Why I Love Billy Joel



"Come out Virginia
Don't make me wait.
You Catholic girls start much too late.
Aw but sooner or later it comes down to fate.
Oh I might as well be the one. 

Well they showed you a statue
And told you to pray
They built you a temple
And locked you away. 
But they never told you
The price that you'd pay 
For things that you might have done.
Oh only the good die young."

Billy Joel is someone whom I was introduced to through my mother Mary and my father Noel. I can't really remember a time when I wasn't aware of his music. Now, at 32 years of age, I am proud to say that my love of his work is not just inherited but something I have considered and doubled down on. Billy Joel hasn't released an album of new material since 2001's Fantasies & Delusions, which was a commercial disappointment, probably owing to its nature as a Classical album. It is a terrible shame that an artist the caliber of Joel is not releasing new material, given the ridiculous quality of his catalogue. All the same, we must not lose heart; there is more than enough to listen to and love for decades to come. 
Billy Joel is one of the greatest storytellers in music, his lyrics full of wit and insight into the human condition. His melodies, vocal performance, piano playing combine with his incredible ability to hook you from the opening lines, to produce a catalogue of depth and character. If Billy never does another album of new songs - which I pray and hope he will - he could just as easily turn his hand to writing novels, so on point and incisive is his ability to weave a story. Given the fact that artists like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were producing albums around the same time as Billy Joel, it is no small complement to say that the man from the Bronx, is on their level. Perhaps his lyrics aren't always as poetic as those two titans, but their ability to weave a story are equal to Dylan and Cohen. 
Billy Joel recorded and released 13 studio albums from 1971 to 2001. A little unfashionable 80s production aside, the consistent quality of his work is astonishing. I have a hard time pinning down my favourite, but let me say that if one was to choose TurnstilesThe Stranger52nd StreetGlass Houses, or An Innocent Man, they would not be going far wrong. I will admit though that it was listening to The Stranger that solidified my love for Billy Joel. Starting with Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) and featuring my all time favourite song of Joel's, "Only the Good Die Young," it is a masterclass in songwriting, performance and production. Sharp and incisive as all hell and, most importantly, filled with memorable, gorgeous, melodies, The Stranger may very well be Joel's best work. 
"Only the Good Die Young," is the song that I would pick to save in a fire. It is smart and witty, with an otherworldly beauty about it - that opening piano line... JESUS! If I could sing or play the piano - which I am not currently able to do with success - "Only the Good Die Young" would be the song I would play. The song is the story of a woman who Billy Joel was dating, who refused to sleep with him. It is a song defiant and firm in its rejection of traditional religious morality - "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun" - and a paean to the joy to be found in physical thrills, and its ability to shut away the dark shadows and inescapable fragility of our lives. We need to enjoy our lives while we are able. 

It is not just wit and humour that defines Billy Joel's music though; he has written some exceptionally beautiful, romantic songs, as well as deeply personal and sad songs about loss and war. "Just the Way You Are," and "She's Always a Woman," featuring on The Stranger are two of his most celebrated love songs. Exceptional though they are, my personal favourite is "The Longest Time," a throwback to doo-wop and barbershop harmonies, featuring on An Innocent Man, an album that is for the most part an work of old timey goodness. An Innocent Man also features the mega-hit "Uptown Girl," a song that not even Westlife could entirely ruin. An Innocent Man would make for a sublime musical, should some gifted soul ever think of adapting it for the stage or screen. 

On the subject of tragic songs, "Goodnight Saigon," is probably the best, a moving epic about the harsh and cruel reality of war, and particularly the immorality and terror of the conflict in Vietnam. This is an exceptionally beautiful song, which Billy Joel wrote for his friends who came home scarred, and for those who didn't come home at all. The Nylon Curtain, the album on which this song is featured, also has an on point exploration of working class despair, on the opening track "Allentown," a remarkably catchy and incisive song. 

We can't rightly talk about Billy Joel without mentioning his most famous song: "Piano Man," which was THE breakthrough hit for the artist, and is still remembered today as his defining work. It shows Billy Joel at the height of his storytelling powers, a well observed, funny and moving song about alcoholics and lonely hearts. The difference between Joel's debut album, Cold Spring Harbor, and Piano Man is considerable, so much more confident and developed is his sound on the latter. The lyrics really are sublime, as seen here:

"Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife.
And he's talking to Davy,
Who's still in the Navy
And probably will be for life.

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes, they're sharing a drink called loneliness
But it's better than drinking alone."

The characters here feel real and multi-dimensional, even though barely two lines of information are offered about them. This brevity is one of Joel's crowning achievements in song writing and storytelling. While "Piano Man" is unarguably the most famous song from the album of the same name, it must be said that "Captain Jack" gives it a run for its money; a dizzying tale of drug abuse and boredom and the ridiculous nature of humanity that even privileged young people fall prey to drug addiction and overdose.

Billy Joel is an incredible artist, not only on studio albums, but on the several exquisite live albums, especially Kohuept, which was recorded in Russia in 1987. There are few people who can compare with the level of mastery that Joel displays in a live setting. He is a remarkably gifted performer, who brings his songs to life in ways that delight and surprise. If it wasn't so damn expensive to see him live, I would have gone already. While we wait and see if he will ever treat us to another album, we can appreciate and enjoy the sublime quality of his songbook. 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why I Love Calvin and Hobbes

Why I Love Prince 1995-2016