Billy Joel

When Billy Joel Was Homework

We Didn't Start the FireIt’s been derided as one of the worst Billy Joel songs ever written, maybe even one of the worst ever, and when Christopher Bonanos of Vulture put it second to last in a comprehensive list of all of his songs*, he called it, “The biggest problem for the Billy Joel apologist, because it is so highly popular and inescapably bad.” But for me, a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is important—while Billy Joel was inadvertently summarizing the entire Cold War in three minutes, I was taking my first steps into the world of collecting music.

Released on September 27, 1989, the song, which was the first single off of Storm Front, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the weeks of December 9 and 16 of that year and came on the heels of his monstrous 1980s grand slam of An Innocent Man, Greatest Hits Volume I & II**, The Bridge, and the Russia tour. That prior success and the chart-topping first single helped Storm Front go quadruple platinum, outselling his prior studio album, something that’s impressive for what is half of a good album, although the singles, especially “The Downeaster Alexa”, “I Go to Extremes”, and “And So It Goes” have gotten many a replay over the years.

Of course, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” overshadows all of those. Its verses are laundry lists of events and people from his then forty years, which Bonanos trashes by saying, “So much is wrong here: boomer-generation narcissism, the tri-state area-news myopia (‘hypodermics on the shore?’ ‘Bernie Goetz’?), the iffy rhymes (‘James Dean’ with ‘winning team’ and many others), the double mention of the Dodgers.” But the appeal was the challenge of memorizing every single  reference, which while not as tough as, say, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., was still a task, especially since Joel was not known for his ability to enunciate and it was years before I realized that “Dien Bien Phu falls” was not prnounced “Din din foo falls.”

To do so, I would need a copy of the song and while I was content to wait until I heard it on the radio and had a tape ready to record, but fate intervened in the form of Saturday Night Live and my junior high school.

In late September, NBC aired a huge prime-time special to celebrate SNL’s 15th Anniversary (which I covered in episode 45 of the podcast). It was, as these shows tend to be, a huge retrospective of the characters, comedians, guests, and sketches from the show’s history, and just about everyone in my grade wound up watching it, or at least that is what I could tell from the number of times we repeated lines in class for weeks after. This ultimately led to the last time I ever really dressed up for Halloween—my friend Rich and I wore gray sweatpants and sweatshirts and weight belts and went as Hans and Franz.

The costumes were a hit and we won “Funniest costume”*** and a $25 gift certificate to Record World, a record store in the Sun Vet Mall that even in 1989, when mall record and tape stores were still important destinations for teenagers, seemed like a relic of the decade before. The décor was deep brown shelving with gold carpeting that might have at one time held years’ worth of nicotine tar. The cassettes were locked behind glass cases, and the disaffected employees working the register stood in a perch, nearly inapproachable. Think Empire Records, but with paneling. Rich and I walked in and almost immediately saw the cassingle for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, snatched it up, and then grabbed other tapes we were interested in. I can’t remember what else we got, but the minute I got home, that cassingle of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” went into constant rotation on the boom box with its partially broken antenna that sat on my bedroom dresser.

Later that winter, Rich and I, along with my sister, would set my parents’ camcorder up on the washing machine and record a music video of us lip syncing the song, using the mallets of a croquet set as guitars and microphones, which is something we’d been doing for a while****.  And while my peers and I had no context for the majority of the song, we belted out the lyrics and many of us had to research them.

Now, I was never asked to do a research project on one of the song’s many allusions, but more than a few of my friends were, and it’s even Bonanos writes that he didn’t place the song last in the list because it made him learn something.  I’m pretty sure that Joel didn’t intend to hand junior high teachers a lesson plan, but he did and even to this day, you can find online lessons available. Most of them haven’t changed much in 30 years—I don’t care if you add multimedia, you’re still looking up a song lyric and doing research. So whereas Boomers could wax nostalgic, their kids could be forced to learn about all of the important things in their generation’s lifetime. And for a generation as notoriously narcissistic as the Baby Boomers, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was perfect fuel for the nostalgia that had been started by American Graffiti, ramped up with The Big Chill, and was chugging along with The Wonder Years.

