Saturday, April 12, 2008

Defending the Piano Man

This July, Billy Joel will play the final concert at Shea Stadium – most famous (musically) for the Beatles’ 1965 concert.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that think Billy Joel is a cheesy pop singer utterly lacking in street cred; and those that can’t imagine why Joel – who has sold 150 million records, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by the coolest musician of the 20th century, won 6 Grammys, sold out Madison Square Garden a record 12 consecutive nights and married Christie Brinkley - could possibly need defense.

Wait… there is a third kind…as personified by Slate music critic Jody Rosen, who grew up loving Billy Joel, but when she got to college was informed that Elvis Costello didn't like him and promptly threw out her collection.

Damnit - this whole “there are two kinds of people in this world” motif is not working at all. For I am a fourth kind. Like Ms. Rosen, I grew up on Long Island digging Billy Joel, and I too went to college where my musical horizon expanded and realized that Billy Joel was exactly the sort of person the Clash were pissed off about. But unlike Ms. Rosen, I did not slink off in shame. He still has an un-ironic place in my collection.

(Shoot. There’s a fifth kind too: people who don't give a crap.)

So I guess I’m not really here to defend Billy Joel – I’m here to defend liking him. I realize it’s a ridiculous exercise on some level – I should be trumpeting the virtues of great artists who never found a large audience, like Richard Thompson, rather than a man that ranks 6th on the all-time best-selling list. But hey – us Long Islanders gotta watch out for our own.

You see, part of my attraction to Joel is purely parochial. Every musician comes from someplace, but that doesn’t mean the music is from that place. Frank Sinatra may have been born and bred in Hoboken but you’d never know it from his catalogue. The Beatles’ Liverpudlian roots are barely visible in their music or lyrics.

But other musicians are definitively from a specific place. Bruce and Jersey, of course. The Beach Boys and Southern California. Paul Simon has been influenced by music all over the world, but he’s a Queens boy at heart and his music shows it.

Billy Joel, like me, is a Long Island boy, a Nassau County south shore boy to be precise, and he views the Island, the City, and the whole Metropolitan area through those roots. I understand that’s not the coolest place on earth, but it’s where I’m from.

(Lou Reed’s a South Shore boy too - he grew up in Freeport - but when he sings about New York, it’s not my New York. I’m sorry, but I didn’t hang out at CBGB’s in the 70’s with skinny boys in eyeliner.)

I lived in Billy Joel’s New York, and he nails the place and its people in so many of his songs. I hung out at the Village Green (my high school is up the block from Joel’s), knew girls like Virginia, and delivered the edition of the Daily News with the “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” headline that inspired my favorite Joel song, Miami 2017 (The Night the Lights Went Out on Broadway), in which he imagines what would happen if, indeed, New York dropped dead. Here’s a snippet:

Seen the lights go out on Broadway-
I watched the mighty skyline fall.
The boats were waiting at the Battery,
The union went on strike-
They never sailed at all.
They sent a carrier out from Norfolk-
And picked the Yankees up for free.
They said that Queens could stay,They blew the Bronx away-
And sank Manhattan out at sea....
You know those lights were bright on Broadway-
But that was so many years ago...
Before we all lived here in Florida-
Before the Mafia took over Mexico.

I am a card-carrying Yankee-hater, but even I have to admit no other New York team works in that line.

Four-Tool Player
I’m also a big fan of what I call 4-tool players in music – guys and gals who write the music, write the lyrics, sing the song, and play the instrument.

Mick Jagger is a special guy, but he’s only a 2-tool guy, and anyone who has endured one of Mick’s solo records understands that he’s the musical equivalent of a DH. It’s like watching David Ortiz flop around first base with a borrowed mitt. The rock and roll pantheon is filled with DHs – Elvis Presley, Bono, even talented musicians like Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen. The guy Joel is most compared to, Elton John, needed Bernie Taupin in the back room to “put down in words” the lyrics to his songs.

Joel plays a mean piano, of course, and even Ms. Rosen acknowledges he’s practically a savant when it comes to writing melody. He’s not a poet, but his lyrics can be touching and funny, but music fans will be singing along to Piano Man long after Elvis Costello has faded to an asterisk. His voice handles the slow numbers better than the fast ones, but it does the job.

In the age of American Idol, when all you all need is a good voice and a decent back-story to become a star, I like the 4-tool guys.

Baby Grand
Billy Joel could have been born at any time and been a successful musician. His real crime, from a critics’ perspective, is that he was born in a time when piano-playing rock stars were deeply out of fashion.

Piano got off to a great start in rock and roll. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were terrifying parents and inspiring air pianists long before the guitar secured its place as the ultimate rock instrument. By the 70’s, few major rock bands had a pianist in its core lineup, and those that did (Skynyrd, Petty, The Band) were still guitar-driven. The Big Four (Beatles, Stones, Zep, Who) all used hired help on the keyboards, as did the biggest bands of the 80’s and 90’s, U2 and REM. Elton John hardly helped the cause of rock star pianists with outfits like this.

One of the great albums of this period, Springsteen's Born to Run, is drenched in piano. But Bruce couldn't risk the lounge lizard associations of him and pianist Roy Bittan on the cover, so went instead with this much cooler - and now iconic - shot of Clarence and his sax.  

So along comes Joel, a pianist determined to play rock and roll. And indeed, his worst music (Movin’ Out, the entire Glass Houses album) are his attempts at pure rock and roll.

But his best music – the early stuff before The Stranger (especially as captured on Songs in the Attic), the underrated The Bridge, and his paean to the 50’s, An Innocent Man (which has grown on me over the years) – are timeless albums. They could have been released at almost any time in the 20th century.

Billy Joel, had he been born 50 years earlier, might have made even greater music. His gift for melody and his piano playing would have been just as strong – and he wouldn’t have had any temptation to add the sometimes lame rock effects we saw in songs like Sometimes a Fantasy.  Songs like She’s Got a Way, You’re My Home, and of course, Piano Man, could have been written in any decade of the 20th century. And for that reason, I suspect, he’ll hold up much longer than bands-of-their-time like the Clash.

Best of…

Like every fan of every artist, my favorite Billy Joel stuff is not the stuff you hear on the radio, but the stuff that never makes it there. So click here (iTunes required) for my own greatest-hits package for Billy Joel…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Billy Joel is the greatest songwriter of his generation. Unfortunately, like most geniuses, he will not be recognized for this until after he is gone.