Friday, December 4, 2009

The Good Don't Always Die Young: A Note on Billy Joel

The Piano Man as a musical historian

When I tuned in Sunday night to watch the HBO broadcast of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary concerts held at Madison Square Garden in October -- which I assume will be rebroadcast periodically, and which in any case is available on demand -- it was to see Bruce Springsteen perform. I was happy to see any number of other artists, along with some truly marvelous pairings, like Ray Davies of the Kinks singing "You Really Got Me" with Metallica. (I had just played Davies's "Lola" in my "U.S. History Since 1940" class that morning to illustrate a closeted gay experience, and I just loved seeing him up there with presumably heterosexual James Hetfield & Co., though there's always been a fascinating queer thread running through some varieties of heavy metal.) Mick Jagger teamed up thrillingly with Fergie and U2 to sing "Gimme Shelter," and Jagger did an improbably good duo with Bono on U2's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both the museum and concerts, are great with these kinds of pinging influences.

So is Springsteen. Over the course of his set, he brought out Sam Moore, Darlene Love, and John Fogerty. But for the climax of this series, he announced an unscheduled guest whose identity became clear as Springsteen described him. "Long Island is about to meet New Jersey on the neutral ground of New York City," he said, and out came Billy Joel.

It was a disconcerting sight. Joel, who has kept a relatively low profile since his semi-retirement from pop music in 1993, looked older, heavier and balder than when I last saw him: He looked like a veteran high school history teacher. His performance was just fine; Springsteen shared singing duties with Joel on "New York State of Mind," and Joel returned the favor with "Born to Run." Once the song began, I looked forward to seeing him sing like Springsteen -- I consider Joel the best mimic of the rock era -- and he was pitch perfect. Which was a little disappointing: I was sort of hoping he would be a bit more playful, to tease Springsteen by exaggerating his grandiose romanticism. But Joel was oddly muted. Though they are almost exact contemporaries -- Springsteen is a mere three months younger than Joel -- The Boss is still touring regularly and leaping into the crowd mosh-pit style. Joel's gait was distinctly middle-aged.

Indeed, Joel's profile in popular culture has faded with surprising speed. Though the Recording Industry Association of America lists him as the sixth best-selling recording artist and third best-selling solo artist, he lacks the profile of peers like Elton John (with whom Joel occasionally tours, and who remains a consummate entertainer). Actually, in terms of critical reputation, Joel never had much of a profile to begin with -- he's never enjoyed the kind of esteem that Springsteen, for example, received from the very beginning.

To some extent, Joel himself is to blame for this. Notorious for his defensiveness and pugnacity, he and rock critics have long sustained mutual disdain (see, for example, Ron Rosenbaum's recent rant in Slate, and Joel's response to a New Zealand writer last year). And he's got a snottiness that shows up in songs like "Big Shot" and "My Life." Perhaps the best (or, more accurately, worst) example of these two traits converging is his 1980 album Glass Houses, and specifically his hit single "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me," which explicitly attacks the rage for punk rock in a way that makes him sound prematurely old-fashioned.

Joel's real problem, however, is that he was born too late. Many of his most famous songs, like "New York State of Mind,"
"Just the Way You Are," and "She's Always a Woman," are closer to the spirit of George Gershwin and Cole Porter than Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. He was a piano man in the age of electric guitar. Again, Elton John, like Jerry Lee Lewis before him, had the charisma to overcome this problem. But Joel was always a lousy rock star.

All this said, Joel has a strength that I believe has never been fully appreciated: an extraordinary grasp of American history, musical and otherwise. Sometimes this takes the form of capturing the spirit of a time with exceptional clarity. Has anyone, for example, captured postwar suburban ennui with the deadly accuracy Joel does in "Captain Jack?" Or the intimacy of old friends remembering the faded Grease scenario of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant?" In other cases, he writes songs of tremendous historical resonance. "The Entertainer" captures the often frantic anxiety of the would-be star that spans the careers of Sinatra to Swift. "Allentown" is a masterpiece in simultaneously depicting the passing the of the Greatest Generation in the Rustbelt, and the economic displacement of their children, during the wrenching downturn of the early Reagan years. (As such, the song has a fresh relevance.) Joel can also reflect compellingly on an individual's life span, whether in the reflectively embraced nostalgia of "Keeping the Faith," or his meditation on old age, "Vienna."

But it's in his musical allusions that Joel's historical consciousness is most fully realized. Probably the best example is his 1983 album An Innocent Man, whose string of hits -- "Tell Her About it," "Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time," and others -- is a gallery of tributes to Motown, the Four Seasons, and classic doo-wop. I never get tired of hearing his last big hit, "River of Dreams" (1993), which always strikes me as a perfect fusion of gospel and pop. Underrated as a singer and a pianist -- I've seen him in venues where he explains how pop songs work with stunning insight and affection -- he has shown himself to be a student in the truest sense of the term.

In recent years, Joel has written and performed classical music, with an occasional foray into live performance (which, according to his website, he will apparently resume next year). There's no reason to think a big commercial comeback is in the offing. But if Billy Joel was a stock, I'd go long on him. In terms of appreciation for his body of work, I strongly suspect the best is yet to come.