wall. Furthermore, Joel ended up putting roughly $2.5 million of his own money to help cover the costs.
As one might imagine, the pressure on Joel was off the charts. It also didn’t help that he’d been on the road for roughly 11 months, and once he arrived in the USSR, he was more or less hoodwinked into an early, unofficial performance that served to blow out his vocal cords that much more. Despite this, his first show was a modest success; his second one, however, resulted in Joel’s most public meltdown.
Ozzi’s description of the straw that broke the camel’s back is especially compelling. Knowing that the Russian crowd was a huge fan of his son, “Sometimes A Fantasy,” he pulled it out early and saw a vibrant, dancing crowd. An HBO documentary crew making a film about the concert also took notice.
They were having so much fun, in fact, that his documentary crew wanted to get better shots of them and shone the house lights on the first few rows. But that caused a huge problem.
The Soviet crowd, raised by decades of Iron Curtain austerity, stopped dancing and froze like deer in headlights when they were lit up, petrified that the security guards would crack down on them. Then the lights would go out again and they’d resume dancing. Lights off, dancing. Lights on, frozen stiff. This went on and on like a game of red light, green light, one-two-three. With each flick of the lights, the perfectionist Joel saw his hard earned connection fading away. Mid-song, he started screaming at his crew to cut it out and, like a consummate professional, didn’t even miss a beat as he barked orders between lyrics.
“I hear Billy singing and he’s saying something, but I can’t hear what he’s saying,” lighting director Steven Cohen recalled in A Matter Of Trust. But even though Cohen couldn’t make out Joel’s words, he would definitely recognize what came next—the sound of a piano crashing onto the ground. The five-foot-five-inch Joel had gotten a sturdy grip under the keys, put his back into it, and, with red fury in his face, flipped the whole thing over. Band and crew members recall stray chunks of Yamaha whizzing past them as the piano landed completely upside-down with a loud crash.
As you can see in the above video, Joel went on to kick the downed piano and break his mic stand with the kind of fervor that would’ve no doubt riled up a young Kurt Cobain.
Had the incident happened today, with the clip immediately available for proliferation and dissection, Joel certainly would’ve been encouraged to cancel the shows and check into a psychiatric facility. Instead, it appears to have been a means of catharsis, and he returned for the next concert energized. Every remaining show on his six-date tour was a huge success—one even saw him crowd-surfing while being draped in American and Soviet flags. Presumably, no one lit the damn audience.