Billy Joel, Glass Houses, 1980
My boy James posted this link to his Facebook page yesterday: it's Billy Joel having a tantrum about the stage lighting during his concerts in the former USSR at the turn of the 90s. He's playing "Sometimes A Fantasy" from Glass Houses.
I now cannot move forward without offering my two cents about Mr. William Joel.
My first instrument was the piano. There was an old one in the house that my parents rented when I was five, and I started plunking around on it. One night I did so when my folks had people over for dinner, and one of them said that I had to have piano lessons. So my folks found an old guy in the neighborhood, and I started plunking away.
Two things were quickly very clear-- I loved the piano, and I hated piano lessons. In my defense- until I was twelve, when I finally met the wise and talented Dr. Richard Layton (hope all is well, Rick) my piano lessons consisted of tours of the kinds of living rooms that show up in hipster-indie films about the 1970s. My teachers were weird, angry loners, some male, some female. They hated me, and I hated them. The decorations were the same: lots of tassels and throw pillows. TONS of photographs of the many cats lurking on the premises. Lots of crystal candy bowls and ashtrays. Lamps of every color of the rainbow. Linoleum floors. A loud, whining air conditioning unit with little pieces of ribbon tied to it, floating in the breeze festively. And in the center of the room, like a shrine, a piano, covered with bric-a-brac and shot glasses from Mount Rushmore and a piano competition trophy from 1966 and piles of yellowing sheet music.
I got the message-- people who played the piano were gigantic losers who were only interested in scales, songs called "Off To School" and "Sleepy Time" and yelling at children for not practicing their fingering. They were 37 going on 90. I was desperate to switch instruments to the guitar, the world in which people were cool. Kiss played guitars, not pianos. Kiss songs didn't sound right on the piano.
Things improved a bit when my lessons started to be at the Severna Park Mall. They were in the back of some sorry music store (Jordan Kitts, maybe?) but at least afterwards I got a slice of awesomely bad mall pizza and got to wander around the record store. I almost got used to it until the day my teacher told me that he had the hottest new song for me to learn-- the #1 song in the country, PROVING how cool the piano was. How psyched was I????
It was "Music Box Dancer."
Literally, right next door, there was a giant display of Ted Nugent making this face:
Welcome to loserville. Population, moi.
So the piano and I developed a kind of hate/hate relationship, but there was no way my parents were going to let me switch to an electric guitar. I was getting a little desperate. I loved music too much to stop, but didn't like anything I was learning to play. That explains, I guess, why, in 1980, I went nuts for Billy Joel.
The first record of his that I heard? Glass Houses. It is by far Joel's most upbeat record-- it even has electric guitars on it. It also has some quality piano playing, and the kind I had been looking for-- mash-down-on-the-keys-ask-questions-later playing. I finally had a keyboard record to play along to. So I got all his stuff used and cheap, and worked my way through Billy Joel's surprisingly soft-rock catalog, learning every song with a showy piano part. Finally, something to work with: There was Piano Man (Ballad Of Billy The Kid), Streetlight Serenade (Los Angelinos), Turnstiles (Angry Young Man), The Stranger (Scenes From An Italian Restaurant), 52nd Street (Stiletto), The Nylon Curtain (take your pick). Things culminated with seeing Joel at the Cap Centre in 1983 on the Innocent Man tour. We had awful seats, but I loooooooooved it. To Joel's credit, it was a great show, almost three hours, with hit after hit. The guy is a hook factory. Joel ended the concert as he always did, by saying "Good night! And don't take any shit from no-one!" Believe me, sir, I do NOT intend to after that performance! Count me in.
Misty water-colored memories...
And then... the rails came completely off the cart for me. By 1988, I plain hated Billy Joel. I mean, really hated him. Storm Front remains one of my least favorite albums of all time, and not just because Randy and Kevin insisted on playing it all the way from Philly to Florida on Spring Break in 1989 (hi, guys!). By then, I realized that Joel was two things: a man born to write musicals who wanted to write rock 'n' roll (probably the most deadly, toxic combination in the history of the world) and a self-loathing, mysogynist narcissist whose shockingly offensive and myopic lyrics are surpassed only by The Eagles (see Blog #17: One Of These Nights for more information).
