While A Year of Billy Joel officially wrapped up at the end of 2012 the project isn’t done with me. Recently I sat down with Ken Plume to discuss my project, what it meant to me and what I’ve learned from it.
Click here to hear our wrap up discussion. We dig deep into Billy Joel’s work my personal history and LOTS OF THINGS ARE REVEALED.
If you missed my first chat with Ken you can check that out here.
Happy New Year, I hope that your 2013 is going well. While A Year of Billy Joel is behind us the music that made this project possible is not. While I have no more songs to cover I will still be updating here occasionally with relevant stuff and a few wrap up posts. The first of these wrap up posts is a long promised list of my favorite songs.
During the course of 2012 I listened to every song Billy Joel has written and released and I obviously liked some more than others; but which songs did I like best?
That is a simple question with a slightly more complicated answer. As I survey the Billy Joel songbook today I realize that the list of songs I think are the best and the list of songs I am most likely to listen to are slightly different. These days I listen to music most often when I am driving or when I am running, two situations when I want to move as fast as possible and I try to choose music that suits that goal. When I listen to music in the comfort of my own home (which happens regularly but not as often) I tend to go with a more varied playlist.
Here are two completely subjective and likely to change lists that reflect my feelings about these songs today. I’ve listed the songs alphabetically because I don’t want you to mistake this for a ranking.
My 10 Favorite Billy Joel Songs (as of January 2013)
All For Leyna - One of the keys to understanding the depth of the Billy Joel catalog and a great song.
Great Wall of China - An underrated gem from River of Dreams.
Miami 2017 (Seen The Light’s Go Out On Broadway) - My favorite of all of the theatrical epics in the Billy Joel catalog.
Rosalinda’s Eyes - I realized how much I liked this when I caught it in a Freaks & Geeks episode while re-watching it recently.
Say Goodbye To Hollywood - An homage that manages to outdo the source material.
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant - Note for note, the most Billy Joel you can pack into one song
The Longest Time - A timeless and delightful song.
Vienna - The Billy Joel song that most sticks with me now.
Where’s The Orchestra -Another one that I identify with, sometimes more than others.
You May Be Right - My favorite Billy Joel jam, the song I’d most likely sing if forced to sing a Billy Joel song at karaoke.
The Next Five: Allentown, Always a Woman, Honesty, New York State of Mind, Summer Highland Falls
The Ten Songs For Running and Driving
Close To The Borderline
Don’t Ask Me Why
It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me
Matter of Trust
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
The River of Dreams
You May Be Right
The Next Five: Ain’t No Crime, Movin’ Out, No Man’s Land, Sometimes A Fantasy, Zanzibar
There are many other good songs that would fit nicely on either of these lists but for today these are my choices. The beauty of music is that I don’t have to stick to these forever. Feel free to make your own list or state your case for a particular song.
Song: Famous Last Words
Album: River of Dreams (1993)
It took 12 months and more than 350 posts but here we are at the end of A Year of Billy Joel and the end of the the last Billy Joel pop album. Fittingly, the last song is called “Famous Last Words.” It may not have seemed prophetic at the time but over the years Billy Joel has stayed mostly true to his word. Outside of two songs released in 2007, there has been no new pop music from Billy Joel since River of Dreams.
While I wouldn’t bet against Billy Joel surprising us all with a new record someday, I don’t think the odds favor it happening at this point. After all, Billy Joel has nothing to prove to anyone and if he’s content in his semi retirement I don’t see any reason for him to upset that situation. If in fact River of Dreams goes down as the last pop record Billy Joel gives us, he went out on his own terms with a record that was better than I expected and feels like something miles away from a last gasp.
