Saturday, February 16, 2008

States of Grace



After my first few sessions with Billy, I made an interesting observation: He never warmed up by singing his own songs-- not even the ones we were currently working on.

Instead, he would start a session by doing impersonations.

"Remember when Otis Redding sang this?" he'd ask, and start singing like Otis Redding. Then he would slide into a Ray Charles song, or even start wailing Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves a Woman." He did the same thing when he overdubbed background vocals.

It was odd: Here I was trying to get Billy Joel to sound like Billy Joel, while he was trying to sound like anyone but.
-- Phil Ramone, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music


There are movies to blog about and Oscars to predict and sports scandals to ponder (by the way, if you're one of those sportswriters waffling over the Roger Clemens testimony, dissembling and obfuscating and generally giving the Rocket some easy cover, please don't ever pontificate again about Spygate, or Barry Bonds, or cheating in sports, or "think of the children, think of the children!").

That will all be gotten to in due time (and man, am I ever behind on my Oscar movies. What would Isaac Mizrahi say?). But first, I feel like I need to confess something.

I really like Billy Joel.

In this, I know I'm ably supported by Chuck Klosterman, who penned a wonderful essay, "Every Dog Must Have His Every Day. Every Drunk Must Have His Drink," in the book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, where he argued for Joel's conflicted cool, circa Glass Houses. He notes why "Joel's songs resonate with so many people: he expresses absolute conviction in moments of wholly misguided affection." And to paraphrase the old Elvis Presley album title, 150 million Billy Joel fans can't be wrong.



Still, at a dinner party last night, we started playing a game: what was the first album you ever bought? Despite the fact that my friends named such potentially mockable titles as ELO's Out of the Blue and Duran Duran's Rio (note the word "potentially" there-- I like those two bands, too), I still felt slightly insecure admitting that mine was a Billy Joel record (I honestly can't remember if it was The Nylon Curtain or An Innocent Man). I flashed on a moment in graduate school when a colleague's Billy Joel/Elton John concert t-shirt led to mockery from a friend of mine, based in part on this colleague's pretentious denial that he'd actually gone to the concert ("someone gave this to me!"), but also acting as a reminder: Billy Joel is not cool (even my favorite TV show found a way to use Joel as a punchline, when a distraught Willow witnessed the emotionally regressed baby boomers carousing around her and proclaimed, "M-maybe there's a Billy Joel concert in town or something!").



What's particularly odd is that Joel falls into a musical line whose progenitors are indistputably cool: Cole Porter, the Gershwins, The Four Seasons, Motown, and most obviously, The Beatles. His hits combine a keen ear for melody with thoughtful lyrics about romance or social issues, and he's generally done a good job of staying up-to-date with changing production techniques. He's contemporaneous with a whole group of singer-songwriters, like Paul Simon, Elton John and James Taylor, who have managed to continually re-invent themselves for ensuing generations; his songs are radio staples, despite the fact that he hasn't recorded a pop album in fifteen years; and the girls leaning their heads against their hands in the James Lipton video above suggests the ability of his older material to still hit an emotional chord.

Is that fifteen-year absence why Joel's reputation isn't necessarily what it was twenty or twenty-five years ago? Or is it his jack-of-all-tunes persona, that the very chameleon-like skills that allow him to easily hopscotch around styles and genres somehow mark him as suspect or 'inauthentic'? Do contemporary ears sometimes hear in Joel a straining to be liked, and more importantly, to be respected? In the late 70s, Joel would famously read and tear up bad reviews on the concert stage, a supposed catharsis that only ended up begging the question about his desire for cultural cachet (in a way, his recent turn from his pop gifts toward classical recording suggests the same thing). Like his hero John Lennon (and later figures like Paul Westerberg), Joel was possesed of composing and vocal gifts that he sometimes fought against in a strange attempt to appear 'hard' (although he'd been recording since 1972, he didn't achieve massive commercial success until 1977-- the same year the Sex Pistols would release Never Mind the Bollocks... and mark another generational/stylistic break in pop music history). At his best, though, this very struggle-- between melody and meaning, between being the sensitive guy and the senseless punk-- would become not only his star persona but the subject and engine of his best music. To tweak Klosterman's equation a bit, Billy Joel is a poet of the noble fool: his protagonists might be absolute in their convictions, but Joel is superb at letting us know how misguided those convictions and affections can be (while still showing them a great deal of affection).



