Almanac Music: Billy Joel’s Souvenir – The Ultimate Collection (or, How Billy Joel Paid For My New Guitar)

The Box Set

In 1990, when I was nine years of age, I bought a music recording with my own money for the first time. Technically it wasn’t only with my money, I went halves with my elder brother, but it was the first time any of my money had gone towards my very own music. My brother and I pooled our pocket money to purchase the recently released Souvenir: The Ultimate Collection by Billy Joel. Souvenir was a box set that was ostensibly released to commemorate the Australian leg of Billy Joel’s Storm Front world tour. In reality it was actually a desperate cash grab by an artist who was rapidly realising the financial turmoil he was really in as a result of a dodgy manager.

In 1990 we didn’t have a CD player so as a means of being able to play the collection in the confines of our bedroom my brother and I sprung for the cassette version. The box set contained Billy’s Greatest Hits, Volume I & II (to this day one of my all time favourite Greatest Hits compilations), his latest album Storm Front, Live At Yankee Stadium, and a cassette of interviews. The interviews came from the time of release of each of the other items in the collection and were conducted by American disc jockey, Dan Neer.

While we loved the music contained within the box set, it was probably the interview cassette that got more of a listen than any other. My brother and I had a real thing for spoken word recordings. We were devotees of The 12th Man and The D-Generation, we knew The 12th Man Again and The Satanic Sketches word for word, and we came to know the Billy Joel interviews in the same way. There were a number of life lessons contained in Billy’s insights but the interviews were also funny.

We found one of the nuggets of humour in Billy’s apparently increasing disinterest with his interviewer, Dan Neer. The beauty of having recordings spanning four or five years adds to that. By the time they get to Yankee Stadium it sounds like Mr. Joel barely even knows (or cares) who Mr. Neer is. Another layer was added to this appreciation when we discovered an interview Dan Neer recorded with New York thrash metal band, Anthrax, in which they didn’t even try to hide their politely disdainful mocking. Needless to say, we knew that recording off by heart as well.

The Broken Guitar

In 1998 I turned 18. My parents’ gift for my milestone birthday was brand new Yamaha acoustic guitar. I’d been playing guitar for about five years by that time but the only instrument in my possession was a cheap acoustic I’d borrowed from my aunty. It was brutal to play. The action was set such that the strings were a good few millimetres higher than the fretboard. That may not sound much but when your teenage fingers have to press them down to the wood to get a sound it really leaves a mark.

I loved the guitar Mum and Dad gave me. It stayed in tune, it sounded crisp and I didn’t need a vice-like grip to get a sound out go it. That crispness, that sound, that newness lasted about a month. My birthday, when I was given the guitar, was in August. In September came HSC trial exams, which meant performance assessments for music. That involved my music class going to the local conservatorium of music for the day. While we waited for our turns to perform in front of the assessment panel we gathered in a break room.

As I sat there, thankfully having already performed, I had my guitar out of its cased leaning against my chair. One of my classmates walked past and bumped it and it hit the floor. Hard. Now, in my time I’ve knocked over guitars countless times, so I can’t be mad at this chap, but this had to be the one time a guitar gets knocked over that it actually gets damaged. When I picked it up I saw a hairline fracture at the top of the neck, just below where it meets the head. My brand new, pristine guitar was now tainted. From that point I had to put a capo on the second fret, just below the crack, and tune the guitar accordingly. It worked well enough, but it always bothered me.

Roughly a year later I was living in Albury to attend university. One night, for a reason that still escapes me, one of my flatmates was standing on the couch in the living room. My guitar was sitting face down on the floor below him. When he stepped off the couch his foot landed fair and square on the crack in the neck. It was no longer a fracture, it was a clean break. The head of the guitar hung there as I imagine Dane Rampe’s arm did when he took on that chain and came off second best. I was distraught.

Almost immediately my other housemate came to the rescue. He had been a handy cricketer at school, he’d even gone on a schoolboy tour of England, and he’d seen this sort of thing before with cricket bats. The trick to salvaging a broken bat handle was wrap it tightly with twine to keep it held together. Incredibly, we used the same method on that Yamaha guitar, wrapping the first two frets in green twine, putting the capo back where it was, and it worked. I used that guitar for the best part of the next 10 years.

 

The New Guitar

In early 2008 my wife and I moved from Bunyip, in west Gippsland, back to our home town of Wagga, in NSW. While we lived in Bunyip I completed an apprenticeship as a baker. Let me tell you, working as baker is a hard slog. Getting out of bed to go to work at anywhere between midnight and 5am and learning to function on four hours sleep at a time is hard. When I worked as baker I would always intend to sleep on the days when I’d get home before midday. I rarely did. More often, with the house to myself, I’d grab my guitar with the twine still holding intact and record music on my computer. That guitar had served me well but by that time I’d decided if I ever came into a bit of money I would definitely replace it.

While the life of a baker can be hard, it is a very handy trade to get into. It turns out that once a baker is qualified they just about walk into a job anywhere they want. This is because the hours are so punishing that only a small percentage of those that start an apprenticeship actually finish it, so qualified bakers are like gold. A couple of months before we moved back to Wagga my wife and I went up there for a few days to visit family and suss out potential employment and housing.

I saw an ad placed by a local bakery chain looking for a qualified baker. When I rang to inquire about the position “DA BOSS”, as I later learned this gentleman self-referred on his Facebook page, practically fell over himself to give me the job. Even when I clarified with him that I wouldn’t be able to start for another two months his spirits were not dampened in the least. A day or two later I went to meet with him in person and it felt like I was interviewing him for the job. He went to great lengths to espouse his strengths as a worker while all I could think was, “Mate, chill out. You’ve already got the job.”

