Like a lot of people who came of age in the 1970s, I became acquainted with Billy Joel through “Piano Man.”
In 1973, the album’s title track became Joel’s first hit — it peaked at No. 25 in the U.S. — and it was on the radio enough that it became embedded in my music recollections of the time.
“Piano Man” tells the sad-sack tale of barflies who hang out in a lounge taking solace in alcohol, one another’s company and the songs performed by the piano player who, like his customers, would rather be somewhere else.
I’d heard nothing else off that album or any other Billy Joel album. And I lumped “Piano Man” with several other hits released by story telling troubadours of that era, like “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi” by Harry Chapin and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.
I was listening to other songwriters like Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Jackson Browne. Joel was barely on my radar screen. He was only the guy who sang “Piano Man.”
Then in 1977, he released “The Stranger.” It became his most successful album, selling in excess of 10 million copies, and Joel became a pop superstar.
Joel comes to mind now because he will be in town Friday for a show at the Sprint Center. It will be the third or fourth time I’ve seen him, either solo, with a band or dueling with Elton John. Joel’s live shows have always been entertaining. He’s talented and funny and has enough crusty charm to qualify as charismatic.
And as I have every time he comes to town, I’ve rediscovered that Billy Joel can be an oddly divisive figure in pop music.
Google “Billy Joel” and “hate” and these headlines pop up: “The Awfulness of Billy Joel Explained,” from Slate magazine; “Why does the Internet hate Billy Joel?”; “How I stopped hating and learned to love Billy Joel”; “I hate Billy Joel”; and, from the Onion, “Why do we hate Billy Joel?,” which was a bar graph that stated the top two reasons for that loathing were the songs “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”
The Slate piece was written by author Ron Rosenbaum, who conducts a critical analysis of the songs on Joel’s greatest hits collection, though he does so with some reluctance: “He’s been subject to withering contempt from hipster types for so long that it no longer seems worth the time.”
Rosenbaum’s critiques are withering, as well. He asserts that Joel’s main offense is the “unearned contempt” in his lyrics: “Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.”
He goes on to support his thesis with blow-by-blow analyses of Joel’s most popular songs, for example, calling “She’s Always a Woman” a “lame imitation of Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman.’”
But Joel’s woman is also the object of his contempt, Rosenbaum writes. She is “prone to ‘casual lies,’ ‘steals like a thief,’ ‘takes care of herself’ and ‘carelessly cuts you and laughs …’ Poor B.J., recycling every misogynist cliche in the book.”
It has never crossed my mind to bring Dylan into any analysis of Billy Joel; they approach songwriting from two very different places. But Rosenbaum’s piece and some of the others on that “hate” list made me consider for the first time Joel’s stature as a songwriter, his place among the greats.
I’m indifferent to a lot of Joel’s material, though I think “The Stranger” was an ace record, start to finish, and the best of his career. It still holds up.
I love the melody to “Vienna” and still fall for the lyrical zeal of “Only the Good Die Young” and for the ever-shifting music landscape in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” a mix of pop, jazz and rock. The record is populated with characters and filled with vignettes and stories about lives in various stages of change, bliss or duress. It resonates.
Beyond “The Stranger,” my appreciation for his songwriting is piecemeal, a song here and there from various albums — the hits, mostly — but few after the solid “Glass Houses” album, with its opening romp, “You May Be Right,” still a favorite.
Rosenbaum’s beef is that in many of Joel’s best songs, the singer is looking down his nose at someone, even going back to “Piano Man”: “You can hear Joel’s contempt, both for the losers at the bar he’s left behind in his stellar schlock stardom and for the ‘entertainer-loser’ (the proto-B.J.) who plays for them.”
Like this line: “And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, man, what are you doing here?”
He has a point: There is contempt — implied or explicit — in many of Joel’s songs.
In “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” he’s annoyed with fads and changing fashions. It’s a trite message but it’s set to a rollicking rhythm and sweet melody. Likewise, in “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” he dumps scorn on the artifice of celebrity.
But I’ve never thought lyrics were the salient point of Joel’s music. I thought the music itself was. When you write ditties like the bubbly “Uptown Girl,” the fetching melody and groove seem to be the point, not incisive lyrics.
An avid Beatles fan, Joel has always been more Paul McCartney than John Lennon or George Harrison. And unlike Randy Newman or Warren Zevon, Joel doesn’t mess with satire or irony. He’d never write a song like Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” or Newman’s “Rednecks” or “Short People.”
His style is more literal and direct.
But like both of those songwriters, Joel can be sophisticated musically. “An Innocent Man” is one of his most popular albums, selling 7 million copies and yielding seven singles. It didn’t resonate with me like “The Stranger” did, but it’s an impressive tribute to the music that influenced Joel as he was growing up, and it exhibits his command of several music styles.
In his essay “How I Stopped Hating and Learned to Love Billy Joel,” posted on BuzzFeed in 2012, Sean T. Collins explains his change of mind, once he started appreciating the strengths of Joel’s songwriting.
“He never spends a section of a song phoning it in,” he wrote. “Bridges and middle-eights aren’t filler (please pay attention, indie rock bands of today who barely even bother with them), they’re a chance to cram another hook in there or to shift musical gears or to work in lyrics that don’t fit in the meter of the rest of the song.”
Collins then uses “The Longest Time,” Joel’s homage to doo-wop on “Innocent Man,” as an example: “Joel’s ability to keep all his songwriting plates spinning was already evident with his multitracked backing vocals — I think this was the first song where I memorized the harmony before the melody — but the bridge sections are the best part of the song.”
Forty-two years after he released “Piano Man,” Joel has flourished into one of the most decorated and successful songwriters in pop music. In 1999, Ray Charles inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And in the past two years, Joel has been the recipient of the Kennedy Center and George Gershwin Popular Song prizes. He may not be as revered as some of his peers, but his work certainly deserves more respect than it does scorn.
Longtime music critic Robert Christgau also reviewed one of Joel’s greatest-hits packages when it was released in 1985. Joel, he said, is “pure Tin Pan Alley, George M. Cohan if not Irving Berlin for a self-conscious, neoprimitive age.”
He then put Joel’s career into this perspective: “He’s pretentious, but never pious — going for the pop jugular is all he knows. The worst you can say about him is that half the time his aim isn’t perfect.”
And what’s to hate about that?
Billy Joel performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Sprint Center. Tickets are $17.50 to $125.50.