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It’s Time to Give Billy Joel the Respect He Deserves

2019 is a yr filled with milestones for Billy Joel, starting this week together with his 70th birthday. February marked the 40th anniversary of his Album of the Yr Grammy win for 52nd Road, while October will probably be 30 years since he released Storm Entrance and tens of millions of individuals discovered themselves making an attempt to keep in mind all the phrases to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” However you won’t understand these things, as a result of for whatever purpose, Billy Joel doesn’t get the respect he deserves.

But what are those reasons? Joel, identical to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger or so lots of the different staples you may hear on the basic rock radio stations, was a journeyman. Read any bio of any musician to hit it massive in the 1970s, and you’ll see their careers often began in the ’60s or early ’70s, either writing songs for greater stars or in some storage band who perhaps had a minor regional hit, then tried and failed to reinvent themselves, till lastly touchdown on something that stuck. Joel’s earlier attempts included his time in the blue-eyed soul group The Hassles to his unusual, “psychedelic bullshit” interval in the band Attila that falls somewhere between exhausting rock and prog, and was his failed attempt at doing “what Hendrix did,” however “with a piano.”

But Joel, greater than of all of his contemporaries, nonetheless has to cope with the most backlash to today. Positive, whenever you’re wealthy and successful and have grow to be tabloid fodder on your marriage (quantity two of 4) to a supermodel, you battle publicly with melancholy and habit and have had a number of automotive accidents, individuals have greater than sufficient ammo. And yes, Joel’s music is admittedly not for everybody. He’s not heavy, not precisely experimental; he’s a pop songwriter influenced by stuff that came out of the Brill Constructing, George Gershwin and Ray Charles. He could be too sentimental or even hokey in the means basic songwriters he emulated tended to be for some, and that’s comprehensible. Yet the vitriol directed in the direction of Joel, like a Tablet article from 2017 entitled, “Billy Joel, the Donald Trump of Pop Music,” exhibits that some individuals are never going to quite get the Piano Man. Beginning off with a James Baldwin quote earlier than shifting on to a brief evaluate of one among Joel’s Madison Square Backyard exhibits, the writer, Liel Leibovitz, had his weapons sharpened and ready to go from the start. He call’s Joel’s music “solipsistic and soulless schlock,” and “singularly awful” in what has to register as one among the roughest pop-culture hatchet jobs of that yr.

Leibovitz wasn’t the first to take goal at the singer-songwriter, and he undoubtedly gained’t be the final; it’s type of a time-honored tradition. In 2009, writing for Slate, Ron Rosenbaum referred to as him “The Worst Pop Singer Ever.” Robert Christgau, who gave Joel’s first three albums C grades, lastly bumped him up to a B- with The Stranger, while additionally taking a chance to name Joel a “spoiled brat” and “as likable as your once-rebellious and still-tolerant uncle who has the quirk of believing that OPEC was designed to ruin his air-conditioning business.” Joel would famously respond by ripping up Christgau’s evaluations throughout live shows. Other evaluations of his albums in the 1970s have been lukewarm, typically full with backhanded compliments: “While I’m not a fan of everything that Joel cranks out,” wrote Timothy White for Rolling Stone in 1981, “I love his ballsiness.”

No one has ever needed to absolutely admit to liking his music. Billy Joel was by no means really in fashion, and that was something he relished in. He was by no means the sound du jour all through a career that saw onerous, mushy, punk rock, new wave and hip-hop rise, and Joel by no means seemed to care. That’s one in every of his nice qualities; the other is that he has written a ton of songs that may endure no matter what individuals want to say. Chuck Klosterman, in a 2002 profile for the New York Occasions wrote that Joel “never seemed cool.” Over 15 years later, I’m wondering if he’d revise that statement. Simply take a look at any photograph of Joel in the late-70s into the 1980s, and you’ll see his numerous appears, whether or not it’s rocking basic Nike operating sneakers or the black leather-based jacket, are all of a sudden seeming less dorky. His cool-dad type, like Paul Simon or characters from Nora Ephron’s rom-coms, are fashionable now.

Positive, he has sufficient cash to take a personal helicopter from his Lengthy Island house to Madison Square Garden (and annoy his neighbors in the process), and yes perhaps he performs up the hokey now and again, but that hokiness is what the great American songbook was built on. From the Gershwin brothers and Jerome Kern to the Magnetic Fields as we speak, there’s all the time an element of wordplay and silliness in the biggest American songs.