Once I started working at this bakery I found much less enjoyment compared to the bakery where I had worked in Warragul. Da Boss had decided it would be more efficient to have only two workers doing the amount of work that my previous place of employment had deemed was the load of at least three or four. Thus, what had been a gruelling but rewarding and enjoyable job had now become just gruelling. I’d often work an hour of unpaid overtime with no break. The one saving grace was that I didn’t have to work weekends (so the bosses could exploit the lower wages of the apprentices) which meant I could use my Saturdays to play footy.

While working this job I became very fond of the radio. Starting my shift at 2am I’d usually switch on ABC local radio and listen to Trevor Chappell (not the infamous cricketer). He’d see me through until dawn when I’d switch it over to the local commercial FM station, because I knew too much talk radio would really give my workmates the shits. It was on the local FM station that I found they were playing a daily call-in competition. It was one of those where the listeners would have to identify three celebrity voices.

The template for these sort of competitions is that the first two voices are relatively easy to identify, while the third is quite difficult. This was no different. The cash prize increased by $50 every day and the financial management firm that sponsored the segment got a nice little chunk of promotion. To this day I could not possibly tell you who the first two voices belonged to but immediately that I heard it I knew the third voice. That $20 investment (only $10 of it was from me) some 18 years previous was about to pay off big time.

When I first heard the competition I think the cash jackpot was at around $700 and the first two voices had been identified. Whomever could call in and get the third would pick up a tidy little wad of cash. I decided to play the long game. I was 100% certain of the voice and 90% confident that no one else was. Each day I’d listen to hapless competitors with their long shot guesses. I think the closest anyone got, as far as accent and tone, was Paul Reiser.

I held out for about two weeks, until I felt the time was right and I could find five minutes to separate myself from my workspace to make the call. The day I rang the station the jackpot had risen to around $1300.

“We’ve got Josh on the line. Who’s your guess for the third voice, Josh”

It’s not a guess, I thought to myself, I KNOW the answer.

“Yeah, hi, it’s Billy Joel.”

I had never won anything like this before. I was told to hold the line and give them my details. The DJ made a poor joke to me about taking a 20% finder’s fee out of the prize. I humoured him, “yeah, good one.” (Rather sadly he made the same joke on air the next time someone won the competition, it was met with much the same response).

I made my way down to the local financial management firm and happily received my winnings. One of the staff chewed my air for a little while about investing my money in a mutual fund, to which I replied with a barely convincing “thanks for that, it’s something for me to think about.” (The Global Financial Crisis was only months away, so I think I made the right decision in retrospect).

I walked out of there, down the street to the local musical instrument emporium and bought myself a brand new black Yamaha acoustic with in-built pickups and a cutaway body. I even had enough left over to purchase a multi-effect unit. I still strum the acoustic to this day. Thank you very much, Billy Joel.

A day or two later, once news had spread, Da Boss commented on my winnings. Of most interest to him was that I’d made a phone call during work time. Prick. I lasted at that job for a grand total of eight months and never looked back when I left.

 

About Josh Pinn

Blogger and Podcaster for footygospel.com

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    You should have held on for a few more weeks Josh, you might have been able to buy a car.

  2. As it turns out, Swish, I also got a nice tax return that year and was able to buy a car with it. I only recently got rid of it. It served me well.

  3. bob.speechley says:

    Great reflection on your experience Josh. I saw Billy Joel at Festival Hall in the 80s. A memorable evening.

  4. Chris Rees says:

    Great story, you have led (and continue to lead) an interesting and varied life. I wonder if the sponsors pitch their services to people who nail the quiz in week 1?

  5. Dave Brown says:

    Nice win and great writing, Josh. Reckon I saw him on that tour at Memorial Drive (the tennis centre next to Adelaide Oval). It was a great venue for concerts.

  6. Luke Reynolds says:

    Fantastic read Josh. Have the cassettes survived?
    I’m slightly older than you (2 years), the 12th Man on cassette was a huge part of my life around the same time.
    The black Yahama looks superb.

  7. Well played Josh. Excellent strategy in jagging that cash. In terms of winning FM radio prizes the best I’ve heard of is someone scoring from a Black Thunder an icy cold can of coke.

    I, too, have affection for Billy Joel, and his longer, anthemic tunes like “Goodnight Saigon” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Yes, they’re probably a bit dated, and self-conscious, but they connect.

  8. Rick Kane says:

    Love it Josh. Buying cassette box set in 1990 and of Billy Joel! Could you be dagger? Judd Aptow would buy this story as a script. Cause you came through. And bought a guitar. Are you making this up?

    You had me cause you lived in Bunyip. Why? Which pub did you drink at, the Top pub? My family is from them there parts and I had family in Bunyip. I had a holiday there in 1978. Loved that this one street town had two pubs.

    Guitar is awesome

    Cheers

  9. I can assure you that I didn’t make any of it up, Rick.

    As far as Bunyip goes, my wife was a primary school teacher and got a job there. Bottom Pub for drinks, Top Pub for meals. It also had probably the best pizza shop and video shop I’ve ever experienced. Great town.

  10. A most enjoyable and entertaining yarn, Josh.
    Thanks for this.

  11. Rick Kane says:

    Oh i got that Josh. It was a rhetorical question. Cheers

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