How I Stopped Hating And Learned To Love Billy Joel
The Piano Man symbolized everything I hated about living on Long Island – until his music itself won me over.
Like every child of Long Island, I was issued a copy of Billy Joel's Greatest Hits on my eighth birthday, as required by law in a special joint session of the Nassau and Suffolk County legislatures. This was the way of things where I grew up. It was a land of Catholic girls and Italian restaurants, strip malls and the Miracle Mile -- a place where I can remember exactly who bought me my ALF stuffed animal (Grandma, who I've since been told almost refused to do so on the grounds that ALF is too ugly to be a stuffed animal; she later bought me Appetite for Destruction for Easter when I was in the fifth grade, so her aesthetics were obviously flexible) but where the condensed cassette version of BJ's GH vol. I&II might as well have magically appeared under my pillow like a gift from a Massapequa-based Tooth Fairy. On Long Island, listening to native son Billy Joel –on the radio, on your parents' records, on your friend's boom box, on your walkman – was as much the default as putting on pants in the morning. You did it without ever imagining that you might not.
I was fine with this, for a while, the way you're fine with going to church because everybody else does. And the same way I liked the hand-shaking part of Mass more than the homily, there were Billy moments I could enjoy more than others. The sci-fi weirdness and Sesame-Street-on-Channel-13 shoutouts (hey, that's the channel I watched it on!) of "Pressure," Joel's stab at being Gary Numan or something, intrigued me the way Darth Vader or Cobra Commander did, while the buoyant WCBS 101.1FM oldie-isms of "Uptown Girl" and "Tell Her About It" were like taking a car ride with your mom in musical form.
That was more than enough to tide me over through the stuff that didn't sit right. Like any good Irish boy I was raised to be horribly, horribly racist against Italians, so I didn't have much truck with "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)"; I was also raised to be a goody-two-shoes, so "Only the Good Die Young" pretty profoundly disturbed me; and when it came to his schmaltzy a-time-and-a-place homages, for me they hit (the inescapable Cheers-isms of "Piano Man," the impeccably smooth "New York State of Mind") only slightly more often than they missed (I don't think I ever had any kind of emotional reaction to "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" whatsoever).
Then this happened.
My relationship with "We Didn't Start the Fire," Joel's colossal listicle in song form from 1989, was like a really good horror movie: Everything is upbeat and exciting at first, until the first few discordant notes of oncoming disaster start up, and before long you're strapped in for an unstoppable nosedive into inevitable, inescapable death and destruction. Whether you thought of it as a geopolitical "McDonald's Menu Song" or as the USA Today to "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"'s New Yorker, you can at least see how its torrent of lyrics and images and references was appealing to smart kids who wanted to get a little smarter while they sang along to the radio. Me and some other kids in my gifted class even rewrote the lyrics to be about Nintendo ("Kid I-car-us, Mother Brain/Who can win this silly game").
Then my little brother discovered it, and played it, literally, for hours on end. Before long I developed A Clockwork Orange-style aversion via immersion and started drawing pictures of robots that could sense and destroy any audio playback device that emitted so much as a note of the godforsaken thing. That was the beginning of the end for me and Billy, whom I could no longer see as anything but the person who'd recorded the most annoying song I'd ever heard.
That was at the beginning of middle school. By the end, Billy didn't have a prayer with me. "Alternative" had emerged as a musical and cultural identity option and I grabbed on to it with both hands, because I'd come to link the bullies who'd mocked and hit me in elementary school and the popular kids who ostracized and ignored me in middle school with the culture that created them. This meant more than mainstream culture in general, but Long Island culture in particular. The people I despised dressed preppy and played lacrosse, sang along to pop-rock hits on the radio, and were capable of having a good time at school functions because school basically is set up to make people like them happy. Suddenly little could be more loathsome to me than Brenda and Eddie, the popular steadies and the king and queen at the prom from "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," a sing-along fave of every normal girl I knew, promising a rueful but worth-it look back at a happy adolescence that was totally alien to me. As Long Island's unofficial poet laureate, Billy symbolized everything I didn't want to be; I reacted to hearing him on the radio or stereo the way Ginsberg reacted to the shitty Beatles knockoff band on Mad Men.
So it went for a decade. I endured four years at the all-boys high-school alma mater of Bill O'Reilly, which had a terrific after-school drama program, a crackerjack English department, and a religion teacher who once told us, and I'm directly quoting here, "The Inquisition had its good points" because unlike the Holocaust, Jews were given the chance to convert rather than getting killed outright. During that time I wanted so badly to distance myself from normal kids that I didn't even drink; in my hometown this was like shaving my head into a monk's tonsure and wearing sackcloth. I went off to college, where I became even more insufferably judgmental, if you can believe it. After graduation I moved back home to Long Island, living with my parents and subsisting on fast food between visits to the apartment of my girlfriend (who'd gotten a job teaching at my old school's all-girl equivalent in order to be closer to me) and stints as a production assistant on movies and TV shows in the City. None of this made me any more favorably inclined to "She's Always a Woman to Me," nahmean.
