Glass Houses: The Commercial

Things have been very exciting over here at A Year of Billy Joel and there’s more fun stuff on the way. Thanks for stopping by and being a part of this.

Today, I’m taking a brief detour from the Storm Front album to share a little piece of Billy Joel history.

I’ve come across a lot of random Billy Joel promo stuff over the course of this year and one of my favorites is this wonderful commercial for the Glass Houses album.

I really wish that musicians still made commercials like this.

Here’s another one for 52nd Street.

A Year of Billy Joel will resume after the weekend with a few non album songs from the late 80’s and the rest of Storm Front.

Have a great weekend!

Through The Long Night

Song: Through The Long Night

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

A few songs ago I covered “Sleeping With The Television On” and mentioned that it wasn’t what I expected. Based on the title of that song I made a connection in my head to a personal experience with depression and was a little disappointed when the song didn’t match my, admittedly unreasonable, expectations.

At that time, brilliant reader S. Barber suggested that if it’s a battle with depression and sleeplessness I want to hear about, I should check out “Through The Long Night,” the song which ends Glass Houses. Since I have been taking this album side a song at a time I didn’t want to cheat by listening ahead but now I’ve made it to the end of the record.

On “Through The Long Night” Billy Joel does one of the things he does best; he takes a dark and difficult subject and wraps a sweet and gentle song around it. The difficult subject is a partner dealing with depression and the sweetness is the melody that plays out over a quiet arrangement like a lullaby sung to help a troubled mind stop racing long enough to feel some peace. It’s a very nice song and sentiment to close out another strong record.

As someone who has dealt with depression and has had a number of long nights I especially identify with this one. Over the last six years I have worked very hard to make the transition from a person who had trouble functioning in the world to someone who has learned to manage their unhealthy tendencies and lead a fuller life. I have been lucky to have an incredible support network in my life during this time, led by my wife and my dog.  Yes, my dog has been a big part of my support team.

Daisy, my dog and Nina, my wife

I met my wife when I was still relatively early in the process of changing my life. She saw in me someone who had been through some difficulties but was essentially a good person trying to become a better person. She decided to give me a chance and when she arrived in my life she brought a dog with her. My wife was my primary inspiration to keep working towards my goals and she deserves much of the credit for where my life is today but it was my dog helped keep me focused.

There is nothing like having another living thing who depends on you for their well being and loves you unconditionally to keep a person from getting lost in their own head. My dog was the silent, supportive witness to my life during the long transitional period and while she doesn’t know it, the fact that she was always happy to see me and always willing to sit beside me made a difference.

About two years after I met my wife and my dog my ability to avoid depression was seriously challenged by the unexpected death on my father. In the months that followed I spent many sleepless nights unsure of if I was going to rebound from the shock. On some of these nights I would get out of bed and sit alone in front of the TV; at least I’d start out alone. Invariably my dog would notice I was missing from the bed and she would come looking for me. We’d watch TV until I could fall asleep again. As I said at the time: whenever I felt lost, my dog would find me.

I mention this because yesterday my dog was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The good news is the fact that it has been caught early; with surgery and chemo there is a very good chance that she’ll be cancer free soon. In fact this is her second bout with the big C. Two years ago she had surgery to remove a cancerous growth and she’s been health and thriving ever since. That said my dog is probably about 11 years old and there are no guarantees but this is her best chance to get better so we’re going to take it. She is going to have a difficult time but I can help her through the long nights, just like she’s done for me many times. We will make whatever time we have left together as good as it can be.

Nina, Daisy and me, photo by Lisa Jane Persky

Close To The Borderline

Song: Close To The Borderline

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

At the beginning of Glass Houses I you called “You May Be Right” the most rifftastic song in the Billy Joel catalog. Well it didn’t take long for another song to claim the Maximum Riffage* crown.

I don’t like this song…I LOVE this song.

Here’s something you may not know about me. I have separate playlists on my ipod for my commute. In the morning I like my music on the mellow side. When I’m on my way home from work, there’s nothing that gets me going more than a riff heavy song that I can turn up really loud in my car while I’m barely moving through the streets of LA.

While I like the morning play-list, I LOVE the evening play-list.

