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Music

Billy Joel's thoughts on Woodstock 1969

Billy Joel is one of the most successful American artists of all time, and in terms of songwriting talent, he’s up there with the very best. To be ranked as one of the top ten best-selling recording artists of all time was no easy feat. He’s released 12 studio albums, with the first, Cold Spring Harbour, delivered in 1971. He embodies the spirit of his native New York, and his everyman image places him in the same category as the East Coast’s other favourite son, Bruce Springsteen.

His second album, 1973’s Piano Man, is undoubtedly his most enduring body of work. His breakthrough record, it established him as one of the darlings of American entertainment and confirmed him as one of the most perceptive lyricists the country has to offer. In these early moments, he placed himself in the corner of New York’s many dimly lit establishments, taking in its multitude of characters, giving his work a pulp that many found solace in. 

There are many political themes imbued in Joel’s work, as his masterpiece ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire‘ delineates. He was part of the countercultural generation, and when you note this point, you also start to understand more of where he’s coming from as a songwriter, much like Springsteen again. 

It turns out that Joel was actually present at the day where hippiedom confirmed its place in history, Woodstock. That weekend in August 1969 became one of the most important cultural events in history. A show of both strength and weakness by the hippie movement, it saw half a million flower people descend of Max Yasgur’s farmland in provincial New York. What started as a pipedream by two venture capitalists became a meaningful moment with many of the biggest acts of the era performing, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who.

A journey through history with Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’

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It was slightly before Billy Joel’s time as a performer, and he hadn’t released any music at that point. He visited Woodstock as an ordinary layman, hoping to catch the volcanic licks of Jimi Hendrix. However, it didn’t take long for him to realise that he was having a terrible time. He’s cited the fact that hippie heroes Country Joe and the Fish performed, a group who he really wasn’t into, and that he was particularly irked by their protest song ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag’. Whilst discussing Woodstock at the Sirius Town Hall in 2014, Joel explained: “I don’t like somebody telling me how to think.”

Sadly, Joel didn’t last long enough to witness Hendrix deliver one of his greatest last performances. The portable toilets were so disgusting that he left and never went back. He didn’t even see the great Hendrix walk on stage. What a shame. I’d put money on it that he regrets not sticking it out.

Listen to ‘Piano Man’ below.