The Case of the Missing Billy Joel
I’ve been listening to a lot of Billy Joel recently. There was a temporary Billy Joel Channel on Sirius/XM and, shockingly, they played a lot of Billy Joel.
One wouldn’t think it was shocking, but my thought process whenever I got back in my car usually goes something like, “Whoa, Billy Joel is on. Wasn’t Billy Joel just playing when I went in the store? Oh right, Billy Joel channel.”
I’m used to listening to Margaritaville Radio, but that’s only about fifty percent Jimmy Buffett. Maybe because Margaritaville’s a permanent station. Billy Joel Radio’s only had a limited time frame, so it had to be all Billy all the time.
One nice addition to this station is that Billy Joel introduces a lot of his songs and says what went into them. Beautiful nuggets like the song “Honesty,” for which he had the melody before the lyrics. His drummer needed lyrics to figure out how to fill it, so until Billy could come up with lyrics, the drummer was singing “Sodomy.” I guess that would get you writing some lyrics pretty hastily.
Although I think the original title would’ve worked just fine. “Sodomy is such a lonely word… and mostly what I need from you.”
But the most shocking revelation was that Billy Joel hasn’t written a song in twenty-three years.
“That can’t be right,” I thought. “I remember when River of Dreams came out. Since then he’s released…. Well… Nothing that I’ve bought, but I’m sure something.”
I’ll be honest. I haven’t bought many albums since college. But I know they still exist. Paul McCartney released Off the Ground the same year as River of Dreams, and although I haven’t bought any Paul McCartney albums since then, I know there have been some. Evidently the bouncer at the Grammy awards post-party is in the same boat as me.
I just assumed Billy Joel was in the same boat, having gone on to release a whole bunch of albums that I didn’t buy containing songs I hadn’t heard on the radio.
But Billy Joel was not on said boat. The last metaphorical boat he was on was floating down that River of Dreams. And then he went cold turkey. Or cold fish, maybe? To keep the metaphor going.
He even told us that he was done on that album. The last song on his last album was called “Famous Last Words.” The song is all about being done. “These are the last words I have to say/It’s always hard to say goodbye/But now it’s time to put this book away/Ain’t that the story of my life.”
Whoa. Did he just drop the mic on his career a couple decades before dropping the mic was even a thing? Has this ever been done before? An artist just deciding they’re done and telling us as much?
Sure, the Beatles put “The End” at the end of Abbey Road. But then they moved “Her Majesty” after it. Then they released Let it Be after they had broken up. So that kind of killed it.
The last chapter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is titled “Nothing More to Write,” but I think that was from Huck’s point of view, not Mark Twain’s. If the latter was what was intended, then he fucked up big time because he wrote a lot more books.
Speaking of which, how many books has Stephen King written since he retired? At least ten, I think.
And Stephen King is a good counter-example to Billy Joel. A creative person who said he was finished, yet continued to create. Because how does one really turn that part of their brain off?
Seriously, Billy Joel, how did you do that? Have you really gone through the last two decades without a single idea for a new song?
And Billy Joel wasn’t some one hit wonder. He was not a J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee, who had one big hit then went into seclusion. If Billy Joel had just released “Piano Man,” then went behind closed doors, I could wait patiently until he was on his deathbed when his entire catalog would be released.
I’ve known Tommy Tutone. Tomy Tutone was in a Walkman of mine. You, Billy Joel, are no Tommy Tutone.
Billy Joel had, and I would wager still has, talent for writing songs. He produced twelve albums over a span of twenty years. For a while there, he was producing a new album every eighteen months or so. Then nothing.
On the radio station, he gave a few hints as to how easy it is for him to write songs. He says he has “Magic Fingers,” which thankfully, did not refer to some sex act he uses to get all of those supermodels. Instead, he just plays a chord on a piano, then he moves a finger to make a different sound. Diminished, minor, maybe a flat 7th. But that new chord puts him in a mood or gives him and idea and he goes from there.