Over the years, Joel has been asked about adding extra verses to the song but has declined, which I can respect, because he doesn’t need to.  Future generations can take it upon themselves to follow it up, like Matchbox 20 did with “How Far We’ve Come”, a Gen-X spiritual sequel that has a similar sound (superimpose the final verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” over the song’s bridge, it fits perfectly) and a video that is flashes of events from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. And I guess it’s appropriate that a band whose Greatest Hits album is called Exile on Mainstream is paying tribute to an artist who practically defined mainstream during their youth.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was the first cassingle I ever bought.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a watershed moment. Up until that point tapes were something I flipped through as TSS while my mom was shopping***** and I only had the few that I put on birthday and Christmas lists–Thriller; Born in the U.S.A. (which I wore out and had to replace); and the soundtracks to Footloose, Over the Top, The Karate Kid Part II, and Top Gun.  Songs were something I heard on the radio and taped onto a blank cassette. As I made my way through junior high and then into high school, I’d start a music collection. And while my taste could be–and has often been–called into question, to this day I will still loudly proclaim, “Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!”

* Last on the list was “The Mexican Connection”, a piano instrumental off of Streetlife Serenade that isn’t bad per se but is certainly a very deep cut.

** At some point in the mid-1980s, just about every household on Long Island was issued a cassette copy of Greatest Hits I & II and I can imagine those cassette copies of the album circulate in the area’s garage sales like currency.

*** I remember someone yelling at me that it wasn’t fair because the prize was supposed to some guy named Emil who dressed in a toga and I honestly don’t remember why he didn’t get it but it just sticks out at one of many “You didn’t deserve this, loser” moments from my formative years.

**** A video that no longer exists because I threw the tape away years ago.

*****When I wasn’t staring at Samantha Fox posters.

Those Lights Were Bright on Broadway

Billy_Joel_-_TurnstilesIn the liner notes to his live album Songs in the Attic, Billy Joel writes that the performance of “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway” “demands the gothic reverberation of a vast railroad terminus, such as Madison Square Garden.” Of course, that’s a reference to Penn Station, which is underneath the Garden, the concert venue in which the song was performed. I’ve always loved this song and I consider the studio album from which it came–1976’s Turnstiles, an album that also includes “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Prelude/Angry Young Man”–to be one of his best albums.

Then again, that probably comes from a place of nostalgia and not any judgment of quality because Turnstiles was the first non-Greatest Hits Billy Joel album that I ever owned. I got it on cassette for my 13th birthday after having asked for a Billy Joel album, and my dad picked it out because of the songs he recognized on the cover (and possibly because the “nice Price” sticker meant that it would cost less than the average cassette. We went to Fire Island for a week that summer and because it was overcast and unseasonably cold, I spent most of my time in our hotel room reading what few comics I had brought with me (including a copy of Batman #439 that I bought at a drug store) and listening to this one tape that I had brought with me. That tape would stay with me for at least another fifteen years when my last Walkman finally died and I put everything on my iPod (I still have a handful of cassettes left–that, however, is a different story for a different day).

Of all of the songs I listened to, I would say that “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Miami 2017” were the two I listened to the most. Since the latter is the closing song onf the album, I would constantly rewind side B so that I could hear it over and over again.

Why, at 13, in 1990, was I listening to a Billy Joel album from the year before I was born and not the latest heavy metal/hard rock/rap album? I can’t explain it aside from saying that I was a kid from Long island who liked to play the piano. I can, however, explain why this song in particular resonated with me. It has two things that I love in a song: a story and it starts off soft and then gets loud before ending soft (this is one of the reasons I like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “American Pie,” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”).

the first thing you hear, even on the live cut (which is superior to the studio cut because Songs in the Attic really captures the energy of an MSG audience) is an air-raid siren. Then, there is the piano, which starts with some fast finger work and then goes into a rhythm that almost feels processional. This stays this way through the first verse:

I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway
i saw the Empire State lay low
and life went on beyond the Pallisades
They all bought Cadillacs and left there long ago.

They held a concert out in Brooklyn
To watch the island bridge blow
They turned our power down
And drove us underground
But we went right on with the show.

After that, the drums kick in and the music becomes defiantly more rock and roll. And what I appreciate about it is that even though there is a guitar part in there, Joel keeps letting the piano take the lead and uses the piano as the percussion instrument it is. Now, a person who has more academic prowess in music can probably argue against that, but what Joel is doing–and what Elton John often does–is really using the instrument to its potential and putting some muscle behind it.

