A Billio Joels, a Billio Feels
He might be one of the best selling artists in history, but a lot of people just don’t think Billy Joel is very cool. Heck, they don’t even like him. If they could press a magic button and, KA BOOP, delete his discography out of our dimension, they would gleefully mash said button over and over again. They are my peers, they are critics, hipster and boomers alike. They are proof that people want to destroy what pleases others but not themselves. Just like the conquering hordes of history who knock noses and dicks off of preexisting marble statues first chance they get. Proof, while you can make what many if not most consider good art, there are those who will line up to take a shit on it. These haters might admit, at knifepoint, to one or two BJ tracks being a guilty pleasure. I have no such guilt. In fact, I’m shameless.
For you see, I have the opposite problem. I am arriving at my one year anniversary of basically only listening to Billy Joel. For real. Just ask my increasingly tolerant boyfriend. I have been straight up Joeling, and for the longest time. Its only now that I'm beginning to want for variety. As I finally take steps away from his catalogue, indulge me this essay as a souvenir.
There was the time before I loved Billy Joel, and this is the time after. The amount that I have been able to enjoy his works has changed me. It has made me surpass my previous ability to love music. Thereby, I have surpassed my previous ability to love. As it turns out, I needed to.
“Some love is a lie of the heart. The cold remains of what began with a passionate start. But that won't happen to us. It’s a matter of trust.”
It was in the thick of summer, at some wild hour creeping toward and or past 3 am, that I was staying up by myself, writing, dreaming, and generally being weird. Having the time/inclination to do so is arguably the best part of being an artist. Out of nowhere, say the skeptics, or by divine intervention, say the wizards, I got the urge to look up A Matter of Trust.
Unlike many ubiquitous pop standards of the BJ Best Of’s, I’m not sure if I've ever heard A Matter of Trust on the radio. I can't even tell you how it got into my awareness enough to seek out. Probably it has something to do the moon, ghosts, or the collective unconscious swelling in anticipation of Joel’s unprecedented Madison Square Garden residency. A Matter of Trust is something of BJ B side, if not a deep cut, depending on your Joel awareness. Speaking of! Do you know it’s the first track to feature the Piano Man himself on guitar? Yes, you do, now. You're welcome.
Clicking play would for me prove to be a life altering decision, because from there on in there would be no escape. I would be a lifelong Billy Joel fan, and I'm hard pressed to think of something dorkier than that. I'm involved in many terribly nerdy communities; comics, video games, sitcom podcasting, theater, even. Yet all of that is still more socially acceptable than being a Billy Joel fan.
Sure, the peak of the 80's still own and every DJ worth their weight in vinyl knows it. Bowie? Check. He’s probably from space. Stones, check. Lauper, love her, even if for only one album. Ultravox- ultra yes. Hall and Oates, mandatory. Darryl might even be from Bowie’s home planet, just check out those killer cheekbones. DEVO, oh yes, the essential patron saint of the art nerd. Even the Boss, yeah, sure, why not. He gets it. But the Beej? Uncool, man. Major uncool. He’s only human. His least interesting songs have been overplayed the most, leaving my peers thinking of him as mere normcore dad rock for squares. If they think of him at all. Usually at my prompting.
Maybe in Long Island it’s acceptable for the delis to blast their native son, but over here in the hipster mecca come cliche, Portland Oregon (Gee, thanks loads Fred Armisen, I hold you personally accountable for the outrageous brunch lines and all the rubbernecking yahoos who stand in em), I could only get away with liking Billy Joel ironically. Except, his work is so sincere that all my disaffected affectations just melt directly off my face like that one .gif of an infidel beholding the arc of the covenant.
In my hometown where anything far out enough is back in, why is Billy Joel still so uncool? As far as rockers of his generation go, Billy is objectively awesome. While your father bitches about gay marriage, here’s Billy getting up close and personal with legendarily pianist Elton John. Guitar smashing is so played out, Bill Joel flipped over a whole freaking grand piano, while bringing the American promise rock and roll all the way to Russia, while never missing a beat of his dope ass song about his era’s version of sexting. Here’s Billy wasting precious advertising time at the ‘94 Grammys. Here he is politely going incognito to a children’s performance in his honor. Billy Joel is only 5' 5''! I could make eye contact with him without craning my neck! Here he is helping up an “old lady” of approximately his own advancing age! Speaking of which, now he’s gone flaunted the reproductive disparity between genders by siring offspring at 65 years old! Congrats! Last but not least, here he is riding a motorcycle. With a pug dog. In a sidecar. While he’s clearly the best, he’s done some shitty things, too. He blamed one of his DUY’s on 9/11. Is it just me, or is that actually a really cool move too, though.
