Anything But The Stranger
Anything But The Stranger
A Q&A with Mike Santoro
By Geoff Gehman
Mike Santoro was 10 when he discovered Billy Joel in his home in Levittown, N.Y., their hometown. Shuffling through his older sister’s records in her bedroom, he was captivated by the front cover of the album “The Stranger,” a spooky black-and-white photo of Joel sitting gloomily on a bed between tragic and comic masks. Sucked in by the intriguing scene, he was even more sucked in by Joel’s 1977 breakout LP, a robust collection of songs of defiance (“Only the Good Die Young”), romantic defiance (“She’s Always a Woman”) and realistic, poetic wisdom (“Vienna”). His anthem became “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” a sweeping story of youthful glory and adult resignation set in his and Joel’s hometown.
Four decades later, Santoro remains front and center in Joel’s wheelhouse. On Feb. 16 the singing pianist will return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House with The Stranger, his decade-old show of numbers by Joel, an exceptional tunesmith, wordsmith, entertainer and charitable citizen honored by the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress and men who make their living fishing the waters off his native Long Island. Santoro and his band mates will play keen, spot-on versions of “Movin’ Out,” “New York State of Mind” and “The Stranger,” which Joel rarely plays live, probably because the chorus vocal is so damned high. The menu will include the “Abbey Road” finale from the Beatles, a group Joel channels throughout his 1982 record “The Nylon Curtain,” especially on the exquisitely mournful “Surprises,“ which Santoro would love to perform in public.
Below, in a conversation from his home in Charlotte, N.C., where he runs a construction business, Santoro discusses the reasons for Joel’s remarkable popularity; balancing concerts with Joel’s A-, B- and C-sides; the challenges of being a self-taught pianist playing parts written by a keyboard wizard, and why performing “Allentown” in Bethlehem made a Long Islander feel right at home.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: The Barry White Orchestra’s ”Love Theme.” I remember being in kindergarten and my mom would play that on our record player, one of those giant pieces of furniture. I remember getting excited when the strings rise into a crescendo and the piano player swings down on the keys and the melody starts. Even as a kid I was playing along with that part; it just hit me. One of the reasons I’m so involved with Billy’s music is that he uses orchestration so much. Any time you take a rock song and add woodwinds and strings and brass you have a potential masterpiece.
Q: How about the first Billy Joel song that put him in your orbit? You told me in an email that it was “Until the Night,” the mini-pop opera on “52nd Street” . I’ve read that you fell under the spell of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” while wearing out your sister’s copy of “The Stranger.”
A: If I had to choose one playing on the radio I’d choose “Until the Night.” I’ve heard “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” a hundred thousand times and still it isn’t boring to listen to. With “Until the Night” I can hear something different, some new nuance, every time. It also emotionally moves me more, even though “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” has scenes from where I grew up: the village green; the Parkway Diner. You can close your eyes while listening to “Until the Night” and almost see a movie in your head. At the end of the day that probably would be my desert island tune.
Q: Why did the “Stranger” album suck you in?
A: It was actually the cover that first intrigued me. My sister Donna is six years older than me; when she was in her teens I was a pre-pubescent. I only had a radio in my room; her room had a record player along with a record collection. I would go into her room when she wasn’t home and go through her collection. I picked out “The Stranger” and I kept staring at its spooky black-and-white cover, with Billy sitting on a bed, between happy and sad masks. At the time I thought: What does this mean? On the covers of other albums in Donna’s collection the artists are looking at the camera; some are even smiling. On “The Stranger” cover Billy is looking away from the camera. Years later I found out that he doesn’t like being photographed, that when he’s photographed he likes to have a prop. On the front cover of “52nd Street” he’s holding a trumpet. On the back cover of “The Nylon Curtain” he’s holding a cup of coffee. He’s got a beard because he had writer’s block while he was making the album and he lets himself go when he’s miserable.
Q: What sort of AM radio hits did you and your dad sing while cruising in his big Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme?
