Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mr. Everyday Things: Billy Joel Day 2013

Today I’m thinking of late 70s 'fros, doo-wop comebacks, and the third best-selling solo artist in the United States. I’m thinking of American disappointment, of wars I didn’t experience, and frustrated love. I mean, I guess I’m just thinking of the whole human experience with all of the requisite high and low notes, those plot points that are revisited in pretty much every great work of art since we first put stick to sand.

In short, I’m in a New York state of mind.

I’m thinking of Billy Joel today, because (as many of my friends know) it’s a day that some fans and I set aside a few years ago for honoring the Piano Man. To celebrate properly, you should probably open a bottle of red or a bottle of white, lie down on the carpet and listen to some Billy Joel on vinyl. But, I suppose, it’s best if we all keep Billy Joel Day in our own way.  Maybe it’s a review of the interviews that he’s given, maybe it's re-reading a compendium of articles or sending a carefully-crafted piece of fan-mail, maybe it means dressing in a leather jacket and pouting at a camera.

For me, it comes in a semi-annual attempt to try and articulate what separates him from other artists in my mind. We’ll see what comes of this year’s parsing.

Perhaps (least romantically and just to get started), when it comes to the metrics, Billy Joel can take everyone to the mat.
  • He has produced 11 multi-platinum albums.
  • In the world of singles, he’s scored 3 #1 chart-toppers, 13 Top Ten Hits, and 33 Top 40 Hits.
  • He is a six-time Grammy winner (nominated 23 times).
  • He has sold over 150 million records worldwide (making him the 9th most successful solo artist of all time).
  • He is featured in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 albums of all time.
When it comes to technical accomplishment, it’s really hard to out-punch Billy Joel
  • Billy Joel began his training on piano at the age of four (mostly due to the influence of his parents). And although he wasn’t a fan of it at the time, he studied classical tunes, music theory, and received the benefits of a flush musical education in spite of his family often struggling to make ends meet.
  • He was playing in bands at the age of 14 almost full-time.
  • He studied with classical legends like Lennie Tristano and Mortin Estrin.
  • He learned about and was inspired by legends that he strived to honor: Beethoven, the Beatles, Ray Charles, James Brown and many others whose influence you can hear throughout his music.
  • And unlike many other stars of his day, Billy Joel has written and composed almost all of his own songs – making him one of the most competitive, well-rounded melodists in the biz
When it comes to hard work, Billy Joel paid his famous people dues and shows up in high company:
  • He became one of the first American rock acts to play in the USSR since the Berlin Wall went up.
  • He was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 (almost 35 years after he began his musical career) by his hero and major influence, Ray Charles.
  • The singer's stint of 12 shows at Madison Square Garden broke the former record held by, The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who played 10 sold-out shows at the same arena. That record earned Joel the first retired number (12) in the arena owned by a non-athlete.
  • In 1991, he bagged ‘Grammy Legend Award’, a special award for merit given to the recording artists.
  • In 1997, he was given the ASCAP’s founder award for lifetime achievement.
But… I guess…

In the end…

…I’m not talking about any of that…

I like William Martin Joel, because he’s a geek in a way that is very familiar to me.

Actor Simon Pegg recently weighed in on the fan culture social classification system. His description has been memed and shared across various social media in the past year. Pegg said:

“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

Billy Joel’s a geek. And about two very important things. He’s a geek for music and he’s a geek for human beings.  

The greatest tragedy of the socially inept artist, is how reverently and tender they regard their fellow humans – even when that love results in a missed connections. Which, even in recent interviews, is the subject that Joel is most haunted by: his loneliness and longing for connection. Billy Joel, to me, with his sensitivity (and sometimes oversensitivity) is a great example of the intelligent nerd who is awed by the miracle of the world they are functioning in. Think of this favorite Joel moment -when he and a Vanderbilt student jam at a question and answer session:

and how pleased he is to invite another young artist onto his stage. Or (one of the moments that inspired the first Billy Joel Day) an instance in this 70s performance of New York State of Mind when Joel actually “geeks out” (as I would classify it) over a saxophone solo at the song’s climax (the solo begins around 6 minutes, 15 seconds, Joel’s reaction just after that)

He's so moved by being around a musical talent, that he stops his own performance. As an artist and as a person, Billy Joel is someone who feels warmth over the human experience in a painful and mortal fashion. Who, in spite of a long history of beautiful women and money and success, saves some of his most sincere feelings for artists that he's revered and the loneliness that he feels that might be unquellable. 

