Here we are at the end of another Billy Joel record and once again I’m sorry to see it come to an end.
Billy Joel would probably be the first person to tell you that he doesn’t have a great singing voice but that doesn’t make him a bad singer. Even as singer with limited range like Billy Joel’s can succeed if the material is right. Obviously, since Billy Joel is writing his own material he can easily tailor it to his abilities as a singer. This doesn’t mean he isn’t occasionally willing to take a chance and step out of his vocal comfort zone.
For the closing title track on 52nd Street billy Joel manages to pull off a decent Ray Charles style vocal. I wouldn’t call it an impression because it’s more of an homage to someone whose work he admires. The sound of Billy’s voice on this one caught me off guard, but I like it.
Musically “52nd Street” has a jazzy arrangement that sounds like a tribute to the musical heritage of mid-town Manhattan. In the middle of the 20th century, mid-town Manhattan was the jazz capitol of the world. This song echoes the music that would have been heard in the clubs* that used to be in the area of the 52nd Street studios where the record was made.
The lyrics are an afterthought but that’s not a problem at all, this one is all about sound and feeling. It’s a nice way to close out another record I’ve enjoyed.
*Side note - There was a jazz club in Seaford on Long Island called Sonny’s that somehow managed to stay open well into the 90’s. This was surprising because Seaford is a great town but not a Jazz hotbed. I would occasionally duck into Sonny because I couldcount on being able to drink all night without having to talk to anybody my own age. If there was one thing I hated in my 20’s it was other people in their 20’s.
I moved from Long Island to Los Angeles 13 years ago in an attempt to restart a relationship that had ended and jump start my life. While I was only 24 at the time I was in a rut. I was working at a job that was unsatisfying and living in a tiny apartment in the back of a house in Deer Park (for any Long Islanders reading this I was right off of Rt. 231 where the Waldbaums used to be). The girl I had been dating since I was 21 had ended things and moved to LA but it didn’t take long before we were talking again and from there it was only a matter of time before headed west.
Things went pretty well in LA for a while. My girlfriend and I lived together and started to plan a future but we overlooked one important thing: We didn’t really want to be together. It was terribly difficult to admit this at the time but in retrospect it’s true. We certainly cared for one another, we may have even needed each other but we weren’t meant to stay together, get married and spend the rest of our lives together. I think we both realized this independently long before we actually split up and dealt with it in different ways: she began to build a life outside of our life and I began to do what Billy Joel describes over a 70’s Motown groove on “Half A Mile Away,” I began to escape.
Getting away wasn’t the plan at first. In the beginning I would get home and suggest that we go out somewhere, I thought maybe a place to go and a thing to do together would help us reconnect but she’s decline and I’d go out on my own. At first I’d just take a walk, then I’d stop for a drink, and then two drinks and then three. I just couldn’t bear to go home to face my deteriorating reality. I was still new in town so i had few friends, it was pretty much just she and I until it wasn’t anymore. She began to escape as well and eventually we faced facts, we were done.
Listening to this song (which I had never heard before) took me back to the nights when I’d escape and the feeling that somewhere there had to be more than the life I was living. Over time I understood that I had been escaping for a long time, since when I was still on Long Island. Sure the relationship was damaged and we both had problems but my problems were mine alone. I’d like to say that I solved these problems quickly and I never drank too much or did something stupid but I also don’t want to lie. The process took as long as it took. Had I known this song I might have realized that I was running away a little sooner and saved myself some time but it’s too late to worry about the things I should have done.
Hearing this song, which by the way I enjoyed, made me realize that getting “Half a Mile Away” is something that runs in my family. When my mom needed a break from raising me and my five younger siblings she was known to sometimes take a break and get away for a little while. Later, when I lived with my father he would do the same thing. I’m willing to bet money that all parents do this and I’m also willing to bet that some parents used this get away time as a chance to do things that might not have been legal. I’m not saying what these things might have been but they also used to come back in better moods and with snacks. This came in handy when I was a teenager as I might have been doing the same thing while my father was gone.
I used to have a mental idea of what I expected from a Billy Joel song; basically it was the hits and more specifically the ballads. Because I thought I knew what to expect I used to be skeptical when a song didn’t fit my idea of what the songs should sound like.
Not much about “Rosalinda’s Eyes” fits the template I had laid out in my head: Not the keyboards that opened the song, not the Latin jazz back beat and certainly not the lyrics about love and longing. This was not at all what I expected from a Billy Joel song.
In what is most certainly a sign of my growing acceptance of Billy Joel’s music I no longer feel skeptical when a song goes somewhere I didn’t expect. I’ve listened to enough of his music to know that he can work in a number of styles so I’m willing and able to give every song a chance. At first listen I wanted to say that “Rosalinda’s Eyes” was a nice song but not particularly memorable but as I listened to it again and again it began to grow on me.
First I found myself enjoying the way Billy rolls his R’s on the word “crazy” over that Latin jazz beat. Now that I think about it, I’ve really become a fan of Billy Joel’s ability to roll his R’s in songs. He’s done this on other songs and I no longer find it distracting.