A: This was the ’70s and I gravitated to the singer-songwriters. I loved everything from the Bee Gees to James Taylor to Jackson Browne to everything in between. My dad would always sing along to everything. He would sing in the shower by himself; we would hear him from upstairs because he had a booming tenor voice. I wouldn’t sing out loud because I was shy; I still am shy. When I would sing with my dad he would tell me “Put more air into it.” I wasn’t tone deaf; he just couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t raise my volume. Singing was very important to him. He was a nightclub singer before he got married. Frank Sinatra was his idol and he had dreams of doing what Sinatra did. But life happens and you get married and have kids and so on. But music remained a big part of his life.
Q: What do you understand and appreciate about Joel that you didn’t before you launched “The Stranger” in 2009? I’m guessing you had a big learning curve memorizing his intricate piano parts, especially since you’re a self-taught pianist and you really didn’t hit your keyboard stride until your 20s.
A: My admiration for him as a piano player and writer has increased a thousand times. Before I started “The Stranger” I never dreamed I’d be able to play his piano parts, mainly because I play by ear. Learning a song like “Zanzibar” was like climbing Mount Rushmore—or Mount Vesuvius. I had to literally sit down by myself in the basement for a weekend and practice one little part at a time until I didn’t make a mistake, until it was part of.my muscle memory
One song I don’t think I can play is “Root Beer Rag” [a hummingbird-speedy instrumental on the 1974 album “Streetlife Serenade”]. That in and of itself is just keyboard wizardry. Although I suppose if I devoted a few months to it I could get it down. To think he was able to play this way when he was six years old is pretty mind blowing. Although he said in an interview that he was a better pianist at 12 than 20 because that’s when he got into rock and roll and started getting away from his classical chops.
Q: What are some of the challenges of essentially playing a phenomenally popular musician with a trunk load of hits people know by heart and have taken to heart? I’m sure there are many deep cuts you’d love to play but don’t because they might make listeners–or even band mates–tune out.
A: I’m usually pretty diplomatic with song choices. When I want to add a new one to the rotation I make sure all the other band members enjoy it; if they don’t enjoy it, they can only put on their poker face for so long. We recently added “Get It Right the First Time,” a deep cut off “The Stranger.” I’d love to add “Zanzibar” and “Stiletto” [off ‘52nd Street”] but unless you’re a diehard fan there’s a chance you won’t really enjoy them. We recently added a Beatles “Abbey Road” medley—“Golden Slumbers”/”Carry That Weight”/”The End”–because Billy is such a big Beatles fan. I’d really love to play “Surprises”; that’s definitely on my Bucket List. It’s so Beatles-esque; Billy channels the spirit of John Lennon. And the words are incredible. It’s one of my favorite songs of his—A-side, B-side, C-side.
“Vienna” is a B-side that people ask to hear. I get that with “Summer, Highland Falls,” too. They’re both songs with universal messages that resonate with a lot of people. People relate to Billy because his words relate to them easily. There’s no ambiguity, just plain English. He’s like a buddy of yours telling you about a girlfriend he just met, or a loss he just suffered. Even though he didn’t grow up in Allentown or fight in Vietnam, he can write and sing with integrity about people who did. He can tell the story with empathy and no false pretense.
Q: What don’t you do, what won’t you do, in “The Stranger”? I’m guessing you’re in no hurry to dress up like a mechanic while singing “Uptown Girl,” as Joel did in the song’s video.
A: One thing I refuse to do is put on the black Wayfarer [sun]glasses, which is what guys do in so many tribute shows out there. These cookie-cutter guys think that all it takes to play Joel’s songs, and Joel himself, is to wear a black suit and put on those glasses. What they’re doing is nothing less than an Elvis-like, Vegas-style impersonation. I know for a fact that Billy doesn’t care for those guys because they almost turn what he does into a parody.
I have an advantage because I sort of resemble Billy. I’m short like he is and my speaking voice is similar to his because we come from the same town: we both have Long Island accents. Our singing range and style are similar, although I don’t know why or how I have that tone; I guess I’m lucky.
Then again, when you think about it, in all of Billy’s songs he’s trying to sound like someone else. In “New York State of Mind” he tries to sound like Ray Charles. In the original version of “Summer, Highland Falls,” he sounds like Jackson Browne. He has that Southern California accent: you can tell from his sharp consonants. In other songs he sounds like Paul McCartney or John Lennon. It’s another reason you can throw in the jar why so many people love him: he’s always changing things up.
