I vividly remember the first time I heard Billy Joel on the radio. Mainstream pop/rock radio was not part of my childhood listening diet, so I was already in my early teens. I was having lunch in a university roadhouse with my father and a visiting scholar, a young neo-classical composer. We took turns poking fun at the songs on the roadhouse channel, until “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” struck up. Then the composer paused to listen, raised a finger and said, dead serious, “This is a great song.”
I listened intently for the whole seven minutes. The composer occasionally dropped in a comment about what made it so good. I was intrigued. That night I went home and looked for the track on Last.fm (this was well before the days of YouTube Music). When I found it, I listened to it again. And again.
Recently, the tune has been given its first full music video treatment, a handsomely animated production in the style of a classic comic strip. SiriusXM has meanwhile brought back “the Billy Joel channel” as an October exclusive. Volume 1 of a complete vinyl collection will be released on November 5, to mark Joel’s fiftieth year in the business.
Yet for all the love his fans have for him, Billy Joel remains the Rodney Dangerfield of rock and roll: He don’t get no respect. He’s too popular to be simply forgotten. But where records by the Boss, the Beach Boys, and others have been marked as watershed moments in rock history, Joel’s body of work is regarded as mostly “dead stock,” fit for little more than oldies radio and Long Island wedding karaoke. As Chuck Klosterman famously summarized for the Times, “He has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness. If cool were a color, it would be black—and Joel would be kind of a burnt orange. The bottom line is that it’s never cool to look like you’re trying . . . and Joel tries really, really hard.”
In fairness, Joel has often confessed that he dislikes his own voice. He always saw himself as primarily a writer, capable of tailoring a tune to any style, always imagining “What if so-and-so sang this?” “So-and-so” could be anyone from Sting to Gordon Lightfoot to the Righteous Brothers, as long as it wasn’t Billy Joel. But peers like Paul Simon disagreed. In the 1984 Playboy interview, Simon praised Joel’s voice and simply wished he would spend more time figuring out “who Billy Joel is.”
Joel once said he’d written “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” while thinking of the high school guys he knew who “peaked too early.” Perhaps there was some wry self-recognition in this. Arguably, the smash success of “Just the Way You Are” set the course for eighties-era Joel to lose what he’d already found in the seventies (barring a few standouts like “Downeaster ‘Alexa’”). It’s impossible to imagine any other voice or piano touch on iconic tunes like “Scenes,” “Movin’ Out,” “Angry Young Man,” “New York State of Mind,” “Miami 2017,” and of course his eternal sugar-stick, “Piano Man.” Popular deep cuts like “Summer, Highland Falls,” “She’s Always a Woman,” and “Vienna” further showcased Joel’s rarely-acknowledged lyrical depth, a signature blend of bite and melancholy crafted with an Ira Gershwin-esque ear for the perfect rhyme. And so far from being outdated, lyrics like “Miami 2017” or “Goodnight Saigon” have only grown more haunting in the shadow of 9/11 and the Afghan War.
But Joel never chased political relevance. His peculiar iconoclasm manifested in not being political just at the moment when all his peers were. At a multi-artist event in seventies Cuba, he watched them walk out and deliver carefully prepped pro-communist speeches in Spanish, to minimal crowd response. When it was his turn, he shrugged and said, “No hablo español,” then launched his set. In an instant, kids were rushing the stage.
Granted, Joel had moments like the famous “keyboard flip” in glasnost-era Moscow, where the audience was lit up so police could remove any fans displaying an “excessive” response. But it was all about the music, even in Moscow. He once recalled another night on that tour where the press asked him political questions while he sat cross-legged and bored on the stage, finally cutting them off with, “Does anyone have a question about music?”
Unlike some contemporaries, Joel's musical gifts extended beyond writing and performing to teaching, something I grew to appreciate as I became a teacher myself. Through the decades, he became known for “masterclasses” where he would take audience questions, share insider knowledge, and break down the writing process for fan favorites.
But perhaps his most memorable Q&A, from a 1996 appearance, has nothing to do with his own songs. It begins with a woman asking if he can compose a piece on the spot. He bluntly says “no” but offers to play a piece of music that inspires him—Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Then, while playing it roughly on synths, he relates an epiphany he had while hearing the piece on the radio in a rainy-day traffic jam. “It was around Easter time,” he recalls, “which is one of those ‘holy' times of year, you know?” As the music built up to its peak, something came over him that he couldn’t describe or explain. Then, at the climax, the sun shot out of the clouds, and the traffic cleared, but Joel had to pull over, because he was “bawling [his] eyes out.” “I lost control. I just lost it. What happened?”
What happened, he says, is that he realized “This is what I love about music. This is what I want to do. This is what I want to create. It’s what I’ve always tried to create. . . . And I hope before I can’t write anymore, I can create music like that.”
Perhaps this is what Chuck Klosterman meant. But perhaps there are worse things than trying too hard. Whatever else can be said of Billy Joel, it will never be said that he didn’t try.
Bethel McGrew is an essayist and social critic.
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Photo by Bob Mieremet via Creative Commons. Image cropped.