Kandle music review " Joel reparations: We should like you ‘Just The Way You Are’
Special to the Sky-Hi Daily News
My mother is a huge Billy Joel fan. Growing up, there were two stories I remember her telling with great detail.
The first was about the time she saw Joel at a local community college. His band had been busted for pot on the Jersey turnpike on the way to the show. She recalled with great excitement how he came out with just his piano and blew away the audience. I never asked her why he didn’t get busted along with the band; perhaps the trooper realized that a few thousand pissed-off college kids in south Jersey wouldn’t have looked good on his resume.
The other story is how a friend of hers and my stepfather’s had died and she always felt that in some strange way “Only the Good Die Young” was written about him. I mean she didn’t literally think it was written for him but there were some similarities between the song and real life.
So, why am I telling you this? Recently, I downloaded a few live Joel shows off the net from the late ’70s in an attempt to find a unique and well, let’s just say cost-effective gift for my mother for Christmas. In order to make sure of the quality I found myself listening to these shows and far passed when I had planned on or even determined them to be of good quality.
I realize that by saying what I’m about to say pretty much kills my chances of writing for Rolling Stone but here it goes … Billy Joel is a great, albeit completely misunderstood musician who should be given credit by pompous music snobs like myself who for too long have contended that Joel and his music are uncool and therefore unworthy of serious review.
One of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, an unabashed Joel fan himself, was once quoted as saying, “Joel is the only rock star I ever loved who I never wanted to be, (even when he was sleeping with Christie Brinkley).” It’s a quote that I think sums up perfectly why most critics and music fans of my generation don’t give Joel the credit he deserves.
Yet if I think about the artist with the most credibility of my generation, Kurt Cobain, and how in some ways his premature departure from this earth solidified his place in the rock pantheons then what about Joel’s attempted suicide by way of drain cleaner? Not to make light of a serious subject matter, suicide, but death by drain cleaner is way more punk rock than death by shotgun (sorry to all those NRA punk rockers reading this article).
I realize that what really makes Cobain matter is the music he made but as rock and Jeff Buckley prove time and time again, early death doesn’t hurt your legacy, accidental or otherwise. Okay, so besides a rather punk rock-attempt at suicide and arguably one of the best band names to never make it big, Attila, why should we take another look at Joel’s legacy? Well, how about a musical catalog that rivals or surpasses all of his contemporaries?
Besides the Beatles, Rolling Stones and one or two other bands whose names are alluding me I bet more Americans could sing or hum Billy Joel’s songs than any other. How about the fact that while working in the medium of pop music, Joel has an uncanny ability to write musically complex songs with long narratives that are above all else, catchy?
Elton John, a great musician in his own right, didn’t even write the lyrics to all of his songs and yet he is given a pass when it comes to rock cool. Both he and Joel created music at the same time and in very similar styles and yet it’s John who is rock royalty and Joel who seems to be made the bride standing at the altar.
Why is this? Perhaps it’s because where John was flashy and a gender-bending Brit Joel was simply this Jewish guy from New York who had a bit of a fro. Critics were always quick to lump Joel in with the sensitive singer-songwriter group which was a label that never seemed to go away.
In the ’70s if you had an acoustic guitar and feelings then you probably sold a million records. Joel, who plays the piano, was caught up in the maelstrom of being a sensitive guy who played an instrument that sounds happy even when it’s not trying to (the music of Bach and Tom Waits being the only known exceptions).
Joel was lumped into an entire musical movement (we’ll call it crap for scientific purposes) of the mid- to late ’70s that made his fate as an uncool singer-songwriter all but sealed. To lump Joel into the same group as acts like Dan Fogelberg and band Loggins and Messina is as fair as lumping Guns N’ Roses in with Poison or Whitesnake.
The truth is that when you go back and really listen to those early albums you hear a songwriter who in many ways is coming to grips with the disillusionment of the American dream. Young adults who had grown up in postwar America were finding out that their lives were not matching up with the ones that their parents had promised them.
The fact that Joel could write about all of these down-on-their-luck characters and do it in a way that still gave the listeners hope should be lauded, not criticized. Joel’s crime seems to be that people, and lots of them, connected with his music in a way that made them feel he was singing about them ” people like my mother, who doesn’t care about things like an artist’s perceived coolness or the thoughts of Robert Christgau, the esteemed New York Times music critic who once wrote that Joel “condescends to the fantasies of his fans who spend their lives by the stereo feeling sensitive.”
Joel is a great artist because he was and still is able to unite people from different ends of the spectrum in an appreciation of his music and a belief that while they listened to it he was speaking only to them. From the mother in New Jersey listening to “Only The Good Die Young” in her living room to the 8-year-old upstairs that was listening to “Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out)” and dreaming of the day when he too would be moving out into a world not unlike the one described by Billy Joel.
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