New York Series: Billy Joel “New York State of Mind”

Among the songs that celebrate New York City, “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel, from his 1976 album Turnstiles, has become a fan favorite in regular rotation at his concerts, in particular at Madison Square Garden. While the song was never released as a single or a hit for that matter – Turnstiles only made it as high as 122 in the Billboard 200 – its place in Joel’s catalog and hearts of fans is firmly in place.

Rather than head down south or out west, Joel sings about preferring to take a Greyhound down the Hudson River Line.  Joel discussed “New York State of Mind” in an interview with Howard Stern in 2010, saying that he wrote the song in 15 minutes on a bus headed Upstate to his then-home of Highland Falls. While there is no Hudson Line for Greyhound Buses, the route along I-87 follows the Hudson River, and along the other side of the river would be the Metro North Hudson Line, connecting Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Station.  Perhaps Joel combined these two in order to preserve a oneness of New York’s mass transit and treat that journey like he was staying local, and for the 20-25 million who live within an hour of the Big Apple.

Joel longs for New York in “New York State of Mind,” having lived in California for the past three years. With a return home, Joel felt pride that can be felt in the emotion behind the lyrics.

Billy was born in the Bronx in 1969, grew up in Hicksville, and is one of the most famous products of Long Island. His father and mother emigrated to New York from Germany via Switzerland and Cuba during World War Two and settled in Brooklyn before moving to Long Island after Billy was born. Billy’s father returned to Europe, settling in Vienna, Austria where Billy has a famous half brother Alexander who is a classical conductor and most recently conducted the Staatstheater and Staatsorchester in Braunschweig, Germany from 2007-2014.

Billy got his start playing piano in high school, eventually dropping out despite being a good student due to a lack of credits his senior year. He was quoted in Hank Bordowitz’s biography Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man (2006) that rather than finish his credits in summer school, he would begin a career in music. “I told them, ‘To hell with it. If I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records, and you don’t need a high school diploma over there.’ (He later graduated in 1992 after submitting papers to the school board). From there, Joel joined the Echoes, the Hassles and finally the duo Atilla with Hassles drummer Jon Small. After an affair with Small’s wife, whom Joel later married, he signed with Family Records for his 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor.  

Billy Joel most memorably performed “New York State of Mind” at The Concert for New York City, the October 2001 benefit for New York City Fire and Police Departments and first responders following the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11. In 2012, Joel hit an emotional nerve once again, performing the song at 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief, held at Madison Square Garden on December 12. During the song he changed the lyrics to include Breezy Point (Queens) and Oceanside (Nassau) to great cheers from the crowd.

The influence of New York is present throughout the lyrics of “New York State of Mind,” as the trip back to his home state moved Billy so much to pen the song in 15 minutes. His state of mind is New York-centric, as is the beginning of his career, and arguably his best years are found while living in the Empire State. Billy is a New York staple, a musician infinitely tied to New York City, Madison Square Garden, Long Island and Nassau Coliseum through many songs and albums, but none is more connected than “New York State of Mind.”

“New York State of Mind” lyrics

Some folks like to get away,
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood
But I’m takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line
I’m in a New York state of mind
I’ve seen all the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines
Been high in the Rockies under the evergreens
I know what I’m needin’, and I don’t want to waste more time
I’m in a New York state of mind
It was so easy livin’ day by day
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
I don’t care if it’s Chinatown or on Riverside
I don’t have any reasons
I left them all behind
I’m in a New York state of mind
Oh yeah