If you are younger than 30, in all probability you have never knowingly listened to A Matter of Trust, and probably, that is a problem. Let's remedy that. Yes, now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yYchgX1fMw&feature=kp
Open on Joel, star of a bygone era. Short, suave, and sweaty, his cherubic good looks have just started to turn the corner to Dilfsville. His once sky high pompadour going, going, soon to be gone. But not yet. He noodles with his goofball bandmates, the ones his fanbase still consider essential. The ones he’s since estranged from. But still not yet.
1986 Billy Joel has a problem. No, not a divorce. His problem is nostalgic in it’s simplicity- he just he can't kick off the rock. His studio is too is stuffy, undoubtedly reeking of a band’s worth of powerful rock musk. So, he opens up the doors. And thus he opens his voice to the air, to the streets. To the people.
Ah, and what a people they are. Pedestrians. Tourists. Construction workers. A Grandma in rollers sips bitter coffee as she glares down at the bustle of the big apple. Business men and their newfound counterparts, the modern woman, commute heads down, in a new york state of mind. Until an electric guitar kicks it off. The city streets are suddenly saturated, in something other than urine, for a change. Teenagers gape and smack gum. A punk , a girl with a rat, a fat dude chilling on his dedicated sidewalk chair, a roller skater, a street sweeper, a homeless hipster, they all stop to rock. A hep cat breaks out the boogie, and it is contagious. Nobody twerks at all, but everybody dances, and presumably gets laid t all the same. Plumes of hairspray practically waft off the glimmering asphalt in murky waves.
The band plays with the unaware rock and roll derp faces of deep ecstatic focus as they drive the tune. One of Billy’s wives, the most famous supermodel one, stops by to dandle their baby on one svelte hip. A baby that, like many of us, has since grown up in an America that Joel helped define. A baby that has grown to follow in her father’s footsteps, simultaneously blessed and cursed with genes from a once matching set of icons.
A Matter of Trust surges forth, and after making its case, stops on a dime. Theres a pregnant pause as 80's New York and 2000's me wonder just how to go on after having been so thoroughly rocked. The moment is unceremoniously broken when the crabby grandma calls out from her fire escape “Shut the hell up!” Billy mugs to the camera, a pat smirk of “Everybody’s a critic!” Clearly staged, the moment still reads as authentic, because how many times must that have happened anyway, and who cares it’s the 80’s. Stuff’s supposed to be a little corny. And we fade to black.
On one hand, it’s catchy stuff. That’s what people hate the most about the Joel. His tunes are memorable, often against one’s will. The proud riff, the driving hook, the cocksure vocals, it all makes for a highly repeatable jam. Good luck telling your brain to stop humming it this year.
On the other hand, what has really stayed with me is the lyrics. A song can be number one, even if the combined total of words mean less than a spam email. I can appreciate such songs, but I will never clutch them as close as those that speak to me both in prose, and in melody. As Joel, former boxer might say, it’s gotta have the old one two punch.
No matter how closely I listen, a Joel track has never let me down. Almost every song speaks directly to me, and millions more, about the human condition. Nary a syllable waisted, never a rhyme kludged. Who else would pair “bon vivant” with “nonchalant”? Billy creates songs written not by a mere song writer, but by a writer's writer, who just so happens to work in song. And preform. Expertly.
“I'm sure you're aware love, we've both had our share of believing too long, when the whole situation was wrong.”
With A Matter of Trust, Joel achieves what is perhaps the rarest pop gem imaginable: an anthem to emotional boundaries. Boundaries that I myself had yet to enforce. When it hit me, it hit clear as a crystal, and sharp as a knife. It sunk my battleship. Do not pass go. Game over man. Because this time capsule of feelings struck me exactly where I was living, hard, some 30 years after both the song and I were born.
“I know you're an emotional girl. It took a lot for you to not lose your faith in this world. But I can't offer you proof, and you’re gonna face a moment of truth.”
But here Joel did offer me proof, proof at least, of the common experience. That someone else had been there. A Matter of Trust became the old new theme song for my heart. Billy says about his works, that he just wrote the truth of what he was feeling at the time. The truth ages well. It sounds so simple, but that’s no small feat to achieve for an artist. Especially an artist like me, a master at hiding all my needs from everybody. Most of all myself.
“It’s hard when you're always afraid. You just recover when another belief is betrayed. After you’ve heard lie upon lie, there can hardly be a question of why.”
At that time, my relationship needed to go to the next level. We were, and remain, terribly in love. But we lacked the space, both literally and figuratively, that we would need to actually get to feel it. Codependent cohabitors eroded our access to peace of mind on the daily. I thought I could ignore it. I thought that when I couldn't ignore it, I could still avoid it, just enough, so that it did not impact me. I was wrong. The impact was as unavoidable for me as it was inescapable for my dude. He would go to sleep grinding his teeth and thrashing. Frequently, bumping into me.
