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Billy Joel in Winter

It's been 20 years since the Piano Man has released an album of new songs. Has that been good for his legacy?

In December, Billy Joel performed six songs at the 12.12.12 benefit concert for Hurricane Sandy victims at Madison Square Garden, and it was kind of a big deal. At the height of his pop-star fame in the ’70s and ’80s — when a string of hit albums secured him access to the figureheads of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue’s gilded age (including Elle Macpherson and future ex-wife Christie Brinkley) and widespread admiration for his bold and possibly crazy pro–”riding motorcycles in the rain” stance — Joel could regularly be seen playing for arenas full of people. And you could also see him attempting to dance and/or play guitar credibly on MTV every single day. But at the 12.12.12 concert, Joel was like a retiree stopping by the office for a quick visit before his morning coffee run. Outside of a stray appearance here and there, including cameos at Paul McCartney’s Yankee Stadium concerts in 2011, Joel had not commanded the public’s attention on a big, important stage in many years. Before his recent hip-replacement surgery, Joel wasn’t sure if he’d ever play live again. “Honestly, I’m not as good as I used to be,” he recently told Rolling Stone.

If only Billy could’ve seen my Twitter feed during the 12.12.12 telecast. I follow dozens of music critics, and it seemed like nearly all of them were flooding their social-media platforms that night with catty comments about the overwhelmingly geriatric bill. Whether it was Bruce Springsteen’s overcooked preacher shtick, Roger Waters’s stoic sleepiness, or Roger Daltrey’s sagging naked chest, it was an all-out classic-rock turkey shoot — except for Joel. The sea of snark miraculously parted for him. Here is a guy whom music scribes have historically gone out of their way to slag; even now, a couple of decades removed from his prime, Billy Joel still inspires an unprovoked hatchet job every now and again. And yet this wretched hive of cynics and grumps was stumping on behalf of the Piano Man with unbridled enthusiasm.

It might’ve helped that this Billy Joel didn’t look like the old Billy Joel. A viewer casually flipping through the channels might’ve mistaken him for a musically inclined Atlantic City pit boss winging it through an inexplicably high-profile rendition of “Movin’ Out.” Unlike most of his contemporaries onstage that night, Joel made no attempt to hide his age; he was, as 63-year-old Long Islanders often are, pleasantly plump and severely bald, with a salty goatee sprinkled lightly on the lower half of his hulking mug. Joel also acted his age. He did not surround himself with the youngsters from Nirvana like Paul McCartney did; he did not attempt to reestablish his virility like Daltrey. He merely sat behind his keyboard and played some very old songs very, very well.1

Inspired partly by his improved health — as well as, it’s safe to assume, the positive reaction to the 12.12.12 performance2 — Joel is taking tentative steps toward touring again. This month, he will travel to Australia to play a concert for 50,000 people as a warm-up for a Stateside appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Joel has also talked about doing shows in major U.S. cities where he’d play entire albums front-to-back, the trendy concert format du jour for aging rockers. What he won’t be doing is putting out a new album anytime soon. “I don’t have any new material,” he told Rolling Stone. “But I realized that if I play older material that has never been heard before, like an album track or an obscure song, that’s almost the same as doing a new song. I just don’t want to be an oldies hack where I’m just playing songs everybody is familiar with.”

The line between “oldies hack” and “curator of his own back catalogue” is getting blurrier all the time for Joel, who is alone among his rock star peers in his refusal to produce anything new in the twilight years of his career. Joel hasn’t released a pop record since 1993’s River of Dreams. His only collection of original compositions since then, 2001’s Fantasies & Delusions, was a classical music LP. In 2007, he released a single, “All My Life,” as well as a song called “Christmas in Fallujah” performed by a New Jersey singer-songwriter named Cass Dillon. And then there are the approximately 139 live LPs and greatest-hits compilations attempting to fill the gap.

Whenever the subject of writing new pop tunes has come up in the past 20 years, Joel’s responses have been remarkably consistent. He says he’s no longer interested in working in a pop-rock milieu. While he still hears melodies in his head,3 he is satisfied with confining them to his so-called “inner radio.” This is partly because he now regards writing lyrics as a chore. “It’s like painting a mustache on my already finished painting,” was how he put it to Howard Stern in 2010.

The conventional wisdom among music critics and smart culture thinkers is that an artist has to keep creating to stay relevant. But Billy Joel has stayed relevant — if he put out a new album next week, it would almost certainly debut at no. 1, and the support tour would surely rank among the year’s highest-grossing — by not creating. For two decades, Joel’s discography has remained essentially unchanged; what’s different is the context in which that music is now heard. When Billy Joel was Public Enemy No. 1 among rock critics, he suffered in comparison to Springsteen in part because the artists were likened on Springsteen’s terms. Springsteen consciously presented himself as part of rock’s folk-based tradition, a link in a chain that included Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan. Billy Joel came from the opposite tradition; he was pop, a descendent of the corporate song factories that secretly powered ’50s and early-’60s rock and roll. When he tried to traverse Springsteen’s cool-guy rocker turf, he resembled an off-brand, helmet-haired Elvis Costello (though the tunes were usually crackerjack).

