Friday, February 03, 2006

Bad Billy


I have loved the music of Billy Joel since I first heard 52nd street. I was 7 years old. He became one of the cornerstones of my musical history, the others being the Beatles, Carol King, and Jimmy Buffett. All immensely talented singer-songwriters with a knack for melody, harmony and meaningful lyrics.

But something was special about Billy; Unlike the other artists (with the possible exception of The Beatles) I remained a big fan of Billy on into my adulthood. Though he was from my parents generation, something about his working class and down to earth approach struck a chord with me. (Pun intended.)

I saw him in concert on many occasions. I rode along with the millions of fans with the popular "Innocent Man" and "Storm Front" albums. But I also stuck with him in his less commercially successful works like "The Bridge" and what I consider his two best albums, "The Nylon Curtain" and "River of Dreams." (Of course I say less successful, but these were all platinum records.)

It was in 1993 that he came out with what was to be his last pop album. Now it's been 12 years, and I have become a long suffering Billy Joel fan. He has been writing loads of classical music, and even put out a record of the stuff. Music so classical in form that he had to have an actual classical pianist play it. Not exactly accessible pop music.

But also during this time I have discovered his pop music anew on various occasions, especially his last three records. I have learned that even so called bad Billy Joel music, is really quite excellent. A track like "When In Rome" that seems like a throwaway, a light and frothy tune on first listen, actually gains resonance with me as I get older. Plus it's snappy.

"The Bridge" is probably his most dated music - the production values are very much a part of the 80's, but the lyrics are perhaps his most meaningful. Tracks like "This is the Time" and "Code of Silence" are newfound favorites of mine.

And yet, I, and I imagine millions of others, am hungering for something new. Well, it still hasn't arrived - but we do now have an enormous box set filled with rare and obscure recordings. "My Lives" chronicles Billy's earliest days to the end of the Shelter Island sessions in 1993.

Disregard the handful of previously released album tracks sprinkled over the discs, I have no idea why they are included. Billy has become notorious recently for re-releasing rehashes of the same old greatest hits. Thankfully, the bulk of this box set contains never before heard material and most of his b-sides. It is, for a fan, absolutely essential.

Highlights for me include tracks that are earlier incarnations of songs, often they are superior to the final polished version - such as the fantastic piano heavy "Prime of Your Life" which is actually an early version of the acapella "For the Longest Time." I know the latter is a fan favorite, but I can't get over the finger work on the former.

I also love getting great recordings of his B-Sides; Of note, "Elvis Presley Blvd." and "The House of Blue Light" are Billy at his bluesiest, - catchy but decidedly un-pop songs that were relegated to the backsides of 45 vinyl until now.

And in those songs is really the greatest strength of this collection; this is ultimately -Billy Joel unpolished. A lot of these tracks are demos, so you get a sense that Billy is just really enjoying himself, instead of doing what he usually does, trying so hard that it hurts. He knows that this isn't the final product, so he has fun. And it really comes through, as some of the most joyous, kick ass stuff that he's ever done.

As far as I can decipher from the documentary "Shades of Grey" - the original intent for Billy's last album was to do a record called "Road House" that was somewhat blues centered and more raw sounding. Billy recorded the songs mostly live with his band out on Shelter Island, and he intended to produce the disc himself. The result was a session of the most natural sounding, uncommercial, and what I know had to be the best sounding Billy ever. Unfortunately, that album never surfaced.

Billy went back into the studio and redid the songs, along with a few new ones, under the guidance of a "professional" producer -and came out with another slick record. A very good record, again loaded with lyrical powerhouses, especially the title track "River of Dreams," but not the free and easy, bluesy and ballsy Shelter Island sound.

This collection, for all purposes, is that sound. From the late 60's, to just over a decade ago; it is Billy Joel at his most honest. And therefore, I think, at his best.

He is still touring regularly, and there have been tiny hints at a new pop album in the works. I hope he trusts himself enough to produce it on his own - the raw demos in this box set prove that Billy Joel is at his most powerful when he is unfiltered.

1 comment:

crippe said...

i was practically raised on Glass Houses. Never got too much into the newer stuff, but hearing You May be Right or Sleeping With the Television On really brings back the memories.