So when we do “New York State of Mind” I try to do Billy doing Ray. When I do “Piano Man” I do Billy doing [fellow Long Islander] Harry Chapin, who was a big influence on him when he was starting out. I’ve had a talent for imitation for a long time. When I was younger I was kind of obsessed with singing, and sounding, like other artists; even to this day my wife tells me I sound more like Don Henley than I do Billy. I could do imitations of people, too. When I was a kid my friends would make me imitate President Carter; I could really draw an audience that way.
Q: Do you keep close tabs on Billy’s very public non-musical adventures: the marriages and the divorces and the vehicular accidents, including the time he crashed his 1967 Citroen into a house on a rainy Long Island night? :
A: I know he’s way ahead of me in the marriage department. He’s on number four. I’m on number two. He takes more chances [laughs]. If this one doesn’t work out, no way am I going to get married again.
I met Billy once, in the winter of 2014 in Raleigh [N.C.]; I know his personal assistant. We hung out for about 15 minutes. I didn’t want to turn it into an interview. I didn’t want to come off as a giddy fan, even though I am He’s not comfortable with fan worship If anything he asked me more about what we do with his music. In some ways he’s just a regular guy. He gets in car accidents. He likes to treat people like he likes to be treated. He’s just an average Joe who happens to be a musical genius.
Q: Can you think of one or two of your most memorable, meaningful “Stranger” gigs?
A: Recently, in Evans, Ga., we played “Goodnight Saigon” with veterans onstage singing the chorus with us, the way they do with Billy and his band. That was very moving. On another occasion we were doing a show in Charlotte that was attended by a group of college friends from Maryland. Their friend who had organized the trip had died in a boating accident a week earlier and they asked me if we could play “The Downeaster Alexa” [off the 1990 album “Storm Front”], their friend’s favorite Billy song. We did and they taped it and sent it to his family. That was very moving, too.
Q: So, Mike, what tops your Bucket List?
A: You know, before I started the whole tribute band thing I wanted to play to a giant crowd and have that feeling of accomplishment at the same time. I never realized I could be doing this for 10 years and still cherish the experience. In 2015 we played outdoors at SteelStacks in Bethlehem for something like 8,000 people—which they said was a record number. We opened with “Allentown” and the crowd was singing so loud I stopped singing—I didn’t even bother. I guess my top Bucket List wish would be to get the feeling I got that night at every single show. If that could come true, you wouldn’t have to pay me.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List?
A: Bullies. You see them when they give speeches, when you cross the street and they cut you off and flip you [the bird]. Bullies picked on me when I was growing up because I was such a short kid; I got by with my mouth and my wit. I disdain them. I think all people should be kind to all others.
I’ll tell you what–let’s pad it out to bigoted bullies. I don’t like those guys either.
Mike Santoro: The Scoop
His first main instrument was a drum kit.
He once owned a cassette of the 1970 album “Attila,” the only LP released by Billy Joel’s namesake heavy-metal duo, a universally reviled record that Joel has disowned as “psychedelic bullshit.”
He attended his first Joel concert in 1997 at Madison Square Garden, where Joel has a monthly residency. That night Joel played “Until the Night,” one of Santoro’s desert island tunes.
He plays Joel songs in Face 2 Face, a recreation of Joel’s duo concerts with Elton John.
He once performed Joel’s “Angry Young Man” at a Long Island club with Big Shot, an 18-year-old Joel tribute band led by multi-instrumentalist Mike DelGuidice, whose devotion to Joel songs and uncanny Joel-like vocals have earned him a spot in Joel’s band.
He agrees with Joel that the piano can be a cruel beast, an attack dog with 88 teeth. And, like Joel, his concert motto is “Don’t Take Any Shit from Anybody!”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite Billy Joel songs include “Why Judy Why,” “The Entertainer,” “Souvenir,” “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Vienna,” “Until the Night,” “This Night,” “All for Leyna,” “Laura,” “Surprises,” “Where’s the Orchestra?,” “A Matter of Trust,” “Baby Grand” and “River of Dreams.” He can be reached at email@example.com.