Since he turned 64 the other day (cue the Beatles!) it seemed appropriate to showcase some Billy Joel songs I’ve been enjoying recently (which you may or may not recognize) and to try to capture in one humble little blog post why I’m such a fan.
As a child, I never listened to secular radio, and my knowledge of popular secular music was shaky beyond the 1940s. So my earliest memory of hearing Billy Joel’s music goes back a mere 5-7 years. I was hanging out with a neo-classical composer friend at a university roadhouse. We took turns making fun of the songs on the radio. Then the first few bars of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” started playing. My friend paused, listening intently. “This…” he said, pointing to the speaker. “This is a great song.”
I paid close attention, and for about seven minutes, I was dazzled by the musical artistry of what I was hearing. (If perchance you’re unfamiliar with this mini-epic masterpiece of pop/rock, click here, or here if you prefer live. I’ll wait.)
I’d heard of Billy Joel, but up until that point he was basically just a name to me. It was around the same time that I can remember listening closely to his signature song, “Piano Man,” digesting it and analyzing it until the music and lyrics were a permanent part of the furniture of my mind.
For quite a while, those two songs were the only hooks I had to hang the name “Billy Joel” on. But what hooks! Even now, I would argue that they stand out as the crown jewels in his catalogue. But through the years, as I listened to more music, more songs of his trickled into my collection, one by one. My mother dear introduced me to “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” I stumbled across “New York State of Mind” when I was listening to Garth Brooks and found their live duet. And so on. But it wasn’t until this year that I decided I really hadn’t discovered Billy Joel in earnest, and that needed to change. One catalyst was his 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy relief concert performance of “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” It was the first time I’d heard the song, and I was blown away, even though it wasn’t even his best performance of it (that would be Carnegie Hall, 1977). Then it dawned on me: “Isn’t this the third or fourth time I’ve been blown away by a Billy Joel song? All these years and I don’t even think I’ve heard ten of his songs put together!”
Now that I’ve heard many more than ten of his songs, I will freely admit that not all of them are to my taste (morally or aesthetically) and I like some of his “phases” better than others. Nevertheless, I’m constantly in awe of his versatility, melodic genius, and raw talent (which, IMO, were most fully displayed in the 70s, peaking with The Stranger). Let’s just say that I envy someone whose bad songs are still so smartly crafted I can’t get them out of my head. Perhaps in some ways, his gift for making memorable tunes has made it harder for him to get his due as a true artist. (That or the existence of “Just the Way You Are,” which, let it be noted, he only recorded at the insistence of Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow.) Somehow, Bruce Springsteen got all the critical love Billy Joel deserved, because apparently, tuneless rambling is more “artistic” than seamlessly blending pop, rock, jazz and classical music to create real art—but I digress. I mean, this guy could write in any style. From Bach to Bob Dylan, from Gershwin to Gordon Lightfoot, from the Stones to the Supremes… there is a Billy Joel song for everything. And not only could he write any style, he could sing any style. (Ironically, he never liked his own voice and said this was why he always tried to sound like someone else. Friend and label-mate Paul Simon begged to differ, saying Joel’s voice was grossly underrated. I’m with Paul on this one.)
Admit it: That’s talent. Moreover, that’s someone who truly loves music. This is another reason why I’m a fan. Setting his personal demons aside, I respect Billy Joel as an artist who’s passionate about his craft, and passionate about keeping it pure. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he resolutely refused to mix politics with music. At a multi-artist event in 70s Cuba, Joel watched his peers walk out and deliver carefully prepped pro-communist speeches in Spanish, to minimal crowd response. When it was his turn, he turned to the audience and simply said, “No hablo Espanol.” Then he immediately launched into his set, whereupon the kids all rushed the stage. When he performed in Soviet Russia during the glasnost period, he sat cross-legged on the stage while the press asked him political questions, becoming progressively more impatient until he finally asked, “Does anyone have a question about music?” As I’ve mentioned before, he’s one of the best teachers in the business, if not the best. Sometimes I can’t tell which gives him more pleasure—playing music for a crowd or just talking about music to a crowd. At 64, I get the sense that he’s leaning towards the latter.
Travelin’ Prayer: In his early days, Billy dipped his toe in country/western with great results. This song was later covered by Dolly Parton. Here’s my favorite performance. (Check out the hair!)
The Downeaster Alexa: Here’s a music video for one of Joel’s few great 80s songs. Written as a neo-folk song with some Celtic flair, it tells the story of the Long Island fishermen, pushed out of work through a combination of circumstances beyond their control. I found it interesting to read that Joel is an avid sailor who actually made friends with many of the fishermen and consulted with one fishing captain about some of the song’s nautical turns of phrase.
The Ballad of Billy the Kid: This gloriously ridiculous, Aaron Copland-esque concoction of truth and fiction about Billy the Kid is so presumptuously epic that it actually works. Only Billy could do it:
Here’s a playlist with four more, including two of his finest love ballads (“She’s Got a Way” and “She’s Always a Woman”), an acapella doo-wop hit featuring his vocals on all parts (“For the Longest Time”), and finally, a lullaby for his daughter entitled “Goodnight My Angel,” one of the last songs he wrote before the well dried up. There’s some sad backstory behind that last one, but I think I’ll save it for another day.
Finally, for those of you who appreciate Jewish humor and don’t mind some off-key singing, you might enjoy this amateur video of a Purim play (in three parts) telling the story of Esther entirely with Billy Joel spoofs. Some of my favorites include the introductory “And We Would All Eat Lunch Together,” “Scenes From a Persian Restaurant,” “We’ll Make the King Die Young,” “Angry Haman,” “(I Am) Of Abraham” and the closer, “It’s the Same Purim Spiel to Me.” For die-hard fans, there are also plenty more hat tips in between staged numbers, including deep album cuts almost nobody would recognize. (Yes, I recognized every reference but one or two. And with that, I’ll close this post before I scare any more readers!)