FEATURE: I would have listened to Billy Joel sooner if I’d known what a magnificent, miserable bastard he is

My only experiences of Billy Joel prior to, say, the age of 20 (I just turned 21) (this is a back-door escape clause for people reading this who probably wouldn’t care what a 21 year old has to say about Billy Joel) were:

  1. Recently-split boy band Westlife covering his classic song about class struggle, “Uptown Girl”, for Comic Relief (with a video featuring Mr. Fantastic and Lord Percy Percy)
  2. An advert that either got shown a lot whilst I was a kid, or was recorded on a video I watched a lot, for a Billy Joel best-of album, the only part of which sticks in my mind is him singing the titular phrase of “My Life”

And prior to writing this, my knowledge of Billy Joel had expanded only as far as “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, and that’s only due to the remarkable ability of one friend to sing along to every word of that Zeitgeist-bottling (well, intended as Zeitgeist-bottling) song, and my girlfriend’s equally remarkable inability to know any of the words.

Right now I am house-sitting for my uncle. I am avoiding the home-made gin he wants me to drink. I forgot to bring any CDs, so I’ve been listening to a few of his; once I got through the “hipper” end of the spectrum (a Darren Hayman solo album, The King of Limbs), I arrived at Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel1.

And I thought: Why not? Maybe I can learn the words to “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, too. Or at least mumble along to them until it gets to the chorus.

Yeah, a few of my first thoughts upon listening to songs on Piano Man were reasonably glib. “Hey, he did the original version of “Empire State of Mind”!”, or ”Hey, Das Racist sampled that!”, or “It’s funny how “Piano Man” is actually based around harmonica and accordion”.

There was something else there, though2.

There is a reason to look into Billy Joel a little deeper: I realised that Billy Joel, whom I had previously regarded as this jaunty, up-beat and reasonably cheesy pop guy, fits neatly into the tradition of self-flagellating performers who use music as a sort of emotional catharsis — the Bob Moulds, the Rivers Cuomos3, the Jamie Stewarts, the (most of all) Kanye Wests4 — that I find so damn fascinating.

Please, stick with me.

The first song on the album is “Tell Her About It”. Musically, it is a piece of jaunty, up-beat and reasonably cheesy eighties pop. Then, lyrically: it appears that Joel is giving relationship advice to a friend (“Listen boy…”), urging him to tell the object of his affections to share his feelings with her before it’s too late. But really this is just a device for Joel to examine his own past failed relationships5, and his inability to open up to people6. Joel has been in a similar situation to the friend he’s doling (probably unwanted) advice out to: “Uptown Girl” was written about Christie Brinkley, whom Joel was in love with, but didn’t end up wooing until a few years later. After she appeared in the video to “Uptown Girl”, bizarrely enough.

This device gets used on songs throughout the album. I’d actually heard “She’s Always a Woman” somewhere before, but didn’t realise it was by Joel7. It’s one of the most superficially jaunty yet lyrically conflicted love songs I’ve ever heard and, again, whilst it’s directed at the “Woman” of the title it mainly consists of Joel’s own self-loathing (amidst the distressing “Just Like a Woman” borderline misogyny/infantlisation). “Movin’ Out” is subtitled “(Anthony’s Song)”, but it could just as easily be about Joel’s own struggle and ultimate failed attempts to find happiness in fame and fortune. Not unlike Rivers Cuomo who, on the second album with his band Weezer, recorded what were essentially unfiltered primal screams of confusion and frustration about his life now he had been accelerated into pop stardom. Cuomo later referred to Pinkerton as “like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself.”

“It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me”, meanwhile, would almost be another “…Fire”-style rattling off of cultural signifiers, if it weren’t for Joel’s insistence that he doesn’t go follow trends. The fact that he felt the need to state that implies he might not actually believe it, and is more insecure than he’s letting on.

Although, perhaps he really doesn’t do things simply because they’re popular: Joel hasn’t released a pop record in nearly ten years, because he hasn’t been “inspired”, which is refreshing in a world full of gnarled old rockers, past their sell-by-date, jumping on any old bandwagon just so they can release an album a year and try to stay “relevant”8. See? Billy Joel is a complex and flawed guy. He’s a human being.

As the level of navel-gazing we’re talking about is usually dismissed as being adolescent, the chorus to “My Life” sounds, suitably, like a teenage tantrum: “I don’t care what you say anymore! This is my life!” His pleas to be left alone in that same song are less convincing, however. Because he’s a pop star.

Unless, y’know, this is the sound of a man in the spotlight struggling with the contradicting feeling it brings. Again, I’m thinking of Kanye West, who on his last three albums has tackled his celebrity and perceived infamy, along with his own ego, in ways that are by turns glib and sort-of fascinating, in a train-wreck fashion.