“I've lived long enough to have learned. The closer you get to the fire the more you get burned. But that won't happen to us. Because its always been a matter of trust.”
The boyfriend, like a duck strangled in the rings of a hastily chugged and discarded six pack, was caught in a net of other people's problems. Worse still, those people were his family. He was drowning in literally the most familiar of sorrows. The very same emotional whirlpools he'd learned to navigate in his frenzied youth, by holding his breath swimming upstream . Once he could tread, he felt obligated to hold up his loved ones heads above water. Even while they seemed to prefer drowning.
The boyfriend and a couple of his family members had been living together for years. They were seemingly content to play out the drama of their lives in a small corner of his. The boyfriend, for his part, was relieved to have somebody else’s problems to focus on instead of his own. And then, I moved in.
He and I were mostly happy. Except for when he wasn’t. He couldn't stay happy for long while his family was miserable. The turmoil was obvious, coloring our home. Any brief moments of joy we managed to steal, could much more easily be dashed in an instant. Based on his family’s lifestyle and choices, they were probably not going to become happy anytime soon. So by that logic it was pretty much a wash for us too, forever, right? Or until people change, which is just about twice as long.
“ This time you've nothing to lose. You can take it, you can leave it, whatever you choose. I won’t hold back anything, and I'll walk away a fool or a king.”
We all fall in love, but we disregard the danger. What is kissing, if not sticking your tongue into somebody else's mouth with the implicit bargain that neither of you will bite it off? What is love, if not the same risk? With the additional collateral of becoming swallowed whole.
Love is dangerous, but there’s nothing to gain nothing without the risk. Life is clearly worse without it, and no more safe from obsession. One may still succumb, and if not to love, than to what is usually the inside of one’s own asshole. I’ve seen it done and its not pretty. Think ouroboros, meets goatsee, times infinitely.
What is trust but the faith to believe in your partner. To play the hand when your turn. Win, lose, or draw, instead of the forever procrastinating, putting up with, and barely dealing with it, that is my very specialty. The specialty I that I once had used to survive my own frenzied youth.
At great last, the undeniable beat prodded me forward. I couldn't love the song and not abide by its message. And I did love the song. Eventually, I worked up the nerve to speak my truth. It helped that first, I got to sing it. It helped that it was so well written that I couldn't shake it, the metronome constantly smacking me upside the head.
“Some love is a lie of the soul, the constant battle for the ultimate state of control. But that won't happen to us. Cus it’s always been a matter of trust”
So, eventually, many overdue confrontations were confronted. Me to my man, my man to himself, my man to his family, us to our finances, and on and so forth. We came to a decision. An agonizing ordeal or three later, the roommates finally moved out. Overnight our lives changed. The fog of despair dissipated, leaving only us, our goals, and futures, in focus. At long last the truth of a song helped me draw the precious line between some love, and our love. And within that distinction lay a world of difference.
Now that it’s just the me, the boyfriend, and our pets, the house is a sanctuary. More than that, it is a wildlife refuge. Clothing is optional, and when optioned, increasingly ridiculous. We are finding out just how weird we are. Spoiler: Quite.
Now the extra rooms are studio offices, and within those walls I have never been more ambitious with my work. That is to say, I'm a cartoonist in the second draft of a 500 page graphic novel. A work I intend to be both graphic and novel. A work I'll continue to agonise over, full well knowing that some people will absolutely hate it. That’s a best case scenario. To have that much impact is a compliment.
On April Fools Day, I trolled my meditation group with an all Joel playlist. The class began with groans, faded into grudging admiration, and ends with singalong. Afterward, we all head out to closest dive, because karaoke’s good for the throat chakra. I sign up for some of the best music to be mainstream enough to still be in all the books. I'm practicing my range, from the easier vocals (Still Rock and Roll to Me) to the big shots (River of Dreams). Songs we all know. Songs that we didn't know that we know. Until its playing and you're doing something goofy like snapping your fingers. An obvious revelation. Songs that we have forgotten that we all remember.
Pretty soon, the KJ joins on in with Zanzibar, and after that a complete rando tries their hand at Goodnight Saigon. I have nothing in common with these people, except proximity and music, but in that moment it is enough. The whole room joins in, suddenly comrades. None of us having ever fought in a war more specific than regular life. This occurrence, that I have manifested more than once, is what I refer to as a Joel Roll. It’s a common thrill, like finding a 20$ bill in last season’s coat.
When it's finally my turn, I take the stage, giddy with trepidation. I’m going to try something new. New to me that is, and old hat to Billy, who’s been doing it before I was born. The song starts up and after a few bars of self doubt, I have no choice but to accept the great joy of singing something I believe in. The microphone smells like a beer. Me, a not great, and yet, not terrible singer, refining my voice by trying on hit from a master. Even though I know it will not come out perfectly, by now, I'm far too in love with the material not to try.