And he deftly matches the music with the lyrics. The opening lines are written as if a man is reminiscing, and the line “And life went on beyond The Palisades” suggests how whatever happened in new York was isolated and everyone moved on, which if you think about it sounds like an apt description of the New York City of the 1970s and early 1980s. This is the time in which the city gained a reputation for being a hellhole and beyond its borders was derided as such if it wasn’t being ignored altogether.  Joel makes this point in the Songs in the Attic liner notes, saying, “1975–New York Daily News Headline–‘Ford to New York–Drop Dead’! (Remember Madrid–No Pasaran!) More science fiction now than then.  A legacy for my unborn grandchildren.”

Then we get to the plot of the story. Some sort of apocalyptic event happened and “they” literally blew up the bridges connecting Manhattan to Long island and in an act of rebellion, “we” held a concert in Brooklyn and kept playing even though the power was turned off. Of course, this could be a metaphor for an underground resistance because rock and roll has always been about rebellion on some level.

And there is carnage. Harlem burns, and things are overall destroyed. The lines about Brooklyn and the Yankees get huge applause from the New York crowd (of course) and while we never get the identity of who “they” are, we are told that whatever it was was an attack or a catastrophe. And I’d fault Joel for telling and not showing here, but if you think about it, this is the language that a person relating an event like this would use. There is always a “they” and we often employ euphemisms in place of very specific description. Despite that, we still have this sense of all of these things that happened and that at the end of it all when we look back a few decades later, there is nothing left.

more importantly, nobody remembers and we have to keep telling the story so that it doesn’t fade, which is what we see in the song’s finale:

You know those lights
Were bright on Broadway
That was so many years ago
Before we all lived here in Florida
Before the mafia
Took over Mexico.

There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
To tell the world about
The way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive.

What he is doing here is bearing witness–by telling the story, we keep the story alive, and while I guess you could say that there’s an odd prescience about the line about retiring to Florida (as so many of Joel’s generation have done) and the mafia taking over Mexico, I find that the most important part of this is the sentiment of continuing to tell the story and the idea of never forgetting.

Furthermore, the way this song is structured, it mirrors a flashback through a memory. When you have a memory like this triggered, it comes at you like a flash, and can crash down on you. So it’s not so much a story as it is a flood of moments that attack almost as literally as the event happened.  As Joel himself says, “Miami 2017” is a piece of science fiction in verse–and it’s an underrated one at that.  Because even though 1977 in New York City didn’t play out exactly like this, it wasn’t called “the hottest year in Hell” for nothing and there are still people who are around to reminisce and remind everyone of a time when walking through the crossroads of the world meant taking your life into your own hands.

Musical Biography or Archaeology?

The cover I made for "Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends," which I originally burned onto two CDs.  The idea for the cover came from a  timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

The cover I made for “Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends,” which I originally burned onto two CDs. The idea for the cover came from a timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but following up a song by The Weepies called “Can’t Go Back Now” with “Summer, Highland Falls” is kind of a definite statement.  The latter’s first lines are, “They say these are not the best of times/they’re the only times I’ve ever known.”  While I can’t confirm this, I am pretty sure I wrote that in a friend’s yearbook at the end of my senior year (or at least I was thinking of it).  It has always been one of my favorite songs and at the time I graduated high school, it fully encapsulated what I was feeling.

I’m pretty sure that is why it wound up on a playlist I made back in 2010 called “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends.”  Silly as it sounds, I put it together because at the time, I was fifteen years away from that day in late June of 1995 and the mix tape, at the time I was a teenager, was my preferred form of artistic expression.  if you were a girl I was dating (or a friend on whom I was crushing), you more than likely wound up with a 120-minute Maxell normal bias cassette that may or may not have had a custom label created using Arts & Letters, an ancient Windows 3.0 graphic design program.  Now, I’m not sure how many of those girls kept my tapes.  My wife did, but I think that’s because she never emptied them out of her car (a car, by the way, that I now drive to work every day).  But the old girlfriend whose relationship with me ended in utter disaster?  She probably torched them all the moment after I gave her one final goodbye over the phone (not my idea, mind you; she forced my hand).  And some of those other girls?  Part of me hopes that a copy of “The Last Worthless Mix Tape” is floating out there, playing in the old tape deck of someone who is feeling sentimental.