In his recent book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music (written with Charles L. Granata), Joel's longtime producer Phil Ramone talks about working with Joel:

With Billy, the melody came first. He would sit at the piano and start with a riff that caught his ear, and build the melody around that. As he played the basic chords, the band would fall in, improvising a head arrangement; one that came together as they played. After a time we'd play back these attempts, then continue to experiment with the instrumentation... When I listen to a song and imagine how it might be arranged, I listen for melodic lines in the background-- a haunting that's not fully developed-- or another piece of the melody that could benefit from emphasis.

Billy Joel's commercial reputation rests on four albums-- The Stranger (1977), Glass Houses (1980), An Innocent Man (1983), and Storm Front (1989)-- that produced such massive radio hits as "Just The Way You Are," "Always A Woman," "You May Be Right," "Uptown Girl," and "We Didn't Start The Fire." I like those records, but I actually think his most interesting work happened between those big commercial bookmarks. In three collaboration with Ramone-- 52nd Street (1978), The Nylon Curtain (1982), and The Bridge (1986)-- Joel found the perfect balance between matters of the heart and reflecting the times around him, and did so while indulging his love of genre splicing and musical homage. The results are albums that encapsulate their eras while still sounding fresh and fun-- to approach Ramone's remembrance critically, they emphasize the musical and emotional lines that hid behind his earlier work, and benefit from the emphasis.

1.
The opening notes of "Zanzibar," the fourth song on Joel's sixth studio album, create a wonderfully evocative drift through a nightclub; Joel's tense, Spanish-tinged piano riffs (which some have heard as a tribute to Steely Dan)shove us through that club's door, while his lyrics describe the scene:

Ali dances and the audience applauds
Though he's bathed in sweat he hasn't lost his style
Ali don't you go downtown
You gave away another round for free


The next verse takes us to our narrator, as the jazzy drums create complex rhythmic patterns behind Joel's yearning, boyish vocals, the undercurrent to the narrator's bursting adolescence:

Me, I'm just another face at Zanzibar
But the waitress always serves a secret smile
She's waiting out in Shantytown
She's gonna pull the curtains down for me, for me

I've got the old man's car,
I've got a jazz guitar
I've got a tab at Zanzibar
Tonight that's where I'll be


The ensuing lyrics continue this pattern of outside/inside, of vingettes that always circle back to our narrator's frustrating, Doinel-like misadventures. It's kind of like "Piano Man"'s anecdotal structure, but not nearly as doused in melodramatic pathos-- the narrator here is much less self-aware, and therefore a lot more ironic and funny (we know he's a hopeless nerd far before he does, but it doesn't make us love him any less). The musical and lyrical sophistication carries us over into a middle eight whose dreamy textures are suddenly interrupted by Freddie Hubbard's remarkable jazz trumpet, another layer of teasing for our hero-- "You'll never be this cool," Hubbard's incredibly quick riffs mock, coming back to get one last kick in as the song fades out.

The cover of 52nd Street shows Joel in his trademark blue suit, holding a trumpet and leaning up against a building on the famed jazz boulevard; his tie is undone and he looks like a cool jazz cat, except for the sneakers that complete his outfit. That divided image-- wanting to be the cool, mature artist but literally keeping a foot in the youthful world of pop--nicely reflects the consciousness of the record itself, which builds on the propulsive, melodically sophisticated pop-rock of its predecessor, The Stranger, while also embracing a wryer set of lyrics and a more adventurous sonic palette. I particularly like the Jet-like snaps that introduce "Stiletto," nicely wrapped around the rich baritone sax of Richie Cannata; the sopranino recorder sound of "Rosalinda's Eyes" that feels like a warm summer's afternoon; and the taut snap of Liberty DeVitto's cymbals on "Until The Night" (DeVitto was to Joel what bassist Bruce Thomas was to Elvis Costello and the Attractions-- that secret musical weapon that pulled the whole enterprise together). All of this musical stretching mixes nicely with Joel's pop craftmanship, best represented by the synthesized piano and multi-tracked, McCartneyesque vocals of "My Life," a massive hit that would later find infamy as the theme song to Bosom Buddies. In taking a slight left turn following a huge commercial success, 52nd Street would establish a pattern of theme-and-variation for the Joel-Ramone collaboration that would serve them well in the ensuing decade.

2. Despite the commercial success that the risk-taking of 52nd Street had yielded a few years earlier, Columbia Record executives still blanched in 1982, when Joel and Ramone offered them the follow-up to the stadium rock of Glass Houses.

"Where's the 'Movin' Out'-type song?'," Ramone claims one executive asked (what he was really asking, Ramone felt, was "Where's the hit?"). Dubbed The Nylon Schmata by Joel's manager, there were not high commercial hopes for the dark, atmospheric record, a project Joel had envisioned as a "headphones record" in the spirit of Revolver or Sgt. Pepper's.