Then I found myself thinking about the couple he is singing about so I started to do some research and that’s when the song really won me over.
Billy Joel has said that Rosalinda represents his mother Rosalind and he imagines the song as being sung by his father to her. Well that pretty much made me want to cry.
Like my parents, Billy Joel’s mom and dad split up when he was a kid. Like me he probably went on with his life not thinking too much about how this split affected him but I’m sure it did impact him. Since I can relate to his experience I find it endlessly charming that as an adult Billy Joel would write a love song about his parents who divorced when he was a child.
While I loved them both, I never wished that my parents would get back together; not when I was a kid and not when I grew up. Since they separated when I was six years old I don’t remember them ever being a couple. They were just my mom and dad and as I grew up they stayed my mom and dad; they just lived in separate houses. I could never imagine them being in love and I could never imagine them being young and crazy about one another. I often wished I could understand what they saw in each other because understanding what they were looking for might help me to understand why things didn’t work out.
To this day I still can’t find the answers to these questions and maybe Billy Joel couldn’t either; but he could create this fictional musical back story instead to help fill in those gaps. It may not have been the truth but it may have been the next best thing.
Hey Billy Joel fans, we’re cool right? I know it has taken me a while to come around but after The Stranger I’m all in on I Billy Joel. Billy has been on an all time great run from Turnstiles through the first half of 52nd Street so when I wrapped up side one 52nd Street I felt great, which makes what I’m about to say difficult.
I really don’t like “Stiletto.”
When I began this project I promised to give each song a fair chance and “Stiletto” is no exception to this rule. There have been a number of songs that I didn’t like the first time I heard but after repeated listens came to appreciate. Over the course of the many times I’ve heard “Stiletto” I’ve come to appreciate the funky jazz vibe of the music and the way Billy Joel sings the song like he’s jacked up on amphetamines but I really dislike the lyrics to this one and it gets in the way of appreciating what is a typically solid piece of music from Billy Joel and his band.
My problem with the lyrics to “Stiletto” is that they are just too on the nose. The song uses a woman carving someone up with a knife as a metaphor for an unhealthy relationship. As a metaphor it’s a…well it’s as subtle as a knife to the stomach. Using this device once in a song would be fine. Dedicating a whole verse to it is acceptable but it just feels ugly when its repeated multiple times over the course of a song with nothing to balance it. I say this fully aware that I’m a guy who used to date a girl that slept with a knife under her pillow and dealt with her problems with physical violence. Needless to say, I was crazy about that girl, knife and all.
What I’m saying is: I have literally experienced the kind of relationship Billy Joel is metaphorically describing and I still think that the metaphor feels like something I’d expect from a band like KISS. I don’t expect this to come from the guy who wrote “Always a Woman” and “Vienna.”
This is the first song that I have disliked since my conversion to Billy Joel fandom and I don’t feel great about it but there’s plenty of music left on this record.
Zanzibar is the answer to the question: “What would Billy Joel sound like if he wrote a Steely Dan song?”
Zanzibar is a jazzy musical piece and Billy Joel fills out the impressive arrangement with several additional instruments including the vibraphone a trumpet (the trumpet solo was provided by the legendary Freddie Hubbard) and adds a soulful vocal that disguises the fact that the lyrics are a trifle compared to the music. I’m not complaining though because the lyrics could be a shopping list and it would still be worth a listen just for the way it mimics and improves on the template of a Steely Dan record.
Personally, I find Steely Dan’s mix of rock and jazz and their meticulous attention to detail interesting in theory, but their records leave me cold because the feel more assembled products than artistic creations.
I realize that my reading of Steely Dan records is incorrect because of course they are artistic creations, but I just can’t get into them because they feel so assembled. As a listener I want to believe that an artist sits down to write a song and it just springs forth, fully formed but I know that it’s a process. When successfully done the process feels effortless; my problem with Steely Dan songs is that they never feel effortless. I suppose that I like Zanzibar’s pastiche of Steely Dan more than the real thing because it seems less labored even if it probably isn’t.
Mark Motherbaugh of Devo once said that Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid” was “the perfect Devo song.”Mark is 100% correct but I don’t like “Dare to be Stupid” more than the songs that it lifts its influences from the way I like Zanzibar more than its influences.
While they lyrics in the verses on Zanzibar are kind of a throwaway with references to Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose and the baseball as metaphor for sex, the chorus delivers for me.
I’ve got the old man’s car, I’ve got a jazz guitar I’ve got a tab at Zanzibar Tonight that’s where I’ll be
I don’t know about you but the first time I realized I was a regular in a bar I felt pretty great. As a young man who frequently went to bar with his dad as a kid, being able to walk into a place and run a tab, even if it was just until the end of the night felt like a big deal to me like I had somehow arrived as an adult.
Zanzibar may not be my favorite Billy Joel song but it would be my favorite Steely Dan song and it reminds me of that first rush of adulthood when everything seemed wide open. When having some money in my pocket to spend on drinks and a few bucks to play songs on the jukebox felt like enough to keep me happy forever.
