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How Billy Joel conquered Madison Square Garden.

Billy Joel is no diva, but he has one rule that’s well-known among his inner circle. “There’s the running joke in the band,” Joel told The Post. “ ‘Don’t ever give Billy a compliment because he’ll just tear your head off.’ You’re allowed to criticize me. Let me know if I screwed up. Maybe it’s a...
Time: 22:23     Date: 17.07.2018
Last US News: How Billy Joel conquered Madison Square Garden. NY Post 24 - US News

“There’s the running joke in the band,” Joel told The Post. “ ‘Don’t ever give Billy a compliment because he’ll just tear your head off.’ You’re allowed to criticize me. Let me know if I screwed up. Maybe it’s a New York thing. We don’t take compliments well.”

But his legions of fans continue to give him the highest praise — by continuing to buy his concert tickets. The 69-year-old artist will make history by playing at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday for the 100th time.

That number includes solo gigs, a tour with fellow piano-rock star Elton John and, of course, his groundbreaking monthly residency at the Garden, which started in 2014 and turned the Piano Man into an MSG franchise alongside the Knicks and Rangers. (This will be his 54th residency show.)

“What Billy has accomplished might never be matched — by anyone — certainly not in our lifetimes,” said James Dolan, executive chairman and CEO of Madison Square Garden Co.

‘What Billy has accomplished might never be matched — by anyone — certainly not in our lifetimes.’

It’s a remarkable feat for anyone, but extra sweet for a guy who grew up about 33 miles away in Long Island.

“Well, it occurs to me how ludicrous this all is,” Joel said. “When I’m onstage, sometimes I have this moment where I’m taking all this in and going, ‘This is nuts. Don’t they know who I really am? I’m just a little kid from Hicksville who became a musician and it turned into this crazy thing.’ ”

An incredible 2 million people have seen Joel perform at the Garden since he first graced the stage there in 1978.

Some are superfans: Eric Fellen has been to 92 of the singer-songwriter’s concerts, 57 of them at the Garden.

“He crafts a show to what’s going on in our world today,” said the 46-year-old IT strategist from Scotch Plains, NJ, who carries a “Joel FN” vanity plate to every performance.

“I remember seeing him in ’86 when the Mets were in the World Series. He announced they won a game and the whole Garden lit up,” Fellen added. “His music is the soundtrack of our lives. The best part is feeling the whole Garden floor shake and you’re celebrating with 20,000 other fans.”

Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden.Getty Images

Joel has a long history with the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” stretching back to his childhood, when he sat in the nosebleeds of the old Garden on West 50th Street and watched Gene Autry in a Christmas show. As the singing cowboy crooned “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” he shot his six-guns into the air in an attempt to rouse the crowd.

“It scared the hell out of me because I thought he was shooting at me,” Joel recalled. “It was like I was in his sights. I sang really loud the next time they started.”

That show would spark a lifelong connection between the musician and the venue, which is now suspended five stories above Penn Station.

“The Garden was the high holy of holies,” he said. “The ark of the covenant of venues. It made a big impression on me.”

He later returned to the arena to catch Led Zeppelin and Blind Faith while he chased his own rock-and-roll dreams. In 1971 — the same year he released “Cold Spring Harbor,” his debut album as a solo artist — Joel was there to watch George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.

His subsequent albums “Streetlife Serenade” and “Turnstiles” made some industry noise, but it wasn’t until 1977’s “The Stranger” that Joel found commercial success. The following year, on Dec. 14, 1978, he made his official debut at the hallowed arena.

When he took the stage, his “52nd Street” album was in its fourth of seven consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The subway fare was 50 cents and the average ticket for his show cost $9.50. He opened — as he would for the next 25 or so years — with his piano-on-acid anthem, “Angry Young Man.”

“I remember wearing a jacket we called ‘The Beast’ because it was the ugliest jacket anyone had ever worn,” Joel recalled. “It was khaki with gold in it. It was just a real ugly jacket that I liked for some reason.”

Dubious fashion aside, he had reached the altar and was anointed by the rock gods.

“I had some success as a recording artist, but it became palpable with a gig like that,” he said. “It was a reverential moment.”

Over the next 40 years, the entertainer would endure three divorces (he’s now married to fourth wife Alexis Roderick), win five Grammys, receive Kennedy Center Honors and be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — all the while weaving a legacy at the Midtown venue.

Although he’s hard-pressed to list his Top Five moments at the arena — “Give me a break. I’ve done 100 shows!” — some memories stand out.

At a 1999 New Year’s Eve show, he heckled the audience about the widespread Y2K panic.

“I was pushing everybody’s buttons.  ‘Well, this may be the last moment we’re all alive. Let’s enjoy it,’” he said. “I was really rubbing it in.”