“And that’s how I write songs,” he says, “or how I used to write songs.”
Almost caught yourself there, Billy! I know you’re still writing songs. Where the fuck are they?
One time, he explains, he had a whim to make an homage to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. So he worked on his falsetto. Then he took the Four Seasons song, “Rag Doll,” about a rich boy upset that he can’t date a poor girl, and decided to reverse it. Add in a little biographical info about him using his magical fingers on Elle McPherson and, voila, “Uptown Girl.”
But he didn’t stop there. He kept that jazzy falsetto feel going decided to throw in a few more homages to his musical influences. Take a little Ben E. King, add a dash of Little Richard, mix in some doo-wop style, and before you know it you have one of the definitive and best albums of the 1980s, An Innocent Man. Not only does that album have the aforementioned “Uptown Girl,” and its title song, it also has a minor little ditty called “The Longest Time.” Heard of it? Oh yeah, and “Tell Her About It.” Plus “Keeping the Faith” and “Leave a Tender Moment Alone.” I could go on, but I’d have to divert to explain to my younger readers who Rodney Dangerfield is.
But evidently a guy who can churn out that list of songs in less than a year after releasing Nylon Curtain can’t find a single thing to write about since the first days of the Clinton Administration.
Maybe he believed that the end of the Cold War really was the end of history. A lot of his songs were based on the historical events that happened during his life. Vietnam, the Cold War, and the post-industrial economy. He always said if he hadn’t been a musician, he would’ve liked to be a history teacher. To which I say, “Want to switch?”
But trust me, Billy, there’s a plethora of other history for you there, Billy. I know St. Petersburg is harder to rhyme than Leningrad, but I have faith in you. If you don’t like history, you can try a science fiction song again, like you did in “Miami, 2017.”
Dude, he should so play a concert in Miami next year.
He does still tour, after all. Maybe he knew that concertgoers always hate the new stuff and he didn’t want to give them the opportunity to go to the bathroom during his concerts. Or maybe, as a self-proclaimed social scientist, he foresaw the coming time when musicians didn’t make jack shit from album sales.
Part of me wonders if he’s afraid to go back to writing because of that whole drop-the-mic moment. In a few interviews, he implied that he wasn’t necessarily done forever, but that he was closing that book. There might be more songs in the future, when he’s at a different point in his life. In one interview, he even implied that the title, “Famous Last Words,” was meant to be the sarcastic usage of that phrase. “This is my last cigarette.” “Yeah, famous last words.”
So maybe in 1993, he thought there’d be more writing in the future but as time went on, it became harder and harder to get back to it. Maybe he has some song ideas now, but doesn’t think any of them are worthy of going back on his “Famous Last Words.” If he released a new song now, regardless of how good or bad it might be, there’d be a lot of people who would say “Wow, twenty years away and that’s what you break your silence for?”
I at least have faith that it would be better than Van Roth’s “Tattoo.”
I keep going back to Stephen King. If he had taken a year or two off after his retirement, he might not have come back. Instead, he went back to some of the old ideas he had had earlier in his career. Now that the pressure was off, he could try again and it didn’t matter if he failed. In my opinion, it’s some of his best stuff – I love both Under the Dome and 11/22/63. I don’t love the latter enough to pay Hulu to watch TV shows I can watch for free on demand, but it was a damned good book. I mean, JFK blown away, what else do I have to say?
In fact, that last line might be a little nudge to Billy Joel. Stephen King finally got around to writing a sequel to The Shning. How about a sequel to “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” That’s usually how I start off my history classes. We listen to the song, then I have them look at the lyrics and write another verse . I can forward some of their compositions if you want.
In the meantime, let me help you get started. “No World Series, Nine Eleven, Tupac and Biggie gone to heaven, something, something, bread unleavened.”
Damn, this is hard. Maybe you should just stick to the classics Billy.
“Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man. Just make sure it ain’t nothing new. Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody. The one you wrote back in ’82.”