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
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.