Then there was the Face to Face concert with Elton John after 9/11. Battling sickness with medication and whiskey-spiked tea, Joel began shouting the names of famous battles, such as Iwo Jima and the Alamo.

“Like halfway through the show, I was gone. And I was really angry. I said, ‘Who do they think they are? We’re not going to take this lying down.’ I wasn’t very proud of that, but I do remember that.”

Billy Joel and daughter Alexa Ray Joel perform together at Madison Square Garden.Getty Images

That kind of raw moment is exactly why New Yorkers have installed him as their unofficial poet laureate. He’s unfiltered and unapologetically himself. And with his soulful lyrics and flawed-everyman ethos, they see a reflection of themselves.

“[That thought] scares the hell out of me,” he said. “Like, don’t listen to me. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I’m just as lost as everybody else.”

Ironically, Joel’s most recent career renaissance came as the city was recovering from another devastating event: Hurricane Sandy. The Garden hosted a benefit concert on 12/12/12 and asked Joel to perform a four-song set, slating him between the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.

“We opened up with ‘Miami 2017,’” Cohen recalled. “And it tore the roof off the sucker to the point where that’s all anyone talked about.”

After the show, an exhausted Joel looked his team over “with that wry smile and said, ‘Well, that wasn’t so bad was it?’ ” said Cohen.

Then his manager, Dennis Arfa, floated the idea of playing a festival in Australia, which turned into a few gigs both at home and in the United Kingdom — all blistering sellouts.

“Billy started to get this sense that somehow something had shifted,” said Cohen. “There was a sea change in his popularity.”

Joel was rejuvenated. Arfa suggested a residency, which had become popular after Celine Dion launched one in 2011 at The Colosseum in Las Vegas.

“I knew I didn’t want to be a resident in a place like Vegas,” Joel said. “I don’t even like Vegas.”

On Jan. 27, 2014, Joel embarked on his Big Apple answer to Sin City’s spectacles. Every show since has sold out — although the first two rows are always kept open so his crew can tap people in the cheap seats to sit next to the stage.

Robert Altman/Invision/AP

“We laugh because invariably, they put pretty girls in the front row because it makes the guys [in the band] work harder,” said Cohen, who creates the residency’s set lists.

Each performance is different. Joel frequently invites special guests, such as Sting, Tony Bennett, Miley Cyrus and Don Henley, to perform. Last month, Alexa Ray Joel, his 32-year-old daughter with supermodel Christie Brinkley, played “Baby Grand” with her dad.

“Yeah, I get a little chokey. I look over and there she is. There’s my little girl, and she’s the older daughter now,” said Joel, who also has 3-year-old Della and 8-month-old Remy with Roderick.

He’ll play his greatest hits — “Piano Man,” “You May Be Right,” “Moving Out” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — but also more obscure tunes, such as “Vienna,” “Zanzibar” and “She’s Right on Time.” That latter track, off 1982’s “The Nylon Curtain” album, is his favorite to perform, he said.

There is, however, one song that will never echo through his microphone: “C’etait Toi,” half of which he wrote in French, from 1980’s “Glass Houses.”

“I don’t even really know how to speak French,” Joel admitted. “I just like the sound of French. We were in Paris and we get to the song and we’re like, ‘Wait till they get a load of this. I’m gonna sing in French. This is gonna kill ’em!’ ”

Instead, it induced a coma.

“I went to the French promoter and I said, ‘We did a song in French and the audience didn’t really respond to it. Can you tell me what was going on?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, that song? They thought you were singing in Polish.’ ”

Joel with a cake commemorating his 50th consecutive show for his residency at Madison Square GardenGetty ImagesPart of the residency’s magic is that Joel commutes from the Hamptons to Manhattan like a true Gotham superhero. He flies — albeit in a helicopter.

“There’s a psyche change that happens,” he said. “You fly over Manhattan and you see that big, beautiful, gigantic city and you get amped up, like, ‘Oh, my God, this is what I’m doing tonight and this is who I’m playing for.’ ”

Sometimes, the weather keeps him and his ego grounded.

“It’s a transitional thing that happens when you leave the stage after a show at Madison Square Garden. You’ve had 20,000 people screaming your name as if you’re Mussolini, and then you jump in a car and you’re stuck in traffic. You’re just another shmuck on the highway, and it’s a great reminder you are only human.”

Like any average Joe, he’s enjoying his second stab at fatherhood.

“Now I have these two little girls, which I think is going to be great. Little kids tumbling all over the lawn with toys all over the place, making a mess. This is what it should be, you know.”

He plans on keeping his monthly appointments on Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street for as long as there’s ticket demand. And for as long as he’s able to keep up physically.

“I’m pushing 70,” he said. “So when I think I suck, I’m gonna stop.”

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