76-Second Travel Show: 'Billy Joel's Long Island'
New York's Long Island is usually visited for Brooklyn and Queens (at its western tip) or the fancy beach resorts at the Hamptons (out east). But what about the middle, in those neither-here-nor-there towns off the Long Island Expressway? The best way to find out what's there is using the area's best guidebook: the songs of Billy Joel.
Recently I staged a 'Billy Joel Roadtrip' contest and Sherry Wasserman, Andrew Hickey (aka 'The Brooklyn Nomad') and Matt Watt joined me to dig up a few Billy sites worth steering to. Here's a handful of the stand-outs:
Without a doubt, the top 'Joelky' attraction in these parts -- and a suitable stop-off for a bite if you're driving between Manhatttan and the Hamptons -- is this little Italian restaurant that claims to be THE restaurant from Billy's 1977 saga classic, 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.' It's been around for decades -- and now under new ownership from Joel's former sprinkler-installer Michael Elardo. It's quite a scene inside, with karaoke, a 'wall of Joel' including a local article, and bottles of red and white lining the walls of the restaurant.
But is it really the one? David Fricke, in the liner notes of the 30th anniversary edition of The Stranger, says Billy claims it's actually the now-closed Fontana di Trevi in Manhattan. I'm not sure. On the second CD of the same album, recorded in June 1977 at Carnegie Hall (near that restaurant's former site), Billy himself dedicates the song to Christiano's! Who knows? Who cares? But if you stop off, you'll never hear that song the same way again.
20 Meeting Lane, Hicksville
Practically lost in the back lanes between Hicksville High (where Billy finally got his diploma in 1992) and Holy Trinity (the Catholic school that likely inspired 'Only the Good Die Young'), an impressionable Billy grew up in this house, learned to play piano, watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and rehearsed for a gig at the 1964 World's Fair. If you stop to take a photo, look across the street -- his former neighbor Bob Hess is probably on his way out to photograph you. He's a nice guy. He pointed out the house used to be red. I asked if many visitors come by. 'Here? No, very very few.'
West Village Green, Hicksville
Brenda and Eddie, those enduring characters of Billy's 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,' strut these grounds as the 'king and queen of the prom,' then tried to return after their divorce and life's realities set in. But, as Billy sings, 'you can never go back there again.' He's right. (Particularly since it's now called 'Neighborhood Park').
Backed to the green, the Shoppe (4 West Village Green) -- previously known as 'Curiosity Shoppe' -- is a place Billy used to drink at early on in his career. 'Johnny A' is renovating it -- the new version (with Billy's fake 'first piano') should open in June 2010. I will go back there again.
Billy rode this 1912 carousel as a tot, and chipped in money (and a song) for its restoration. After several years of silence, it reopened to the public in 2009 in its new location at the historic Mitchell Field of the so-called 'Cradle of Aviation.' It's $2 a ride. But note this, Billy's horse 'Penny' doesn't go up/down. One staffer guessed, 'maybe Billy was scared of it moving when he was little.'
'Miracle Mile,' Manhasset
Billy pokes fun at posturing by asking, in his 1980 song 'It's Still Rock'n'Roll to Me,' 'should I cruise the Miracle Mile?' It's actually Northern Boulevard in Manhasset, north of the Long Island Expressway -- lined with high-end boutiques. One local told me, 'It always was a shopping area, but it's much more uppity now than it used to be.'
Cold Spring Harbor
Before the Boss touted uncool Jersey -- with his 1973 debut Asbury Park -- Billy already was giving nods to Long Island. The cover of his 1971 debut, Cold Spring Harbor, was shot on the now demolished Eagle Dock overlooking the pretty bay. If you want to pick up the CD locally, SoundTraks is the closest option -- a few miles east in Huntington Village (ask Anthony to sign your copy as he did for me). As far as Billy spotting around here, Anthony suggested, 'if you see a dumpy old bald guy, drunk as hell, getting into a fancy car... it's probably him.'
Actually Billy's home is on nearby Centre Island, a gated community north of Oyster Bay, where he onced dredged for oysters as a lad. And he's trying to sell his place. Anyone have $50 million to spare?
For more New York State and regional road trip ideas, check out Lonely Planet's Trips guide to New York, Washington DC & the Mid-Atlantic.
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