That voice in the background is Tom Waits yelling for me to get the hell off his lawn.
Actually I don’t think this sounds much like a Tom Waits song, subject-matter aside (Waits does kind of have the trademark on overwrought songs about gutter drunks and bums.) If any of these songs sound the least bit original, it’s purely by accident, because in most cases I am consciously trying to rip somebody off, or at least I have a model consciously in mind. I usually fail to rip off the person I meant to rip off and wind up ripping off somebody else unintentionally. Here I shot at Tom Waits and hit Billy Joel.
Billy Joel. I don’t mean I think it sounds like any Billy Joel song in particular or that Billy Joel could win a copyright infringement case against me (bring it on, Billy.) The chord progression is the same (mostly) as “New York State of Mind,” but it’s not a terribly unusual chord progression—Willie Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely” also has the same progression, for instance, as does “Georgia on my Mind.” I guess I was just thinking of Billy Joel when I wrote the song when I thought I was thinking of Tom Waits.
I’m fine with that. When I set out to do this blog, I didn’t have anything in particular I wanted to talk about except Buck Owens, The Red Headed Stranger, “Sing Me Back Home” and Billy Joel. Buck got his due and then some. I have mentioned The Red Headed Stranger but haven’t done a big write-up of it yet. If I don’t get to it, that’ll be okay; I’ve written about it elsewhere and will probably write about it somewhere else. I’ll get to Merle generally and “Sing Me Back Home” specifically, I think. It’s a perfect song and the greatest song in country music. (Merle also wrote maybe the stupidest non-Oak-Ridge-Boys song in country music [no, not "Okie From Muskogee"], “Daddy Frank,” which also happens to be the first song I remember learning from the radio.)
My decision to write about Billy Joel arises from a motivation different from the plan to write about the other topics mentioned above, all of which are personal touchstones of mine. I’m writing about Billy Joel to correct an injustice.
At some point when I wasn’t looking, it became the new conventional wisdom that Billy Joel is a joke and always was a joke. I don’t know when that was decided or why I wasn’t invited to take part in the discussion, but had I been there I would have vociferously objected. I don’t have any Billy Joel albums and haven’t in about twenty years. I owned all of them from 52nd Street up to The Bridge, I think–the ones that cover the high point of his career. I had that big Greatest Hits Volumes I and II compilation when I was a senior in high school and listened to it alot. I listened to all of them alot. I never idolized Billy Joel the way I did Willie Nelson when I was very young or Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen when I was an adolescent, but I really liked his music.
And now, I’m told by my hipster brethren, I’m supposed to feel guilty about that. Or at least I’m supposed to smirk and roll my eyes the way I do when I look at photos of myself in the ivory tux I wore to the junior prom.
Well, I don’t feel the least bit guilty or self-conscious about it, and when “Only the Good Die Young” comes on the classic rock station I sometimes scan across in the car, I turn it up. If “New York State of Mind” or “She’s Got a Way” comes on, I listen closely, because they’re great, lovely songs.
I’ve been trying to figure out when it became de riguer to hate Billy Joel and where it springs from. It’s obviously not from his music. Listen to it! The guy wrote some of the strongest and most beautiful melodies of the seventies and eighties. His chord progressions are elegant and intricate. He’s a great musician. His voice is strong and emotive. His lyrics and rhymes are sophisticated, intelligent, witty, ironic, and the depth of his familiarity with the American songbook is evident in his body of work—jazz, classical, R&B, rock and roll (which it still is, to him), doo-wop, Tin Pan Alley, saloon music, Brill Building, folk . . . . It’s all in there. The breadth of his talent and musical curiosity is no less than Paul Simon’s (who I also like very much), but where Simon gets hailed as an intellectual literary-musical genius, Billy Joel gets ridicule. I don’t get it.
I sort of get it. We’ve all heard “Piano Man” enough, and “talking to Davy, who’s still in the Navy” is a regrettable line (but he was a kid when he wrote that song. Give him a break. And anyway, you probably listen to it all the way through when it comes on the radio, right?) The bossa nova opening to “Just the Way You Are” instantly conjures the smell of sterno heating buffet carts in cheesy lounge bars in hotels near airports (but no less than Frank Sinatra called it one of the greatest love songs of the century. Are you saying Frank Sinatra is wrong?) The Nylon Curtain, taken as a whole, is pretentious solemnity (but everybody was doing those liberal-guilt-expiating Viet Nam albums in the early eighties.) And yes, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is an unabashed ripoff of REM’s “End of the World as We Know It.” (Sorry, I have no parenthetical apologia for either of those songs.)
And once you focus on those few transgressions in his career, it’s easy to let the transgressions overshadow and taint the rest of the work. But listen to 52nd Street, Glass Houses, An Innocent Man and The Bridge from start to finish, the way albums are meant to be listened to, and you’ll probably determine that they are finely crafted pop and maybe even more than that. ”This is the Time” is an achingly sad and beautiful song, for instance, fully in the Simon-Mitchell confessional mode.
