Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
Not so long ago, I was interviewing Craig Finn, the lead singer and songwriter of the Hold Steady, and I brought up his alleged Billy Joel fandom, which I’d read about in some deep, dark part of the webiverse. Finn was surprised at first, and then acted a little nervous and sheepish. “I’m a guarded Billy Joel fan,” he finally admitted. “I read something once, I think it was by that guy from Phish, Trey something, and he was talking about how sometimes you play a guitar riff that’s super-lame, but then you just keep playing it, and he called it embracing the lameness. That’s pretty much what I think about Billy Joel. You gotta embrace the lameness and see if it can come out the other side to the cool place. You gotta walk into the cave of lameness to see if there’s a back exit.”
At the time, I thought this was a hilarious and brilliant observation. But really, I was only laughing at the “lameness” part. “Yes,” I remember thinking. “Billy Joel is lame. I know exactly how you feel.” It felt nice to know that Craig Finn and I were on the same page; that we both had, at some point in our respective lives, semi-secret fetishes for Billy Joel that we’d never entirely made peace with, and we were both struggling to make sense of it.
I can’t speak for Finn, but my Billy Joel fetish was far from minor. As a teenager, I owned everything Billy Joel ever recorded. My former collection included both Cold Spring Harbor, Joel’s “Poor Man’s James Taylor” debut, and Attila, with a cover featuring Joel and his band-mate dressed like Huns and posing in a meat locker. I’ve been to several of Joel’s concerts, two during the Innocent Man tour, and in every case I was disappointed that he didn’t play more “deep cuts.” So when I say disparaging things about Billy Joel, it comes from experience. I’m not like those people who claim Harry Potter is endorsing satanism when they’ve never cracked open a single J. K. Rowling book. I’m intimately familiar with the Billy Joel canon. I’ve air-pianoed to “Angry Young Man” in front of a mirror in my teenage bedroom. I’m not a random hater; I’m justified in hating him.
But that’s not exactly true. I don’t hate Billy Joel. I just wish I hadn’t devoted so much of my adolescence to his music. It’s only natural that you make mistakes as a kid. But some consequences are more devastating than others. Getting busted with a bag of pot in your high school locker is one thing, but showing up for a homecoming dance dressed in a Billy Joel skinny tie-and-dark-sunglasses combo? You don’t come back from that. A few weekends wasted listening to Glass Houses isn’t going to kill anybody. But from my experience, teenagers who say things like “I can sing the lyrics to ‘You May Be Right’ from memory” don’t also say things like “I’m exhausted from getting all these handjobs!”
Renouncing the music of your past is hardly unique. The world is filled with people who still feel weird that they once spent an entire summer waiting in front of the TV for Duran Duran’s “Rio” video to come on, or couldn’t be waterboarded into admitting that they once owned a copy of Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” on cassingle. It’s not enough to expunge every trace of your pop music misdeeds from your permanent collection. You have to treat it like a sickness, a cancer that you finally beat after years of chemotherapy and Eastern medicine. And while the musical sins of your past are demonized out of proportion, the occasional smart choices get wildly exaggerated. As a teen, I somehow ended up in possession of a tattered copy of the Replacements’ bootleg The Shit Hits the Fans. To hear me talk about it now, it was my musical bible, a lifeline to sanity in a suburban Scheol. But really, I probably listened to it only once or twice, and then only half-heartedly. Hindsight, as least when it comes to music, is never 20/20. You downplay your fist-pumping devotion to Def Leppard and Poison and hyperbolize your unconditional love for the Pixies and the Meat Puppets.
For at least the last twenty years, Billy Joel has been safely in my rearview mirror. I’d hum a few lyrics if one of his songs came on the car radio, but with lukewarm enthusiasm, like I might sing along with the National Anthem at a baseball game. When Harper Collins announced that they’d be publishing Joel’s memoir, The Book of Joel, I didn’t pay much attention, because why would I? I enjoy a good rock star tell-all, but Joel’s life and career never seemed rife with page-turning yarns. Put him in the same room with a passed out groupie and a mudshark and I still don’t think it’d result in anything more scandalous than the lyrics to “Tell Her About It.” But then came the announcement that Joel was canceling his book. Not delaying it, but pulling the plug completely. Which was nothing if not unprofessional and kind of dickish. The Book of Joel was scheduled to come out in mid-June, so it wasn’t like he’d just turned in a first draft. He’d waited until the eleventh hour, after his book had been copyedited and revised and copyedited again and he’d likely read countless versions. If this was a wedding, he’d waited until the bridesmaids were walking down the aisle to decide that marriage wasn’t for him.
But okay, fine, Joel doesn’t understand how the world works, and why you can’t inconvenience everyone just because you woke up in a bad mood. No surprises there. I might’ve eventually forgotten about the whole thing, had Joel not made this cryptic announcement to the Associated Press: “It took working on writing a book to make me realize that I’m not all that interested in talking about the past. The best expression of my life and its ups and downs has been and remains my music.”
This was mind-blowing to me. I’d honestly never thought of Billy Joel as an autobiographical songwriter. His songs can be catchy as hell, but they never felt especially confessional. It’s not as if he ever worked at Bethlehem Steel like the characters in “Allentown,” or tried to seduce Catholic schoolgirls by reminding them about the increased fatality rate among the devoutly religious like the narrator in “Only the Good Die Young,” or knew any heroin dealers named Captain Jack like the guy in “Captain Jack.” At least … I think he hadn’t. But maybe that’s why he got so nervous about the memoir. Maybe he wasn’t ready for the public to know about the real Billy Joel; his painful last days of going down together with his military pals in Saigon, or his unrequited love for an Uptown Girl, or why he’s only 96% sure that he didn’t start any fires.
As I write this, “Angry Young Man” is blaring through my headphones, and I’m not resisting it. So every now and then, one of his songs pops back up, like a Facebook friend request from an ex-girlfriend, and it’s proving harder and harder to say no. I’d forgotten how badass the droning C note opening is in “Angry Young Man.” The lyrics don’t get much more complex than “I’m young and angry,” which is the least original observation made in pop music since “I’m young and horny.” But goddamn do those pounding thumbs sound great. There’s a reasonably good chance that, by the time you finish reading this paragraph, I’ll be air-pianoing to “Angry Young Man” with the same manic and unironic glee I did as a teenager. And for the first time in a long, long while, I’m okay with that. I’m going to embrace that delicious lameness with everything I’ve got, and like Craig Finn said, see if there’s maybe something cool on the other side.
Probably not, but it never hurts to check.