Billy Joel: Still a Stranger
Lately I've been listening a lot to the 30th anniversary edition of Billy Joel's The Stranger, which like every other Billy Joel album is remembered more for its singles than being a unified artistic statement. But since an incredible two-thirds of the record still gets played on the radio in this county every single day, even the most ardent Billy Joel hater might be surprised by how well they know The Stranger. "Just The Way You Are," "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)", "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," "Only The Good Die Young," "She's Always A Woman," and, of course, "The Stranger" originate here. The Stranger isn't just an album, it's virtually a greatest hits record.
I've been listening to Billy Joel pretty much my entire life. I was born the same year The Stranger was released–it was even the same month, September--so my life began at the exact moment that Joel's life as a world-beating hitmaker also commenced. As a kid I liked Billy Joel a lot, but I never gave him much thought. Billy Joel was just a fact of life, like my school or Republican presidents, and therefore not worth questioning. Now whenever I listen to Billy Joel I think about the awesome Chuck Klosterman essay "Every Dog Must Have His Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink" from Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, the one where he makes a case for Billy Joel being one of the best artists of the late '70s and early '80s. Now I ponder Billy Joel far more than any sane human not named Billy Joel should.
The "thing you think sucks is actually great" essay is a popular among pop culture writers. (I've written one or two few myself.) But Klosterman's pro-Joel screed is probably the best one I've ever read. In typical Klosterman fashion, he likes Joel for the precise reason a lot of people hate him: he's not cool. "If cool was a color, it would be black–and Billy Joel would be sort of burnt orange," he writes. Klosterman goes on to argue that "every one of Joel's important songs–even the happy ones–are about loneliness," and that his best material sounds like suicide notes. "It's almost as if Joel's role in the musical experience is just to create a framework that I can place myself into; some of Raymond Carver's best stories do the same thing." Citing Raymond Carver is an interesting defense for a guy who once allowed one of his songs to be used as the theme for Bosom Buddies, but Klosterman is pretty damn convincing.
Klosterman recycled his essay for a profile of Joel that ran in The New York Times Magazine in 2002. Only this time he made the mistake of talking to "dean of American rock critics" Robert Christgau, who dismantled Klosterman's argument in two quick paragraphs. "If he wanted to be a humble tunesmith–a 'piano man' if you will–he would be a lot better off. But he's not content with that You don't see Celine Dion complaining about a lack of critical respect, and she's a lot worse than Billy Joel. But she doesn't care. Billy Joel cares deeply about that respect, and he wants it bad."
I'm guessing I like Billy Joel a lot more than Christgau does, but he's absolutely right. Back when Joel was regularly making albums guaranteed to produce at least three Top 10 singles–not to mention sleeping with Christie Brinkley every night–he would read his bad reviews on stage and angrily rip them to shreds in front of tens of thousands fans. Incredibly, even after he earned the affections of millions of people who slow danced to "Just The Way You Are" at their weddings and sang along with drunken strangers to "Piano Man," Joel felt unappreciated. He didn't get one of the most head-slappingly obvious facts of existence: Any artist, no matter how poorly regarded in critical circles, is way more important than any music writer. I could write "Nickelback blows!" blog posts every day of the year, and it wouldn't change the fact that Chad Kroeger can pull into any town in the world and draw 20,000 people to the local arena. Kroeger knows this makes every Nickelback-bashing critic completely irrelevant, and he's an idiot. I hope Joel has come around now that he's in semi-retirement, but I'm guessing probably not.
There's a telling moment in the making-of documentary that comes with The Stranger where Joel talks about almost leaving "Just The Way You Are"–which he dismisses as "a chick song"–off the record. "Just The Way You Are," of course, was Joel's big breakthrough single, and along with "Piano Man" and "New York State Of Mind" it's one of his signature songs. Leaving "Just The Way You Are" off The Stranger would have been like Kurt Cobain deciding to leave that catchy Pixies rip-off song whose name escapes me at the moment off of Nevermind. It's the kind of blunder that could have sent Joel back to playing piano bars permanently.
And I'm pretty sure it's bullshit. Joel had been trying to make a go of a career in show business since he was 14; he was 28 when he made The Stranger, and if the record hadn't hit his label probably would have dropped him. Clearly this was a guy who needed a hit record badly, and I simply don't believe that he wrote a song as commercial as "Just The Way You Are" by accident. I suppose it's possible that he made a record with a cruise ship-made melody, muzak mamba beat, and yacht rock sax solo and was surprised it sounded like a wedding song instead of the Sex Pistols. But given Joel's indestructible knack for pop-rock songcraft, it's more likely he knew exactly what he was doing and was simply (and wrongly) embarrassed about it in retrospect.
Joel's lack of comfort in his own skin makes him annoying to smart people like Christgau, but it's what makes him fascinating and endearing to dopes like me. Being a person who feels awkward and insecure during pretty much every waking hour, I can relate to a guy who wears leather jackets and chain-smokes during piano recitals at Carnegie Hall. Joel is my favorite kind of artist, the "glass half-empty success," a guy who has made it in every possible way except by his own standard. The Stranger is the epitome of the '70s superstar record, an album like Rumours, Hotel California, or Boston that sells millions and turns practically every cut into a classic rock staple. But it's also a failure in the same way every Billy Joel record is a failure–it didn't earn him any street cred. Listening to The Stranger three decades later that hardly seem to matter. I hope Billy Joel feels the same way some day.