Billy Joel ought to be thought-about a normcore icon. (Michael Putland/Getty Photographs)

Will Stegemann grew up 25 minutes away from Joel’s hometown of Hicksville. Lengthy Island is a wierd mishmash of all five New York boroughs; it’s both the butt of a thousand jokes informed by people who stay in the metropolis and the place New Yorkers go to escape the heat of summer time. As Stegemann factors out in the Last Play at Shea reside concert documentary, Joel sums up being a Long Islander as “perpetually feeling like they are close to NYC but also a million miles away from it.” Stegemann, nevertheless, counted himself among people who didn’t like Joel’s music despite the singer’s hometown hero status. For 30 years, he disliked him, but might “no longer articulate why.” So he began the “A Year of Billy Joel” undertaking, the place Stegemann spent 365 days listening to every single Billy Joel track, “in an attempt to understand his massive appeal and why I disliked him so much.” As a lifelong fan, I read alongside all the means to the finish when Stegemann found himself at a Joel concert at the Hollywood Bowl, “happily singing along with the rest of the crowd.”

I learn almost each certainly one of Stegemann’s posts for exactly the similar purpose I read almost every single Joel hate peace that comes out every year regardless that Joel hasn’t put out an album of unique rock songs since 1993’s River of Goals (2003 saw the release of his first and solely album filled with classical compositions, Fantasies & Delusions), but in contrast to the few thousand phrases writers tend to dedicate to dismissing Joel and his complete body of work, Stegemann took a whole yr to better understand an artist that I used to be raised on. It was a pleasant mind-set, I assumed: pay attention and check out to perceive as an alternative of hating. The world might use more of that.

Cool dads hanging out (Photograph by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

A bit over a decade in the past I discovered myself in a lodge on the Decrease East Aspect interviewing Mick Jones of The Conflict, and I had a second that bridged my childhood love of Joel’s music with every thing that got here after.

I grew up listening to Joel. I had an image of him on my wall once I was a child; my dad would drop me off at my mom’s enjoying “The Longest Time” off 1983’s An Harmless Man (one in every of the few really tender reminiscences I’ve of my father growing up) and the first CD I ever bought was Joel’s 1989 album Storm Entrance. Someplace alongside the method, I received into punk and did that annoying teenage punk factor the place I swore off something on the radio, however I never might fairly shake my love for Joel. Sooner or later in the pre-Wikipedia era, I observed that the producer credited on the album that gave us “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was Mick Jones. For a few decade, I operated underneath this idea that it was, in reality, the similar Mick Jones who was part of one among the biggest songwriting groups in rock history with Joe Strummer –– only to discover out sooner or later in my 20s it was Mick Jones from the band Foreigner.

During my dialog with him, I discussed this tidbit to (Clash) Mick Jones in an attempt to break the ice, guessing the man from certainly one of the biggest punk bands ever, one among the legends in the genre that was supposed to be towards the whole lot guys like Joel stood for, would discover that funny. As an alternative, Jones, who up until that point had been jovial and probably just a little drunk acquired actually quiet and critical. “Billy Joel,” he checked out me, “He’s the great American songwriter.” I didn’t hassle to ask if Jones was taking the piss out of me or not, however it really didn’t appear that means. I walked away glad, believing that Joel had the respect of a member of The Clash.

No matter whether or not Jones was kidding, he’s proper: Billy Joel is one among the biggest American songwriters. His output from the ‘70s alone was sufficient to plant that flag. He fulfilled certainly one of the duties to be included amongst the greatest songwriters by penning an iconic ode to a location. Robert Johnson sang about “Sweet Home Chicago,” Aaron Copland composed his Appalachian Spring, Allen Toussaint had his shifting tribute to Southern nights; Billy Joel thought the metropolis that had a thousand songs already written about it needed only one more, and delivered “New York State of Mind” from 1976’s Turnstiles. He stored inching nearer and nearer toward the respect he deserves; even Christgau had to admit Joel’s “craft improves” on his fourth album.

Yet it wasn’t the album, the means Born to Run had been for Springsteen a yr earlier, the one which obtained him over the hump from in style to large. Joel’s career was at a crossroads. He had fired producer James William Guercio and took on the process of creating Turnstiles on his own. It wasn’t a nasty document by any means, with a number of songs that may turn into greatest-hits compilation staples — nevertheless it wasn’t The One.