But let’s return to those other songs. The songs that seem to be about other people. In fact, they’re just mirrors in which Joel can examine himself. And this is interesting, not because it’s narcissistic…well, it is, but it’s not just that. It’s interesting because it’s something we all do, discovering ourselves through our interactions with other people and the way we percieve them, except we usually keep that knowledge to ourselves. The Piano Man, meanwhile, is doing it with the understanding that it will be heard by hundreds of thousands of people.

(Side bar: I really don’t buy into the whole reductionist “Rich people are rich! What have they got to be sad about” mentality — I’m an militant fan of the films of Wes Anderson — ’cos, really, we’re all just human beings. And Billy Joel does have plenty to be sad about. I mean, there’s the well-documented heartbreaks, his unfortunate initials and…well, you know the film Twins? Where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito play lab-born identitical siblings; Arnie got all the “good” genes while Devito got all the “bad”? Billy Joel, physically, is the Danny DeVito to Tom Jones’ Schwarzengger).

Still, the titling of the songs and the way they’re written are still something of an preventitive measure against future criticism — I’m not self-obsessed! These songs are about other people! — and that just adds to the intrigue of the thing.

I do have a soft spot for musicians who use their lyrics as vehicle for self-analysis, emotional catharsis. Cheap therapy. It’s equal parts genuine interest in the human condition and voyeurism, on my part. I do genuinely think Joel exists within that tradition with the likes of Bob Mould (who made some of his poppiest, and most depressing, music in Sugar) and Kanye West circa My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. 

This central thesis of mine could just have been born of my tendency to take lyrics at face value. It’s only recently that I stopped fretting about what Craig Finn had done to get sequestered in Memphis, realising he was writing and singing from the perspective of a character.

Maybe Joel isn’t really miserable. Maybe he just writes miserable characters in miserable situations really well. He certainly does on “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that misery has to come from somewhere, is it? You don’t just pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason Trent Reznor isn’t all smiles in his day-to-day life. There’s a reason Billy Joel is a old and lonely (but rich and famous)9.

The only songs on Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel I’m convinced aren’t autobiographical self-analyses are “Goodnight Saigon”10 (because so far as I know he didn’t fight in Vietnam himself) and, obviously, “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. Although I still only know the latter well enough to shout along with the bit where he says:

Blown away!
What more do I have to say?”

Okay, that was originally going to be the end of this…essay? feature? but I thought I need to add something. Pop music, a lot of the time, is an effective way of smuggling out difficult personal problems and issues. It’s not just Billy Joel who does it! And it’s not just bands like Xiu Xiu that do it! There’s probably some big statement to make about the function of all art here but I’m not the guy to make it. I’m just the guy who wrote at 2,000 word essay on Billy Joel.

1^ Spotify link, if you want to play along at home!

2^ I mean, obviously, else I wouldn’t have written this, and you wouldn’t have read this far, right? If I’m wrong, then you are far too polite to someone who will never know whether you read this or not.

3^ I’m thinking more Pinkerton Rivers Cuomo than “Where’s My Sex?” Rivers Cuomo.

4^ I’m thinking more My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye West than “Gold Digger” Kanye West.

5^ ”Don’t want to see you let a good thing slip away / You know I don’t like watching anybody make / The same mistakes I made”

6^ ”Tell her about it / Tell her all your crazy dreams / Let her know you need her / Let her know how much she means”

7^ It’s possible I heard Fyfe Dangefield’s rather nice cover of the song, which was featured in a John Lewis advert.

8^ Yeah, I’m implying that Billy Joel has more artistic integrity than Mick Jagger. It’s really not that crazy an idea if you think about it.

9^ As Chuck Klosterman wrote about in a profile of Joel for the New York Times which was strangely controversial at the time. I guess people don’t like finding out their jaunty upbeat pop guy is actually a hulking sad sack (even when it’s evident in his music anyway, haven’t you guys been paying attention to a word I’ve been saying?) Saddest part of that article, in fact: “You can’t go home with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You don’t sleep with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You don’t get hugged by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you don’t have children with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I want what everybody else wants: to love and to be loved, and to have a family. Being in love has always been the most important thing in my life.”

10^“Goodnight Saigon” is the only song on this album I actively didn’t enjoy, and was more than happy when the helicopters came in at the end to chopper away this half-baked piece of faux-political melodrama.

One Response to “FEATURE: I would have listened to Billy Joel sooner if I’d known what a magnificent, miserable bastard he is”
  1. Harris says:


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