Tag Archives: billy joel

Desert Island Discs: Narrating Your Life Through Music

peter paul and mary
peter paul and mary

There’s a popular, long-running radio show in the U.K. where I live called Desert Island Discs. The premise behind the show is quite simple: a guest is invited by the host choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island. But it’s really a vehicle for getting famous people – whether that’s Bill Gates or David Beckham or Zaha Hadid – to narrate their lives through music.

So what most guests do is to select songs that speak to different parts of their lives: a piece that conjures up their childhood or family…something to capture the time they met their spouse…a tune that speaks to the most creative point in their career or the death of a beloved relative. You get the picture.

Needless to say, in one of my occurring fantasies I am a guest being interviewed on this program about my book project on swimming and adulthood, narrating how I built my illustrious career as a full-time writer over the course of a lifetime. (Hey, we all gotta dream…)

Which of course only begs the question: which songs would I choose to tell my story?

Early Childhood

Early childhood is an easy one for me. I would select Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary. Yes, I know, a cheesy selection by certain measures. Yet, for me, that’s a song that makes me weep every time I hear it as it is about the inevitability of loss as we age: the loss of playfulness, the loss of our childhood friends, and the painful but necessary separation we must all undertake from our families of origin.

Adolescence

Adolescence is also an easy one for me. I listened to a lot of Billy Joel as a teenager, a songwriter who so clearly evokes a particular moment in the late 1970s-early 1980s – just after the Disco era ended and a particular place – most of his songs are about the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area and the longing to get out and make more of ourselves. I could pick any of his hits, but these five Billy Joel tunes probably speak to me most, still.

College

College has got to be either The Grateful Dead singing Ripple or Dire Straits doing Romeo and Juliet – the only two bands I ever went to see perform more than once. These songs readily call to mind the most carefree time of my life, a time when I didn’t worry about anything other than going to classes and hanging out with my friends (not always in that order!) and didn’t think at all about the future. It was perhaps the only time in my life that I was fully “present,” before any concerns about rent and jobs and graduate school kicked in.

Courtship

I had never listened to jazz before I met my husband, but he introduced me to this great musical tradition and to this artist – Gene Harris – in particular. During the early months of our courtship, we used to listen to Like a Lover first thing when we woke up in the morning. Bliss.

Using Music to Better Understand Yourself

Much like writing your own obituary – something I wrote about on these pages recently – thinking about how your narrate your life through music is an intersting exercise. Music reconnects you to your past. It gets you to think in concrete terms about what different phases of your life meant to you and why. And in doing that, you get a better handle on your present self – what you like about yourself, what you might wish to flee, what you miss about yourself, what you’d like to see more of in the years ahead.

So go ahead, try it. What are some of your “desert island discs”?

 

Image: Peter, Paul and Mary 1970 via Wikimedia Commons

Tips For Adulthood: Five Billy Joel Songs That Speak To Middle Age

billy joel

billy joelI’ve been listening to Billy Joel again. Yes, I say that loudly, proudly and unabashedly. If you grew up in the 1980s as I did, 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 when, upon surfing the internet one day, he came across a series of videos where Billy not only performed a set of songs before a live audience, but also explained the meaning of the songs as he went through them. 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 must learn to 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.” So true.

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 the summer in college I spent living on Riverside Drive in an impossibly posh apartment one of my father’s friend managed to obtain for me and trying every bar in town…the numerous times my mother hauled all four of 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 this song.)

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.” So when I hear Billy sing this song, I always feel like it’s a sort of musical version of mindfulness practice.

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 – but knowing that very soon they’re going to need to stop their outrageous lifestyle and get real. (Sort of the Brideshead Revisited of pop music, if you will). 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, which makes it all the more touching.)

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. And now, their entire their lives have been upended (by globalization/by modernity/by the internet/by time/fill in the blank…) and 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…” In the year of the angry white voter, this song could be ripped straight outta 2016.

How about you? Do you dare to own your secret passion for Billy Joel and, if so, which are your favourite tunes?

