The Curious Case of William Joel

Billy Joel represents a unique case in the history of pop music: an extremely popular, successful musician who quit in what could reasonably called his popular prime, and didn’t come back.

Joel walked away after 1993’s River of Dreams, his 12th studio album. He pronounced his retirement from pop music, and promised to devote his time to composing classical music, purportedly his first love. And goddamnit if he didn’t stick to his word.

Rock stars, or pop stars, or whatever you want to call Mr. Joel, don’t just quit. Bands break up, sure, but bands are comprised of disparate personalities and friction. Stars, successful musicians, don’t ever leave. They may take vacations, they may go on sabbatical, but they always come back.

Not Billy.

Oh sure, he’s still around. Billy Joel needs money, in the way that rich people do. So there are tours, and repackaged greatest hits albums, and live albums, and tours with Elton John, and licensing deals, and DVDs. But there’s no new pop music. Not for almost twenty years. And it looks for all the world like Joel is going to stick to his word, and that River of Dreams was his farewell.

All the above product can’t be disguised as art in any form. Everything Joel does now is a blatant money grab. He looks bored in concerts, and picks from the same pool of 30 songs every night — this despite possessing a deep and varied catalog of material. But hey, the fans want to hear “You May Be Right.” Again. And they’re the ones paying $150 a ticket, so you better oblige them. Jeff Giles at PopDose picks apart the problems with the new “Live at Shea Stadium” DVD, and does it from the perspective of a disappointed fan, not a snarky critic.

And that’s what I am too a disappointed, perplexed, fascinated fan. Why did Billy Joel go away and not come back? Now, Joel plans to release a memoir. No, thank you.

It’s easy to understand why Joel thinks an autobiography is a good idea (aside from the money). His personal life has always been tied to his songs, and fans have followed Joel through heartbreaks, betrayals and successes. “Just the Way You Are” is about his first wife. “Uptown Girl” is obviously about his courtship with modern-day-Guinevere Christie Brinkley. “Great Wall of China” is about his manager stealing a ton of cash from him. Some of these songs are cringe-inducing at the time, in part because we know too much of the backstory going in, and in part because the more personal the song, the more ham-handed Joel’s lyrics become.

But faults aside, this is how we know Joel’s story. At least through 1993 and the divorce with Brinkley. Now we’re going to be told the rest of it in prose. Presumably, in tortured, regular-guy prose with a lot of New York-isms thrown in. As an unapologetic Joel fan, this is now what I want. I want another album. Not of instrumentals, or classical tunes, or covers, or live versions of 35-year-old songs. A full album of pop songs.

You could argue that this desire proves Joel’s retirement was successful — that he walked away at the perfect time, and left us wanting more. That he’s Sandy Koufax, and doesn’t want to become Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform. The problem is that he already is Jordan in a Wizards uniform, or Evander Holyfield fighting through his 40th concussion. Even if he’s not releasing new music, Joel is still in the public eye and still tarnishing his image.

It fills me with sadness that when most people think of Billy Joel, they don’t think of “Only the Good Die Young” or “Tell Her About It.” They think of car crashes, and alcohol, and three divorces. They think of his irreparably sad, broken eyes. Even Elton John is concerned about him.

But even if I want Joel to release new material and distract his public from his fall from grace, it’s not going to happen. At least not until another round of addiction/divorce leaves his in debt so steep a live album won’t fix it. Billy withdrew. And while I may selfishly want new Billy Joel songs in my life, I can’t blame him for folding his hand when he did. Nor can I really figure out why he did it, other than some sort of all-encompassing depression.

Because Joel sand his life story in three-minute bursts, and because he’s such a populist, it’s logical to look for clues in his work that might help us understand why he unexpectedly retired.

Joel is like one of those common one-syllable words that you suddenly realize feels really weird on your tongue, and looks really strange in print. He is at once familiar and unreachable, conventional and bizarre, mediocre and brilliant. It’s easy to think we know him based on his persona and biggest hits, but he has some stunningly angry, bitter and self-loathing songs in his arsenal.

As I said, Joel wasn’t far from his commercial peak when he quit, and he wasn’t that far from his creative peak either. River of Dreams doesn’t contain any out-and-out classics, but of its ten songs, six are keepers and only two are embarrassingly awful (the aforementioned “Great Wall of China” and “Blonde over Blue” — about how a pretty girl can effectively combat depression). That’s a solid ratio for Joel, and one that can match all but his very best albums (The Stranger & 52nd Street).

He wasn’t washed up. So why did he go? He closed his last album with the song “Famous Last Words”:

And these are the last words I have to say
Before another age goes by
With all those other songs I’ll have to play
But that’s the story of my life

And it’s so clear standing here where I am
Ain’t that what justice is for?
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn anymore

More than anything, he just sounds tired. Perhaps the rage that fueled him for all those years, the vitriol and vinegar that led to songs like “Everybody Loves You Now,” and “Angry Young Man” — maybe it just ran out. And maybe there was nothing underneath it.

Joel’s probably best known for love songs, but they never drove him. They always seemed like afterthoughts. The anger — whether it was directed inward, at women and friends, or at society (“Allentown”) — sparked the creativity. That emotion was still there on River of Dreams (seen most clearly in “No Man’s Land”), but in songs like “Famous Last Words” and “Shades of Grey” you can almost hear the balloon deflating.

Billy Joel was an angry young man, and without the anger, he wasn’t an artist anymore.

I want that guy back. I want this guy back. He’s not coming back.

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1 Comment

Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “The Curious Case of William Joel

  1. Dominik

    Almost three years later, and indeed, he didn’t come back :-) Billy Joel is a man of his word, you gotta give him that…he’s probably afraid of his own back catalog, it would be pretty hard for him to live up to his past albums..but hell, if David Bowie could do it, Billy can do it, too!

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