It is a great headphones record, and thanks to singles like "Allentown" and "Pressure," The Nylon Curtain was also a sizable commercial hit, as well as a critical success. Released two years into Ronald Reagan's first term, the socially conscious lyrics and B&W video of "Allentown" marked a turn in Joel's lyrics from anecdotal narratives and autobiographical explorations of the heart to looking at the wider world around him (a path he followed less successfully on the bathetic, bombastic "Goodnight Saigon," which makes Oliver Stone look subtle, and has the unfortunate effect of turning Vietnam into a drunken singalong), while "Pressure" has a lot of fun with vocal effects and surreal nonsense lyrics (I'm still waiting to find out just what it means to have one's whole life be "Channel 13, Sesame Street, Time Magazine").

The big singles sold the album, but the record's real triumphs are in the lesser-known songs, which manage to embody both the harsh vocals and self-reflective lyrics of John Lennon and the melodic gifts and studio wizardry of Paul McCartney. "Scandinavian Skies" offers "I Am The Walrus"-like musical vertigo, the tricky airplane sound effects zooming from left to right speaker while framing a horror story of airsickness and emotional isolation on tour; "She's Right On Time" is an epic piano ballad made ironic by a lyric about an everyday love affair that seems like it's about to snap; "Laura" is a deceptively pleasant mid-tempo pop song about co-dependency; while the menacing synthesizers of "Surprises" firmly placed the album in the early 80s (it would be a power ballad, too, except the lead instrument ends up being DeVitto's hugely loud drums). Most impressive was the closing tune, the sad/funny "Where's The Orchestra?," whose unique instrumentation (accordian is almost the lead) and deadpan vocal from Joel illuminates a clever lyric about art, loss and self-awareness. It takes a couple of listens to realize that none of the lines rhyme until the bridge (and even then, the rhyme deflates: "I assumed the show would have a song/So, I was wrong"); at that point, the narrator begins to absorb the snytax of the art form he's understanding ("At least I understand/All the innuendo, and the irony"), and the lines pick up another rhyme here and there, as if he's learning to sing; but just as he comes to feel a part of the world he's entered (and the music crescendos), "the curtain falls, on empty stares," and both song and album are finished.

3. The Bridge is the last great Billy Joel record. He'd follow it up with the solid, Mick Jones-produced Storm Front, an album whose metallic, guitar-heavy edges offered a new sonic palette but lacked the textures of the Joel-Ramone collaborations, the way the two men would surprise you with a surprising instrumental choice or musical turn of phrase (startlingly modern in 1989, it has dated more than any other Joel record); this would be followed by his last pop record, the sluggish River of Dreams, whose infectious doo-wop title tune masked a hit-and-miss album overall.

In 1986, though, Joel was in firm control of his musical gifts, and had seemingly hit an upturn in his personal life, marrying Christie Brinkley the year before, and becoming a father when his daughter Alexa was born in the middle of the album's production. I say "seemingly" because many of the lyrics on The Bridge suggest emotional turmoil-- the career pressures of "Running on Ice," the longing and loss of "This Is The Time," the affair at the center of "Temptation." None of this is necessarily autobiographical, but it suggests Joel was still able to tap a darker emotional thread in his songs, which rubs nicely against their shiny pop surfaces. The result is his most intriguing set of songs, and his most underrated.

This is Joel's most musically diverse album, functioning almost as a musical revue (complete with guest stars like Ray Charles and Cyndi Lauper) that hits blues, soul, jazz, synthesized mid-80s pop and straight-up guitar rock (and also includes lovely examples of his most natural register, the ballad). Kicking off the album with the Looney Tunes keyboards of "Running On Ice" (and echoing that big cartoon style with the hit single "Modern Woman") and following it up with the grand piano-driven ballad "This Is The Time" immediately establishes the record's wide parameters, into which falls a sublime pairing with Charles ("Baby Grand"), another of Joel's infectious glimpses at a beautiful loser (the big-band-inspired "Big Man On Mulberry Street"), and his most effective guitar song ("A Matter of Trust"). The Bridge did not sell as well as Joel's past records, and it marked the end of his collaboration with Ramone (neither man would ever find as sympathetic a partner again). But it's arguably the best thing he ever did: gone is the kid-in-adult-clothes of "Piano Man," the gangly rocker of Glass Houses or the slick neo-nostalgist of An Innocent Man. In their place stands a relaxed and mature craftsman whose work explores the joys and compromises of middle-aged life, who has reached (as a later song will put it) a "state of grace": a perfect balance of the personal and the pop.

