BY CORDELIA MESEROW
Billy Joel played his fifth consecutive concert at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Friday, September 7th – the most of any artist in history at the historic baseball field. While I was not in attendance, I am an ardent fan. I have gone to two of the Piano Man’s previous concerts at Wrigley, as well as another recent show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he is permanently in residence.
Billy Joel was one of the soundtracks of my childhood. Growing up, his Storm Front CD as well as another Greatest Hits CD were on constant repeat on my boom box. My mother loved “Matter of Trust” and Henry, my brother, loved his song, “River of Dreams.” My father loved all of them.
Later, Billy Joel found his way from my boom box to my classroom. In the 7th grade at Latin, our class participated in a week-long tour of various Chicago neighborhoods for project week. At the end of the week, each group was required to put on a skit to be performed for the teachers and the rest of our class. My group, having explored the Uptown neighborhood of the city, chose to rewrite the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” as a play on our time spent in the area. It was met with great laughter by our teachers at the time.
The following year in the 8th grade, our American Studies class had a unit on the Cold War. In class, we listened to Joel’s, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a musical catalog of Cold War history. At this point in my life I knew a good deal of the song’s lyrics but began to commit more to memory as we listened to the song in class on several occasions, which we timed with learning about certain historical events (the JFK assassination, Sputnik etc.). My “Fire” knowledge came in handy on our final test for the Cold War unit where several extra credit questions addressed lyrics to the song and the events that inspired them.
As I have gotten older, I have begun to appreciate Billy Joel even more. The technical prowess of his piano playing is unmatched by few other pop or rock artists. Joel, however, is famously self-deprecating. In a recent interview with CBS surrounding his 100th show at Madison Square Garden, he invoked Neil Diamond, who once said, “I’ve forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.” Joel also views Beethoven as the pinnacle of musical talent, but his issue is the opposite of Diamond’s: “That’s my problem: I haven’t forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.” As a fellow pianist, I have taken a stab at a few Billy Joel songs from the scores of his music my dad has given me as gifts over the years. Playing my favorite song, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” requires the same level of focus and commitment as any Beethoven Sonata, and it is a song equal in its musical complexity. Billy, it’s time to forgive yourself!
It is no accident that Billy Joel is so technically talented. He is classically trained and comes from an extensive musical heritage. (His parents met in a college production of the operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance”). His father was a classical pianist, and his half-brother is a well-known conductor in Vienna. Critics often branded Billy Joel in his early years as elitist or inauthentic because of his musical studies. “To them, you’re supposed to be a diamond in the rough and polish yourself,” Joel commented in a July interview with New York Magazine. In addition to actually studying music, he played the piano rather than the guitar, which has always been perceived as a more “rich kid” instrument because of the cost of the lessons. But Billy Joel’s upbringing was not so well-to-do. After Joel’s parents divorced when he was eight, his father moved to Europe and later remarried. But back in Hicksville, Long Island, Joel’s mother scraped together the funds for her son to take piano lessons; lessons, which have proved so integral to his later success.
Billy Joel is far from elitist: he is the modern day Every Man. He is the bayman of the “Downeaster Alexa,” the American soldier saying goodnight in “Saigon,” and the velvet-collar yuppy who always “Keeps the Faith”. But chief amongst his many personas is that of being The Bard of Long Island whose music always seems to put its listeners in that “New York State of Mind.”
An analogy that best describes what Billy Joel means to New York is that he is to the Empire State what Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey. Billy and Bruce are New York and New Jersey’s contemporary bards. Their musical catalogues capture both the history and emotions of their native people. Their lyrics rely heavily on names of individuals (Mary of “Thunder Road,” Anthony of “Movin’ Out”) and descriptions of places (“My Hometown,” “Allentown”) which give their songs a sense of familiarity and kinship, to which audiences can truly relate. This sense of emotional closeness continues to fuel both artists’ careers. Bruce Springsteen had a wildly heralded Broadway run at the Walter Kerr Theater this past year, for which he won a Tony presented to him by Billy Joel at the ceremony (well-deserved many times over, I saw the show), and Billy Joel has now played Madison Square Garden so many times that he now refers to it as his “office.”
But while Springsteen continues to compose and record new material, Billy Joel has not released a new album in 25 years. River of Dreams, in 1993, was the last one. Many speculate why Joel has stopped releasing new music, and it is a question he answers frankly and frequently in many interviews. He boils it down to realizing that his songwriting could not be as good as he wanted it to be. As he grew older, Joel wanted to continue to progress in his level of talent and musical innovation, but, as he said in the July New York Magazine interview, “I realized I could only be X good. Because of that I knew I was going to beat myself up for not being better.” Beat himself up he did. The years after his River of Dreams album saw his divorce from his then wife Christie Brinkley and several bouts of alcohol abuse, from which he has since recovered, but no new music. Eventually the drinking stopped, as did the realization that he did not need to record anything new. Billy Joel now seems to be wholly content with his canon as it stands. And if a new album was not at the same or greater level of his previous work, which Joel feared could be the case, he would tarnish his legacy, which right now remains pristine.
In a way, Billy Joel’s conscious choice of not releasing new songs is in keeping with the philosophy of one of his first hits: 1977’s “Just the Way You Are.”
Don’t go changing to try and please me
You’ve never let me down before.
Billy Joel does not “go changing” to try and please anyone, and, aside from that brief dalliance with his classical album (we’ll forgive you!), he has never let us down before. So Billy, don’t go changing. We love you – just the way you are.