As much as I’ve grown to like Billy Joel over the last several months, he hasn’t lent himself to many opportunities for inclusion on the end of day play-list. “Close to the Borderline” is an end of the day play-list song thanks to its big dumb guitar riff and Billy’s overheated rundown of the troubles faced by New York City, the county and himself in the late 70’s.

It’s big, it’s loud and it’s great. “Close To The Borderline” is a new contender for my favorite Billy Joel song.

*The term Maximum Riffage borrowed from the video for Guided By Voices “Bulldog Skin.”

C’etait Toi (You Were The One)

Song: C’etait Toi (You Were the One)

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

When I arrived at side two of Glass Houses I was faced with a clean slate; five songs I had never heard before. If you’re keeping score at home I’ve liked the first song, didn’t love the second and now I’m at the midway point.

Some thoughts finding myself at the midpoint of this mystery side of songs.

1.The tone has drastically changed from side one. The lean rock sound on side one has been pushed aside in favor of the more traditionally melodic Billy Joel sound.

2. Lyrically the tone has also shifted. It has moved to what feels like an introspective place. I don’t think Billy Joel is singing specifically about himself but I get the sense that he intimately understands the what he’s singing about on these songs?

And just what is he singing about? Through the first three songs it’s mostly romance and regret.

On “C’etait Toi (You Were The One)” Billy Joel is once again singing about somebody on the losing end of love. This time he uses the well worn trope of a guy drinking alone regretting the one who got away. In this instance he adds a little zest by singing the middle verses in French (the French Language verses simply repeat the English verses).

Unfortunately for me, I found Billy Joel’s French accent to be the most interesting part of the song. The melody is nice enough but the lyrics feel incomplete and merely padded by the inclusion of the French verses. It feels like there’s one song on every album that just fails to click for me and this is the one on Glass Houses.

Sleeping With The Television On

Song: Sleeping With The Television On

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

Those of us old enough to remember a time when having cable TV was a big deal will remember that some TV stations used to end their broadcast day by playing the national anthem and then air a test pattern overnight.As a prelude to “Sleeping With The Television On” Billy Joel gives us a few bars of the anthem and a second of the tone that accompanied the test pattern overnight.

Hearing this song brought me back to a Saturday morning in 1979. My brother and I were cartoon fanatics and we’d wake up early to make sure we saw them all. On one Saturday we woke up before dawn and turned on the TV only to find that the cartoons were still asleep. Not knowing any better we assumed that the test pattern and tone was a very dull program called “The Boo Show” and so we sat in front of the TV trying to mimic the sound of the tone until Davy and Goliath started. Once our shows started we went to the kitchen to get some food. Since the fridge almost empty we made do with what we had: sticks of butter and a bottle of ketchup. It was heart attack delicious…and we were dumb.

When I got a little older and stopped eating butter by the stick I again encountered the test pattern on the Friday nights when I would attempt to stay awake until dawn. Despite my best efforts I’d fall asleep and wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a test tone on my TV. This went on until we got cable and I started drinking coffee.

Neither of these things have anything to do with the song but as you’ve learned by now, I’m prone to digressions and tangents; some people find it charming.

"Sleeping With The Television On" again deals with love and romance. The song replaces the reuniting couple  from "I Don’t Want To Be Alone Anymore"  with a man and a woman both dealing with fears that they are unable to overcome. As a result they don’t approach each other when they have the chance and both go home to sleep…with the television on. Billy Joel doesn’t say that this is the worst possible outcome but he gives the impression that at least one of them wishes they had taken the chance.

Personally, I don’t like this song very much. It deals with loneliness in a way that makes it hard to take it seriously, over a funk by way of soft rock arrangement and an upbeat melody. It’s a serious issue, but the message gets lost in the forgettable translation.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I am disappointed that this song was so lightweight. When I read the title I hoped for something more meaningful, “Seeping With the Television On” evokes long dark nights of the soul at least in my mind. I hoped that Billy Joel felt the same.

