In Kevin the Vampire, I give Billy Joel a bit of the business. In advance of announcing the book’s release date, I thought I’d work through some of my issues with the piano man here, since the chip on my shoulder has a long history. (And a bit of a reputation.)
If you asked me fifteen years ago about what I thought of Billy Joel’s music, I would have said, “It’s like a taking a photograph of your kitchen and hanging it in your living room.” I’m no longer sure what that means, but I bet it’s still a fair description.
An even better one might be this photograph:
A paper cutout of a sexualized female silhouette, border showing, lain across the keys of a miniature Casio keyboard, the kind that Gene Belcher uses to record his farts on. For me, this summarizes the entire Joel oeuvre, but it makes my thoughts beeline to “Uptown Girl,” where I might as well start.
Despite the shittiness of this track, its theme is one I empathize with, where dreams of a better or more interesting life get hopelessly mixed up in sexual fantasy. Socially, you are who sleep with, that’s one of our world’s core beliefs. The line “she’s livin’ in her uptown world” is somewhere between hackish and perfect: sure, it’s so graceless it’s like listening to someone chew rocks, but isn’t that also the point of the song: that between the singer and the object of his desire stretches a chasm so vast, he can’t even imagine what the bridge across would look like. In another context, it might be an expert touch, but in a pop song it just makes you want to gag.
I’m from a working class immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx, the kind where if you are born there you move out of as soon you can, because you have to make room for the next wave of immigrants. But you don’t see it neatly as a social obligation you perform. The mechanism by which the process works involves you learning to despise the place. You’re from one of the places in America where upward mobility is real, you’ve gotten a good education, and somewhere along the line you’ve put it together you belong to the demographic fascists come from. Long story short, you want to dump and run.
Billy Joel writes songs that are supposed to be about you, or your parents maybe. The picture it paints isn’t all that flattering. Sex between the singer and Virginia from “Only The Good Die Young” sounds unsatisfying for everybody. Captain Jack gettin’ you by tonight is the most unromantic self harm you can imagine. After listening to a couple dozen of these, you feel like your people don’t even know how to lose properly.
I spent a number of years idolizing Bob Dylan, whose lyrics and melodies always felt so much more vibrant and meaningful. In the early 2000s, I noticed he was releasing at least one piano song an album, always about working class people, until it occurred to me he was consciously writing Billy Joel songs. This seemed confirmed when I saw that the two men had released their versions of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” about a month apart. Ever since that, I’ve daydreamed about Dylan calling up Joel at three in morning and saying, “Billy, I’ve got another hit for you!” and Joel shouting, “Go to bed Bobby, you’re drunk” before hanging up.
I’m saying that Billy Joel seems like someone who’d hang up on cultural icons trying to do him favors.
(But also, if I was him, I’d still screen calls from Bob Dylan. Who knows how or why it happens, but when that dude tries to be you, he doesn’t give up easily. And you might have to die first. Just sayin’.)
But over the years, things change. I’ve learned there are people who want hear “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” inside an Italian restaurant even less than me, and one of them is Billy Joel. My opinion of the neighborhood where I grew up has improved greatly. (If you visit New York, take the 5 train up to the Bronx for pizza, pasta, and pastry! But don’t miss the people!) The scars that alcoholism and depression have left on my life have made it much harder to be critical of Joel’s difficult character. And look, I feel a bit of spiritual kinship with the person who wrote “Movin’ Out,” even if the track literally sounds like someone puking.
It’s tedious to argue “Piano Man” isn’t a great song. Even with that stupid line about wearing a younger man’s clothes.
I still don’t like the music, but I’ve given up being as hard on him as I used to be. Life is shorter, sadder, and a little uglier than I used to imagine. Someone has always understood that, in his own unbearable way.
None of which means I’m above putting this video here.