I don’t think the Joel dismissal is really about the music. It could come from a good old all-American distrust of anybody who is too talented, too diverse, too prolific. The French go for that sort of thing—they let their poets be novelists and singers and politicians and let them live to be 90 doing it—but here, if you step too far outside your first declared major or run your mouth off too much, you’ll be met with ridicule or at least heavy skepticism. We like our geniuses specialized and garreted and not taking up much space. Leonardo da Vinci would have had to choose between art school or MIT.
There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare and narrow. How many actors who decide to make a record are taken seriously? (Okay, there’s usually a reason for that, I know.) And it’s okay for a short story writer to write novels (though that’s due more to the fact that short stories aren’t taken as seriously as novels here and are assumed to be apprentice-work, even if the work of some writers who worked only the short story form is far superior to the work of more celebrated novelists—e.g., Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro), but it is not okay for John Updike to write that many novels and short stories and then presume to be a poet and critic as well. And it’s not okay to dip your finger into too many genres. If you’re a piano player, do piano ballads. Don’t do rock and roll. Don’t do jazz. Don’t get above your raising and go all social consciousy. Leave that to the scruffy folk with acoustic guitars.
And there may also be some East Coast classism in the dismissal of Billy Joel. I have no first-hand experience with that and don’t really understand it, but apparently it makes a difference to somebody in Manhattan that somebody else is from Long Island. It’s not cool to be from Long Island. God knows why. And when the Long Island kid starts writing songs that feature a brash persona and winds up marrying a super-duper-model, he gets a comeuppance from the cultural gatekeepers in the critical establishment (such as Ron “Why am I asking all these rhetorical questions?” Rosenbaum.) I guess. I’ll let them work that one out. I’ve never been to New York. It’s too far away and it looks noisy on TV. Anyway, we got the internet now.
But I think the real answer is that Billy Joel is just a scapegoat for a generation of critics/commentators looking to sneer at their own pasts and have found Billy Joel’s mug an easy target for their condescension and brand of irony. Nowadays the pop culture scene changes so quickly that you don’t really have the promise of any mainstay punching bags or any mainstay critical darlings. Backlash and reverse-backlash and reverse-reverse-backlash . . . it’s all hard to keep up with, but it remains crucial for the internet critic-provacateur to remain provocative. That’s hard to do honestly. It breeds paranoia. Radiohead gives way to Ryan Adams gives way to Arcade Fire gives way to . . . no idea. If the critic likes something, it has to be for reasons that nobody else has for liking it. It could happen that Billy Joel has become so uncool that soon enough it will be cool to claim to like him and to have always liked him (I hear Chuck Klosterman is a Joel defender). For the moment, though, Billy Joel seems to have been nominated to serve as the in-joke of critical derision, a kind of meta-in-joke. Making fun of him will always be safe because “making fun of him will always be safe.”
Who the hell knows. I can’t keep up. Can you? Kids, have your fun, and, agreed, we all need somebody to look down on, but now and then try to forget all that and just listen to the songs. Yes, your own past is all wrapped up in it, and you bring whatever you’ve got wherever you go, but sometimes just try to listen to the songs.
And I looked great in that ivory tux.
What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Well, I got busy at work right after I declared my hiatus last month, and as a result I didn’t get much of what I’d planned to do done. I finally got around to getting a new recording situation, though. I bought a Mac two weeks ago. Yeah, I know. I’m not a Mac guy, mainly because I resent the implication that if I am a Mac owner I am also X, Y, and Z. It’s just a computer. It’s a good computer, as far as I can tell. All I’ve used it for is the recording (Garage Band), and that works quite well. But the fact that I own a Mac doesn’t mean I’m now going to reserve a spot in the Hands-Across-America 2009 chain or go give some stranger with nice hair one of my kidneys. As for the Kool-Aid the computer comes with, I’m considering the drinking of it merely optional.
I may wind up getting one of the more upgraded software recording packages, such as Pro Tools, but for the moment Garage Band, which is pre-loaded on Macs, is such an improvement that I won’t be looking for anything else until I’ve figured a bit more out about the whole computer-based way of recording. I’ve been playing with it, it’s fun, but already I can see that it’s not going to make any magical difference. I just don’t have the time, talent or patience to make these things sound great. But I don’t have to attach any wires to myself with this new set-up, so that’s an improvement.
I doubt I’ll do many videos any more. I may just start posting the songs without any kind of illustration, in one of those little Lala or Amazon slidey-bar things, if I can figure out where you get those slidey-bar things.
Pressure. JoCo’s got my back. (I knew he did this cover, but I never knew whether it was done as a joke. Glad to find this video where he makes clear it’s not a joke.)