Behind The Song: Billy Joel, “New York State of Mind”

Written by Billy Joel

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New York City has a charm all its own. Legendary singer-songwriter Billy Joel had been living in Los Angeles for a few years back in the early 1970s, but he felt the east coast city gently tugging on his heart. Once he moved back home, he was inspired to write a dedication amidst the city’s own turmoils with crime and drugs.

“A lot of bad things were happening in New York then. There was a lot of crime. Drugs were out of control. The city looked bad; it was really dirty. It almost defaulted, financially,” he told Newsday in 2015. “It really needed a boost, and I wanted to write an anthem for it.”

Joel was literally taking a Greyhound on his way back to Highland Falls, which lies roughly 90 minutes north of the city, when he began jotting down the song’s initial barebones. “It’s the one I wrote in like 15 minutes,” he said in a Howard Stern interview during his 2010 promo stop. “It was the day I moved back from California to New York. I’m sitting on the bus… and I started scribbling in a notebook. I got to the house where my wife was waiting. I said, ‘I got to write this song right now.’”

“New York State of Mind” was not the only song to be inspired by his cross-country move. Much of his 1976 studio album, Turnstiles, harkened to the rejuvenation and thrill of returning back home after time away. Sultry saxophone and the swell of piano and strings work to evoke a sense of intoxicating whimsy for simpler, more grounded times of home and what that means in adulthood. “It was so easy living day by day,” he croons. “Out of touch with the rhythm and blues / But now, I need a little give and take / The New York Times, The Daily News / It comes down to reality / And it’s fine with me / ‘Cause I’ve let it slide.”

Of course, over the decades, the song has taken on various meanings. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the ballad became an anthem of patriotism. “When we did [the song] at that telethon immediately after 9/11 [The Concert for New York City], everybody was just about in tears trying to get through the song,” he said in the same Newsday story. “We did it as blues, rather than doing it as a standard. We played it kind of downbeat and soft and slow, almost like an elegy. It was difficult to get through.”

He added, “I just kept staring at the fireman’s helmet on the piano, and I just kept thinking, ‘Just look at the helmet, just look at the helmet. Don’t think about what you’re feeling right now. Think about the guy who wore that helmet and do the song.’”

“New York State of Mind” was never released as an official album single, but it has become one of the most enduring classics. The song was later re-recorded for Joel’s Greatest Hits: Volume 1 & 2 (1985 and 1997) with the iconic saxophone solo (originally played by Richie Cannata) swapped with a new sax line. Reportedly, there are three versions of the saxophone part.

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