There was a time in my demented youth when I believed that Billy Joel was the greatest musician in the world. I spent seventh-grade classes scrawling the lyrics to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant“on the back of a three-ring binder. I shelled out $30 for a bootleg copy of Joel’s debut LP Cold Spring Harbor at a used record store. I recall an argument with a junior-high classmate in which I maintained that Joel was a better songwriter than Bob Dylan. In a moment of acute identity crisis, I attempted to fuse my newfound love of hip-hop culture with Joel fandom by adopting the graffiti tag “Stiletto 121.” The “121” was for the Upper West Side street where I spent my early childhood, “Stiletto,” of course, was for Joel’s boogie-woogieing 1978 song about a femme fatale.
All this came to a head in my freshman year of high school when I discovered Elvis Costello, who, a friend informed me, “writes songs about why people like Billy Joel are just so bad.”I didn’t want to believe it; surely, I told myself, it was possible to be a fan of Costello and Joel, both of whom, after all, had a way with a tune.Later that year, I went to my first Costello concert.Midway through the show, Costello sat down at an electric piano and began playing a series of cheesy cocktail-jazz chords.“I’d like to sing a Billy Joel song for you now,” he said dryly, as laughter rippled through the audience.“It’s called ‘Just the Way You Are.’ “When I returned home that night, all the Joel albums got stuck away in the back of a closet.
It’s now more than 20 years later and the new Billy Joel box set, My Lives, sits on my desk—a four-CD-plus-bonus-DVD behemoth whose 80 tracks offer ample reminders of why I loved Joel in the first place, and why, indeed, he’s just so bad. Give Joel credit for quirkiness. Rather than release a greatest-hits rehash, he’s put out a collection packed with B-sides, oddball cover songs, obscure album tracks, and rarities from his pre-solo-career bands, including the preposterous Attila, a “heavy metal power-duo” that the Piano Man led briefly in the late ‘60s. Some of the alternative takes of familiar songs are even weirder. There may never be a more spectacularly wrongheaded genre experiment than the reggae version of “Only the Good Die Young,” Joel’s 1977 anthem about deflowering a Catholic schoolgirl—perhaps the whitest reggae track ever recorded.
Joel is one of pop’s special cases: The essence of his badness lies in his squandered excellence. He is a fluent pianist, a singer of deceptive versatility and range (listen to his vocal overdubs on the doo-wop homage “The Longest Time“), and one of the more gifted tunesmiths of his generation, right up there with Costello. The least of his album tracks are catchy little melody bombs; his big singles—“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “My Life,” “Uptown Girl”—have the same savant’s knack for hooks and harmonies that you hear in Paul McCartney’s best.
For some musicians, virtuosity—and upward of 78 million albums sold—might be accomplishment enough.But Joel’s tragic flaw is a classic one: hubris.The guy desperately wants to be an artiste.Listening to My Lives, it’s clear that these ambitions began early, back in the Attila days, when he was given to creating minisuites with titles like “Amplifier Fire (I. Godzilla; II. March of the Huns).”As a lyricist, Joel has never stopped straining for significance.He’s tried to be a Dylan-style poet-troubadour (“Piano Man”), a jaundiced social satirist a la Randy Newman (“Los Angelenos”), and a Springsteenesque working-class bard ("Allentown”).Lately, he’s reinvented himself as Claude Debussy: My Lives features several forays into classical composition, including a tremulous piece of glop called “Elegy: The Great Peconic,” performed by members of the London Symphony Orchestra.
The truth is that Joel was born at the wrong time.Were he a decade older, he might have wound up in the Brill Building crafting perfect little pop songs and gone down in history with Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and company. But Joel came of age in the post-Beatles era, when songwriters grew self-conscious about rock’s aesthetic and social significance, and felt compelled to make statements.Alas, Joel is a leaden lyricist with nothing to say; the result is songs like the 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a laundry list of historical events—”Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, Bridge on the River Kwai“—that Joel tried to pass off as a panorama of postwar American life, or a portrait of baby boomer ennui, or something.Joel’s self-seriousness has been painfully evident on his recent co-headlining tours with Elton John, who never lets artistic pretension stop him from donning a feather boa and throwing a party.Which Lite FM legend would you rather have over to dinner?
Elton John, in addition to being infinitely gayer and more fabulous than Joel, seems at peace with his status as a god of the adult contemporary charts, which Joel decidedly is not.Forget punk rockers and gangsta rappers: Billy Joel is pop music’s angriest man. He was a welterweight boxer in his early 20s and that pugnaciousness has never left him—for two decades he has ended his concerts by telling audiences “Don’t take any shit from anybody.”His songs have poured wrath on women (“Big Shot”), mom and dad (“My Life”), and virtually everyone else, including, curiously, angry young men ("Prelude/Angry Young Man”). Even his gentlest songs leak bile.“Honesty” seems tender enough until you listen closely and realize it’s about how everyone in the world is a liar and a hypocrite.
Joel, of course, is Long Island’s favorite musical son, and it’s tempting to write off his fuck-everyone attitude as a regional tic: The Song of the Bridge-and-Tunnel Tough Guy.But the chief source of Joel’s resentment is his place in the musical pantheon.He’s never stopped moaning about rock critics dismissing him as a lightweight.In the late ‘70s he famously ripped up Village Voice critic Robert Christgau’s reviews on stage.He recorded Glass Houses (1980) in a fruitless attempt to answer his detractors and prove that he was a real rocker, undeserving of relegation to soft-rock radio, a format he’s referred to as “soft-cock.” The irony is that Joel was running away from his strength: He makes good cheese.A comparison with McCartney is revealing. Sir Paul is at his finest when he gets arty and ambitious.The Beatles’ songwriting experiments and sonic questing brought out the best in him; when he writes sweet and sentimental, the results can be gruesome.(All together now: We’re simp-ly hav-ing a won-der-ful Christmas time!)But Joel is actually quite good at writing saccharine love songs, big lush ballads, and lounge music.
The ur-Joel ballad, of course, is “Just the Way You Are,” which is an expertly constructed song, the kind of thing that urbane Tin Pan Alley types were writing back in the 1950s. Joel has said that when he wrote the song, he envisioned Ray Charles singing it in Yankee Stadium, and, sure enough, “Just the Way You Are” has become a standard, recorded by everyone from Wayne Newton to Isaac Hayes to opera diva Jessye Norman. Barry White gave it the disco boudoir treatment; Sinatra swung it. Even Mrs. Elvis Costello herself, Diana Krall, gave a tender reading on her 2002 Live in Paris album, proof positive that art—even schmaltz-drenched art—is longer than snark. And the song really is artful: If you can get past the production dreck of Joel’s original, you just might find yourself surrendering to its dreamy tiptoeing between minor sixth and seventh chords and to the spare elegance of its lyric. Joel croons those words—a plea not to put on airs—to a lover. But the old-fashioned balladeer who fancied himself a poet-genius-rebel-rocker would have done well to heed them himself: “Don’t go trying some new fashion/ Don’t change the color of your hair.”