Twenty years ago, Springsteen and Joel represented opposing sides in a debate — “authenticity” vs. “artifice” — that formed the crux of nearly every conversation about popular music. Today, this dialogue has been marginalized to the point of virtual silence. Hating Billy Joel is no longer a meaningful act; at best, it suggests that you’re the sort of person who’s actively annoyed by things that most people tend to like or at least tolerate.4 But it doesn’t register as an aesthetic choice in a larger cultural argument, because most people have long since checked out of the discussion. And this has helped how Billy Joel’s music is perceived. Joel’s strengths — his accessibility, his knack for romantic balladry, his understated versatility in adapting to different songwriting and production styles — are no longer held against him. As far as Billy Joel’s legacy is concerned, staying put has been the next best thing to dying.

Billy Joel
The timeline of your life is broken. Sift through the data of your past, and you’ll find things get jumbled. Friends from one period of time find their way into the same memories as friends from another. Events are unmoored and sent floating toward the wrong mental harbors. I feel this happening as I listen to River of Dreams, only the juxtapositions in my brain that seem wrong are actually correct. Dreams came out in August ’93, and if I didn’t buy the record the week it came out I surely picked it up shortly afterward. One month later, Nirvana released In Utero, and I know for a fact that I made my mom drive me to Best Buy so I could purchase it immediately.

No matter how strange it might seem now that Billy Joel’s midlife-crisis record and Kurt Cobain’s late-career crisis record were rattling in my 16-year-old brain at roughly the same time, I couldn’t have been the only person on the planet experiencing this. As practically every other star of his generation (including Springsteen) stumbled during the grunge era, Joel’s commercial success continued unabated: River of Dreams debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard chart, and eventually sold 5 million copies. The title track was a top-five hit. In accordance with Grammy law, River of Dreams was nominated for Album of the Year, along with R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, the Bodyguard soundtrack, Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad, and Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales. (The Bodyguard won.)

Billy Joel fans tend not to place River of Dreams among his best albums; personally, I check out of Joel’s catalogue after 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, though I’m amenable to defenders of An Innocent Man. After that, it’s generally accepted that 1986’s The Bridge, 1989’s Storm Front,5 and River of Dreams represent a downward dip in Joel’s creative arc, even if those records sold really well. This is where Joel moved from story songs and singer-songwriter pop to anthems of social consciousness and arena rock.6 Overt seriousness was impinging upon his songs; in a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Joel referred to River of Dreams as his “most personal body of work,” as opposed to the mere records he made before.

I find Joel’s ’70s albums to be clearly superior to his ’80s albums,7 but I’d take any ’80s record over River of Dreams. Many of the songs (particularly “The Great Wall of China” and “Shades of Grey”) are informed by Joel’s bitterness over getting ripped off financially by his former manager. Others (like “All About Soul”) are bland odes to middle-aged contentment. The Amy Fisher references in Dreams‘s de facto “political” song, “No Man’s Land,” speak to the album’s shelf life. Or they would if River of Dreams hadn’t been Joel’s last (for now) pop album. What saves Dreams from oblivion is Joel’s subsequent silence, which has made this record seem more significant than it probably deserves.8

Let’s say Billy Joel’s career after Dreams had proceeded like those of other aging rockers. Here’s a guess of how this imaginary portion of his discography might’ve unfolded: In the late ’90s, he releases an Unplugged album of big-band standards (his “anti-grunge record”); the early ’00s inspire his version of The Rising (his “9/11 record”); a few years after that he collaborates with Fats Domino and Dr. John for a piano-player version of the Three Tenors (his “Hurricane Katrina record”); and then he makes the “back to basics” album in an attempt to replicate the best parts of Turnstiles, The Stranger, and 52nd Street (his “produced by Rick Rubin record”). If all of those albums actually existed, I doubt his 12.12.12 appearance would have resonated, or that it would suddenly be acceptable to name-check Glass Houses deep cuts on reputable blogs. What was previously missing from appraisals of Joel’s music — a sympathetic perspective — only exists because he prematurely ended his recording career.

I don’t mean to suggest that iconic musicians should stop writing new songs to help their reputations. Last month, David Bowie broke a 10-year silence by releasing a new album, The Next Day. It’s not the best Bowie album (or the 10th-best), but I’m glad it exists, if only because “66-year-old David Bowie” is another interesting persona for David Bowie to exercise on a record. But if I may point out the thunderously obvious: Billy Joel is not David Bowie. His persona has always been the same; it’s the culture around him that’s changed.

At this point, “New York State of Mind” is accepted as a standard that’s beyond reproach. Like Joel’s other signature songs — it forms a triptych with “Piano Man” and “Just the Way You Are” — he arguably sounds better singing “New York State of Mind” as an old man, since the weariness of the text and the loungey nature of the music suits a person who’s been around the block a few hundred times. This also makes Billy Joel different from his contemporaries, at the 12.12.12 concert and elsewhere: He doesn’t have to re-create his younger self to make his songs work the way they’re supposed to — his music has always been a little old-fashioned. Even as a young man, Billy Joel was a lovably unsexy guy in his early 60s.

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden