Billy Joel aimed his lime green laser light at Kasey O'Keefe's chest. He noted O'Keefe's unkempt hair. The 27-year-old St. Petersburg College student then stood and asked a question that Joel said he has rarely been asked:
"Who was Roberta?"
"Ooooh," Joel whispered. "You're kind of a kinky guy, huh?"
Still, Joel answered the question. Why wouldn't he? No part of the legendary songwriter's career was off limits Monday at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, the latest stop on Joel's Q&A tour of college campuses.
For more than two hours, Joel moved from the microphone to piano to organ, taking questions from the audience about the inspirations — many of them female — that molded his hefty songbook.
Produced by Ruth Eckerd Hall's Friends of Music education outreach, the event was open exclusively to SPC students, faculty and staff — and with only 850 seats inside the Palladium, each ticket was a treasure. The day seats went on sale, fans started lining up outside the Palladium box office as early as 2 a.m.
The appeal was obvious: Billy Joel is made of hits, and he has largely retired from touring. At 62, he's the same age as Bruce Springsteen, yet today these college lectures make up the majority of his live gigs.
Monday's event, billed as "An Evening of Questions & Answers . . . And a Little Music," found the barrel-chested Joel in freewheeling, fun-loving, self-deprecating form, spinning yarns, playing music and offering snippets of advice to the aspiring musicians in the house.
"When I was starting out in the music business, I didn't have anybody to ask how to do this," he said at the outset. "I made every mistake you can possibly make."
Some — perhaps even Joel himself — would say that applies to his personal life, too. He certainly didn't deny how many of his songs were written to get a girl.
"It works," he said. "Some guys buy cars, I write songs."
Once, on vacation in the Caribbean after his first divorce, he found his way to a piano at a bar and started playing the old standard As Time Goes By.
"And then I look up, and there's Elle MacPherson, Whitney Houston and Christie Brinkley," he said.
An audience member asked about a song he once wrote for an ex-wife. Joel went into Just the Way You Are, tweaking the lyrics ever so slightly. ("She got the house, she got the car . . .")
And, of course, there was Roberta: the, ahem, "working girl" whom Joel fell in love with back in early '70s Los Angeles, and who inspired the song of the same name.
"I wanted her to quit the profession and be with me," he said. "I didn't have two nickels to rub together. I couldn't afford her."
Not all of his muses were women. There were the disillusioned military pals who urged him to write Goodnight Saigon. The out-of-work fishermen from The Downeaster Alexa. The waiter from the Italian restaurant who once asked Joel, "Bottle of red? Bottle of white?" Poof! Instant inspiration.
When a young woman asked Joel to name some other artists who inspire him, he wordlessly sat down and played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. At other points in the night, he sang songs by Ray Charles, Cream and Procol Harum. (He even did a very solid impression of Weird Al Yankovic's nasally parody It's Still Billy Joel To Me. Talk about meta.)
Though he hasn't released a pop album since 1993, Joel said he hasn't stopped writing music. It's just that it's more classical in nature. He performed one newer number simply titled Hymn, which he described as "hymnlike, in the tradition of Edwin Elgar."
Though Joel performed snippets all night of songs like Summer, Highland Falls; Vienna and Piano Man (which he calls "the most non-hit hit I ever heard"), it wasn't until the end that he made it through one full song: Only The Good Die Young, which brought the clapping crowd to their feet.
And to answer your question about that one: Yes, he said, there really was a Virginia.
"There were a couple of Virginias," he said.
Of course there were.
Jay Cridlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.