My colleague Chuck Klosterman (colleague in the sense that he also writes about music-- some key differences are that he's paid to do it, a million times better at it than I am, and he has no idea that I exist) defends this aspect of Billy Joel; he has a great piece about the song "Where's The Orchestra?" in which he defends Joel as a brutally honest paranoiac who speaks to all of our most insecure inner voices. I think Chuck just wants to figure out a way to like Joel still because there was a time when he dug the "Uptown Girl" video. For me, it's a sign of my own growth as a person that I went from loving Billy Joel to hating him. It means that I GREW UP. I got smarter and wiser and more tolerant, and Joel did not. His songs are the ramblings of a talented, effortlessly musical millionaire trapped in the mind and body of a pissed-off, chubby, horny lower middle-class sixteen year-old brain. When Joel looks in the mirror, he sees Ricky, the nemesis from Better Off Dead:
As far as I can tell, Joel's life philosophy can be summed up by another classic 80s movie moment, when the kid hanging outside the Gas-n-Sip in Say Anything offers advice to heartbroken Jon Cusack; "Bitches, man!" That is basically the sum toto of Joel's life view (except for perhaps "Don't tell me what to do" alternating with "Please tell me what to do so you'll love me more.")
One need look no further than 1978's 52nd Street. By this time, Joel was a star, a grammy winner, a millionaire worldwide presence. A man from whom hit records and unforgettable melodies flow like liquid gold. So he writes an album about:
A) Coked-out women who think they're all that but who are NOT ALL THAT (Big Shot)
B) The fact that you can't trust anyone anymore, ESPECIALLY women (Honesty)
C) That, in spite of the fact that he's pursued fame with the zeal of a reality show member since he was a teenager, it's HIS life, so leave him alone, you damn vultures!! Look at me! No, look away! Who the hell do you think you are? Wait! Where are you going???? (My Life)
D) Whores in crappy nightclubs who will take care of you once those stuck up Big Shots run off (Zanzibar)
E) Coked-out women IN HIGH HEELS who think they're all that but who are NOT ALL THAT (Stiletto)
F) Othered, exoticized women who understand that sometimes a good man and musician just needs to be listened to, dammit. AND they won't expect you to marry them. Awesome! (Rosalinda's Eyes)
G) Joel as some kind of central casting West Side Story kid who's just gotta get out there and meet Angeline, his othered, exoticized lady. (Half A Mile Away)
H) One night stands to fill the gaping lonely emptiness that is the life of a pampered, spoiled brat (did you WATCH that opening clip???) (Until The Night)
I) And to put a cherry on it, a title track that tries to validate Joel's decision to hold a FLUGLEHORN or something on the album cover. Take a look:
Has anyone ever looked more uncomfortable in an alley on an album cover? I would look that uncomfortable too holding an instrument I CANNOT PLAY in a bad neighborhood, but I wouldn't make it into an ALBUM COVER.
I give you all this background so I can talk about Glass Houses, the album brought back into my consciousness thanks to James' clip. I could happily write about the whole album, but we're getting a little lengthy here, so I've chosen these mostly forgotten songs from the back half of the album that both introduced me to Joel and sum up everything Joel is about musically, spiritually, lyrically.
And, of course, because I make no sense whatsoever, I've always loved them.
First off is "Sleepin' With The Television On," which is a great time capsule, because it begins with a station signing off for the night with the national anthem. Kids-- TV used to go OFF THE AIR EVERY NIGHT! They would run out of shows, play the anthem, and go to a test pattern or snow until the morning. There was nothing on at 3am. God, I miss the days when there wasn't enough TV to show something 24 hours a day. Second, it's a great melody-- I hear this song, and it pops back into my head over and over again for a week. Joel is the king of the earworm. Third, few folks know it, so I never have to hear it unless I want to, a KEY factor in listening to Billy Joel. If I choose it, fine-- shame on me. If a radio station chooses a Billy Joel song, I'm listening to the iPod so fast it's not even funny.
Embedded in the lyrics is all of Joel's twisted inability not to spurn the woman he's simultaneously hitting on:
I've been watching you waltz all night Diane
Nobody's found a way behind your defenses
They never notice the zap gun in your hand
Until you're pointing it and stunning their senses
All night long, all night long
You'll shoot 'em down because you're waiting for somebody good to come on
But you'll be sleeping with the television on
So Diane is "waltzing" around (I love the idea of Joel skulking around the edges of a cotillion like a drunk Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice) fending off unwanted men. And how does she do it? With a ray gun, Barbarella-style! Who does she think she is saying no to trollish jerks like, well, Billy? But she'll get her payback-- say no to every man, and you'll be home alone, like you deserve, with a pint of Chunky Monkey and your own regret to keep you company.