Then a chance encounter with the film Velvet Goldmine – a movie I'd seen and dismissed with a headscratch when it played at my college's arthouse theater a few years earlier – while flipping through my folks' Cablevision package late one night in the fall of 2000 got me into David Bowie, and completely changed my life. The more I listened to Bowie, the more albums I bought and biographies I read, the more inspiring – liberating! – I found his approach to art and life: find the stuff that excites you, incorporate it into yourself, and feel completely free to rearrange or remix or discard it entirely the moment you find something even more exciting. Wanna do a junkie-glam rock opera about 1984 one year, a Philly soul pastiche the next, and an aristocratic occultist's idea of a disco record the year after that? Go right ahead!
And so it was that, after ten years in the wilderness, I came home to Billy Joel.
Here's a guy who's every bit as immune to the siren song of establishing a fixed, "cool" identity as Bowie, but in his case it's not through an intellectual rejection of the concept, but simply because he's congenitally incapable of being that cool. I mean, The Thin White Duke he ain't. Not even close.
Joel's strength isn't style, but craft and enthusiasm. He loves rock and roll, and the broader pop songwriting tradition, so a) he learned a lot about writing in those traditions, and b) he applied what he learned so that his songs deliver what he loves about them to an audience that loves them as much as he does. As such he has pretty much zero hope of ever being critically rehabilitated the way even as square an act as, say, Hall and Oates has been – Darryl Hall is a specialist who became a star because people were attracted to the thing he specialized in, Billy Joel a generalist who became a star because he offered the musical equivalent of a Chinese-food menu – the perfect iTunes artist. He'll always be out of bounds, which makes exploring his stuff so freeing.
"It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" is one of my big Billy turnaround touchstones. I love the stark, minimalist bounce of the song – the bass bum-b'bum-b'bumming along with the occasional brush of a guitar fretboard or an organ's keys or snappy handclaps shading things out. Lyrically, a bifurcated Billy trades advice and insults with a hipper, harsher version of himself before coming to the eminently sensible conclusions that fashion is dictated by money and the genetic lotto, and that the same underlying spirit moves good music of whatever kind. I know that lines like "Hot funk, cool punk" read like an embarrassing exposure of his lack of understanding of either funk or punk – good! He's saying he's found common ground with this stuff despite it being largely baffling to him, while confidently calling bullshit on the boundaries constructed around them as the anti-rock-and-roll artifices they really are. What a great goddamn attitude that is. Hot, hot sax solo from Richie Cannata, too – I just love the way Billy slides in with an "oooooooooh" at the end, like he can't resist trying to get in on the action.
"Big Shot" is another major player for me. It shares "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"'s contempt for scenesterism, but here that contempt is all-consuming – a double-barreled shotgun blast of schadenfreude for a coked-up socialite whose arrogance finally caught up with her. (The fact that it's a "her" adds a whole 'nother wrinkle to the story.) I find the lyrics hilariously sardonic: "The story of your latest success, it kept 'em so entertained," "I'll give you one hint, honey: You sure did put on a show" – I mean, you can practically hear the eyerolls. On the verses the guitars practically spit out their notes, until the bass the lead on a chorus that abandons syncopation entirely, hitting on the one and three like a pounding hangover headache. There's a great little bridge section with a skittering sax and an incongruous "oh-oh-oh" vocal. There's a part where he adopts the accent of an Italian grandmother smacking someone on the back of the head. Everything about this song screams "YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE." That's an extremely useful sentiment to have in your musical arsenal. (Dig maniac drummer Liberty DeVitto in the background, too.)
Both of those songs demonstrate one of Joel's great strengths as a songwriter: He never spends a section of a song phoning it in. Bridges and middle-eights aren't filler (please pay attention, indie rock bands of today who barely even bother with them!), they're a chance to cram another hook in there, or to shift musical gears, or to work in lyrics that don't fit in the meter of the rest of the song. Take "The Longest Time," Billy's really enormously effective and affectionate pastiche of doo-wop from his monster hit 1983 record An Innocent Man. (Seriously, that thing spawned seven singles, like it was Thriller or something.) Joel's ability to keep all his songwriting plates spinning was already evident with his multitracked backing vocals – I think this was the first song where I memorized the harmony before the melody – but the bridge sections are the best part of the song. Listen to how he couches the lovely, down-to-earth romanticism of the lyric "You're wonderful so far, and it's more than I hoped for" in a melodic line that gently descends back into the lower notes of the main melody, like slipping into something more comfortable. That's the kind of romance he's singing about! Function follows form.
Of course, Joel is also a fucking beast on the piano. Despite retiring from pop/rock recording in 1993, it still seems like Billy has spent the following two decades playing the stadiums and arenas of the tri-state area more frequently than the teams they were built for, and beyond the hometown-hero angle the reason he can pull this off is because he figured out a way to make piano-based songcraft into arena rock -- as physical and driving as Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, but with an appreciation for rock-opera theatrics, for the kind of thing enormous audiences will shout "YEAAAAAAAHHHHHH!" at.