Image: Billy Joel by David Shankbone via Flickr

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. One of my favorite new (to me) websites is The Conversation, whose tagline “Academic Rigor, Journalist Flair” had me from “Hello.” Check out this fantastic post on why zebras aren’t like horses. (“They look like stripey horses so why can’t we ride them?”)

b. Another recent discovery is Better After 50, a website devoted to sharing real stories from women about life after 50. I was thrilled that they featured my recent post about the Brangelina divorce as well as one on friendship in adulthood.

c. If, like many of us, you’ve been pondering that whole Bob Dylan Nobel Prize thang, distinguished writer (and friend!) Naomi J. Williams has a hilarious blog imagining what would happen if we opened up all of the Nobel prizes to other disciplines.

d. On a more serious note, BBC Mundo has some absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking photos of the war in Colombia.

e. If you’re a Billy Joel fan (say it loud, friends) you will love this archive of interviews and performances with the pop star. Here he is talking about Piano Man. Sniff.

f. In the category of “Just For Fun,” here are famous art masterpieces revisioned with smartphones. Brilliant.

g. And finally, over on Slate, I give you the Dress Tent.

Have a fantastic weekend!

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

1. Amid all the controversy over Sheryl Sandberg’s new feminist manifesto for the workplace, Lean In, here are two must-read responses: Erin Callan’s “Is there life after work?” and Mary Louise Kelly’s on what happens when you get that fateful phone call…and you’re in Baghdad.

2. Absolutely loved this essay by Jeremy Shatan in the New York Times about what it’s like to live after your child dies, aptly titled “A High-Functioning Bereaved Parent.”

3. One of my favorite new (to me) blogs is The Monkey Cage, a blog about politics that does that rare thing: creates a space  where journalists, wonks and political scientists can meet. Here’s a great post on the relationship between gender equality and growth.

4. As usual, Joan Wickersham nails it in a post on grammar and why it matters. Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt.

5. Downton Abbey fans will love the Downton Abbey Facebook recap on Happy Place.

6. You don’t need to be a Billy Joel fan to appreciate this video. (But yes, I’ll own up to it!)

7. Finally, something that’s guaranteed to make you smile: the Pony Dance Party over on Strangling My Muse. Love it!

Have a great weekend everybody!

Tips For Adulthood: Five Songs To Listen To While You Move

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Today’s list is inspired by – what else? – my imminent move.

I remember when I was leaving graduate school and needed to pack up my apartment. I called an old friend and asked him for advice on how most efficiently to do this. His advice? “Get really drunk and stay up all night shoving things into boxes.”

That may have been good advice for that particular phase of life (even then, it remains doubtful), but it certainly isn’t how we’ve been approaching this move. Instead, to distract us from the minutiae as well as to motivate us to clear the final hurdle, we’ve been listening to a lot of music in our house of late.

And I’m finding that when you’re moving, listening to music that’s about actually about moving can be particularly inspirational. In that vein, here are five songs to get you psyched up for a move:

1. Cleaning Out My Closet. O.K. Definitely not one to listen to with the kids around, what with all those references to killing one’s mother and the like. But there’s something really cathartic about the rage and determination that Eminem brings to this song that will have you decluttering in no time.

2. Movin’ Out. Yes, I’m a die-hard Billy Joel fan. I’ll fess up right here (along with admitting to a certain fondness for Barry Manilow.) The great thing about this song is that it’s all about New Jersey (“Who needs a house out in Hackensack? Is that all you get for your money?“) And New Jersey is the great state where I grew up – and, significantly, left at the age of 18. So for me, this song is a poignant reminder of why there are times in your life when you just need to move on.

3. Movin’ On Up. Oh, come on. Surely you remember this one. It’s the theme song from that 70s sitcom about the upwardly mobile African-American family, The Jeffersons. (Still don’t remember? Sure you do. Listen to this to jog your memory.) What an awesome song (and show.) I’ve been humming it for weeks now, as we contemplate a move into a bigger space with a nicer view. It’s not the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I’ll grant you. But next to where we’ve been living (see yesterday’s post), it’s not too shabby.

4. Leavin’ On A Jet Plane. The Peter, Paul and Mary version, puh-leeze. My husband hates folk music of any sort – or as he puts it, music that “inspires you to sway.” Me? Can’t get enough on it. Especially when it’s loaded with nostalgia, like this song is. So if you want to inject some melancholy into your departure – to really savor nostalgia for a place – pop this bad boy into the CD player and start swaying.

5. Hit The Road Jack – And then, once you’re done feeling sombre, it’s time to kick it with the incomparable Ray Charles. Here he is performing his classic Hit The Road, Jack. Say no more.

What have I forgotten?

Image: Packing Sucks by John and Katurah via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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