Man, this summer has kicked my ass. Between fun things like family vacations and gatherings, little trips here and there, the main bathroom getting a long overdue make-over, my body sending periodic signals to my brain that, no, it cannot be pushed like in my younger days, hearing the sad news of the passing of friends and/or their parents in addition to worrying about my dad’s and step-parents’ health, it has been a bitch of a summer. So, unfortunately, I had to push my writing aside until things began to settle down a bit. Honestly, they probably aren’t, but I have some time to squeeze in a little blog entry.
Unfortunately, I am worried that I can no longer truly enjoy a concert. Since April, I have been fortunate to see Elton John one last time, Billy Joel for the first time (more on that in a bit) in addition to performances by the likes of Jackson Browne, Barenaked Ladies/Gin Blossoms/Toad the Wet Sprocket and Chicago/Brian Wilson. In all honesty, I really only felt like Billy Joel and Elton John were good this year. Oh, sure, the Gin Blossoms were fine, but you get outside of their first album and a couple of follow up hits, well, their set ends up a little thin. Barenaked Ladies surprised me with an unsuspected depth of musical talent, but, once again, outside of their handful of hits, they are not my cup of tea. And I have always been in awe of Jackson Browne’s songwriting talent over the decades, but his show is a little too heavy on ballads for my rocker heart.
Oh, and most disappointingly, Chicago and God bless him Brian Wilson were awful. Back in 2018, Chicago had a well-oiled lineup that was brilliant. Unfortunately, their current lineup left much to be desired. And, I knew things might be in peril when the great Brian Wilson was lead to his piano while using a walker. I really couldn’t tell if he was playing, while his crack background singers all attempted to pick up his weak voice. I honestly felt sorry for the man thinking he needed to perform in his condition. I am a huge Brian Wilson fan and was heartbroken to see him trotted out like this. It seems like the pandemic took a huge toll on many of our heritage acts. However, I do have tickets for Bruce Springsteen next spring, so hope springs eternal. I guess witnessing the musical heroes of my youth each face their mortalities, it leaves me facing mine as well.
Over the summer, I lost a woman who played an important role in my post-parents’ divorce life, Aretta Dunwiddie. It seems as though from the summer before my sixth grade year in school until graduation from high school, I was done at the Dunwiddies’ house hanging out with their two daughters who were around my age. Aretta, along with his husband Dick, provided me another set of parents during those six years. Although I never saw Aretta and Dick much after my college days as they moved to Florida, they played a big role in the my development, if nothing else but providing me a safe place to hang out and getaway from the stress of home. I have been fortunate in that I had my parents, I have the Dunwiddies and, at school and during track and cross country, I had Dwayne and Imy Rhule stepping in to influence my life. Now that Aretta has joined Mom in the Great Beyond, I am simply happy that Aretta is no longer suffering and thank her again for her love and guidance.
As I mentioned earlier, I did get to see Billy Joel this summer. Back in June, the wifey and I made a trip to South Bend, Indiana, to meet up with two-thirds of the women in our wedding party who both live nearby to relive a little college together at Billy Joel’s appearance at Notre Dame Stadium. Of course, all of us being modest Ball State graduates, we sat in the upper deck across the football field from the stage. However, since we directly in line with the stage, the seats really did not seem too bad. Plus, the excellent sound system broke down the distance.
Billy Joel, despite his age and his hard-living life early on, was in great shape, performing a solid set of hit songs and great deep cuts that are fan favorites. Plus, one of his background singers, Crystal Taliefero, a former member of John Mellencamp’s groundbreaking Eighties band and a Hoosier from Gary, Indiana, and Indiana University, got a HUGE ovation for her homecoming of sorts. Crystal has become an important utility player in the industry with her Olympian ability to play the saxophone, keyboards, percussion and vibes in addition to her unparalleled vocals. In a band of super-talented musicians and vocalists, Ms. Taliefero stood out, except for the songwriting, showmanship, musicianship and vocals of the guy who signs her paycheck.
To be perfectly honest, I had forgotten just how good Billy Joel’s music truly is. His last studio album, River of Dreams, left me disillusioned, so I kind of just let his albums gather dust, only occasionally pulling out his first greatest hits compilation. In the aftermath of his performance, I have been on a small journey through his pop catalogue. Sorry, Mr. Joel, I simply am not going to evaluate your ventures into classical music for I am not your target audience for such an endeavor.
After spending the summer rediscovering the joy in Billy Joel’s music, I have developed a Top 40 list of his songs. And here is the list.
40. “The Longest Time” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
39. “Keeping the Faith” (An Innocent Man, 1983)
38. “All About Soul” (River of Dreams, 1993)
37. “Honesty” (52nd Street, 1978)
36. “Prelude/Angry Young Man” (Turnstiles, 1976)
35. “Don’t Ask Me Why” (Glass Houses, 1980)
34. “Goodnight Saigon” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982)
33. “Summer, Highland Falls” (Turnstiles, 1976)
32. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Storm Front, 1989)
31. “Modern Woman” (The Bridge, 1986)
30. “Allentown” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982)
29. “Big Shot” (52nd Street, 1978)
28. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” (Piano Man, 1973)
27. “Zanzibar” (52nd Street, 1978)
26. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” (The Stranger, 1977)
25. “The River of Dreams” (River of Dreams, 1993)
24. “A Matter of Trust” (The Bridge, 1986)
23. “I Go to Extremes” (Storm Front, 1989)
22. “Just the Way You Are” (The Stranger, 1977)
21. “Pressure” (The Nylon Curtain, 1982)
20. “Tell Her About It” (An Innocent Man, 1983). By the summer of 1983, it seems the influence of the classic Motown sound of the Sixties could be heard everywhere. Elvis Costello, new wavers like Culture Club and ABC and Elton John were all hitting the airwaves with songs under the direct influence of that Sound of Young America. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Billy Joel, arguably America’s greatest songwriter of songs influenced by the sounds of Sixties pop would release a single that would have fit perfectly on that legendary album.
19. “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me” (Glass Houses, 1980). Can you believe that Billy Joel was NOT a critic’s favorite back at the beginning of his heyday? It’s true. Allegedly, Billy was so pissed that punk artists with half of his songwriting talent were getting great reviews while his music was being panned by the Boomer rock critics of the day. So, he came out with a whole album dipped in the new wave/power pop sound of the day that simply enhanced his angry young man persona of the day. This is the perfect partner of The Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock & Roll” for the best songs celebrating the music of our youth.
18. “Uptown Girl” (An Innocent Man, 1983). An Innocent Man was Joel’s love note to Sixties pop sounds. This one might be his most iconic song of the Eighties. Contrary to common belief, this song was NOT written about Christie Brinkley. At the time, Joel was being chased by two of the more well-known models of the Eighties, Brinkley and a much young Elle MacPherson. This song is actually an ode to the young lady whom Billy did not choose, Ms. MacPherson.
17. “My Life” (52nd Street, 1978). Remember when Tom Hanks was on a sitcom called Bosom Buddies? This song that personifies every teenager’s angst at one time or another was the theme to that great comedy show. Sure, the song sounds like something of a Broadway tune, but it’s that schmaltziness that making the song so much more powerful than a run-of-the-mill rock song.
16. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (Songs in the Attic, 1981). Songs in the Attic was an excellent exercise in breathing new life into some fantastic old songs from Joel’s early albums of his pre-fame days. Suddenly, these wonderful songs came to life in the live setting instead of being bogged down by the cheap production of the original recording. This song is an excellent example as it pops on this album.
15. “She’s Always a Woman” (The Stranger, 1977). Some women might believe this song is misogynistic, while I believe it portrays women as men see them. Regardless, this is a great song. I think we all can agree on that.
14. “New York State of Mind” (Turnstiles, 1976). Along with Jay-z and Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind” and, of course, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” you have one of the great theme songs of the Big Apple.
13. “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” (Songs in the Attic, 1981). Billy’s mid-Seventies sci-fi apocalypse ode to the end of New York City just pops in the live setting making this version much more lively than its studio predecessor. Plus, the song’s so much more fun with the audience’s reaction to various lines.
12. “Vienna” (The Stranger, 1977). This epic, show-stealing ballad from Billy’s first big hit album continues to be one of his concert highlights, as well as one my wife’s favorites. It is simply wonderful in its grandeur.
11. “An Innocent Man” (An Innocent Man, 1983). The title song from Joel’s most successful studio album is a wonderful vocal performance from the Piano Man. And when he hits that penultimate high note, you know you are hearing greatness, especially during a concert. This is the type of performance that separates the great ones from the also-rans.
10. “You May Be Right” (Glass Houses, 1980). In most settings, I am naturally an introvert. But, put me in a crowd “needing” to entertained, I become a “paid” extrovert. Thus, this song was hung on me by some friends who caught me during one of my manic episodes in high school. By the way, I would NEVER drive under the influence of any substance or drive a motorcycle under any weather condition, but I AM guilty of the rest, so maybe those folks were correct after all. Who knows?
9. “The Entertainer” (Streetlife Serenade, 1974). This song truly transcends the quality of most of the material on this forgettable album. It is something of a mission statement for Billy Joel’s whole career.
8. “She’s Got a Way” (Songs in the Attic, 1981). In its original form, this song falls a little flat. But, put it in Joel’s setlist, and the song blossoms into an ode to any man’s wife. There is always that one person who walks through your life that has a way to cut through all of your barriers. This song explains it perfectly regardless of the feminine pronoun used. The sentiment works no matter the perspective and orientation.
7. “Sometimes a Fantasy” (Glass Houses, 1980). What does it say about me that I prefer the “pervy” side of Billy Joel? Yet, I find this so humorous. Billy proves all of us have a dirty mind. To this day, I don’t understand why this song wasn’t a big hit and played every day on Classic Rock radio.
6. “Only the Good Die Young” (The Stranger, 1977). Here we go again! Billy the Perv is back attempting to woo a young lady into teenage lust-athon. What high school guy hasn’t been there? Seemingly, some of us longer than others.
5. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (The Stranger, 1977). I think Joel might be at his best when telling the stories of lovers in peril. The lyrical setting is set and the ending seems so obvious to everyone but the characters. If nothing else, the song teaches us that we should become more self-aware before entering into a relationship since the relationship will not always just bring out our best but our worst as well. But the whole cautionary tale is told to perfection.
4. “The Stranger” (The Stranger, 1977). I have always been drawn to songs about the dark side of ourselves. I mean from little onward, I have been fascinated by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde types of stories. Hell, my favorite Elton John song is “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” about Elton contemplating suicide. So, why shouldn’t I love a Billy Joel song describing how we mask our inner demons to make our outer selves more palatable to our families and friends.
3. “Piano Man” (Piano Man, 1973). Of course, this song is listed near or at the top of lists of Billy Joel’s greatest songs. I mean, his nickname is derived from this autobiographical song of Billy’s struggle to become the man he described in his song “The Entertainer.” But what sets this song apart from the competition is the vivid lyrics describing every character that grabbed his attention during those early days as a barroom performer. This is his most iconic song.
2. “Captain Jack” (Songs in the Attic, 1981). This song is Billy Joel perfectly describing what life is like for a teenage boy during high school and early college, you know, the years leading up to turning 21. Remember, Joel’s lyrical strength is how he accurately describes his characters and how they interact. Now, Captain Jack is not an actual character but a euphemism for a private action popular with teenage boys. So, Joel is describing the boredom of a typical teenage boy’s life on an average boring day. That is what makes the song so powerful and not the little perverted ditty about diddling.
1. “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” (An Innocent Man, 1983). Wait a second! What? A failed single from An Innocent Man? What kind of crap am I feeding you? Hear me out. This is Billy’s finest love song. The sentiment is something most guys can relate to. When confronting our emotions surrounding a budding relationship with someone, most of us attempt to turn to humor or some stupid story rather than enjoy the vulnerable moment with your new significant other. It’s as if Billy’s telling us guys to shut up and live in the moment. The song is also a throw-back to those Motown ballads from the Sixties with a harmonica solo straight from the Stevie Wonder playbook. This is a beautiful reminder to men to be vulnerable early on in their budding relationships so they will grow into a beautiful team. Easier said than done.