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July 23rd, 2014 - 9:54 am

JOEL

Big honor for Billy Joel, set to become only the sixth recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Details:

“Billy Joel is a storyteller of the highest order,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billlington said in a statement.

“There is an intimacy to his song writing that bridges the gap between the listener and the worlds he shares through music.”

Joel, whose career has spanned 50 years, is one of the most popular recording artists and has had 33 top-40 hits. His multiple Grammy wins include song and album of the year in 1978 for “Just the Way You Are.”

I’m an unabashed fan of Joel’s, the overplayed (and overwritten) “Piano Man” aside. The five slick studio albums — and one intriguing concert album — he put out between 1977 and 1983 showed that video had not yet killed the radio star.

After ’83 things were… not so good.

An Innocent Man was an instant classic. But we had to wait two long years until ’85 for the inevitable Greatest Hits collection, and its pair of underwhelming new singles tacked on at the end like an embarrassing afterthought. He still generated a couple hits from 1986′s The Bridge, which was so godawful he fired longtime producer Phil Ramone, then teamed up with Foreigner’s Mick Jones for Storm Front in 1989 with mixed results. His last album of new popular music, River of Dreams, was released 21 years ago. I gave it a full listen for the first time in years, and while it’s far from his best material, it’s aged better than the previous two albums. Sadly, it’s been a long time since I even gave up waiting for a new album.

His pre-Stranger albums were all fine, but definitely the work of a talented singer-songwriter who was still finding his voice.

But the middle period from 1977 to 1983… wow.

While the album covers all read “Billy Joel,” they might as well have had “The Billy Joel Band” printed on them. The band’s lineup during this period, touring and studio, was remarkably static. Liberty DeVitto on drums (has there ever been a better name for a drummer? Other than the Muppets’ Animal, I mean), Doug Stegmeyer on bass guitar, Richie Cannata on sax, and a small rotation of acoustic and electric guitar players, including Steve Khan, Hugh McKracken, and Russell Javors. And of course Joel on piano and keys. The biggest change in the lineup came in 1983, when Cannata was unceremoniously replaced by Mark Rivera. I heard a rumor years ago that Cannata was fired due to a drug problem, but can’t confirm that.

The albums were all solid creations, each with a sound all its own.

The Stranger was just a fine collection of pop ballads and twisted love songs, with a little rock’n'roll on the side. It’s one of those you can still listen to front to back, even though it’s been decades since we had to flip any vinyl. His followup, 1978′s jazz-infused 52nd Street, is so slickly produced that it’s easy to forget it’s actually a concept album, written from the point of view of a struggling young New York City musician. In 1980 Joel went pure New Wave with Glass Houses, the title of which was a rebuke to critics who considered him to be just a balladeer. That was followed in ’81 by a very unusual concert album, Songs In The Attic — a collection of songs he loved to perform but which had never been hits. The next year we got The Nylon Curtain, combining Beatlesque sounds with Talking Heads-like Cold War neuroses. Then his magnum opus, An Innocent Man, a tribute to the rock’n'roll of the late ’50s and early ’60s, with a sound that was still pure Billy Joel.

That’s a fine body of work for any writer of popular music, and Joel deeply deserves this award.

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All Comments   (12)
All Comments   (12)
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While I love the music, the album cover of Piano has always struck me as rather creepy.

His best album? Концерт.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Saw him perform at a concert at my college (Lehigh University, fall 1977, my freshman year). He puts on a great show. By the way, some of the side cuts on his pre-starnger albums are pretty good. I am a fan of both "the Mexican Connection" and "Root Beer Rag," a couple of instrumentals on Streetlife Serenade. He deserves the honor.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment

I must object to the characterization of "Piano Man" as overwritten--schmaltzy yes, sentimental yes, excessively dynamic yes--but that's because of the subject. The music perfectly captures the boozy, sentimental, temporary camaraderie of the bar "as the businessmen slowly get stoned".
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
I maintain there's a much better song to be found in there with a couple of rewrites.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment

From a technical point of view, I agree. A more spare version would be more pleasing to the ear.

However, from a poetic point of view, I must disagree.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
I didn't know a thing about Billy Joel because I lived overseas a long time, and music there was old or censored. But I heard one of his songs, that fit me to a "T" at one time in my life. There was one refrain that I played, loud, until the speakers in the Saab couldn't take it any more.

This resonated for me like you wouldn't believe: "You can speak your mind, But not on my time..."

Me, singing along, with the sun roof wide open:

I don't need you to worry for me cause I'm alright
I don't want you to tell me it's time to come home
I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life
Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone.

Ahhhhhh. The relief you get when you start standing up for yourself.

21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Not my cup of tea musically, but Root, you couldn't be more wrong. Songwriting talent like that is a rare gift.

PS: Mr Green, what do you mean by "overwritten"? ( For the record, I'm not a big fan of Piano Man, it is a little too schmaltzy for me)
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Liberty DeVitto is based out of Atlanta now, plays quite a few charity shows in town over the course of a given year.

He's, um, not a fan of Billy these days...
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
That man is living proof it takes no talent at all to be a pop star…

But to stay popular? For 40 years?

That’s where the real talent is. And it must be taxing as hell….I’ve always noticed the best novels I’ve read were typically first or early “breakout” works, where ideas and characters were probably decades in the making, bubbling and evolving until they explode in genuine, undeniable authenticity.

Same thing with musicians I suppose….So how do you sustain that?

Usually, you don’t. Like an Olympic Athlete that gives their all in that narrow window of opportunity when their bodies are at the age of peak performance…

Gold medal moments and quintisential live albums remembered forever as solitary moments of perfection, with little noted before or after "that".

Billy Joel was never my top favorite, but that’s just my taste. I will, however, put him in league with the likes of an Elton John, a Frank Sinatra, even Clapton or Bowie to some degree, as far as staying power, relevance, influence.

Dude is an impressive talent whether you like the sounds he makes or not.

"AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz" Gotta love the history lesson in that one!


21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
Even Cold Spring Harbor has some gems. The Hassles & Attila stuff (yes, I'm such a fan I hunted down those albums too) not so much.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
I hunted those down, too -- and yeah, "not so much."

And while a lot of stuff on Piano Man is overwritten (especially the title track), there are a few very solid cuts on there. I particularly like "Travelin' Prayer" and the obligatory adolescent self-absorption of "Captain Jack."
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Travelin' Prayer" is great song. I wish it had gotten more attention. I also love "The Entertainer", which kind of turns "Piano Man" on its head. In "Piano Man" he sings about being stuck in a dead end gig and in "The Entertainer" he complains about being a star. Great song though.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
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