"Sing us a song, you’re the piano man/Sing us a song tonight/ Cuz we’re all in the mood for a melody and you’ve got us feeling all right."
That Billy Joel CD in your room that you "just happen to have…" You "must have gotten it for free," or "it’s probably [your] brother’s"…or worse, your "dad’s" Well, that album will never inspire Thom Yorke, Wayne Coyne, or Jack White. It will never be appropriated by the hipsteratti like the respective music of Abba, Kiss and Rush. In fact, the only crowd Billy Joel seems to be attracting nowadays are the fans of the Broadway show, Moving Out, a modern dance performance, which are three words as appealing as "triple bypass surgery."
Moreover, on occasion, I find myself hiding my admiration for all things Joel, telling my peers that yes, I used to love him, but I also used to wear diapers. We grow out of some things. It is just part of the maturation process. We aspire to sophistication.
However, unlike the aforementioned artists found in my ever-increasing record collection, Joel will still touch me in ways that Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, or the White Stripes cannot.
Whenever I put his music on, whenever I hear the twinkling ivory keys on the opening of "Piano Man," I am at once at ease. Because Billy Joel is that piano man, the one whose microphone smells like a beer. And despite my place in life, despite how pretentious the files on my iPod may be, Billy Joel will always have me feeling all right.
"Don’t go changing to try and please me. You never let me down before. I don’t imagine you’re too familiar and I don’t see you anymore." –Just The Way You Are, The Stranger
If Billy Joel had not taken writing credits for those lyrics, I would have sworn my mother wrote them. Most see the aforementioned lyrical sample as a sincere love declaration from a man to a woman, to take the good or the bad, whatever she had to offer. I, on the other hand, see it as a mother giving a guilt trip to her son. Surely this is what Joel meant. "I just want someone I can talk to…" But Mom, you might say back, I’m can’t talk now. I have a friend over. OK, she says back, "I love you just the way you are" and then she hangs up. And you feel guilty as hell.
It’s no weird coincidence that despite his unshakeable uncoolness, the Jewish people, en masse, relate so much to Billy Joel. His songs encapsulate just about every character trait of our stereotypical portrayals. From the paranoia that everyone is Anti-Semitic and out to get us ("…everyone is so untrue…all I want is someone to believe" -Honesty) to the self-consciousness of being accepted and assimilating successfully ("whattsa’ matter with the clothes I’m wearing? …whattsa’ matter with the car I’m driving?"-It’s Still Rock N’ Roll To Me). If there was anyone who could understand what it was like to be an adolescent Yeshiva student ("Pressure"), it was Mister William Martin Joel. As I used to sit in the backseat of my father’s car on the way to school, I lived the lyrics. The anxiety in my head coupled with the lyrics of "should I try to be a straight "A" student? If you are, then you think too much." Joel was the Talmud and I was his most fervent student.
Moreover, Billy Joel is a mentsch. He has never alienated his fans with a cutting-edge experimental album. He doesn’t want to be a bother, he doesn’t want you to go out of your way. If you’re coming by, then feel free to say hello for once. Show your face.
Incredibly, throughout my life’s experiences, I have found Billy Joel’s music always appropriate regardless of the scenario. Even at times, when I thought I was "too cool" to listen to The Stranger or rock out to Glass Houses, his music reminded me that I am Jewish-cool, not Goyish-cool and that I should forget about ever being an action hero in the movies (name one…and Leonard Nimoy doesn’t count).
In high school, when frustrated with family members, I reveled in my angst along with "My Life," not with my thrash heavy Iron Maiden tapes. "I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life" – how many times have we felt the need to say that to our parents? Its no wonder Braid, a seminal punk band, covered this song because it truly is a punk song in its sentiments.
How uncanny that the lyrical content of "Only the Good Die Young" captures the complacency in Jewish education: "well, they showed you a statue and told you to pray, built you a temple and locked you away…they didn’t give you quite enough information." Right on! Now this guy really understands you.
Even on occasion, Joel will resolve global issues, standing up and defending the Jews against the finger pointing of Anti-Semitism. As Jonathan Rosen astutely pointed out in a New York Times Magazine article, the subtle persecution is coming around again. Once again, we are being blamed for the world’s woes and nobody is standing up publicly. Well, "we didn’t start the fire. It was always burning as the world was turning." And in response to all the other untruths, Joel, once again steps up to the podium, and responds on the behalf of our nation: "I am an innocent man. Oh, yes I am." I think the ADL has found their spokesman.
But weighty matters aside, when I surveyed my male friends, I found that they loved him because "he’s short and not very good looking but he still gets the hot tall girls every Jewish guy is dreaming of." And one of those hot, tall girls was model Christie Brinkley, to whom Joel was married for nearly ten years. In fact, many of the songs on An Innocent Man were dedicated to her, including the song "Christie Lee" which I remember bringing me great disappointment. In the past, he had sung about "Laura" and "Brenda," two nice girls that I probably went to high school with. Now he had written a paean to a woman, who could never be confused for being Jewish, even if she wore a yarmulke. Had the epitome of shleppers let me down and confirmed that the Semitic persuasion needed to look outside of our tribe for Ms. Right? Before all hope was lost, Joel had redeemed himself and did what a typical Jewish parent from Long Island would have done: he named his daughter "Alexis," a perfectly Waspy name.
Despite his commercial success, Joel remained a regular guy. With tremendous flair, he could play both sides of the coin, identifying with the rebellious child while simultaneously, playing the role of the sage parent. He, like the patriarchs and matriarchs, dispenses his knowledge but wastes no time on explanations. "Don’t wait for answers, don’t talk to strangers. Don’t ask me why." With Joel, it was nothing more that "a matter of trust" and knowing Jewish parents, they pine for the trust of their children. How many times have you heard your parents say, trust me here because "I’ve lived long enough to have learned…"
"And if my silence made you leave, then that will be my worst mistake…so I will choose to be with you/that’s if the choice was mine to make…" – "And So It Goes," Storm Front
It’s been eleven years since Billy Joel has sworn off making pop music. While I can’t say that I am desperate for him to release new material, I feel saddened for today’s generation of eager listeners who are missing out on Joel’s arguable genius.
Some bands or artists are discovered through commercials, soundtracks or name dropping in interviews but Joel will never be that fortunate. Volkswagen will never approach him to sell cars and Cameron Crowe will never consider him for his soundtracks. I sometimes find myself wondering whether in the years to come if Joel will fade away into obscurity. It’s quite possible that he will.
But as far as I am concerned, that will never happen. Because as long as there is cool and uncool, for as long as there is the dismissive smugness and the earnest appreciation of real…for as long as there is the piano, there will always be the man sitting behind it, singing a melody and making me feel all right.