After spending five months writing about Billy Joel I’ve learned that one of the things he and I have in common is bouts of depression. For me it has been an ongoing battle that I’ve usually kept under control but for a lengthy period I was both deeply depressed and unable to sleep due to severe sleep apnea. As a result I spent night after night sleeping for 20 minutes at time. I slept in front of the TV so I could watch The History Channel International in between bouts of wishing I could dissolve into thin air. Then I would drag myself through the day and repeat it all over again. At the time I didn’t know how bad it was; happiness was not something I was concerned with at that time.

It wasn’t until I was properly treated for both depression and sleep issues that I realized that I had been through years of difficulty that could have been avoided, or at least lessened. I kind of hoped that Billy Joel would have understood what I went through, maybe he does, but he didn’t write about it in this song. This will teach me to bring unfair expectations into other people’s work. Billy Joel doesn’t have to write songs about me for me to think he’s okay. This one will never be one of my favorites though.

I Don’t Want To Be Alone Anymore

Song: I Don’t Want To Be Alone Anymore

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

For the first time since Streetlife Serenade I’m about to dig into a complete album’s side of songs that I have never heard before and have no prior opinions about. Side two of Glass Houses is a complete mystery to me which is odd when you consider that there was a vinyl copy of it in my house when I was a kid. Maybe my family didn’t know there was a side two.

Regardless of the reason why I’d never heard the second side of Glass Houses before  I’m excited to hear a whole album side for the first time. Despite the fact that we’re decades into the digital age I still love the idea of an album with a distinct side one and side two. Personally I’ve always been drawn to the second sides as they tend to have the more interesting songs. Since most listeners play side one first, that’s where the catchier stuff usually goes leaving side two for more experimental or challenging songs.

Because of my love for album sides I’m trying something different for the next five songs. With all previous albums I’ve listened to the entire record as a whole before writing about any individual song. While I listened to all of side one before writing about a single song I am taking side two on a track by track basis and letting the record unfold a song at a time with only the songs preceding it as context. This may not make a difference to you as a reader but to me it feels like traveling without knowing the destination. After nearly five months of writing about Billy Joel I’m still having fun but I need to mix it up a little bit just to keep it from becoming too routine.

While Billy Joel hasn’t put something like “Sister Ray” at the end of an album I think that the second sides of his records tend to be tonally different from the first sides and usually more introspective. On the opener to side two of Glass Houses “I Don’t Want To Be Alone,” Billy has backed away from the leaner rock sound of side one and come up with something reminiscent of his earlier records. “I Don’t Want To Be Alone” features a more layered arrangement than I’ve heard to this point on Glass Houses. Musically the song calls back to the Caribbean rhythms and sounds that Billy Joel had experimented with in the past but lyrically there’s something different going on here.

While Billy is going over the well worn grounds of love and romance on this song he comes at it from an interesting angle by focusing on a reunion after a time apart. He then begins the song as one half of the couple, telling the story in the second person before essentially switching characters and perspectives by having the original narrator quote the other person. Then it seamlessly jumps back to the original narrator. It’s a neat trick of perspective changing that keeps the song moving forward towards its uneasy resolution. The couple may be getting back together but the song doesn’t make it clear if there chances of lasting are very good.

One of the lessons I’ve learned of the last several months is that it’s foolish to try and get into the songwriters head. What ends up on the record may have begun as something else entirely so looking for a singular inspiration to a song can be a futile search but I’m tempted to wonder if any of Billy Joel’s personal life and relationship with his first wife is being revealed in this song. I believe that at the time of this record’s release Billy and his first wife were in the process of divorcing. This song may not be autobiographical but it’s possible that real life could have served as a leaping off point to tell this story. In the end the flash-point of inspiration fades and all that’s left is the song, which I like. It’s a good start to the mysterious (to me at least) second side of Glass Houses.

All For Leyna

Song: All For Leyna

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

Billy…

Billy…

Billy… sometimes I know where you’re coming from.

One of the things I have tried to do during my Year of Billy Joel has been to guess which songs Billy is writing about himself and which one’s aren’t.

This is one that I think is written from personal experience. They say you should write what you know and I think Billy Joel knows what he sings about in this one. The details may be fabricated but the feeling is personal.  In “All For Leyna” poor Billy Joel just can’t catch a break when it comes to love; he can get the girl but he can’t keep her. The possibility that it may be his own fault doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

Like I said, I know where he’s coming from.