5 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

I've gone back and forth with Joel for years. Since my older brother had all of his albums I know every damn song by heart but Joel has never completely convinced me.

Take Zanzibar which you discuss here. I love the jazz breaks in the middle and end of the song and I even like the rest of the music in the song reasonably so. But you stop with the lyrics before getting to the sports/sex analogies: "Me I'm trying just to get to second base / And I'd steal it if she only gave the sign / She's gonna give the go ahead / The inning isn't over yet for me."
And that's a lot of the reason I've never fully bought into him. I like his music but his lyrics have always smacked of cliche to me. I just don't find him a very good lyricist. And his vocal range to me is quite limited as well.

I think Joel would've made a fantastic sessions piano player and maybe even a solid second stringer in a good band - he'd play, write three or four songs an album and do the leads on those songs - that kind of thing. But carrying it all by himself he seemed like he was straining to get the requisite number of songs per album. With his albums I always hear filler.

But all this negatism aside, I do like many of his songs. I like New York State of Mind (though feel it's about 90 seconds too long), Laura (even though it is such an obvious Lennon rip-off... I'm sorry, homage) and Don't Ask Me Why as well as some others.

And this is probably one of the best and most insightful write-ups of Joel I've ever read. Of course, I'm used to reading what Dave Marsh has to say about him (it's not kind) so this seems like a breath of fresh air. Good job.

Cinephile said...

Thanks, Jonathan! I wouldn't disagree with you about the strained qualities in Joel (although I'll admit that I like the baseball analogy in "Zanzibar"-- yes, it's a cliche, but he follows through on it (cripes, that's a pitching term, isn't it? It's inescapable! (:) by linking it to the ballplayer coming into the bar earlier in the lyric, and I think it fits his portrait of a character who doesn't realize how foolish and, yes, cliched, he really is). I think that straining-- as I suggested but probably didn't follow through on enough-- is a thread through a lot of music that makes him interesting; so many times he seems to desperate for approval, and at his best, he makes that desperation the subject of his songs (and it causes him to bring in cool people like Hubbard on his songs). At his worst, I agree, it can be a bit heavy-handed and pretentious.

"Laura"-- I hear the Plastic Ono Band stuff, too (especially the guitar breaks and echoey drums), although I don't think Lennon would ever have those wonderfully pointilist strings at the beginning; I also find the lyric to be a lot more self-critical and clear-eyed than the occasionally solipsistic Lennon might have been (in the end, the irony is that villain of the piece is the narrator, who is addicted to his own enabling).

Larry Aydlette said...

I've always had a fondness for "I Go To Extremes," which really rocks.

pc said...

I don't own any Billie Joel, but there are quite a few songs I'm happy to bop along to when I hear them on the radio.


I have a theory that the problem with Billie Joel is simply that he is so obviously the guy who hung out at the table near the stage of the hipster clubs. He showed up a little too early for the cool kid parties.

Essentially, he never committed to being the actual 'cool kid' (let's face it, he is simply too ordinary looking to do so). He also never committed to being the weirdo (and therefore cool) kid.

Thus, he never had any cache as 'authentic' (he didn't commit to either pose).

People who look for that type of authenticity undoubtedly miss Joel's clear, genuine interest in music.

He moves between genres not so much in search of a hit, but because he's an honest fan. Lucky for him he's actually quite good at it.

I also think that if he had lived out his career on the local, instead of the national stage, he would be revered as an undeservedly overlooked genius by all the trend setters. Every town with a decent music scene has one of those guys. They do everything pretty well, enjoy all forms of music and are always good for two or three good new songs per release. When they are young people ignore them because they are too easy to recognize as the guy in the middle of the crowd. As they age, though, because the gain some form of credibility. Joel's problem is that his records had too wide a distribution.

Then again, he married Brinkley, so I guess that makes up for at least part of the bad reviews. (They divorced, though, right? So maybe it doesn't make up for much).

Brian Doan said...

Sorry for the coment delay! Illness and all...

Hi, Larry! I like that song, too-- I think it's one of the moments on Storm Front that really benefits from the production's harder, guitar-edged sound.

Hey, Pat-- Interesting theory about Joel-as-ultimate-local-guy. I think you can definitely hear that in the lyrics ("Piano Man" almost sound nostalgic for those days), and in the affection Joel has for his old band-- he always talks about them as a loyal gang that's been together forever, which links him back to those early days of starting out. I wonder if, in a werid way, Ben Folds doesn't occupy the alternative space you've stake out for Joel-- you can certainly hear similarities in their sound, and while Folds has had success, I think he's still the "local guy" in terms of his fan base, that Joel can't be.