Wood Panelling vs. Billy Joel
In defense of Billy Joel.
(Previously titled, "Don Will Never Write for Pitchfork")
i don't entirely get it, to be honest. I mean, I DO get it...but not entirely.
Among musicians, it's fairly if not ENTIRELY uncommon to hear any kind words directed towards the music created by Mr. Joel. Honestly, now that I am thinking about it, no musician friends of mine wax poetically or even muse kindly towards the aforementioned "piano man." And perhaps that's it right there, that he wrote, "Piano Man." More on that later.
Thing is, I don't believe them. At least not all of them. Sure, it's way waaayy easier to say, for example. that "hey, wasn't listening to that AM radio crap at the time. Had my head wrapped around the Sex Pistols, the New York art-punk scene and all that. Couldn't give a crap about what that dude had to say about eating in an Italian Restaurant." Well, something like that.
You see, admitting to liking Billy Joel has become akin to admitting you favor, say, wood panelling. Thing is, with the right coat of paint, wood panelling ain't all that bad. Might actually rock with the right select furniture. Maybe it's the fact that he's a "piano rocker." Perhaps the indie rocker inside all of us struggling musicians cannot coalesce around any sense of praise for a piano-playing Long Island crooner. But I submit to you that this is way more punk rock at the time than the Sex Pistols ladies and gentlemen. Seriously, think about this. I mean, the Sex Pistols are great. And I'm just using them as an example, for there is really no feud here between Mr. Joel and the SP crew. But outwardly spitting on shit and tearing the world around you apart is overtly more easy than sitting behind a piano and singing songs about your Long Island (see suburbs) upbringing during the heart of the punk movement.
I'm not even claiming to be that much of a Billy Joel fan. But what I do like is an underdog. And despite him being a billion some odd selling artist, the guy gets no respect, and that makes him an artistic underdog. It's much easier to say you are REALLY into say, The Arcade Fire, or MGMT, or even Tom Waits. But Billy Joel? NO ONE ever claims this...in public. And the words I submit to you here will likely do little to change that. But despite not being a self-proclaimed Billy Joel fan, I will now offer a few facts that may lead to be finding an old Billy Joel concert tee and cueing up to defend my wearing it in public.
1. "The Stranger" - don't care what you have to say. The guitar riff is a little square, but those flat-ass thin sounding drums are awesome and I would kill to have them on my record. Also, these lyrics aren't have bad.
Once I used to believe
I was such a great romancer
Then I came home to a woman
That I could not recognize
When I pressed her for a reason
She refused to even answer
It was then I felt the stranger
Kick me right between the eye
Ouch Billy. This ain't no "Smokin' in the Boys Room."
2. The recording of "It's still rock and Roll to me." Again, I'm, not listening to the naysayers. Okay, so I am an analogue recording junkie. But this remains, to me, one of the most incredible sonic pop recording of it's era. Perhaps Billy purposely keeping any piano from this track was his subconscious reacting to the critical silence of his previous albums. But despite what you may feel of this song, this recording represents the era of the late 70's and early early 80's (before what we would consider the "early 80's) in it's finest technical form. Like wood panelling. A great vocal performance too. Almost unrecognizable as Joel.
3. "Uptown Girl" doesn't count
4. "Allentown" does.
5. Me am drunk.
6. I've only really experienced writers block (and I hope I am not jinxing myself) once in my life. It was about 1998 or 99. Had gone about 6 months or so without really writing anything or even having an idea as to what to write about. SO one night I am up about 3 in the morning listening to a radio station in New York City. And believe it or not, radio in NYC is not all that great. ESPECIALLY in the late 90's.
So a Billy Joel tune comes on...of course. I think it may have been "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." I may have even sung a lyric or two. But the thing that really struck me, was that as a songwriter, he must be pretty psyched that he has so many songs that people know. That they actually PAY to see him perform them. I mean, at the end of the day, that's a very very amazing feat for a guy from the suburbs of Long Island. Actually for anyone from anywhere. And he just has hit after hit after hit, artistic merits aside, which are of course always just a subjective ideology.
I sat there in my room murmuring about how this guy, Billy Joel, has all these songs that everybody knows all the words to and sing along with. It made me both admire and loathe him. And here I couldn't write anything. But them it came out, almost in an instant. A song. A new idea. A new thought. In about 15 minutes I wrote a complete thought. A complete song. A song about how I knew all the words to songs by an artist I wasn't even that much a fan of. How oddly impressive that was. And I just need to write even ONE SONG. So there it came out.
"I know all the words to songs by Billy Joel
He knows me much better than you
I wish I could write songs like Billy Joel
Maybe I will."
And the thing is, I credit that song, perpetually unreleased, as turning my songwriting fortunes around. Such as they may be. After writing that, I haven't experienced writers block since. Maybe I don't exactly write ye old "hits" like Billy, but I could probably match him for sheer volume of tunage written. And I'd tell him "thanks" for the kick in the butt, if only for hearing his songs one too many times.
When I was about seven or so, I remember my dad's handyman coming by the house to install some wood panelling in our living room. It was decidedly hideous. Undebateably so.
I truly miss it now.