Friday, July 25, 2008

Skeletons in My Musical Closet - Billy Joel

It's hard to keep a critical distance from anything we once loved unabashedly, particularly if it was something we loved in our childhood or adolescence. Thus the presence of all three seasons of "Land of the Lost" at the top of my Netflix queue, and the mostly unapologetic appearance of a few Billy Joel albums on my IPod. In the past week I've troubled over two reviews of the 30th anniversary deluxe reissue of Billy Joel's "The Stranger" (from The Onion's AV Club, and from Pop Matters). They trouble me because I have a strong childhood connection to that album, and to Billy Joel in general, and I'm not sure what to do with it. Until recently I've mostly avoided thinking much about Billy Joel, and have never paid much attention to his critical & popular position in the pop/rock canon.

There's a key scene in Cameron Crowe's musical love letter "Almost Famous" in which the protagonist discovers his older sister's LP collection. It's clearly his moment of musical revelation, and it changes his life. [Note: The link is to a stupid montage, but look around 1:53]. While I have a few moments of musical revelation in my past, one of my earliest involves my brother's vinyl copy of "The Stranger". I won't go so far as to say it changed my life, but it at least cemented my devotion for many years to a critically dubious musical icon.

As for my moment of musical revelation? I don't remember how old I was - my best guess would be jr. high, approx. 10 years after "The Stranger" was released. I was in our faux wood paneled den, where the only real stereo in the house was, and I guess I must have been digging through my brother's record collection, and for whatever reason pulled out "The Stranger". While I'm pretty sure I listened to the whole album that night, it was "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" that I listened to over and over again. As a piano playing lover of musical theater on the cusp of his teenage years, I was probably doomed to love this song. A story of lost teenage innocence, in four acts, with heavy piano underneath it all (and I'm sorry, but the piano intro to act 3 is still a blast to play), this song had all the hooks I needed.

In subsequent years I would become a complete Billy Joel devotee. I had every album, all the piano music, the videos, saw him on the Storm Front tour, and made my best friend J try and play the saxophone part on "Scenes..." (as well as other songs) while I accompanied on piano (and maybe vocals?). Then sometime between "Storm Front" and what would be Joel's last pop album, "River of Dreams", I put him away. I don't know that I ever even owned "River of Dreams", and I'm not sure when or where my collection of Joel CDs went (though I do still have the piano music, but no piano). I wish I could say it was because my musical tastes improved, but my more honest guess is I lost touch with him during my "Christian Music" fanaticism years (see future, even more embarrassing, "Skeletons in My Musical Closet" blog post). I guess I've been surprised to only recently discover that Billy Joel wasn't critically respected during his heyday, and certainly isn't now; that he's even kind of a joke. In some ways he seems to have even less cred than his sometime tour partner Elton John, though Joel never did anything as egregious as The Lion King ("Innocent Man" may come close). So thanks reviewers for making me confront a large piece of my musical past. I'm more confused than ever, but it's comforting to know there are writers working for reputable music outfits that struggle with some of the same demons.


Anonymous said...

Billy Joel was given a hard time by some music critics because he gave them a hard time. Never a man to suffer fools gladly, Joel used to read his negative reviews aloud during his concerts and laughingly point out the errors, incorrect information, grammar and spelling mistakes, and the level of pomposity that each critic injected into his or her review. Critics don't like to be criticized, and they never forgave him. Fortunately, Billy Joel went on his merry way without them.

Anonymous said...

Hey, look who else has a blog or two! Now I don't have to go to the trouble of getting to know you better through interpersonal skills...I can just read your blogs. Isn't the information age great?

And my confession is that I am one of the 5 people in the world with the Fantasies and Delusions CD. Um, yeah.