Which brings me to this five-year-old playlist that’s still on my iPod.  Like I said, I was hitting the fifteen-year mark and was feeling sentimental, so I began dragging and dropping songs into a playlist.  The phrase “long-lost friend” had been bouncing around my head for a while as had the idea of my having led a past life, or everyone I know having led a past life.  Because when you think about it, the people you are around on a daily basis have stories that are bigger than the one they have with you.  Or maybe I just notice this because it’s the curse of the writer’s mentality.  But the idea that everyone is interesting in a way, that there is always something to find out about them, is fascinating.

It seems completely pretentious to me try and encapsulate that in a mix, and looking at the song list, it probably could be at least five songs shorter.  It still would fit on a 120-minute cassette, but there are too many anthemic songs of youthful defiance (“We’ll Inherit The Earth,” “Death or Glory”) or aging punk anthems (“Scattered,” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) and the middle drags on through some very slow and soft folk pieces that don’t hold up (“See You Later, See You Soon,” “This is Me”).  But it was good enough to earn “permanent playlist” status.  Either that, or I was just too lazy to delete it, which is probably the more likely explanation as to why it has spent five years on my iPod.

Mix tapes seem to be this thing that is a part of my youth, whereas playlists are something you throw together because you want to listen to a variety of songs, often with the same rhythm or tone.  I make workout playlists (admittedly, I probably should start working out more often), Christmas music playlists, dinner music playlists, and even a breakfast playlist that is filled with French jazz and other brunchy music.  It’s all very adult because it serves a practical purpose, an extension of the tapes called “Tom’s Crap” that I used to make so that I had something to listen to on my Walkman or in my car.  Part of me shrugs at this, but part of me is saddened.

There was a point in my life where everything had meaning.  If I gave you a tape, it was because I wanted to say something or introduce you to something.  And no matter how crappy that tape was–and trust me, some of those tapes were crappy–I thought it was important.  “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends” was an attempt at making something important like that and also an attempt to hold on to the self-importance that comes with “meaning,” as if I am attempting to dispute the statement that Ally Sheedy so boldly makes in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

At seventeen, I believed her; at 37, I’ve come to realize she’s wrong.  You simply turn your focus elsewhere.  Adulthood is priorities and responsibility.  It’s not that I don’t want to sit and contemplate an entire album for an hour; it’s just that I don’t always have the time.  My geeking out happens amidst a flurry of multitasking and when I do get those moments to contemplate, I usually fall asleep in front of the television.

I’ve heard Billy Joel explain the meaning of “Summer, Highland Falls” as hitting that point in his life where he was starting to see the world for what its complexities.  Much of that playlist, if you look at several of the songs, is a similar contemplation but I don’t know if I was contemplating graduating high school as much as I was coming to terms with the onset of middle age.  At seventeen, I would have never put “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne on a mix tape (granted, I’m pretty sure that “Running on Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby” were the only Jackson Browne songs I knew), nor would I have considered Paul Simon essential listening.  If I was being contemplative or sentimental, I would have chosen 10,000 Maniacs, but mostly I would have gone for the bombast of Queen.

To be honest, I have thought about making a Twenty Years On mix.  I can’t decide if I would go for nostalgia or reflection, though.  Twenty years kind of dictates that I should throw together a collection of the Pearl Jam, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel that I listened to in a Big Chill soundtrack sort of way.  Being reflective would be more of what I did five years ago, which might be belaboring the point.

“Summer, Highland Falls” ends with a few lines that have always stuck with me:

How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness or euphoria

It’s a final statement worth a close examination.  If it is, as he says, the a moment of realizing that you’re getting older, it’s a perfect expression of that realization.  There’s no violent anger here, just acceptance and resignation.  Perhaps, even, there’s a bit of maturity.  Place this in the larger context of, say, looking at one’s own adulthood or having a moment of forced nostalgia like the anniversary of graduating high school, and the same ambiguity exists.  The bloom comes off the rose pretty easily when you really start thinking about all of it; thankfully, there are mix tapes, CDs, and playlists to help guide the way.