Me, my father, and Billy Joel

I got my taste in music from my parents, and my father was the one who introduced me to Billy Joel.  It’s an association that has outlasted two technologies; my parents have The Stranger and An Innocent Man on record and Storm Front and River of Dreams on cassette cape, and I’ve got the four-volume Greatest Hits on CD.  Most rock singers peak and fade quickly, and their songs only capture what they were at one moment in life.  Mr. Joel, however, was productive for a very long time, and it’s very interesting to just listen to the Greatest Hits CDs sequentially and see how a man’s perspective changes with time.

One day, I think it was when I was in college and visiting home, my father and I were on a drive somewhere, and Piano Man was playing on the radio.  In the song, Billy Joel’s character is a piano man at a bar reminiscing on what a bunch of losers everyone around him is:

Now Paul is a real estate novelist \ Who never had time for a wife \ And he’s talking with Davy \ who’s still in the navy \ And probably will be for life \ And the waitress is practicing politics \ As the businessmen slowly get stoned \ Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness \ But it’s better than drinking alone

At this point, my dad pointed out that the piano man is being presumptuous in his pity for these people.  Perhaps Paul is really devoted to his career and not marrying was the right choice for him.  And the Navy is a perfectly good and honorable career.  Perhaps they’re unhappy, but the song doesn’t say so, so it’s just as likely to be the narrator’s imagination.  Really, nothing he sees justifies his dire conclusions about the people in the bar.  I hadn’t thought about it before, but once it was pointed out to me, I could see this smug sense of superiority throughout the song and in several others of the “early” Billy Joel era.  I can understand and pity these people because I live on a higher level of sensitivity and authenticity.  It’s a very common attitude among young men of an artistic or intellectual bent.  I was infected with a bit of it at the time myself; subtle hints like this from my father helped me outgrow it quickly.

Whether the point he’s making is good or bad, Joel is a songwriter who always puts a lot of thought into his lyrics; he at least tries to say something interesting, not just catchy.  One can’t assume a complete identity between him and the roles he puts on.  It could be that Joel meant the piano man to be arrogant and over-dramatic.  I’ve never been able to work up any offense at his most blasphemous song, Only the Good Die Young, because he right away establishes some distance between himself and the character.  The latter’s argument

Come out, Virginia- Don’t let me wait. / You Catholic girls start much too late. / Ah! But sooner or later it comes down to fate. / I might as well will be the one.

is so absurd, and it’s so impossible to imagine a girl actually going for it, that we know Joel can’t be speaking entirely in his own voice.

My father was also the one to notice that Joel’s perspectives changed significantly with age.  The later songs aren’t about girl chasing or other young men’s interests anymore.  As he put it, they sound more like the voice of a man with a family and responsibilities.  He pointed this out when we were listening to the “later” Joel song, The Downeaster Alexa.  This is one of the lesser-known Billy Joel songs, but one that my dad and I both really like.

Well I’m on the Downeaster “Alexa”
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound
I have charted a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound

We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner’s Bay
Like all the locals here I’ve had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone

So I could own my Downeaster “Alexa”
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can’t fall asleep

I’ve got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I’ve got people back on land who count on me

Now I drive my Downeaster “Alexa”
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they tell me I can’t sell no stripers
And there’s no luck in swordfishing here.

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can’t make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain’t no island left for islanders like me

The man who used to warn that “working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack” has come to take the father’s provider role very seriously.

The thing that most strikes me about Joel’s later songs is his growing focus on transience, the sense that no matter how much we cherish them, all things are destined to pass away.  We certainly see it in the above song, where the character loves and wishes to carry on his father’s way of life but sees this way of life being destroyed by large impersonal forces that, in the long run, he cannot resist (the depletion of the fish population, in this case).  It’s a sentiment that certainly speaks to us reactionaries.

I think what happened is that time and a growing sense of mortality have turned Billy Joel from a cocky Jew into a sober atheist.  He knows–it’s the one thing that atheists know with unmatched clarity–that our time is short, very short.  One day, I was playing on the floor with little 12 month-old Julie with the CD player on in the background, and I happened to catch the lyrics

This is the time to remember \ Cause it will not last forever \ These are the days \ To hold on to \Cause we won’t \ Although we’ll want to

Nothing profound, but it hits me with more force than it used to.

Where is the comfort for an atheist, when he realizes that extinction is the fate of all things?  One of Billy Joel’s last songs was a lullabye to his daughter Alexa.

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
And like a boat out on the ocean
I’m rocking you to sleep
The water’s dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart
You’ll always be a part of me

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on…
They never die
That’s how you
And I
Will be

This is how an atheist faces death.  He turns to his children, and thinks that perhaps a part of him will live on in them.  But then he remembers that someday they too will be gone.  Everyone he knew and loved will be not only dead but forgotten.  However we reach forward, no one can claim a place in the distant future.  If a higher meaning is to be found, we must look outside of time.  As he rocks his daughter to sleep, he senses that, although they are two distinct people–unique beings whose time is short, what they participate in, the love of fathers and daughters, is something ancient, perhaps even eternal.  Someday we’ll all be gone, but this moment we’re touching and enacting something of ultimate significance.

