Saturday, May 01, 2010

Misunderstood American Masters #1: Billy Joel

Americans like categories. We like naming and judging and filing away our public figures: Jimmy Carter was a wimp, James Brown was “The hardest working man in show business”, Thomas Edison was a kindly old tinkerer.

That Jimmy Carter was a tough, shrewd politician with a far-sighted agenda we’re only now catching up to; that James Brown spent as much time drinking as he did singing; that Edison with a ruthless businessman who tried to crush all his rivals (including Nicola Tessla, who championed at AC current in universal use today) … we forget about all that. We don’t want to hear it. We prefer the snap shot.

This type of thinking has caused a gradual distortion in the way we view of some of the most beloved artists of the last century. I’m thinking in particular of Billy Joel, Norman Rockwell and Thornton Wilder. They seem like a bizarrely diverse group but they share a common stigma of misapprehension, and they all deserve better.

Starting at the bottom of the list, we have Billy Joel, silent since the 1990s – apart from some undistinguished ‘classical’ compositions that have done nothing to burnish his reputation. In fact they continued the corrosion of our esteem, by reiterating his role as a skilful but insignificant mimic … parroting Rachminoff and Chopin now, instead of Smokey Robinson and Paul McCartney. But then, the critics always hated him, even during his heyday – and he hated them right back. He closed his show for years by shouting ‘Fuck you, Ken Tucker,” and the war of words continues to this day, with Tucker and many others. I was irked and saddened to read a recent article in Slate magazine by Ron Rosenbaum titled “The Worst Pop Singer Ever: Why, Exactly is Billy Joel so Bad?” Of course the title takes it for granted that we all agree with Ron – the badness itself is a foregone conclusion: an unfortunate excrescence of the 8os, like the Charlie’s Angels hair styles and the polyester leisure suits. It’s the critical equivalent of asking “When did you stop beating your wife?” To claim you never did such a thing in the first place requires dismantling the question and separating out the implicit assumption from neutral inquisition.

So let’s start: Billy Joel wasn’t bad.

And he wasn’t arrogant either, despite Rosenbaum’s assertions. A song like “Big Shot”, for instance, where he berates a nameless friend for acting like a pompous clown, was actually addressed to himself – a piece of ‘man in the mirror’ chastisement that went right over Rosenbaum’s head.

Billy Joel was always emotional and he could never maintain the distance from his own emotions that night have made him seem cool. He couldn’t dress up and role-play like Bowie; he couldn’t strut like Jagger, or muster David Byrne’s chilly ironic panache. He just laid it all out there and hoped that honesty and a catchy tune would carry the day. Often, they did. Critics called him corny, and he was, at times. But I choose not to judge him by his worst efforts; that’s a cruel standard, and a mendacious one.

Take a song like “This is the Time” from his forgotten 1986 album The Bridge. It starts with this evocative image of a coastal town in winter:

We walked on the beach beside that old hotel
They're tearing it down now
But it's just as well,

And moves on to sharp-edged but poignant warning about time and romance, framed in the setting of erosion and decay:

This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever
These are the days
To hold on to
Cause we won't
Although we'll want to.

The sharp edge in that song, like a cold wind off the Atlantic, cut across most of his music, with a tonic realism that denies the notion that the downtown guy was nothing but a soft-centered sentimentalist.

From “You May be Right” (Glass Houses, 1980)

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you're looking for
Turn out the light
Don't try to save me
You may be wrong for all I know
But you may be right

Remember how I found you there
Alone in your electric chair
I told you dirty jokes until you smiled
You were lonely for a man
I said take me as I am
'Cause you might enjoy some madness for awhile.

From “Only the good Die Young” (The Stranger, 1978)

You said your mother told you
All I could give you was a reputation
Ah she never cared for me
But did she ever say a prayer for me?

Come out, come out, come out Virginia
Don't let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
Sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well, will be the one
You know that only the good die young

There are many other examples; he’s full of surprises. But beyond the lyrics, Billy Joel has one of the great rock and roll voices – or perhaps I should say, he has three of the great rock and roll voices – a screamer, a crooner and a straight-ahead band-fronting tenor. And he writes the music for all of those styles. The people who try to critique him for the most part know nothing about music theory or composition; most of them can’t even carry a tune. People who know music, like Paul Simon, respect Billy Joel’s achievements as a tunesmith. But don’t take Paul’s word for it – or mine. Ultimately Billy Joel’s reputation will endure because of the music, long after the carping critics and internet scolds have been forgotten.

1 comment:

Joe Iriarte said...

I wasn't aware that Billy Joel had a poor critical estimation. I was a devoted fan of his long before he became synonymous with Adult Contemporary. I think he's the only singer I ever camped out overnight to buy tickets for, and I did it at least twice. (And I've seen him perform live more times than I can count.) And it wasn't that I was taken in by some empty radio phenomenon, because I got into him before he hit his heights. Every time I found a new favorite song, in the seventies, when I eventually found out who sang it it turned out to be Billy Joel. Eventually I figured I'd buy his albums and go straight to the source of all that great poetry.

And for me it was the poetry. Rock music to me has always been about the lyrics more than the tune, and I can still rattle off the lyrics of pretty much any Billy Joel song off the top of my head.

To make a long reply short, if any critic says he's "the worst"--or hell, even refers to him as a "pop singer" at all--that to me reflects poorly on the critic. (Not that the critic cares, I'm sure, but my point is that he succeeds in conveying a critical message to me, but not perhaps the one he intended.)

I last saw Joel perform live back in 1995 or so. I haven't gone back for over a decade because it makes me sad to see what he's done to his voice. I have a bit of a singing background, so I'm very conscious of vocal strain and vocal nodes. It actually hurts me when I hear someone singing notes that should hurt them.

But in the last year or so I've started to reconsider. My wife loved Michael Jackson back in the eighties. She's sad that she'll never get to see him perform live again. When I asked her whether it was worse to never see him or to see him be just a shadow of his former abilities, she seemed pretty sure not being able to see him again was worse. I guess I just need to convince my gut that there isn't a third option--going back in time somehow and seeing him at the height of his showmanship, in the 1980s.