I’ve been listening to Billy Joel again. Yes, I say that loudly, proudly and unabashedly. If you grew up in the 1970s, it’s pretty impossible *not* to be in love with Billy Joel. When “The Stranger” was released in 1977, it was all anyone listened to for several years.
My husband gets this. He’s the one who got me started on my new Billy Joel kick. He recently came across a series of videos of Billy performing his songs before a live audience. As Billy performs each song, he explains its origin and meaning. (Side note to Billy Joel fans – in case anyone who is *not* a Billy Joel fan has gotten this far into this blog post – he doesn’t like Piano Man all that much. Sniff.)
Particularly as I get older, I find that Billy Joel’s music speaks to me even more than it did back in junior high. To wit, five Billy Joel songs with particular resonance for middle age:
1. James – This song comes from one of Billy’s earlier albums, Turnstiles. It’s mostly a song about those early, intense friendships we have in childhood and adolescence that often dissipate as we grow up and choose different paths in life: “I went on the road. And you pursued an education…” I always feel incredibly sad when I hear the lyrics to this song, because it reminds me of the bittersweet, awkward feelings such relationships inspire, especially if you ever find yourself reunited with said friend and realize that you have very little in common anymore. But it’s also a song about regret, which is, for me anyway, one of the central emotions that we navigate in midlife. As Billy asks his erstwhile friend: “Do you like your life? Can you find release? Did you ever write your masterpiece?” Ouch. Most of us didn’t end up writing our masterpieces. But the song ends with some sage adulthood advice, encouraging James – and all of us – to follow our own dreams, not those set by others: “Do what’s good for you, or you’re not good for anybody.”
2. New York State of Mind – Closely linked to regret is nostalgia, another inescapable feature of adulthood. I grew up in the tri-state New York area and while I’ve subsequently lived in many cities across many continents, there are a handful of Billy Joel songs that bring me right back to the place which, for me, will always be home: “I don’t care if it’s Chinatown or on Riverside…” For me, this song readily calls up a sea of memories: the summer in college I spent living on Riverside Drive in an impossibly posh apartment I got through a family friend and trying out every bar in town…the numerous times my mother hauled me and my siblings into the city to see previews of the original cast performances of shows like Evita, Annie and Sweeney Todd…the smell of pretzels mixed in with the city’s gritty streets. (Note to the Super Fans: if you want to see a truly miraculous Billy Joel moment, watch this video where he allows a very talented piano player from Vanderbilt University to spontaneously accompany him while he sings New York State of Mind.)
3. Vienna– “Slow Down, you crazy child…you’re so ambitious for a juvenile...” Dear Lord, do I feel that this song was written for me. As someone who has lived much of her life at a gallop, I’ve had a very hard time learning that life is not a crew race, it’s more of a marathon. As Billy enjoins us: “Take the phone off the hook, and disappear for a while.” When I hear Billy sing this song, it feels like a sort of musical version of mindfulness.
4. I’ve Loved These Days – Another gem. This is ostensibly a song about people who’ve been overdoing it – living it to the hilt with drugs, sex and God knows what else. They know that very soon, they’re going to need to put an end to their outrageous lifestyles and get real. But for me, it’s always been a song about break ups. About those terribly clear moments when you suddenly know that a relationship is over, but you still want to squeeze whatever joy that you can out of the final hours/days/weeks together: “So, before we end, and then begin, we’ll drink a toast to how it’s been. A few more hours to be complete, a few more nights on satin sheets…” It’s a song about the inevitability of loss and recognizing that all good things must come to an end – another bittersweet reality of growing up. (n.b.: This was my high school’s senior prom theme. Ahem.)
5. Allentown – An ode to all those middle-aged folks who once had a job and a company and a place in society where it all made sense. Now, their entire lives have been upended (by globalization/modernity/the internet/time/fill in the blank…). They don’t know how to be anymore: “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown for the Pennsylvania we never found. For the promise our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved…” This song could be ripped straight outta 2020.
How about you? Do you dare to own your secret passion for Billy Joel? If so, which are your favourite tunes?
Two bonus gems for the Super Fans:
- Billy’s hour-long interview with Alec Baldwin on the podcast Here’s the Thing
- Billy’s *own* five favourite Billy Joel songs, with Stephen Colbert
Image: Billy Joel by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons