Tag Archives: streetlife serenade

The Piano Man: Billy Joel’s flops

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Cold Spring Harbor Released November, 1971

Recorded July, 1971 at Record Plant Studios, Los Angeles, CA and Ultrasonic Recording Studios, Hempstead, NY

Length 33:07 (original) 29:53 (reissue)

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Streetlife Serenade Released October 11, 1974

Recorded 1974, Devonshire Sound, North Hollywood, CA

Length 37:41

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Turnstiles Released May, 1976

Recorded Ultrasonic Recording Studios, Hempstead, NY January, 1976

Length 34:18

In honor of my pal Scot Eric’s birthday this week and my upcoming visit with Mr. Joel at the Yum! Center, here’s a return visit to his early work. Again, maybe everyone else is already on top of these, but I keep coming back to them as examples of a great artist in his infancy.

Infancy? Yes and no. Billy Joel, late of the Bronx, had already been a kid boxer and a member of more than a handful of bands when he released his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor. With some country tinges, lots of early-1970s organ, and a studio full of session men, Billy took his first crack at following in the footsteps of his heroes, much like other somewhat local boys were doing around the same time; it wouldn’t be long before Bruce would be named the future of rock and roll, Brian Setzer was tuning up in Massapequa, and down in the Village an army of freaks and geeks were ready to explode from CBGB.

But this is Billy’s turn. Songs in the Attic was Billy’s attempt to jumpstart interest in the lost gems from his earlier discs, and in several ways it worked; “She’s Got a Way” continues to turn up on AOR radio and the epics “Miami 2017” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” get some love occasionally. When they were released, though…well, the charts do not lie. Nobody cared about CSH. When Piano Man came out two years later, everyone had always been a Billy Joel fan, even though they then skipped the next two albums and gave him some of the grist for “The Entertainer.” Then came The Stranger, with “Only The Good Die Young,” “Just The Way You Are,” “She’s Always a Woman,” and rock superstardom, immortality yadda yadda yadda. I love that Billy too, but let’s turn back the clock.

Billy Joel’s songs are yearning, exhausted, dissatisfied, searching, innocent. His keyboard skills are in evidence from the first album and consistently astounding. My appreciation was deepened by a good friend in junior and high school who later turned his back on “all that New York sound,” and I continue to listen to his catalog. It’s endlessly inviting, intelligent, richly musical, and varied in ways that many artists never are. Maybe it’s because his work is piano-based; Elton John’s work is similarly diverse, compared to, say, Tom Petty or John Mellencamp, whose work usually originates from guitar.

I can’t claim to have bought these records when they first came out; I was pretty damn young even for the last of them, and not really his target audience at the time. Still, as I heard his later stuff and live versions of some of these tunes, and came to understand where his sound and style came from, I picked them up and felt like I had opened a magic window to music most people ignored. From the beginning, he was a great entertainer and storyteller. Billy himself has all but disowned CSH; in my opinion, some of the songwriting and singing is as good as he ever got. Just because you look at the world differently with older eyes doesn’t make your earlier, innocent observations less valid. CSH is filled with songs that are perfect for a wedding; a single voice and piano, honest emotion, painfully beautiful melodies—it’s what Jim Brickman wishes he could do, after years of practice, and Billy did it when he had barely turned 21.

The album has a tortured history, apparently mixed at the wrong speed so the entire thing is a half-step too high. Billy hated his voice’s sound on the release. After his success, the label’s owner released a version at the proper speed but otherwise butchered, as you can tell from the discrepancy in track times. The album constitutes a wonderful song cycle of first love.

“She’s Got a Way” – 2:49 (2:40 Original LP) Maybe you’ve heard this one. Sometimes played in concert, sometimes a live version shows up on the radio. To me, it was one of several potential singles, and in leadoff position the label must have thought so too. It’s a ballad from a sensitive young guy. Compare to John Mellencamp’s “Play Guitar.” Honestly, this one will probably get you the girl faster.

“You Can Make Me Free” – 2:56 (5:40 Original LP) Sung to the same girl, but feeling happy instead of introspective? It sounds like running through a field, holding the girl’s hand in yours. Voice and piano begin this one again, then bass, drums, guitar and orchestra join, swiftly moving this from romantic ballad to a symphony somewhat reminiscent of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Cut almost in half from the original, a huge jam was lopped from the end.

“Everybody Loves You Now” – 2:48 (2:40 Original LP) …and after that girl breaks his heart. You slut. I thought we were together forever. With that guy? I thought we agreed he was an ass. How. Could. You. The hardest rocker so far, with a cymbal crash and piano riff open that sounds remarkably like “Don’t Ask Me Why” from Glass Houses. The drums drive this one forward and as always the band is tight. Billy never suffered musically, and when his band started coming together (we’ll get there) things only got better. Halfway through the song the band throttles back and lets Billy take center stage vocally, just like Elvis would often do around this time. (Ronnie Tutt drums here, making him the missing link on Marv’s Favorite Albums, it seems.) The album’s title shows up here, too, beginning Billy’s tendency to wear his roots on his sleeve.

“Why Judy Why” – 2:56 (2:46 Original LP) Billy’s first crack at his own “Yesterday.” Looking at that same damn girl after the pain has stopped keeping him awake all night, throwing up and beating his fists on the furniture, and has become nothing but an ache that will never go away as he pleads for an explanation—because as all men know, understanding how women think will make it better.

“Falling of the Rain” – 2:38 (2:24 Original LP) A little more distance, a little more experience, and Billy can look at love as a fairytale, albeit not one with a happy ending. Hopeless romantic that he is, Billy gives us a song full of conflict here as he expresses the desire for the girl to make him happy, but acknowledges as a viewer that that happiness is as sure to be dashed as the rain is sure to fall. The piano here captures the falling of a gentle shower, and the other instrumentation supports the sound as surely as it does on the entire album.

“Turn Around” – 3:04 (3:20 Original LP) The second side opens with the wiser but older Billy appealing to the girl/woman to give him another chance. Give him another chance? Wasn’t she the one in the wrong? Well, who’s counting? It’s tender without being soppy, relaxed without being maudlin. It’s sung to ‘Eliza’; ‘Elizabeth’ was the name of Billy’s longtime co-hort/drummer whose wife he…well, stole. The steel guitar makes it a little bit country, sort of James Taylor or Gordon Lightfoot territory.

“You Look So Good to Me” – 2:27 (2:26 Original LP) Bouncy and happy, it’s late-70s pop with a harmonica solo and Hammond B3 underpinning that should have gone perfectly on FM radio. Short and sweet, almost Beatlesque in its simplicity.

“Tomorrow Is Today” – 4:40 (4:47 Original LP) Legendarily, the lyrics came from a suicide note Billy left before drinking furniture polish. Could be. Sounds appropriately funereal, although it does have a vocal turn that makes me astonished that he declared he never felt confident vocally until The Bridge, fifteen years later. It sounded very mature to me thirty years ago. Still sounds remarkable.

“Nocturne” – 2:46 (2:37 Original LP) An instrumental, one of several on these discs. Just piano. What can I tell you? It’s elegant, elegiac, pretty much perfect. Ideal for chilly nights with warmed wine, a blanket and a fireplace, thinking about past loves.

“Got to Begin Again” – 2:49 (2:47 Original LP) What a great name for the last track on an album that (I believe) follows the lifespan of a romance. Truthfully, it could be read as the reaffirmation we all need to pick up and continue in the face of adversity of any kind. Just Billy’s voice and piano again. The whole album has a very demo-like quality to it, and I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better that way. I’d love to hear CSH Naked someday.

Here we are at Streetlife Serenade. After Billy’s first nibble at success–signing with Columbia–he moved to California with the stolen girl and began a three-year exile during which Piano Man, SS, and Turnstiles were recorded (although Turnstiles was scrapped and re-recorded in New York.) I’m skipping Piano Man; it doesn’t fit with the forgotten and overlooked theme. SS, however, fits all too well; it’s another of Billy’s works that he has since renounced. Too bad.

“Streetlife Serenader” – 5:17 I was a little disappointed when this album opened with this slow piece about…what, exactly? Himself, I believe, a musician who has yet to find his place in the world. He knows his future lies in music, telling stories, and this is after Piano Man so he knows he can do it. This sounds a little ambivalent though. In fact, the whole album has a slightly detached feel, which may be why it’s not among his favorites, produced during a down period professionally and maybe personally, he may feel the music reflected that dissatisfaction. Perhaps it just reminds him of it. Given that, I still like this and the remainder of the tracks. It’s different, pointing the way to the diversity that would continue to mark his material.

And the disappointment? With that title, I thought I was going to get a doo-wop track. Instead, I’d have to wait almost a decade for An Innocent Man. It was worth it.

“Los Angelenos” – 3:41 And why is the quintessential New Yorker recording a song about L.A.? I didn’t know at the time that he was living there—and hating it. Maybe Mick Jagger dug it, but not Billy. The electric piano is shrill enough to show his distaste for the shallowness and impersonal nature of the town, as he sees it. It’s another great song about unpleasant things. (See The Eagles’ entire catalog.)

“The Great Suburban Showdown” – 3:44 From distaste for a whole town to distaste of a more personal nature: sitting around with the family back home. It seems no matter how far you run, you can’t escape yourself. How do we get to that point, where the people who raised us, the ones we loved above all others and to the exclusion of all others in most cases, now are a burden that we wish to cut as short as possible? It’s as familiar as your favorite shoes, and familiarity breeds contempt.

The sound here is thicker than on CSH, more varied. The band is just plain better, perhaps because they have more to do. Billy has matured as an arranger and the band doesn’t let him down.

“Root Beer Rag” – 2:59 Another instrumental, this one is the definition of ‘rollicking.’ It is the definition of a rag, updated for a much later decade than Scott Joplin’s, but demonstrates Joel’s mastery of another form.

“Roberta” – 4:32 Another of Billy’s songs about a girl who lets him down. She is quite possibly a prostitute, but just because he ‘sees only what she’s paid to show’ him, doesn’t prove it. He’s in love, or at least in lust, but knows it’s not returned. It’s a fine melody and a strange, almost straining vocal. It’s not outside Billy’s then-incredible range, but he is doing something with his voice to play up the discomfort. Almost a Dylan impersonation.

“The Entertainer” – 3:48 Here it is, the big slap in the face to the industry, the fans, the managers who have already dumped on him. Bold, direct language that shows he’s not afraid to make his point or to offend anyone in order to be clear. Strange instrumentation: banjo, steel guitar, jaunty barrelhouse piano—he had to know this wouldn’t be a successful single. It’s an Elvis Costello middle finger and a breath of fresh air after the somewhat morose first side.

“Last of the Big Time Spenders” – 4:34 Why, what’s this? Nearly a real love song, but not quite. Slightly soulful, in the Ray Charles style of ‘Drown in My Own Tears.’ He’s offering his heart, even though he acknowledges that he might not be much to have, and not in a self-effacing way, so much as brutally honest. His emotion is sincere, and that will just have to be enough. A steel guitar bridge pulls together the Ray Charles feel, playing up the country side.

“Weekend Song” – 3:29 Maybe the fastest, hardest-rocking track on the album, it’s a beer-drinkin, hell-raisin Friday night song like rock and roll has always brought us with some clever lyrical turns. It’s fun and feels out of place on this album until you remember that the frustration and desperation Billy’s been singing about so far is often dealt with this way. No love, no future, no money—let’s go get drunk. (Hey, there’s Ray Charles again!)

“Souvenir” – 2:00 A brief moment of perfection here as Billy’s voice and piano again combine to seal this album’s tone of misery. The theme this time: gather your souvenirs is you wish, because your memory is imperfect. In the larger sense, even, what difference if your memory is perfect, because time, like life, fades away. Downbeat, sure, but so beautiful. I’ve seen the tune referred to cynically as ‘encore-ready’. It’s a solo piece and melancholy, at best, but I refuse to think it was written just to finish a show. It’s just too gorgeous.

“The Mexican Connection”– 3:37 Did I say seal this album? Well, here’s a bonus instrumental. Another sign of the Los Angeleno scene, this time we get the full Morricone; horn section, percussion, swirling cymbals, and of course the piano leads the melody. It’s majestic and grand without being too heavy. It even rides off into the sunset.

If SS is Billy’s California postcard, Turnstiles is his triumphant and splendid return to New York. From the echoing drums that open the show to the fading piano figure, this is a masterpiece. “Only” eight songs, but they are long, epic really. It was a year after Born to Run, a year before Bat Out of Hell, and the year of Presence, A Night at the Opera, The Song Remains the Same, Boston, Tom Petty’s debut, Fly Like an Eagle, Night Moves, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, High Voltage, Takin’ It to the Streets, and Rock and Roll Over. In the heart of classic rock territory, this album has bombast, tenderness, truth, philosophy…buy it now and we’ll talk about it while you listen.

“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” – 4:36 It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not being familiar with this album, but if you haven’t heard this song, you’re missing a mature artist reveling in returning home. After the near-misery that marks SS, this tune is the signal that things are looking up and the sound is majestic. His songs has always been evocative, creating and imparting a mood perfectly. The difference in feel from the last album to the open of this one is extraordinary.

“Summer, Highland Falls” – 3:15 The piano recalls Falling of the Rain slightly, but the development as a lyricist Billy demonstrates here—“We are always what the situation hands us, it’s either sadness or euphoria,” e.g.—show how far he’s come as an artist and geographically.

“All You Wanna Do Is Dance” – 3:40 Another disappointment, years later. When Don Henley released a similarly-titled track, all I could think about was this lightly-reggae number, a kind of early draft of Keeping the Faith about nostalgia and aging. It’s fun and playful, with steel drums that have nothing to do with the lyrics but provide a refreshing sound in contrast to what was on the radio, which was kind of the point. This track is a delight, another surprise you wouldn’t expect from the artist.

“New York State of Mind” – 5:58 A concert favorite and a fan favorite, another example of an artist claiming his roots convincingly. This is Billy’s anthem and declaration of allegiance. Taken with the escape from California of the first track and upcoming closer, the album is a manifesto of his feelings about his place in the world.

“James” – 3:53 An odd fit on this album, it’s the kind of sentimental portrait of a real person that we see again and again in Billy’s career. On such a personal, first-person work, this look into an outsider’s mind at first feels jarring until the listener thinks about how an artist is shaped by his experiences, by all the people he meets and things he does. Billy wouldn’t be who he is without having known James, Roberta, Judy, Laura, Christie Lee, Leyna, and all the other characters who populate his work. It also makes a fine intro to the next cut…

“Prelude/Angry Young Man” – 5:17 Whether this is the same person or a contrast to James, this is a fine character study as well, or maybe it’s a capsule description of what’s wrong with a certain way of thinking. Are you doing anyone any good by sitting around complaining, even when you know you are right? Years before the Internet was developed, Billy was calling people out for sitting on their shallow accomplishments and criticizing others. It was and is a worthwhile effort.

“I’ve Loved These Days” – 4:31 The kind of openly emotional song Michael Buble wishes he could do so well, it stops well short of being sentimental. I think Joel is a conflicted man, wearing his emotions for all to see but never wanting to be less than a real tough guy. He can write and sing about love and loss all his life, but he never wants you to see him cry. In fact, he even tells “I don’t know why I even care.” But he does care.

“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” – 5:12 Science fiction in music from one of the most-reality-based artists ever. Namechecks from all over New York conceal the message of appreciating what you have because you never know when it could go away. It’s telling that in the 9/11 concerts Billy appeared and played New York State of Mind and not this track. NYSOM helped people heal; this cut would only have reminded them of what they’d lost. At that, heard here without that context, it’s an amazing appreciation of his hometown.

This album also saw Billy’s core band begin to assemble: Liberty DeVitto on drums, Russell Javors on guitar, Doug Stegmeyer on bass, and Richie Cannata on reeds and more. This band was responsible for the run of hits from this point until River of Dreams, when Joel eliminated virtually everyone before retiring from original music, more or less. Never recognized like the Heartbreakers or Silver Bullet or E Street, this group was key to Billy’s success. I’ve seen them a couple times and can tell you they seemed to be having a really good time; I know the audience was. If you haven’t heard these albums, you’ve missed some of the best music of the era.

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