If you’ve met me in the last five years you didn’t know me when I was still figuring things out. You didn’t know me when I was self destructive and regularly made bad choices. You certainly didn’t know me when I dated people who were unavailable, not really all that into me or just as fucked up as I was. Not EVERYBODY I dated fit these descriptions just the one’s I got stuck on “All For Leyna” style.

Back then there was nothing I found more attractive than someone who felt I wasn’t good enough for them or simply wasn’t into me. My reasons were embarrassingly obvious; I didn’t feel like I was good enough but I didn’t want anyone else to tell me that. I wanted, no I NEEDED somebody so I came on strong and got involved in situations that were wrong for everyone involved. Then I’d feel destroyed when things didn’t work out, which led to me preemptively sabotaging later attempts. It was an ugly time for me. In retrospect I understand that I shouldn’t have been dating anyone but this is wisdom that came with age.

I can think of many instances where I chased after the wrong person but you can probably already picture what I was like so I’ll skip to the last instance, the one that finally changed me. I once went on a date that went pretty well in the way that my dates went at that time. We met, we drank too much and we opened up about all of our worst characteristics. It was charming in a mutual train wreck sort of way.

At the end of the date we made plans to see each other again. The next day I called…no response. I waited a while and called again…nothing. I emailed and then tried to drop it but I couldn’t. I obsessed about it. Why didn’t this fucked up person like me. How could they not like me? It was all I could think about.

Finally, weeks later she emailed me and said: “Sorry I didn’t call you back. After our date I checked myself into rehab so I don’t think I should be dating.”

All I could think at that moment was: “This person hit rock bottom, and rock bottom was me.” Clearly it was time to rethink my life.

I wished her well and then slowly began to untangle the complicated mess I had become.

Months later I met a girl for a drink. She and I had been talking for a few weeks before we met. I thought that she was great and we had a good time but this time it was different. I kept my issues to myself and had two drinks. More importantly when she told me that she wasn’t interested in dating I didn’t take it personally. I told her I thought they were great and then said goodnight prepared to just be friends. In the following days I didn’t call, I didn’t ask her to change her mind, I didn’t do anything except send an email thanking her for meeting with me.

Eventually she contacted me…eventually we had another drink…eventually we got married. I’m certain that one of the reasons she gave me a chance was that I was willing and able to walk away without being a wierdo.

I’m lucky that we met when we did because I wasn’t always so sensible.

"All For Leyna" is one of the first Billy Joel songs I remember hearing as a kid. Since it was being played on vinyl I must have heard the four songs that came before it too but this is the one I remember because of the unusual emphasis he puts on words like SHOCK, ROCKS, DROP and STOP. I was too young to appreciate or understand the song then but as an adult I like it’s take on obsessive, self destructive behavior enough to overlook the fact that the opening sounds suspiciously like Toto’s "Hold The Line." 

As we reach the end of the first side of Glass Houses I have to say I’ve enjoyed the leaner more rock oriented Billy Joel on display here. Plus there are the wonderful performance videos including one for “All For Leyna.”

Rock on Billy Joel.

It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me

Song: It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

Before we get into this song we HAVE to talk about the video below. I know it’s unfair to poke fun at 32 year old fashion choices so I won’t even get into that. I will instead point out the amazing fact that throughout this performance Billy Joel is drinking a beer. If you don’t like the song watch it with the sound off just to see Billy reach over and grab a cold one mid song. To answer your likely question: no, the video does not crash into anything.

A lot has been made of this song being Billy Joel’s response to punk and new wave. The reaction among people who are not fans has been “HA HA, look at this guy trying to be cool” (I’m paraphrasing). For many years this thought has colored my thinking about it but I think that this characterization is a little unfair because Billy Joel wasn’t trying to make a punk or new wave song. “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” feels to me like Billy Joel’s reaction to the music press’ response to punk and new wave and his (not incorrect) assertion that some of the coverage was celebrating style over substance. 

Another reason I think this song gets characterized is the fact that the use of the term new wave has changed. When we refer to “New Wave” today we think of synth, skinny ties and jackets but early new wave was much more guitar oriented, like The Cars (even Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were lumped in with new wave at one point).I don’t think there’s too much of a gap between The Cars early hits and Billy Joel’s rock sound on Glass Houses. I could see Billy Joel doing a credible version of “Just What I Needed.”

