arlier this week on 9 May, Billy Joel celebrated his 68th birthday. I was suffering from a bout of food poisoning – a bum tuna melt ordered the night before from the unreliable diner down my block – but I still wanted to mark the occasion with a ditty or two of his. Maybe I’d even write a short piece about it. So I got out of bed to rummage through the stack of old vinyl I’ve got leaning up against the bare wall separating the kitchen from my general living space. After some deliberation, I chose Billy Joel’s Glass Houses thinking it a peppy counterpoint to my roiling intestines. I’m a big fan of Billy’s and I have zero shame in admitting that. To me, his initial run of albums – Cold Spring Harbor to The Bridge – rank up there among the most consistent and satisfying works in pop history. I really hate it whenever I hear some half-witted music snob bring up “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as some sort of be end and end all example of his epic prosaicness. I just don’t see how you can dismiss an entire career on account of one minor misstep.
A few hours and several records later, I flipped on side two of Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain and fired up a Marlboro light. I read an interview once where he had said that recording Nylon had been a massive struggle, that the sheer amount of work he’d put into it had nearly broken him; in the end it turned out to be his finest record. I guess that’s what it takes to write a work of true brilliance – there aren’t any shortcuts.
This brings me back to the Billy naysayers.
It’s become fashionable nowadays to espouse your hatred of artists like Joel, or bands like The Eagles, referring to their music as banal, corporate, or ‘Dad Rock’ – an irritating Millennial term, most probably coined by some twatty brat with daddy issues. But the truth is these muldoons wouldn’t know real art if it snaked up their rectum and bit them on the gall bladder. Billy’s ruminations on the human condition were insightful, varied, and yes commercial – in the truest sense of the word. He connected to a large audience, not because he was pretty, not through contrivance or formula, but through the strength of his melodies and the power of his words. In a world where the music industry – what’s left of it anyway – is so bereft of any actual talent, it’s no wonder musicians like Joel get such a bad rap; these millennials are simply unable to recognize what’s real. After growing up having had their brains pickled with formulaic, bubblegum dreck, how would they possibly understand the difference between good or bad? Still, the negative articles continue to persist, branding Billy Joel as a pathetic joke. In a typical hit-piece released especially for his birthday, Jake Romm, a writer for Forward.com describes his dislike for Joel thusly:
“Let’s think about it this way perhaps — Billy Joel is the suburbs of music. The term “ugly” is so often misapplied to the suburbs (some, at least). I say misapplied because the suburbs, as I’ve lived them, are not positively ugly, like, say, Jean Dubuffet’s “Art Brut,” but rather they have a sort of negative ugliness, which is to say they lack any qualities whatsoever. The “ugliness” of the suburbs is in reality nothing more than the banality, the boringness of the suburbs. As opposed to brutalism, which can often be ugly, but in a positive, fascinating sense, if the suburbs are oppressive, it is only because there is nothing to latch on to, nothing interesting. This seems to me the best description, by way of analogy, of Billy Joel’s music — negatively terrible.”
To Mr. Romm I would say, with all due respect, “Negatively terrible” is a non-phrase – you know it and I know it. Your ‘analogy’ is merely a dish of word salad tossed together in a feeble attempt to sound clever. Whatever point you were trying to make is drowned in the dressing. And Jean Dubuffet’s “Art Brut” – come on…could you be any more pretentious? The answer is none more…none more pretentious.
Bottom line, Billy Joel’s core fan-base may not be the hippest crowd, a fact I’ll freely admit, but to deny his musicality, the virtuosity on his instrument, his facility with words and the ability to connect with his audience is simply absurd. I would say to his detractors, instead of spending your time arbitrarily hating these classic artists for reasons you yourselves aren’t even clear on – see Mr. Negatively Terrible above – try championing the new music out there that is of value! There are a few out there I could think of off the top of my head… Mac Demarco, The Lemon Twigs, Foxygen, Cherry Glazerr…etc…
In other words, do your job elevating the artists of your generation instead of disparaging the heroes of your elders.