And this is true.

8 Responses

  1. “However we reach forward, no one can claim a place in the distant future.”

    I don’t think that’s true. If great Alexander wanted lasting fame (and he showed every sign of caring more for that than for the fate of his progeny) he got what he wanted. When there are no more White people nobody will care any more about Alexander the Great, but to have made it this far is to have claimed a place in the “distant future”.

    Leonidas and his 300 wanted to be remembered, and they were. Their victory is only limited as Alexander’s is (no more White people in ages to come means the end), and because they wanted to be remembered by the Spartans, whose descendants are still there but not as they once were.

    Father Abraham, according to the Bible, claimed a face in the distant future in the fullest measure. And so did his children, time without end, participating in that deathless and now vastly extended family.

    So it is possible, and good. And then things ancient, like the love of fathers and daughters, are given additional meaning by ties of blood that will extend beyond the ages, and the divine authorization of this special, sacred continuity.

    It’s impossible us White people now because we made the mistake of bowing before a foreign god who cares nothing for our continued existence as a race, and many of us made the even greater mistake of moving on to atheism, and now we are being diminished and diluted with terrible speed by the policies of elites who being Christian or atheist (or Jewish and attending to their own future, not ours) see nothing wrong with it.

    I agree with Christians who think it’s idolatry, that is a rejection of their God and their religion and an abomination to it, for a White person to insist as his final law that his people must not vanish away and be as forgotten dust. And of course for a Jew to have the same attitude as that White idolator, but for his own people, would not be idolatry but holiness, in the eyes of his people and his God and even in Christian eyes now.

    That is what life and death and continuity after death are about. That is the difference between the meaningless deaths of beef cattle in the pens and perpetual memory of Abraham, Isaac, Rachel, Leah etc..

    And yes that does set the context even for Billy Joel and his daughter in the song.

  2. Duh! Billy Joel was born Jewish, and only became atheist after having previously become Catholic. That changes the context again.

    I’ll take that as a lesson: everyone culturally significant is Jewish, unless specifically known not to be, and this must be taken into account.

    Anyway, I maintain my opinion that the situation of the father and the daughter is universal only in the simplest and most temporary or in a sense timeless part of that relationship.

    There are other, better alternatives to the barrenness and loss of the future that surrounds that tender moment. (Almost anything is better than atheism.) A simple ancestor cult would change everything.

  3. Billy Joel certainly has written some great songs over the years. The Downeaster Alexa was one of his best, I think — yes, it relates to a wistfulness about the passage of time and transience, but it also rings of a very specific context about how much Long Island itself has changed over the years (Joel has always lived on LI, other than a brief stint in LA before he made it big).

  4. At this point, my dad pointed out that the piano man is being presumptuous in his pity for these people.

    Dad was modelling critical thinking here for you, and he was doing right to do it. My parents did the same for me, and I hope I am doing the same for my children, though I have my doubts.

    But I think he and you are wrong. The Piano Man is pretty clearly talking about his regulars in a piano bar. The key line is “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness / But it’s better than drinking alone.” This seems accurate rather than presumptuous—someone who goes regularly to a piano bar alone is presumptively lonely, and, besides, the Piano Man has particular facts to back up his conclusions. Similarly, the seeming self praise in the song is just accurate. Billy Joel is, in fact, more talented than is required to be a Piano Man. False charity ain’t charity, and false humility ain’t humility.

    Perhaps Paul is really devoted to his career and not marrying was the right choice for him.

    Would this make him not lonely, though? Following your vocation to the single life involves some suffering, right? Just like following any other vocation does. His suffering may be admirable, but it’s there.

  5. I’ve never thought that “The Piano Man” was about a smug piano player snickering at the losers around him. I’ve always understood that the piano player is noticing everyone around him, many of whom are friends, has unfulfilled dreams and are coping with living a life that is less than what they had dreamed. I think the piano player also has unfulfilled dreams, as he’s playing in a working class bar on a Saturday night. Notice he says that the people fill his tip jar and ask, “What are you doing here?” as if he is too talented to be playing at some local dive. I enjoy this blog.

  6. Billy Joel is bloody awful.

    Do any of the Catholic reactionaries in the blogosphere take a serious interest in the arts? I mean both the classics and more recent stuff, like Bernanos or Claudel. If not, why is this? I know you’re a science guy, and most of those types are weak in the humanities, but what about the rest?

    Oh, by the way. Heresy. ^.^

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,816528,00.html

  7. Billy Joel is bloody awful.

    In which, for perhaps the first time, I agree with Drieu. (May it not be the last!)

    There’s not much that disinspires men to follow you more than claiming to a big Billy Joel fan.

  8. Hi Drieu,

    Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reactionary commentary on the arts now. It’s too bad, because this is something the far Right used to be pretty strong at. This was supposed to be the purpose of “The New Criterion”, but it’s run by neocons, not reactionaries. Most reactionaries are big Dostoevsky fans (as one would expect, despite the latter’s anti-Catholicism), and that leaks out in “First Things” sometimes. I think Laura Wood has a serious interest in painting. We’re pretty weak on this overall, right now, at least partly because there’s so few of us.

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