As for the song, I like the idea of it much more than the song itself. Sure it’s catchy but the song’s call and response verses are a little grating after a few listens and I’ve never been a fan of the sax solo. I agree with the sentiment but not the execution.

Don’t Ask Me Why

Song: Don’t Ask Me Why

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

Through the first two songs on Glass Houses the tone has been different; the album features a leaner more rocking sound than we’ve heard on previous records. This isn’t a bad thing; Billy Joel has never been shy about his love for rock and roll and I’ve had as much fun listening to these songs as I like to believe he had writing them.

Then, just when I think I’ve got Billy figured out, he reminds me that I do not.

After two straight stripped down rockers Billy Joel slides back into…well… Billy Joel mode is the best way to describe it and comes back with “Don’t Ask Me Why;” one of those effortless sounding, melodic pop gems he’s so good at writing. The song has one of those melodies that just sounds so natural you wonder why it took so long for someone to write it. The ability to find the melody that everyone before you has overlooked and to make the process seem effortless is truly an enviable gift. Anyone mistaking that sense of instant recognition for simplicity is missing the point and when I say “anyone” I’m mostly referring to myself as I have done this before.

As great as the melody on the verses is on “Don’t Ask Me Why” it’s not even the best part of the song. The best part about the song is the killer bridge between verses 2 and 3 is killer. It’s a gentle shift in tempo sung in a slightly higher key over a piano part that sounds almost like a sped up waltz. It’s a really nice little break before the song picks up where it left off.

Vocally and lyrically Billy Joel channels his best Ram era Paul McCartney on this one but that is in no way a knock on the song (Ram = awesome). This is another winner and one that definitely is among my favorite Billy Joel songs.

Sometimes A Fantasy

Song: Sometimes A Fantasy

Album: Glass Houses (1980)

At age ten I was friends with the kid down the street but this was not my choice. It was a friendship driven by proximity and a mutual love of baseball, but nothing else. We didn’t didn’t go to the same school, our families were very different and we didn’t like to talk to each other but we both needed someone to play baseball with. Since there were no kids in the two houses between ours we were stuck with each other during spring and summer until could make other friends. 

During baseball season we were usually okay as long as we stuck to the game. Any other activity would result in a fight, even if that activity was just talking about something non baseball related.

In the summer of 1984 my not best friend met me at our usual ballgame spot but instead of just starting the game he said:

"I heard a new Bruce Springsteen song on the radio."

I should have ignored him but in 1984 Bruce was the biggest thing going. I wanted to know more.

"What song?" I asked.

He told me “It was the one that goes Oh, oh, oh, oh”.

Now I didn’t know a lot about music as a ten year old but thanks to my dad I knew all of the current Springsteen songs and none of them included those lyrics.

When I told my not friend he was mistaken he punched me in the stomach. I hit him back, he thew a bottle at me, I threw a baseball at him. Then his mom heard us shouting and came outside to break it up. This was a regular occurrence and we knew the drill; that day’s game was postponed until we could play nice. 

I was right though; that kid didn’t hear any Bruce Springsteen song. For 27 years I have known this to be true but now I have proof. I realized today that the song he was talking about was Billy Joel’s “Sometimes a Fantasy”. Had I let my Billy Joel guard down sooner I could have solved this mystery years ago and maybe my friend and I could have started over and not fought all the time. Instead I just moved away and we lost touch; which was probably for the best. Still I wish I could find him and say “In Your Face Jerk” one more time.

Childhood adversaries aside “Sometimes a Fantasy” is another rocker in the “You May Be Right” vein.  While it may be the best song ever written about imagined phone sex it’s not much more than just a fun little rocker.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a fun little rocker, not everything has to be taken seriously.

It’s worth noting that we are now are firmly into the Billy Joel promo video era. I don’t want to get into the business of mocking videos all the time but the promo for “Sometimes A Fantasy” is pretty fantastic. Billy singing into a phone, an evil Billy Joel and phone sex, or was it all a dream. Watch it and see.