Friday, May 23, 2014

Billy Joel Is 65 (and a Couple of Weeks)

Roger pointed out to me that Billy Joel turned 65 earlier this month, and asked me to do a list of my favorite Billy Joel songs if I hadn't already. I did write about Billy back in March, but it seemed like fun to make a proper list. Haven't done one in a while.

Now, back on that post, I pointed out that my love for Billy Joel has never been taken seriously by many people, probably because people find him cheesy. Kelly made an interesting comment that summed up the problem: "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."

That's the problem with making a list like this. Sure, "Piano Man" is a great song. It's arguably his masterpiece (and I say "arguably" because people have also argued to me that his masterpiece is "New York State of Mind"). But would I put it on a list of my favorite Billy Joel songs? Probably not. The song is still so overly familiar that I don't think of it as being a truly great song. When I listen to it, I know it's a great song. One of the greatest. But ask me my favorite Billy Joel song and, well, I've got at least 12 songs I'll think of first and entirely for personal reasons. (Like Klostermann said, all Billy Joel has ever made me see is myself. It's music that feels like it understands me.)

So this was a harder list for me to make, but I've been brutal and narrowed it down to this: My 12 Favorite Billy Joel Songs (That Aren't "Piano Man").

12. "All About Soul"
This is probably the cheesiest song on this list, if we continue--as we should--to define "cheesy" as "genuine emotion delivered through a filter you think is uncool." The production is just so 1993, isn't it? But it's deceptive, as is usually the case with Billy Joel songs, because even though the lyrics are simple, what they convey is lovely. The second verse, where he sings about the way you become intuitive about your partner's feelings in a long-term relationship, is something I would've dismissed as fantasy 20 years ago. The way Becca has supported me and the way she "gives me all the love I need to keep my faith alive" is what this song makes me think about, and it takes the edge of potential silliness off this one for me. I feel these feelings every day.

11. "Summer, Highland Falls" (live)
I've got three tracks from Songs in the Attic, my favorite Billy Joel album, on this list. Every song on this live album is superior to his earlier recorded versions, which is unusual for me in a live album. I love that this sounds like a happy song, but is lyrically conflicted about whether the singer's happiness is genuine. He questions whether his relationship is the best or the worst thing that's ever happened. I'm always stunned by the lyric "Perhaps we don't fulfill each other's fantasies/So we stand upon the ledges of our lives/With our respective similarities." Imagine being trapped there. I've been. The girl I dated before Becca was as emotionally abusive as it comes.

10. "And So It Goes"
I bought the album Storm Front as soon as it came out in 1989, put the cassette in my Walkman, and listened to the first side on the bus on the way to school. It was autumn and I was in 8th grade. When I got back on the bus to go home, the second side unveiled, and I was walking home, I heard this song, the album's closer. This was probably the worst time in my life--no friends, the fat kid, bullied and teased relentlessly, my parents divorcing, feeling like the most insignificant and reviled non-person... many of these feelings are still with me, dictating my behavior and my self-worth. This song came out of nowhere and hit me right in the heart. Here was a man laying his soul bare in a spare arrangement, saying that love was so worth taking a chance on that he would willingly--yet tentatively--offer his heart to someone, even knowing he might be emotionally destroyed. It's complex. It takes as much responsibility for the potential of heartbreak as it assigns to the other person, and acknowledges that simply not saying anything is just as painful as getting hurt. I still think it's one of the bravest statements I've ever heard. My fear usually gets the better of my yearning.

9. "She's Right On Time"
So many of these songs hit me because... well, I loved them when I was a kid, and I would dream about having someone to share love with. I wondered if it really felt like it did in these songs that I listened to when I felt bad. And then, I met Becca, and these songs stopped being comforting fantasies and actually became reflections of my reality. This song always makes me think about how really fantastically good my life is when I stop feeling guilty about what I'm not doing and just appreciate what is. I may not have money, I may not always be well, but I'm what I really always wanted to be when I was a teenager: someone that somebody loves. I'd rather be Becca's husband than anything else in the world, and I'd rather be here with her than anywhere else without her.

8. "She's Got a Way" (live)
This one... well, this one's just incredibly pretty.

7. "My Life"
In a way, this is the Billy Joel song I've loved the longest, since a cover was used as the theme song on Bosom Buddies, a sitcom that I found hysterical when I was about 4. But it's such a great "fuck you" to the jerks, which is always valuable. "I don't care what you say anymore this is my life." The lyric "You can speak your mind/But not on my time" is kind of a blogger's mantra sometimes, isn't it?

6. "Pressure"
Very, very easy for me to relate to, even as a kid. I too often find myself feeling like I'm "in the ninth/two men out and three men on." That someone can take that feeling and elevate it into a little piece of art is kind of amazing.

5. "Tell Her About It"
I dig the style of this song so hard. This is Billy Joel's Motown girl group homage, which is spectacular music to do something in the style of. I like how uncomplicated it is, too; it's a simple message, but a good one: be honest about your feelings.

4. "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" (live)
The kind of story-song that I always love, telling us about a future apocalypse in New York and the survivor spirit that follows it. I love how snotty and punky this song is; the idea of kicking back against tragedy by spitting at it and just letting it happen. It's a great narrative device, too, the way the singer is telling a story from further in the future, giving us this wistful sense of looking back at what was good, rather than looking ahead to what's scary. I guess that's why I find this little masterpiece comforting rather than terrifying. (The live version is so damn energetic, too, and the crowd is just eating it up. It's five minutes and seven seconds of perfect.)

3. "Tomorrow Is Today"
Setting your (in this case, literal) suicide note to music is an act of bravery. Setting it to hopeful music in an effort to exorcise those feelings is goddamn heroic. This is the one that's been on my iPod forever because it makes me feel understood and hopeful.

2. "Vienna"
This has always been one of my comfort songs, mainly because the song's reminder to slow down was always something I needed to keep in mind. Honestly, part of the reason I end up doing nothing is because there's so much I want to do RIGHT NOW that I end up overwhelmed and discouraged. I didn't know until recently what the song represents to Billy Joel himself, which is the idea that you don't have to do everything right goddamn now because you'll still be useful as you get old. And that's a comforting thought, too. I talked to my Dad yesterday and told him that sometimes I feel guilty over all the things I haven't done. My Dad, who turned 59 this year, said to me "You're only 37. You talk like you're 75." Something to keep in mind.

1. "The Longest Time"
It's been my favorite Billy Joel song since 1983, and I guess it will be forever. There's a triumphant sound to it, and I've been lifted by it since I was 7. Yeah, it's doo-wop, and it seems kinda dorky, but I just don't care. I love it. It's just a bass guitar, snaps, hand claps, and Billy Joel singing 14 vocal parts including the lead. And it's all about how absolutely wonderful it is to just be in love. Not worried about anything else, even knowing how scary it is to put yourself out there, and just being in love, damn it. It's abandon. In doo-wop form.

Happy Belated Birthday, Billy. And thanks for all of this and more.


Roger Owen Green said...

When I finally do my list (in about five years, probably) it probably WILL have Piano Man, only because I saw him perform it in 1974. Ditto Captain Jack, which I identified with WAY too much in the late 1970s...

Tosy And Cosh said...

If you haven;t heard it, Broadway diva Betty Buckley does a lovely And So It Goes.

SamuraiFrog said...

I had no idea. Thanks, I'll check that out!