Over the course of my year of Billy Joel there are a number of songs that I didn’t previously hold in high regard that I have come around to like. “My Life” is unique among Billy Joel songs because it’s a song that I remember liking as a kid but upon a more careful examination I’ve decided that I don’t like it as much as many of the other songs I’ve heard this year.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with “My Life;” it’s a nice little soft rock number but in general I’m not a big fan of soft rock numbers. I like the bass and keyboards that open the song but I feel like the overall arrangement is just a bit too bland for my taste and the vocals sound a little too upbeat for a song that is essentially someone asking to be left alone.* This is by no means a bad song but it won’t be making my favorites list this year.
*I realized later that there is a freedom that comes with telling someone to go away and never come back but it’s still not my jam.
I’m pretty sure that the reason I initially liked this song as a kid was due to the fact that I recognized the song as the theme to Bosom Buddies, the Tom Hanks sitcom from 1980-1982. I haven’t seen Bosom Buddies since it first aired but I’m guessing the premise doesn’t hold up very well. Perhaps next year I’ll start A Year of Tom Hanks to find out the answer.
In addition to simply listening to every Billy Joel song, one of the secondary goals of A Year of Billy Joel has been to determine why I haven’t been a fan of his music to this point in my life.
In an episode of A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume you heard me admit that my initial dislike was in part me just being a contrarian but that wasn’t all there was to the story. One of the anti Billy Joel straw man arguments I had built up in my head was that his songs were widely popular because they were simple. I realize now that this argument doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny.
Realizing that Billy Joel’s songs aren’t simple only took a few listens. One of the things I’ve learned over the course of A Year of Billy Joel is that many of his songs feel instantly familiar because he is so gifted at writing memorable and catchy melodies. A good melody makes it very easy for a song to grab hold of a listener and a great melody feels, to my ears, like it has always been in my head and the song just sets it free. Writing these melodies is a rare gift that I now realize Billy Joel has. As a result, I retract my previous Billy Joel argument.
Speaking of melodies, “Honesty” is another one of those Billy Joel songs that sounds and feels familiar immediately. While it’s musically sparse or at least quieter compared to the opening track it flows so naturally that hopefully Billy Joel fans can forgive me for mistaking it and other songs like it as simplistic.
Lyrically it feels as personal a song as anything Billy Joel has written since his debut record. I don’t know for a if it is in fact being sung from his perspective or from that of an unnamed narrator but I can’t help but wonder if it is in some way reflecting the state of his marriage at the time the song was written. This is armchair analysis of course and 34 years after the fact it’s ancient history in terms of pop music. The song on the other hand has outlasted whatever events inspired it and it’s an pretty good one.
After writing my last recap for the The Stranger I jumped right into 52nd Street. My process with each record so far has worked like this: I’ve played the album on vinyl in its entirety a few times and then gone through it track by track, recapping each song along the way. As I’ve said before I’m an album fan so I like hearing how the complete record flows and how this flow compares to other records.
There was one thing about 52nd Street that I took notice of before I even dropped the needle on the record and that is what Billy Joel is wearing on the cover. Essentially he is rocking one of my favorite looks, I even have a similar jacket. We’re off to a good start.
The record begins with another popular favorite from the Billy Joel catalog, “Big Shot.” Over the last few records I’ve been paying very close attention to the tone that Billy sets with the opening track. Turnstiles began with a nod to the past but The Stranger and 52nd Street start out very much in the present. Thematically the openers to both albums are looking at some of of the darker sides of late 70’s culture but while “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” looked at empty consumerism across a wide range of people “Big Shot” looks at emptiness with a narrower focus.
On the off chance you haven’t heard “Big Shot” click the link at the top of the post to hear it. Don’t just listen though, Billy Joel and his band filmed an actual promo clip for Big Shot so pay attention to the video which is absolutely the best way for you to spend 4 minutes today. I won’t spoil it for you (yet) just watch it.
“Big Shot” deals with the story of and the aftermath of a well to do woman’s night on the town featuring drugs, alcohol and other excesses. The person telling the story in the song does not have kind words for the person he is singing about and for years people have speculated who the song was based on. Billy Joel has both denied and confirmed that Bianca Jagger was the inspiration. Since the confirmation was more recent I’m going to take Billy at his word for it. Billy also says he imagined the song as being sung to Bianca from Mick Jagger’s point of view. Now I really hope that you’ve watched the video because this point of view might explain why Billy Joel is doing his best Jagger dance impression when he moves out from behind the piano (I seriously LOVE this clip).
Musically this is as hard rocking of an opening track as we’ve heard from Billy Joel and his band. Production wise, “Big Shot” picks up where The Stranger left off. The song is meticulously put together allowing each instrument and the vocals to heard and appreciated. Vocally, this is a fun song as Billy Joel plays around with his pronunciation and even slips into an unidentifiable accent at one point. I don’t know if he was trying to do something specific with this vocal tricks but it’s fun to listen to. Like I suspect he was doing on the last two tracks on The Stranger, it may just be someone at the top of his game having a good time. Regardless, I’ve had a good time listening to this song.