There's no better example of that than the opening of "Angry Young Man," a breakneck race through keyboard riffs (that's the best word for them, he's playing the thing like a guitar) that cycles through more memorable, intense hooks before the vocals even kick in than many bands can manage over the course of entire albums. The lyrics combine a jittery, caffeinated rhythm with a witheringly cynical, almost irresponsibly nihilistic rejection of political activism as a waste of everyone's time. It's a tough message to get behind even as it evokes everything from the Who's "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" to the Sex Pistols' "no future," but tell me you don't know exactly the kind of joyless, self-marginalized character he's talking about.
At its heart, Joel's ability to wed enormously theatrical, crowd-pleasing bombast to bitter sketches of dissatisfied human beings was a precursor to much of today's musical theater, from the sublime (Next to Normal) to the ridiculous (Glee). Damn him or praise him for that, depending, but it was an approach way ahead of its time – the same way his mutual antagonism with the critical establishment anticipated hip-hop's firm anti-hater stance, or how you anyone with a time machine and a sense of humor could swap Billy Joel circa 1979 for the Strokes' Albert Hammond Jr. and leave no one the wiser.
Which is not to say he was some kind of trailblazer. LOL! Part of the pleasure of listening to Billy Joel is watching him sponge up other songwriters – the Gershwins, Lennon/McCartney, Taupin/John, Springsteen – and run them through his own impeccable, populist craftsmanship (who cares that these were already some of the most populist songwriters who ever lived? Joel's populism goes to eleven) and his point of view as a person who would never, ever be invited to sit at the cool kids' table. His "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Down on Broadway)" is basically a DNA splice of a big Elton John barnburner, say "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" or the closing half of "Funeral for a Friend," with Bruce Springsteen's tear-down-the-sky mythologization of Manhattan, "Jungleland." But Joel's command of those musical vocabularies, and his ability to seem as authentic in talking about the psychological architecture of New York City as any lifelong commuter (I speak from experience here), gives his Frankensteinian hodgepodge a life of its own.
While we're talking about this song, dig his performance of "Miami 2017" during the post-9/11 Concert for NYC. First of all, dude sang a song about the destruction of Manhattan after the destruction of part of Manhattan. That's right out there on the knife edge of catharsis is what that is. Second, check out how he struts on stage with a coffee cup in one hand, pumping his fist and making an UNF face –overweight balding goateed Long Island dad swag.
I've even started to enjoy his soft rock – certainly more than that of his piano-playing partner in stadium tours Elton John, whose tendnecy to oversing and understructure, hitting notes too hard and holding them too long, got the best of him rather rapidly. Joel may work hard to entertain but his voice is a breeze – I love the smoothness he developed to compensate for any Lawn Guyland vowels – and again, those bridges are murder. (As a bonus, the above clip for "My Life" uses Billy's Isaac Hayes-circa-"Psychedelicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" groove from "Stiletto" as an intro.)
The thing I appreciate most about Joel as a rock star, though, is that he's just a down dude who's lived an interesting yet accessible life, the kind of person you'd happily jaw with on line at King Kullen and leave thinking "Man – love talking to that guy." Son of immigrants, including one whose family fled the Nazis. Raised in a Levitt house in the improbably named town of Hicksville, NY. (Here on Long Island we forget how funny that is.) Culturally but not religiously Jewish – I think he was baptized as a teenager but never bar mitzvah'd, somehow. High school dropout. Golden Gloves boxer who quit after someone broke his nose. Originally in a power duo called Attila that had a song called "Godzilla." (And wasn't that a find in my uncle's old record collection at my grandparent's house!) Attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish. Married his ex-bandmate's ex-wife. Dated Elle MacPherson before marrying Christie Brinkley. Twice-rehabbed serial Amanda Bynes-style car-crasher (hugely irresponsible and sad, I know, but as far as rock-star excesses go his post-retirement DUIs are as relatable as they get).
Even his relatively rare protest moments are redolent of just some dude who got fed up with the bullshit. He stopped a performance at the 1994 Grammys in its tracks to protest the broadcast for cutting Frank Sinatra off earlier in the show. His big political cause: the distinctly unglamorous protest of regulations that hurt Long Island's commercial bass fishermen. And though I can find no trace of it online, author of a letter to Rolling Stone on the anniversary of John Lennon's murder that I so vividly remember reading in my dad's copy of the magazine as a kid, the gist of which was simply "I love the Beatles and John Lennon, they gave us so many good things, the guy who shot him took that away and contributed nothing to the world but sadness, fuck him, we shouldn't even remember his name." It was the point of view of an unabashed fan, a person who thought of his favorite artists as an integral part of his life and hated to lose them and wasn't ashamed of that in any way.
That letter resonated with me even when I couldn't have cared less about Joel himself. I feel lucky to have gotten to a point in my life – married, a father, a homeowner in Levittown, one town away from where Billy grew up – where I can allow in the rest of what he did to resonate as well.