The second half of the River of Dreams record is stronger than the first and it ends on a surprisingly strong and upbeat note with “Famous Last Words.” In this song Billy Joel finds himself alone with the summer behind him, ready to say goodbye to a time and a place. It’s probably wrong to say he has no regrets but I don’t think he’s letting those regrets stop him. Listening to this song today it seems odd that there was any speculation about Billy Joel’s future after this record. Outside of perhaps only Hank Williams, no artist has more clearly telegraphed their future with their last record. Sure we’d like to have more music from Billy Joel but I don’t think anyone feels cheated with what we’ve gotten.
Just like Billy Joel did with “Famous Last Words” it is now time for me to say goodbye to this project. I could write about Billy Joel for a long time to come but this feels like the right time and place to stop. Of course, much like Billy Joel, I won’t really be going away.
While I have written about every song I’ve set out to cover this year this site will remain available for anyone who wants to read it in the future and I may still post the occasional update if there’s some notable Billy Joel news. I’m still hearing from fans thanks to this project and I may share some of those thoughts here or revisit certain songs at a later date. What I’m saying is, this is the end, but let’s leave the door open. This may be the last words I have to say, but they may not.
Also, we’ve seen an unusually high number of Billy Joel public appearances recently and after this he just might decide to hit the road, giving me a chance to finally see him live or he may take me up on my lunch offer (it could happen).
While only time will tell what the future holds I’d like to wrap this up by saying that this has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I think that what I’ve done here makes my feelings about Billy Joel self evident: I’ve gone from completely dismissing his work to realizing that think he’s one of the greatest pop artists of all time. I came into this project with a lot of ideas about Billy Joel and today I can admit that I was wrong and I’m happy to be wrong. Along the way I also learned a lot about myself and my family, not bad for a project I began on a whim.
If there is a lesson to be taken from A Year of Billy Joel it’s that I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss things, be it an artist, a person or a place. This is how I plan to approach things going forward and maybe you will too. There’s no harm in giving things a chance, we might be surprised with what we discover.
We’re almost done now but before I go I’d like to thank some people. First, thank you to my wife Nina Bargiel who married me and somehow ended up a Billy Joel widow; her support and patience made this possible.
Thank you as well to my my mother and father who played key roles in the stories that appear in this project. I am grateful for the friends and family who supported this project and spread the word about it and I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to this project by writing a piece, commenting on posts or emailing me with valuable and helpful information.
I also owe a big debt of gratitude to writer Randee Kestenbaum who provided this project with a big boost of publicity. The same goes for Bill Leff, Ken Plume, Dan Pritchard, Gene George, Brodie Foster Hubbard and Andrew Lowden who gave me airtime to talk about this thing during the year. I’d also like to thank everyone at the Low Times podcast including Maggie Serota, Daniel Ralston and Tom Scharpling who let me share some thoughts related to this project on their site.
Finally, thank you to Billy Joel whose music has enriched our lives and made this all possible. While I have finished this project I am not done listening to his music.
Thanks for everything, see you all soon and as Billy Joel is known to say at the end of shows: Don’t take any shit from anybody.
Song: Two Thousand Years
Album: River of Dreams (1993)
For the penultimate song on his last pop album Billy Joel gives us something that feels like a closing number. I say this because thematically “Two Thousand Years” has that looking back on all of this feeling that closes some of of Billy’s other records and musically it reminds me of the last song on Storm Front.
When I say this song looks back over things I mean it looks all the way back through civilization, seeing the battles and troubles of the past as prelude to the present and the present as (hopefully) the path to a better future. It stands out as one of the most optimistic songs in the Billy Joel songbook and it features a soaring, soulful vocal that I find hard to dislike even if I feel a little less optimistic today than Billy Joel when he wrote this.
Like “And So It Goes” which closed out Storm Front I feel like this is an underrated song that would have probably have gotten more attention had it been released at a different time. It’s a song that I’m a little surprised hasn’t been covered as it could be a great showcase for a singer. Perhaps this song would get more scrutiny and attention if it did close the album but since it doesn’t it’s something of a secret gem hidden in plain sight.
With one more song to go I find myself with mixed emotions, kind of like the night before graduation. I’m pleased to be reaching the finish because it’s an achievement to go through every song in detail like I’ve done but I’m approaching the end knowing that I’m going to miss this. One song to go. See you tomorrow.
Song: The River of Dreams
Album: River of Dreams (1993)
Back in September of 1993, right around the time River of Dreams was released, I got a job at a toy store in a local mall. For those of you from Long Island it was the long gone Playworld Toys at the still standing Sunrise Mall in Massapequa Park. It wasn’t a great job but I was in college and had limited options; the hours were flexible and the $5.25 an hour I made stocking the shelves paid for my books, meals, bus fare and record purchases. I was 19 years old and I felt like I pretty much had everything figured out as long as you didn’t ask me why I didn’t have a car or why I dressed like a flamboyant hobo.
The job itself was pretty easy but it had one drawback: the in store music was a single tape that played on a loop. When I first started it was all kids music, which was tiresome but easy to ignore. That was soon replaced with holiday music which I could hardly hear when the store was packed with shoppers. After the 1993 holiday season the music changed to a 60 minute long collection of contemporary and classic pop hits featuring Billy Joel’ “The River of Dreams.”
As a 19 year old I wasn’t a fan of Billy Joel but my dislike hadn’t become as strong as it would later become. He was just one of a number of artists that I mostly ignored. All through the winter and spring of 1994 I marked the hours by the number of times I heard that tape play and every time “The River of Dreams” came around I hated it.
To be fair to the song, I feel like I need to point out a few things:
1. I was hearing it through a toy store intercom which is maybe the worst imaginable way to hear a song.
2. I was 19 years old, and that is a terrible age for making decisions about anything. In retrospect I believe every decision I made at age 19 was wrong.
3. Somehow, I convinced myself that song “The River of Dreams” was written by Paul Simon. I don’t know where this idea came from but I believed it to be true and as a result I thought of “The River of Dreams” as a Paul Simon song done in what I though of at the time as a pastiche of Paul Simon’s style.
In my teenage brain this last fact meant that Billy Joel was done; reduced to performing cover songs and not even making them his own. If there is an exact moment when my chosen ignorance of Billy Joel turned to active dislike it happened during one of those shifts at the toy store.
Of course, I can tell now that I was a teenage dope, looking for things to be angry about. With 19 more years of perspective I can now say that my rejection of Billy Joel was just part of a larger dislike for looming shadow of baby boomer generation, or put more bluntly: I was a teenager and I resented my parents and their generation; Billy Joel became the poster boy for that resentment. Eventually I grew up got over my issues but I never went back to give Billy Joel a chance until this year.
Back in January I saw “The River of Dreams” looming on the horizon as the moment of truth in this project but my feelings changed to pro Billy Joel long ago so this is now more of an exclamation mark on this whole year because today I know that Billy Joel not only wrote this song, but I also know that the sound of “The River of Dreams” is well within Billy Joel’s comfort zone. He had been utilizing the elements that appear in this song for years.
Contrary to what I believed at 19, this isn’t a dumb pop song. “The River of Dreams” is a complex examination of faith, trust and insecurity filled with biblical imagery disguised as a sweet pop song. In short this song is exactly what I have come to love about Billy Joel and his work. Nobody serves up worry with a candy coating quite like Billy Joel can.
This song is as close this record comes to vintage Billy Joel and it also contains a small moment that knocks me out. About halfway through the song there is an instrumental section; over the churning rhythm of the song Billy Joel goes off into a piano interlude that sounds both perfectly in step with the song and somehow from another place. It’s like a small burst of happiness to cut through the deceptively dark nature of the song. It also sounds to me like he is just cutting loose and having fun in this moment. Billy Joel may have been nearing the end of an era when he was recording this song but you can’t hear it in this instrumental break.
Album: River of Dreams (1993)
Over the last week I’ve been listening to the last half of River of Dreams in preparation for writing about the final few songs I’ll be covering this year. As I’ve done all year, I jotted down ideas as I went along. Here’s what I started with for this song:
When I was working my way through the live Billy Joel records over however many weeks that took, I was skipping over the River of Dreams songs but I did give “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)” a listen and I liked what I heard. On the studio record it sounds cleaner and quieter and Billy Joel’s voice sounds a little better but either way it’s a really nice song. Billy Joel has often tried to be cryptic about his feelings but there’s nothing to puzzle over here. This is a song that is as clear as it is heartfelt.
The melody for this song was originally written as a prelude to the song “The River of Dreams” with words describing a feeling of losing one’s faith. Later the melody was used as an interlude in the middle of the song but eventually Billy Joel removed those portions from the finished version of “The River of Dreams” and wrote the lyrics to “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)” around the melody. It is touching that a piece of music about a lack of faith became a song about the bond between he and his daughter, which was something that he absolutely believed in.
One of the many benefits of going through his catalog has been learning about Billy Joel the person. I have said often that I find him to be a very sympathetic an likable character who I can identify with in some small ways. Over the course of the year I have come to root for the guy the same way I would a friend or family member and it is great to hear him on this song because he sounds to me like a person who has found a purpose greater than himself.
There’s nothing wrong with that outline but before I could fill it out in the way I had intended, news of the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting broke. Before this horrific event, when I had been thinking about what to say about “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)” I wondered how many parents had sung this song to their child over the years; I certainly would sing it if I was a parent. In the wake of this tragedy I’m finding it very difficult to write about this song because it is possible that a parent who once sang this song to their child is dealing with the worst loss imaginable today.
An online friend of mine’s nephew is Noah Pozner. You may have heard the President speak his name on Sunday night, as one of the young victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Noah leaves behind a twin sister, an older sister, and grieving parents. We, the Internet, can try to help ease their grief. Please click here to see how you can help defray funeral costs, send a note, or simply hold a kind thought for a little boy and his family who have been broken apart.
Here are a few more resources for anyone looking for ways to help those impacted by this tragedy.
For those of you who missed it, Billy Joel made an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last night.
Part 1 Part 2
Song: All About Soul
Album: River of Dreams (1993)
River of Dreams is the only studio pop record by Billy Joel that I haven’t listened to on vinyl but I was listening to this on an LP I would have told you that I thought side one started out strong but ran out of steam as it went on but I would have been looking forward to flipping the record over though because it would have felt like a new start. It is possible that Billy Joel still thought of the album in terms of sides because cassettes were still big business in 1993. With this in mind I am thinking of “All About Soul” as the beginning of the second act of River of Dreams rather than a song in the middle of the playlist.
Here’s what I remembered about “All About Soul” from the 90’s:”It was the one that had those guys singing backup vocals.” I just couldn’t remember who those guys were. It turns out that those guys are Color Me Badd, who were very popular in the early 90’s.
This song appeared a few years after Color Me Badd peaked commercially and they are relegated to background vocals on a song that was better than I expected. Like “Blonde Over Blue” from earlier in the record “All About Soul” drags a little in between the choruses but the chorus is good enough to make up for a lot of shortcomings including the soft rock arrangement. The excellent vocals by Billy Joel and by his collaborators doesn’t hurt either.
Thematically the song also has a lot in common with “Blonde Over Blue” in the sense that it explores the relationship between Billy Joel and the sources of his inspiration. Of course the soul metaphor works in several ways, as the soul of a person, a relationship and the soul of music. This is all consistent with what I’ve come to understand as Billy Joel’s late career world view; he’s spending less time looking at himself and more time looking at those surrounding him.
There is something troubling about this song though: It appears nowhere on the Color Me Badd website. Yes there is an active Color Me Badd website because two of the original members are touring under the name but they don’t mention having sung on this song among their career highlights. I know that they their own hits but if I sang on a Billy Joel record I’d talk about it every day.