By the summer time of ‘77, Joel was sufficient of a name that he might play Carnegie Corridor, just as everyone from Duke Ellington to The Beatles had. He opened the early June live performance with the ultimate music from his last album, which 40 years later sounds virtually Nostradamus-like in its dystopian prophecy: “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” Joel banters with the crowd, reminds them that he’s supposed to mention there’s no smoking, but if they’ve to that they need to “cup it,” before going into “New York State of Mind.” Everyone cheers, they all seem to know the music by now, they usually really feel the exact same approach because he’s singing about how much he loves the city he’s enjoying in. Then he declares the fourth music as “a brand new thing.” It’s mellow: a mushy rock quantity from a dude who likes to play the robust guy, a tribute to his then-wife Elizabeth Weber that he supposedly didn’t like that much. A number of months later, after recording it in a New York City studio with Phil Ramone for his subsequent album, Joel advised Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt, both of whom have been recording in the similar building, that he was considering of leaving it off. The 2 ladies advised him he was loopy, that he ought to maintain it. “I guess girls like that song,” Joel gave as his cause for deciding to put “Just the Way You Are” on The Stranger. He ultimately released it as the first single off the album when it came out in September of that yr.

For an album that may turn into the one that basically made Billy Joel, The Stranger is slightly weird, moody and not what you may anticipate from an album that created a celebrity. Even the title is just a little off, sharing a reputation with Albert Camus’s 1942 novel a few man who appears detached to every little thing; he exhibits little emotion after his mother dies, after he kills a man, and ultimately appears to find solace in the proven fact that he will probably be put to dying for his crime. While there’s no overarching theme that threads Joel’s album together, there’s a feeling of discontent laced throughout the entire thing.

We begin with grocery-store clerk Anthony saving his pennies for some day in the future. He’s “Movin’ Out” before he has a coronary heart attack (ack, ack, ack), then discover out about how the stranger in query is each considered one of us, it’s the secrets and techniques we’ll never tell. We pay attention to two associates consuming a bottle of white and a bottle of purple in an Italian restaurant, discussing how issues fell aside for the prom king and queen after high school. Flip the report over to Aspect B and “Vienna,” one in every of Joel’s private favorites, ends so one in every of his biggest anthems, “Only the Good Die Young,” can start. As a young Jewish child who pined over a woman who went to a close-by Catholic faculty once I was a youngster, I’ve to admit that the concept of some very Jewish-looking man making an attempt to convince a woman named Virginia who was proven a statue and informed to pray that she ought to hook up with him because sinning is fun kinda spoke to 15-year-old me. He follows that with one other tribute to Weber, who he’d divorce in 1983, with “She’s Always a Woman.”

The Stranger is crammed with classics. It’s one among the first albums I can recall hearing as a toddler. There was a number of Billy Joel in my life rising up. Yet it’s not my favourite. I do respect it, but I all the time return to automotive rides with my dad once I was a child where we all the time played An Harmless Man. Little did I know then that Joel’s album was crammed with tributes to Motown, Stax and previous rock-and-roll of the 1950s; I used to be too younger to perceive that so lots of his nice songs have been inspired by every little thing from Ray Charles to woman groups. I also couldn’t have recognized that Joel, freshly divorced from Weber, “kind of felt like a teenager again,” because, properly, you in all probability would as nicely for those who have been a rich single rock star who was instantly sleeping with Christie Brinkley.

Even in the event you might have explained any of that to me once I was 4 or five, I in all probability wouldn’t have cared. By that point, Joel already had his hooks in me — that’s how he works. Perhaps you’re born a nostalgic, or perhaps it’s one thing that you simply turn into over time; it’s the great chicken-or-the-egg question that I can’t answer, however I feel I can use to explain why I’ve beloved Billy Joel’s music for therefore lengthy. Pay attention to any album, and it’s actually like sitting at a bar with an previous pal: one minute he’s saying something about love, then the next he’s supplying you with a history lesson of the post-war era by making every part rhyme.

Billy Joel is for the nostalgics and he’s for many who can admit they’re a bit of corny, and that’s totally high quality. He’s additionally in all probability the final of his variety: a guy who can get hundreds of thousands of individuals singing along. There are all the time going to be nice songwriters, positive. But Joel, together with his combination of singer and songwriter in addition to being a showman, is a rarity nowadays, and anyone who has gone to see him play his hits to a packed Madison Sq. Backyard or other stadiums over the previous couple of years can attest to the undeniable fact that no one else does it higher.