Elton John, Billy Joel and the Likeability Factor
39,000 fans witnessed a bizarre and unexpected series of events unfold at the Billy Joel/Elton John Face to Face Tour Concert in Washington, DC Saturday night. After the first two songs, the stage went silent.
Good or bad, live performances, where the risks of hiccups abound, can shape other’s perception of us. This glitch, of major rock and roll proportions, revealed a dichotomy in personalities between these two legendary stars.
Let me rewind.
My daughter, now reaching those ever-increasing independent teenage years, asked me to go to the Billy Joel/Elton John concert. As the melody of Cats in the Cradle played in my head, I didn’t blink.
The night was filled with anticipation; we settled in our seats at the newly constructed Nationals Park. Here’s how the events unfolded:
7:30 PM – Scheduled start time – huddled masses finding their seats.
7:53 PM – Two black grand pianos emerge from beneath the stage like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
7:54 PM – The crowd roars as Billy Joel enters stage-left, followed by another roar as Elton John enters stage-right. The two hug at center stage and retreat to their pianos.
8:05 PM – After trading verses of Your Song and Just the Way You Are, the two welcome the audience. During the second song, however, Elton barked out orders, off-mic, in the general direction of his crew.
8:06 PM – Houston, we have a problem. After tapping out the first two bars of Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Elton suddenly stops. His face contorted and agitated, he lashes, "You know what, this is (blanking) ridiculous, I can’t play like this." Billy Joel, who no doubt heard him light up the crew’s headsets between songs, let the rest of us in on the secret, "He’s having a little problem with his foot pedal–it’s sticking." While four crew members dashed to John’s piano to free the pedal, Joel smiled and filled the time with his own impromptu version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
8:07 PM Joel turns back to John, "How we doin’?" John, now in full wrath mode, did not acknowledge him. Joel then smiled and turned to the increasingly tense crowd, "Hey, at least it’s not freakin’ raining!" This released some tension from those of us who felt like we walked in on a father about to unleash a good whooppin’ on his son.
8:09 PM – Without skipping a beat, Joel went back to his tap dancing music with a few bars of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Then, in another attempt to work the crowd, he snickers, "You’ve just witnessed an authentic rock n’ roll (screw up)! You don’t see too many of those anymore." The sellout crowd lets out another nervous laugh.
8:10 PM – All eyes are on the stage as the drama unfolds. Next, straight from his Long Island, blue collar roots, Joel throws his jacket on the Rocket Man’s piano, and dives under it on his back in an attempt to free the stuck pedal.
8:11 PM – No luck. Joel retreats to his piano.
8:12 PM – Joel extends an entirely unselfish gesture, "Want to switch pianos?" To which Elton John offers a non-response followed by another, "this is (blanking) ridiculous."
He then gets up from his piano bench and exits the stage.
Classic hissy fit.
As John makes his unceremonious exit, Billy Joel calms the bewildered masses, "You know what? Let’s just go ahead with just my guys." So, "The Entertainer" called an audible and pulled his band’s fire alarm.
8:16 PM – After a three-minute flurry of on stage activity that appeared as if the stage manager pressed the fast forward button, Billy Joel and his band stepped up like pros and dove into his band’s first song, ironically enough, Angry Young Man.
9:09 PM – After flip-flopping the order, now it was John’s turn. The Baltimore Sun reporter wrote, "… the crowd held its collective breath that the piano’s surgery was a success." It was.
9:15 PM – After his first song back, Elton John addresses the audience regarding his child-like self-indulgent behavior with more of a statement than an apology. "Sorry for what happened earlier. The pedal was stuck and it was as if all the notes were the same. Thanks to Billy Joel and his band for being so gracious and professional."
This isn’t a referendum on Elton John. On our "grand stages" there’s lot that can go wrong. It’s our reaction under stress that shapes how others perceive us; a perception that’s impacted more by likability than performance. (See Andrea Howe’s piece on competent jerks and loveable fools).
BTW – Which souvenir t-shirt do you think my daughter wanted to buy after the concert?
Here’s a video clip of Billy Joel attempting to repair Elton’s piano that night:
Elton storms off the stage:
Another wonderful teaching story. The "label" on your graphic says it all…in our own worlds, it may not be the piano, but the fax, cell phone, pager, appliance, auto, person etc. that "goes wrong" when we least expect it.
The mature/immature, response/react behavior says much about who we are when we show up when facing a crisis/challenge/conflict.
Thanks for this, Mark.
I learned a great lesson years ago from a client. A major SNAFU occurred; it was my unplesant job to tell the chairman. After explaining the mess and the corrections, I waited for the anticipated explosion. Instead, he sat quietly for a few min while I was squirming like a worm on a hook expecting to be thrown out on my ear. Then he quietly explained that he didn’t judge the worth of people from the mistakes they make (according to him, everyone makes mistakes). He judged them from how they reacted to the mistakes/surprises/SNAFUs, etc. That was the 1st of many consulting assignments at that org. Elton would not have lasted there very long!!!
Thanks for sharing that great story Barbara. That Chairman sounded like he had his head on straight and his priorities in order. I’m sure that you did a lot along the way to build trust.