Most everyone—the young and the old and everyone in between—is able to sing along with at least one Billy Joel song. What’s yours? “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”? “Always a Woman”? “Piano Man”? Given that Joel’s music has made such an indelible mark on so many lives, it may come as a surprise that there has never been an academic conference dedicated to his work. After all, there have been academic conferences on “The Art of Punk,” Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen. But no Billy Joel?
This October, Colorado College is playing host to the first ever Billy Joel Conference.
“It seemed like it was time,” says Joshua Duchan, a co-organizer of the conference. “Joel has produced an amazing body [of work], and we’re now beginning to get a historical perspective on it.”
The inspiration for the conference came from Ryan Banagale, a musicologist at Colorado College who was in the process of authoring one of the popular Day in the Life segments that air daily on local NPR-affiliate KRCC. (Full disclosure: I’m executive producer.) As he researched, Banagale was surprised to find there was no go-to resource where he could find accurate and comprehensive information about Joel and his oeuvre. “The fact remains,” Ryan says, “that there is very little musicological writing on Billy Joel.”
Banagale called Duchan, an ethnomusicologist specializing in American popular music at Wayne State University, whom he knew was working on a book about the singer-songwriter.
Duchan needed no convincing. And the rest—as they say—is history.
Crucial to the Banagale and Duchan vision for the three-day, open-to-the-public event is that the conference remain as accessible as Joel’s music. “I saw an opportunity for academics to engage with music that the public already knows well, and to challenge academics to craft presentations that would be equally engaging to nonspecialists,” Banagale says.
The result is a conference that will bring a wide variety of scholars and artists to the Springs to discuss Billy Joel’s music and take part in sessions focusing on cultural issues and Joel’s literary side. There will also be workshops on concert photography and on artifacts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And, of course, there will be music.
The conference will close with a concert of Joel’s music, performed by a variety of regional musicians—including pianist Susan Grace, Banagale’s colleague in the CC music department and guitarist Jim Bosse, who played in Joel’s high school rock band.
Billy Joel himself will join the conference for a live phone interview.
I asked Duchan, who has interviewed Joel on a number of occasions, what Joel thinks about having an academic conference dedicated to him. “He’s a history buff,” he says. “I think the idea appeals to him.”
When pressed, both Duchan and Banagale admit to being Billy Joel fans from the first. “There was a time when I could play pretty much most of the catalog,” Duchan says.
Banagale admits to being equally obsessed, and to being almost as much of a piano man. “Though I will admit that the solo in ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ did give me trouble,” he says.
No kidding. There’s only one Piano Man.
It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
A Symposium on the Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel
Oct. 7-8 at Colorado College. Open to the public, but registration required. $20.