Wednesday, March 19, 2014

J Is for (Billy) Joel

"Too bad, but it's the life you lead,
You're so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need,
Though you can see when you're wrong,
You know you can't always see when you're right..."

That's from the song I think I go to the most when I feel bad: "Vienna."

Music is a strong factor in my attempts to be mindful. That's part of therapy; being aware and here and in the moment rather than all over the map, making catastrophes of things that haven't even happened. That's something I need to remember today: be mindful. Be here. Be present.

This morning, during a therapy session, I was sent to a community center to relax and be safe. I had an extreme panic attack. My therapist nearly sent me straight to the hospital. Things aren't going so well for me right now. I've been in a depressed period, so I tend to magnify every setback, and there have been some major setbacks lately. I'm processing too much as just confirmation of my schema of worthlessness. I have a hard time fighting it, because I've been operating on it for almost as long as I can remember. I came *thisclose* to winding up temporarily hospitalized today because of it. I'm at a very, very low point.

Probably the worst time period of my life was junior high. Not just because junior high, though that was a factor. There were a lot of things going on at that time that made me feel pretty shitty about myself; things which I may not have ever recovered from. That was also the time period when I really, really got into Billy Joel.

No one in my life has ever loved Billy Joel the way I do. I'm not saying that to be snobby about something I love. But I always get strange looks when I tell people that the reason I love Billy Joel is because so much of his music is filled with self-loathing, disappointment, and feelings of aimlessness. But it's there. He just addresses it through what sounds to a lot of people like cheesy pop music. (Here, "cheesy" is defined as "something of value delivered through a filter that you think you should be embarrassed by for some silly reason.") It's deceptively simple.

And yes, there is more: there's love, and longing, and joy, and reassurance. Every emotion I need to feed or need to assuage is in a Billy Joel song somewhere. That song I linked above has always sounded reassuring to me; a song that tells you that it's okay to not know everything and it's equally okay to slow down and not go faster than you're able to. It's the rest of your life: "Vienna waits for you." It's a song that knows that sometimes you need to hide, but it's not the end of the world when you do.

Another song that comforts me is "Captain Jack," which is kind of odd, because it's so dark. Maybe it's because I've felt as pathetic as the guy in the song before. Maybe it's because I'm comforted hearing the kind of aimlessness I have turned into something so soulful. The man knows from aimlessness. Listen to the lyrics of "I've Loved These Days": "I don't know why I even care/We get so high and get nowhere/We'll have to change our jaded way/But I've loved these days." I've never heard such a pretty song about getting mindlessly stuck in a routine. But I've been there before. And this song makes me feel elated, because it makes me feel like I'm not alone. Someone understands that feeling, and they made THIS out of it.

Billy Joel writes songs about how hard it is to overcome addictive behavior. He writes songs about feeling so overwhelmed that he's afraid he'll crack. He writes songs about bridging the gap of understanding. In one of my favorite songs, "She's Right On Time," he sums up how loving my wife makes me feel. Just like the guy in the song, I have the perfect woman, and I'd really rather just live with her and wait for her and support her than do anything else in my life. Sometimes I think loving her is the only thing I'm capable of, and the only thing I want to do well. It's all in one lyric: "I may be going nowhere, but I don't mind if she's there."

Billy Joel writes a lot of songs about love, but it's almost always the darker ones I like best, like "And So It Goes," with its perfect understanding of loneliness. It's almost like... a hymn about romantic trepidation and that weird, sad shred of optimism that really does lie under the resignation. Compare that to his hit song "The Longest Time," which is almost soaring with the flush of romantic fulfillment, in which he admits that love may be fleeting, but worth it: "I'll take my chances/I forgot how nice romance is." That song is boisterous and jubliant, consciously done in the style of the music he listened to as a boy, to heighten the sense of joy. (Which is the whole point of the album: even the closer, the bouncy "Keeping the Faith," with its endearingly goofy video and its nostalgic reminiscences carries the warning not to live in the past for too long, and the reminder that "The good old days weren't always good/And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems."

But the song hitting me the most these days is from his very first album, 1971's Cold Spring Harbor, "Tomorrow Is Today." The lyrics are derived from a suicide note Joel wrote when he tried to kill himself by drinking furniture polish. A bandmate found him and took him to the hospital where his stomach was pumped. I relate to so many of the lyrics; the fear, the hopelessness, the sense that every day is the same and your situation will never change. The sense that there is no tomorrow; there's just another day like today, so what's even the point? That's how I felt today. That's why I was sent where I was... because I'm dealing yet again with the ideations of suicide which are never very far away.

"People tell me life is sweeter, but I can't hear what they say...
Nothing comes to change my life, so tomorrow is today

I don't care to know the hour, 'cause it's passing anyway...
I don't need to see tomorrow, 'cause I saw it yesterday

So I listen for an answer, but the feeling seems to stay...
And what's the use of always dreaming if tomorrow is today?"

I told my first therapist once that this is a song I love and keep going back to when I myself feel suicidal. She worried that it was reinforcing my thoughts of suicide. But actually, it's the opposite. The song isn't bitter. It has a quiet glory to it. It has a triumph; not in the lyrics, but in the music. This is Billy Joel exorcising a demon and feeling victory in his bravery. Because I think it takes a real bravery to sing your suicide note.

The song comforts me because I know there is someone out there who once felt like I do sometimes. Someone who felt the uselessness and sameness and defeat of it all and turned it into victory. He turned it into art. He turned it into life. That's what the music means. That's why the music is so triumphal: because even though he felt that way once, tomorrow isn't today.

Tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.

Sometimes I need a reminder.

And thanks, Billy Joel, for that.

ABC Wednesday


Leslie: said...

My favourite is "I Love You Just the Way You Are" as it reminds me that I am loveable even though I'm not perfect.

abcw team

Roger Owen Green said...

Captain Jack was in my Top 3 for, to quote BJ, The Longest Time. Great piece, but so sorry you've been feeling so badly. The 2nd word verification is 'doctored'.

Tonio Kruger said...

I have too many favorite Billy Joel songs to mention though I will admit that "Zanzibar", "Laura", "The Stranger", "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant", "Tell Her About It" and "A Matter of Trust" would be near the top of the list.

Kelly Sedinger said...

I went to college with people who worshiped Joel religiously, so it took me a LONG time afterwards to come back to him. I'm glad I did. There's a certain tragedy in his music, in that a lot of his best songs are SO good they've become karaoke standards and thus have had an air of parody thrust upon them. Perfect example is "Piano Man", which is really an amazing slice-of-life portraying the varieties of desperation in the lives of the people at the same bar.

Roger Owen Green said...

saw him in 1974(!)

Vachon said...

A lovely appreciation piece for one of my favorite musicians. It was a pleasure to read. "For the Longest Time" always brings me back to my nostalgia over my high school crush. There's a cassette tape of me singing "You May Be Right" when I was a little over 2 years old. And even though I'd be at a loss to explain why, the song "Laura" is one of my favorites. Among, of course, so so many others :-)