You say you're looking for someone solid here
You can't be bothered with those 'just for the night' boys
Tonight unless you take some kind of chances dear
Tomorrow morning you'll wake up with the white noise
All night long, all night long
You're only standing there 'cause somebody once did somebody wrong
But you'll be sleeping with the television on
Great advice from Billy here. Yes, most men suck. They just want you for the night. But you know what? If life gives you lemons, you should take those lemons home and sleep with them, because NOTHING BETTER IS COMING. Our lives are meaningless, bump-in-the-dark encounters. It's either mean, co-dependent sex or nothing. Take your pick.
And then the perfect bridge:
Your eyes are saying talk to me, talk to me
But your attitude is "don't waste my time"
Your eyes are saying talk to me, talk to me
But you won't hear a word 'cause it just might be the same old line
That is how Billy Joel has always understood the world. He thinks everyone wants something from him (talk to me, talk to me): his body, his money, his talent, his love, his opinions. But then, to his shock, some people DON'T want any of those things (don't waste my time). And rather than look in the mirror and say "Wow-- perhaps I'm not as charming as I think I am," he says "You know those people who want me even if they don't know they want me? THEY'RE the problem!"
Joel sums up the dilemma of being him in the last verse:
This isn't easy for me to say Diane
I know you don't need anybody's protection
I really wish I was less of a thinking man
And more a fool who's not afraid of rejection
All night long, all night long
I'll just be standing here 'cause I know I don't have the guts to come on
And I'll be sleeping with the television on
The problem is that Joel is too smart for all of this nonsense; he not a fool like other men just trying to get some, but a sensitive artist who understands women like Diane. Basically, Diane's problem is thinking that feminism offers her anything. She shouldn't try to be independent, or strong, or have her own opinions, or her own voice. That's just the kind of stuff that turns women into Diane Court. Instead, you need to put your trust in a man like Joel who has himself, you, and the world all figured out. But you won't. 'Cause you're stupid. How sad for you.
Think I'm reading too much into a throwaway tune? Consider "All For Leyna." PLEASE do yourself the favor of watching the video provided below first.
What was your favorite part? When he rises out from behind the piano like a vampire? Or when he yells "STOP!" at the camera?
"All For Leyna" treads the same tired ground. Over the course of the song, Leyna reels Joel in with a one night stand, and then proceeds to cause Joel to be electrocuted, drowned and battered by the surf, fail in school, lose his friends and family, and be reduced to malnutrition and insomnia. At the end, he's watching TV (see how Joel weaves his tunes together? Genius!) while his father screams at him to get a damn job. And the WORST part? He CHEATED on someone to get to Leyna! There's some poor suffering gal waiting for him to come back. But he won't, because of my favorite lines from the chorus: There's nothing else I can do / I don't want anyone new / There's nothing in it for you" because of his creepy obsession with Leyna. What a catch! It seems like "There's Nothing In It For You" might be a great title for a Billy Joel autobiography.
Crazy album, Glass Houses, from it's dangerous-but-not-dangerous album cover (Joel can pay for that window, and considering the way he's holding the rock, it's unlikely he's going to hit the target) to the fact that two of the kiss-off songs on the album feature verses in FRENCH!! I am not kidding. NOTHING says "I'm a crazy rock n roller who just wants a fantasy but don't ask me why" like French. Was he taking a Berlitz class or something?
When I was ten, these songs were great singalongs. Now, they are journeys into darkness. AND great singalongs! If you're intrigued, check out the rest of the album. It's fascinatingly terrifying.
If you're a Billy Joel fan, what can I say? Sorry, and good for you. At least admit, though, that Joel is musical high fructose corn syrup; we used to think he was a harmless sweetener, and we still eat him more often than we should, but now we know that he'll ultimately be giving us cancer.
Finally, the next time a wedding couple does their first dance to "Just The Way You Are,"* enjoy a wry smile on me. It's as inapprorpiate and creepy as a father/daughter dance to "Almost Grown" by Chuck Berry.
OK, Joel defenders: bring it!
Link for Television (dodgy sound, sadly): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c-fEzHNXXk
Link for Leyna (much better): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fChN-6VDakA
* The message in "Just The Way You Are" is: "Don't change anything, because it will threaten me. Even though I ignore you and don't think you can live up to my standards of love and devotion, you're stuck with me. So don't you dare change your hair or your clothes or even your opinions. I like you stupid and unreliable so I can always feel superior and victimized at the same time." Now THAT'S a recipe for a great marriage!