Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Billy Loves Him Some Billy


In my circle of music aficionados, liking Billy Joel is frowned upon. At best he’s overrated, a Springsteen wannabe lyricist with Elton John wannabe piano chops. At worst he’s an alcoholic dysfunctional clusterschmuck. No wait, at worst he's "The Worst Pop Singer Ever," according to Ron Rosenbaum.

The thing is, I kinda like Billy Joel, but I don’t have any snooty music aficionado justification for it, so I just don’t talk about him much in my circle. “Just ‘cuz” isn’t that great a defense, and I don't care enough about the man to fight that hard for him.

The first Joel song I remember vaguely is “Just the Way You Are” and specifically is “Pressure.” The latter shook my young world as a video in the early ’80s of MTV. (I was 10, so cut me some slack.) Riffed scenes from A Clockwork Orange and rock stars being eaten by a shag carpet can spook a pre-adolescent, OK?

Like most Gen Xers, it was An Innocent Man that carved Joel a lasting spot on my radar, yet I didn’t buy an album until Storm Front. While not a stellar cassette, it only contained two songs worth getting up and fast-forwarding, and the first side was flawlessly decent up until Garth Brooks stole “Shameless,” rendering it a much less tolerable ditty.

The real reason I like Billy Joel, however, is because Erin liked Billy Joel. Erin was my first female college buddy, a transplant from Long Island to my college dormitory in Chapel Hill. Her relatives knew Joel’s relatives on the Island or some such, so she was a huge Billy fan. She introduced me to his earlier stuff, but “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” became a chronic occurrence, our number one with a bullet as they say.

Dismiss me as blinded by phil-eros, some strange confusing mix of friendship and love, but I insist “Scenes...” is a damn fine epic... something. I don’t know if it’s pop or rock, but it’s epic and a whole lot of fun. We had a mix tape where an entire 45-minute side consisted solely of:
  • “Scenes...”
  • “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”
  • “American Pie”
  • “Purple Rain” and
  • “Bela Lugosi is Dead”
We thought those five songs proved without a doubt that we appreciated a wide range of music, even though we didn’t really care for “Bela...” and often stopped and rewound it after “Purple Rain.” We did a lot of studying to that side of the tape.

But enough about me and back to the other Billy.

If you love Billy Joel, you’ve probably already read his awesome New York Times interview published May 24. But if you find Joel to be somewhere between "Meh" and "Crap," I highly recommend you go and read it. I virtually guarantee you’ll finish holding the man in higher regard, perhaps not as a human being but certainly as a musician with passion and something approaching integrity. If you've paid attention to the last 40 years of music, integrity isn't a regular bedfellow to modern music, when there's always more money to be made.

Besides, Billy Joel is the centerpiece of a lover's quarrel over music in St. Elmo's Fire between Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson. If he's good enough for a woman who looks like Ally Sheedy, who wears pearls while having sex in a shower, then by God he's good enough for me.

* -- Hey Ron Rosenbaum, not only have you never given me a moment of enjoyment in life, which puts you behind Joel, but you paint the singer as a contemptible ass by making yourself seem like a really contemptible ass with less to show for it. 

6 comments:

G. B. Miller said...

I love Billy Joel, as I have a few c.d.'s (including one that I burned) and a few albums of his. His music on a given c.d. is usually thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, and if you explore each one, you'll find some very interesting semi-personal pieces sprinkled in between the hit.

Bob said...

I also disagree with Ron Rosenbaum. Billy Joel is a great pop singer. He is a great pop songwriter.

But. Billy. Joel. Does. Not. Rock.

troutking said...

Only the Good Die Young rocks, but that's about it. I thought Matter of Trust rocked in the 80s, but if I ever listen to it again, I'd probably change my mind. I like a bunch of his songs but I guess I don't really listen to the words that closely. And that's why they are pop songs, I suppose. They are about the melody and a few phrases. The lyrics probably do kind of reflect who Billy Joel seems to be: not a bad guy, but just a little bit douchey. Neil, Bob and Van can probably be a bit douchey too, but when it's in the service of great art and not pop, then it's rebellious, anarchic, refuse-to-be-pinned-down genius rather than douchey. Also this Rosenbaum? When did Bruce ever have contempt? I can't think of a single song of his that I would describe as contemptuous.

Billy said...

@GB - Thanks. BJ seems like the kind of guy lots of folks own "one or two albums" but very few own everything or even care to.

@Bob - Agreed that he does not rock. "Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me" is, if not self-consciously ironic, laughably bad. But I still wonder what the definition must be, because I'm not sure the Beach Boys or Dylan "Rock" either. I would need a judge's clarification on what it is to Rock.

@trout - If anything, Billy Joel's douchey-ness might be his best argument for "rocking" (although he mostly doesn't). When Bruce covered "War" he seemed fairly contemptuous. Just off the top of my un-Boss-Wikipedia-like noggin.

troutking said...

I'm not sure I had a clear definition of contempt when I made the comment but after looking it up, I actually feel even more strongly about my statement. One definition which is interesting to me: "Robert C. Solomon places contempt on the same continuum as resentment and anger, and he argues that the differences between the three is that resentment is directed toward a higher status individual; anger is directed toward an equal status individual; and contempt is directed toward a lower status individual" I'd say Bruce has a lot of anger and resentment--against his dad, against the government (esp Bush or those who perpetrated the Vietnam War), but he never demeans or condescends those who are of lower status than him. In part, that's because he never adopts the perspective of "rock star" except in self-laceration or self-mockery--"57 Channels", "Ain't Got You", "Leap of Faith", "Better Days" At least that's my take on it.

Daisy said...

He may not rock, but I have loved Billy since the first time I saw him in concert at the roundhouse circa 1983