In the liner notes to his live album Songs in the Attic, Billy Joel writes that the performance of “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway” “demands the gothic reverberation of a vast railroad terminus, such as Madison Square Garden.” Of course, that’s a reference to Penn Station, which is underneath the Garden, the concert venue in which the song was performed. I’ve always loved this song and I consider the studio album from which it came–1976’s Turnstiles, an album that also includes “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Prelude/Angry Young Man”–to be one of his best albums.
Then again, that probably comes from a place of nostalgia and not any judgment of quality because Turnstiles was the first non-Greatest Hits Billy Joel album that I ever owned. I got it on cassette for my 13th birthday after having asked for a Billy Joel album, and my dad picked it out because of the songs he recognized on the cover (and possibly because the “nice Price” sticker meant that it would cost less than the average cassette. We went to Fire Island for a week that summer and because it was overcast and unseasonably cold, I spent most of my time in our hotel room reading what few comics I had brought with me (including a copy of Batman #439 that I bought at a drug store) and listening to this one tape that I had brought with me. That tape would stay with me for at least another fifteen years when my last Walkman finally died and I put everything on my iPod (I still have a handful of cassettes left–that, however, is a different story for a different day).
Of all of the songs I listened to, I would say that “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Miami 2017” were the two I listened to the most. Since the latter is the closing song onf the album, I would constantly rewind side B so that I could hear it over and over again.
Why, at 13, in 1990, was I listening to a Billy Joel album from the year before I was born and not the latest heavy metal/hard rock/rap album? I can’t explain it aside from saying that I was a kid from Long island who liked to play the piano. I can, however, explain why this song in particular resonated with me. It has two things that I love in a song: a story and it starts off soft and then gets loud before ending soft (this is one of the reasons I like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “American Pie,” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”).
the first thing you hear, even on the live cut (which is superior to the studio cut because Songs in the Attic really captures the energy of an MSG audience) is an air-raid siren. Then, there is the piano, which starts with some fast finger work and then goes into a rhythm that almost feels processional. This stays this way through the first verse:
I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway
i saw the Empire State lay low
and life went on beyond the Pallisades
They all bought Cadillacs and left there long ago.
They held a concert out in Brooklyn
To watch the island bridge blow
They turned our power down
And drove us underground
But we went right on with the show.
After that, the drums kick in and the music becomes defiantly more rock and roll. And what I appreciate about it is that even though there is a guitar part in there, Joel keeps letting the piano take the lead and uses the piano as the percussion instrument it is. Now, a person who has more academic prowess in music can probably argue against that, but what Joel is doing–and what Elton John often does–is really using the instrument to its potential and putting some muscle behind it.
And he deftly matches the music with the lyrics. The opening lines are written as if a man is reminiscing, and the line “And life went on beyond The Palisades” suggests how whatever happened in new York was isolated and everyone moved on, which if you think about it sounds like an apt description of the New York City of the 1970s and early 1980s. This is the time in which the city gained a reputation for being a hellhole and beyond its borders was derided as such if it wasn’t being ignored altogether. Joel makes this point in the Songs in the Attic liner notes, saying, “1975–New York Daily News Headline–‘Ford to New York–Drop Dead’! (Remember Madrid–No Pasaran!) More science fiction now than then. A legacy for my unborn grandchildren.”
Then we get to the plot of the story. Some sort of apocalyptic event happened and “they” literally blew up the bridges connecting Manhattan to Long island and in an act of rebellion, “we” held a concert in Brooklyn and kept playing even though the power was turned off. Of course, this could be a metaphor for an underground resistance because rock and roll has always been about rebellion on some level.
And there is carnage. Harlem burns, and things are overall destroyed. The lines about Brooklyn and the Yankees get huge applause from the New York crowd (of course) and while we never get the identity of who “they” are, we are told that whatever it was was an attack or a catastrophe. And I’d fault Joel for telling and not showing here, but if you think about it, this is the language that a person relating an event like this would use. There is always a “they” and we often employ euphemisms in place of very specific description. Despite that, we still have this sense of all of these things that happened and that at the end of it all when we look back a few decades later, there is nothing left.
more importantly, nobody remembers and we have to keep telling the story so that it doesn’t fade, which is what we see in the song’s finale:
You know those lights
Were bright on Broadway
That was so many years ago
Before we all lived here in Florida
Before the mafia
Took over Mexico.
There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
To tell the world about
The way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive.
What he is doing here is bearing witness–by telling the story, we keep the story alive, and while I guess you could say that there’s an odd prescience about the line about retiring to Florida (as so many of Joel’s generation have done) and the mafia taking over Mexico, I find that the most important part of this is the sentiment of continuing to tell the story and the idea of never forgetting.
Furthermore, the way this song is structured, it mirrors a flashback through a memory. When you have a memory like this triggered, it comes at you like a flash, and can crash down on you. So it’s not so much a story as it is a flood of moments that attack almost as literally as the event happened. As Joel himself says, “Miami 2017” is a piece of science fiction in verse–and it’s an underrated one at that. Because even though 1977 in New York City didn’t play out exactly like this, it wasn’t called “the hottest year in Hell” for nothing and there are still people who are around to reminisce and remind everyone of a time when walking through the crossroads of the world meant taking your life into your own hands.