I moved to Kansas City from Michigan in 2006, just a year out of college. I was about to embark on a short-lived stint in college before I settled down, met my wife, and put down roots in the KC area, but I didn’t know any of that in 2006. All I knew was that I had a new life awaiting me, my first time on my own, and I knew it was a long ways away. Anticipating a lot of time with my own thoughts, I went to Wal-Mart and looked for some new music to help occupy me on my trip. For whatever reason, my eye was drawn to Billy Joel’s new live album, 12 Gardens.
My experience with Billy Joel was pretty limited. It was mainly isolated to The Essential Billy Joel, a compilation I liked but didn’t really love. So I don’t know what possessed me to get that double live album, but get it I did. I bought it maybe two or three days before I left, and as I started my trip west I put disc one in my car stereo and was greeted by the explosive piano intro to “Angry Young Man.”
From then on, I was sold. It was one of those experiences where I couldn’t really comprehend enjoying an artist until I heard a live recording. Objectively speaking, it’s a great set. It leans heavily on older material, mostly pre-1984, and Joel’s voice is actually more enjoyable to me now that he’s a bit older and can’t hit the high notes like he used to. It’s a great energetic album, especially for someone who had never really dug into anything besides the hits.
Over that 14-hour drive, I felt myself bonding with that music. I remember the interminable stretch between Terre Haute and Indianapolis because I remember the beats of “While The Night Is Still Young.” I will forever associate the St. Louis arch with “Laura” and “A Room of Our Own.” It was the first time I struck out on my own, and in my isolation it felt like I was getting a concert performance just for myself. As “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” played, I would crank it up and allow myself to be surrounded by the noise of the crowd and the piano solo that has always sounded to me like it was played by Dr. Teeth.
I still wouldn’t consider myself a real fan of Billy Joel. Usually an experience like this one will cause me to dig deep into a back catalog, but this time it didn’t feel appropriate. There was something oddly intimate about that 14-hour car ride, and it always felt like it would violate that memory to dig further. I still spend some time with 12 Gardens every few months, and every time I am transported back to I-70. It makes me feel just a little like that 23-year-old who was literally driving to adulthood. It reminds me of freedom, isolation, new starts, and grieving for an old life. Just me and Billy Joel. Truly a room of our own.