“Some writers can write reams of great books and then J. D. Salinger wrote just a few. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. They were all phenomenal. Mozart wrote some 40 symphonies, and they were all phenomenal. That doesn’t mean Beethoven was a lesser writer, it’s just some guys are capable of more productivity, some guys take more time… Beethoven you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music.”

"So I go to visit my father in Vienna, I’m walking around this town and I see this old lady. She must have been about 90 years old and she is sweeping the street. I say to my father "What’s this nice old lady doing sweeping the street?” He says “She’s got a job, she feels useful, she’s happy, she’s making the street clean, she’s not put out to pasture”. We treat old people in this country pretty badly. We put them in rest homes, we kinda kick them under the rug and make believe they don’t exist. They [the people in Vienna] don’t feel like that. In a lot of these older places in the world, they value their older people and their older people feel they can still be a part of the community and I thought 'This is a terrific idea — that old people are useful -and that means I don’t have to worry so much about getting old because I can still have a use in this world in my old age. I thought “Vienna waits for you…”
From a Q&A about using Vienna as a metaphor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_(Billy_Joel_song)

"When I look at great works of art or listen to inspired music, I sense intimate portraits of the specific times in which they were created. And they have lasted because someone, somewhere felt compelled to create it, and someone else understood what they were trying to do. Why do we still respond when we bear the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—DA DA DA DA? Or Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue? Or Little Richard's Tutti Fruitti? Because when we hear it we realize that we are still bound by a common emotion to those who came before us. Like family, we are irrevocably tied to each other because that same emotion still exists today. This is what all good musicians understand."
From his Berklee College Commencement Address: http://www.berklee.edu/commencement/past/bjoel.html

I always thought it was interesting that one of the things that made Billy Joel “less cool” was his classical training. The very fact that he learned to play piano the way any of us could made him boring and unremarkable; that was a sign to the naysayers that he wasn’t “legit” the way someone whose musical blood pulsed pure and without influence. I think we’re somewhat embarrassed for him that he’s human, common and in public. And not only that… he’s singing about it. I really believe that’s part of makes him uncool – and part of what makes him so popular.

We’re talking about songs from confessionals.

I think popular artists who truly love and feel something are not only necessary, they are reassuring. They bring us sincerity and give us permission to present unvarnished emotion about what we love, what hurts, and what we hope for. These are important dialogues in an age of near-chronic irony. I sometimes worry as I listen to the latest droning explanation of why some band is “the next big thing” that unfiltered ardor is in danger of extinction. Songs of recognizably aching loneliness,  lyrics based on suicide notes or love songs that profess unassailable intimacy – it’s not a love that is enumerated, reasoned, out of reach – it’s just recognizable, human, vulnerability, and it doesn’t argue to be presented as anything else. It makes one want to stand back when someone else does something remarkable and say “what a marvelous thing to live in this fucked up universe.” And I guess that’s the way I love things, too.

It’s not particularly dignified or remarkable – but maybe that’s the most astonishing thing about it. It has no regard for how it appears. And in a world that is sometimes more concerned with the appearance of achievement, polish, and presentation, appearing just the way you are can be truly radical.

This small essay has largely been a collage of videos, transcripts, and articles. So I guess I’m still using Billy Joel’s art to explain itself. But if that’s working for you – what’s a few more? Listening to Billy Joel’s work is still one of the best ways to get in touch with him as a person and a great way to lean into some of our shared human experiences. My Billy Joel Day gift to you (the BJ songs I can’t stop listening to lately):

You're My Home:

Leave a Tender Moment Alone: 

Through the Long Night: 

This is the Time: 

All About Soul: 

All My Life: 

Tomorrow is Today: 


Just the Way You Are: 

While the Night Is Still Young: 


Happy Billy Joel Day! I’ll continue to keep it in my geek heart for many years to come.