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Fans Beaming Over ‘Lights Back On’

Mon, 02/26/2024 - 14:47
Billy Joel, who on Feb. 1 released his first new song in 17 years, played at UBS Arena in Elmont on New Year's Eve.
Jordana Sobey

Billy Joel, the Grammy-winning Long Island musician who has sold more than 160 million albums over the last several decades, released his first new song in 17 years on Feb. 1, immediately enchanting many of his fans with his signature piano playing and unmistakable voice.

Here on the South Fork, fans welcomed the song, "Turn the Lights Back On," with equal doses of fresh excitement and nostalgic adoration.

"Holy smokes, I really love it. It reaches the heart," said Brian Cosgrove, a popular radio D.J. with WLIW-FM, who's been a Billy Joel fan since his youth in Massapequa, not far from where the artist himself grew up, and who's been getting requests for radio play. "It captures then and now. It sounds like an older Billy Joel song, but it's also in the moment."

Co-written by Mr. Joel, Freddy Wexler, Arthur Bacon, and Wayne Hector, the song drew a standing ovation at this year's Grammy Awards, where he performed it live for the first time. In the song, Mr. Joel, 74 and a part-time Sag Harbor resident, admits, "I'm late, but I'm here right now / Is there still time for forgiveness?" and asks, "Did I wait too long / to turn the lights back on?"

The lyrics resonated with Clive Young, a fan and music journalist who has given talks at the East Hampton Library about Billy Joel's musical accomplishments. He pointed out that the Piano Man is one of multiple long-established artists to release new music recently, joining the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Peter Gabriel in this accomplishment.

"Where so many artists his age will release a song that tries to sound really current or young, this is one that, one, is willing to go back to his older style, and, two, speaks from a place of experience," Mr. Young said. "It's willing to say, 'Yes, I'm an older person looking at the traditional topic of love in a song.' So much pop music is aimed at younger people. 'I just met you and this is crazy,' or, 'You just dumped me and you suck.' All that stuff is in pursuit of the end goal of finding someone . . . but these things take work. This is a song about the work behind a relationship. That's why his audience that has been with him his whole career can relate to it."

Mr. Young also called the song "a very humble way of Billy Joel saying, 'If I put out something new, are you guys going to be there for me?' "

For Jordana Sobey of Sag Harbor, 43, the answer is a resounding "yes." She has been a fan since her youth and has seen him live many times, including the 2023 New Year's Eve show at UBS Arena in Elmont, to which she and her husband brought their two kids.

"I thought his voice sounded amazing," Ms. Sobey said. "I loved how it reminded me so much of some of his older songs, like 'Summer, Highland Falls' and 'You Are My Home' and 'Honesty.' "

Asked who she thinks the "you" in the song is referring to, she said, "My initial thought was the 'you' was his fans and his music, that he's turning the lights back on in that way, but there's probably also someone that's a 'you.' You can interpret it in so many different ways."

NancyLynn Schurr Thiele of Sag Harbor also likes the new song, saying in a Facebook message that "he's smart enough to rearrange his songs to better fit his voice now, but he retains one or two with the really high notes, and he hit them all perfectly."

Some longtime fans aren't overwhelmingly crazy about the new song. "It's fine. He's got his best songs, his not-so-great songs, and this one's kind of in the middle," said Ed Vinski of Bridgehampton, who added a suggestion: "I would actually like to hear someone like Adele cover it, or even Ed Sheeran. I think it would be an interesting song if someone else did it. If you told me it was an extra song from 'River of Dreams' or 'Stormfront' or something like that, I think it kind of sounds like that."

Musically, the song is resonating with Liz Vespe of Springs, a violinist and writer, and Mark Schiavoni of Sag Harbor, a guitar player for the Montauk Project. 

"It's congruent with his style. I like the piano. It still sounds like a classic Billy Joel song," said Ms. Vespe, whose mother happened to be a classmate of Mr. Joel's at Hicksville High School. "You can hear some similar chords from 'Piano Man.' There's a crescendo that you expect, like from 'Only the Good Die Young.' "

"His voice is just as strong as ever," Mr. Schiavoni added. "He's got a really powerful mid-range that you can tell is present here. I personally hope, if he releases more, that there's a little more rocking stuff -- the pop tunes with a driving beat and bass. But it's cool to have this classic ballad come out now."

It's fair to say that Fall Out Boy's modern-day remake of "We Didn't Start the Fire" in 2023 piqued fans' interest in hearing new Billy Joel tunes, but "Turn the Lights Back On" has undoubtedly whet some appetites for more.

"I'd love to hear him release a new album," Ms. Vespe said. "I feel like because we're on Long Island and he lives in Sag Harbor, you always want to see him do a good job and do well."

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