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Jewish Conversion: The Billy Joel Experiment

Part I: “Rosalinda’s Eyes”

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Art from Billy Joel's '52nd Street' album(Coveralia)

Just a few weeks ago, I faced a truth I wasn’t ready to handle. It turns out that my Tablet colleague Liel Leibovitz HATES Billy Joel. Despite the fact that Liel is a man with whom I share a steadfast love of many important musicians, when it comes to the kid from Oyster Bay, Long Island, Liel is not just indifferent or agnostic about Billy Joel or simply annoyed by the Billy Joel saturation of east coast life, he outright hates the man’s music.

Among Liel’s gripes: Billy Joel’s music lacks emotional depth and technical savvy, shows contempt for humanity, and is witless, criminally insincere, and shlocky. To clarify his position, he sent me the venerable Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious scorched earth fusillade against Billy Joel from a few years back. (A warning: If you’re a Billy Joel fan, even one with a sense of humor, reading this is like time-traveling back a few decades only to have someone swiftly kick you in the shin upon arrival.)

But Mr. Leibovitz is a reasonable man and so he grudgingly allowed me the chance to convert him. I submitted a few songs (without commentary) for his consideration. And since it’s hard to roam the New York terra without hearing a song from one of Mr. Joel’s THREE greatest hits albums, I was careful to choose strictly from a list of songs that you’d have to dig a little bit to find.

Over the next few days, I’ll be featuring the songs I chose, my explanations for choosing them as well as Liel’s responses to then. I’d love your comments to help advance the dialogue along the way.

First up: “Rosalinda’s Eyes” from the 1978 album 52nd Street.

I chose this song first for a few reasons. The first is that it doesn’t sound like any recognizable Billy Joel song. “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” in both title and sound, is a light 1970s jazz song that you’d quickly change if it shuffled up in the company of friends. In this way, the song is (despite being New York-themed) the spiritual opposite of the standard Billy Joel tunes you’re accustomed to hearing blasted at baseball games and tristate relief concerts.

To boot, the instrumentation is tacky as hell: There are some vibes, a nylon string guitar, and a marimba. If that doesn’t qualify it as muzak then also consider that “Rosalinda’s Eyes” has–and I’m not joking–a 21-second-long recorder solo!

Aside from making a cameo in the soundtrack of the short-lived Judd Apatow series Freaks and Geeks, this is not a particularly well-known song, subtly squished on the second side of 52nd Street, an album that features the famously outsized, contempt-filled hits “Big Shot” and “My Life.”

Unlike those anti-paeans, “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is about a lovestruck, self-conscious musician who is anchored by the woman he is enamored of. The song also seems to be about a guy who has hustle to make his life happen at the inevitable expense of someone that he hopes will wait for him.

In the song, Joel alternates the verse endings between cloying affection:

I can always find my Cuban skies / In Rosalinda’s eyes

And delusional ambition:

I’ll return before the fire dies / In Rosalinda’s eyes

It’s a hopeful, earnest song about being doomed. For context, it seems worth mentioning that Joel’s mother’s name is Rosalind and that Joel’s father was a classical pianist. The two divorced when Joel was 11 and his father subsequently moved to Vienna.

***

And here is Liel’s response:

This is a truly terrible song. First, we run into the same Billy Joel problem, the narcissistic-solipsistic nexus that seems to define his very being. “Hardly anyone has seen how good I am / But Rosalinda says she knows.” At the risk of sounding like some spineless grad student sniffling about oppression and patriarchy, this is an offensive hymn to one man’s bloated ego at the expense of all around him, seen not as human beings but as generic blots. To wit:

“I play nights in the Spanish part of town.”

Can you imagine Springsteen writing this line? He wouldn’t. First of all, because he knows it’s not about him. Second of all, because he knows that there’s no such thing as “the Spanish part of town.” There’s a neighborhood, and it has a name, and that name deserves to be mentioned. Joel doesn’t care: being soulless, he just wants to convey his point quickly and effortlessly, the point being that he’s a cool cat slumming it with the pueblo.

The same awful generic attitude is replicated in his pathetic decision to roll his Rs so as to sound more caliente, and also in the music, which borrows just enough Latin motifs but never bothers to actually explore other musical traditions, as even the insipid Paul Simon had the good sense and the humility to do.

It’s the same attitude all over: “all alone in a Puerto Rican band / union wages / wedding clothes,” for example, is another dick line. All alone in a band? Why? Because they are not white geniuses like you but just working folks? This is how Billy thinks, and he needs Rosalinda to objectify; she–grad school warning again–is the prism through which his greatness is reflected, and not, God forbid, a fucking human being. Absolutely revolting.

Swing and a miss. Check back tomorrow for part two.

The Worst Pop Singer Ever [Slate]

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marjorie says:

I am in love with this series idea! Bravo. And yes, this song TRULY blows, for the reasons Liel enumerates. But I’m not a hater. I think Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, Piano Man (tho woefully overplayed, of course) and Only the Good Die Young (in which he sounds like he’s actually playing a character) are very good songs, and We Didn’t Start the Fire (which I fondly associate with Camp Ramah in the 80s) taught me great chunks of American history, which I guess is its own indictment of American education, but never mind. That said, Just the Way You Are is one of the worst songs known to humanity.

marjorie says:

OK, just read the Rosenbaum piece. YOW. BURN. But it did remind me that She’s Always a Woman To Me is another godawful wince-inducing horrific unintentionally sexist piece of idiocy, and that The Longest Time and An Innocent Man don’t suck.

It’s all Dante’s Inferno for Liel.

Could have sworn I was quoting a line from Angry Young Man, but it looks like I’m wrong.

Stanley Feldman says:

Having grown up Jewish and having been an Apple person since 1980, I have never given a rat’s a** what other people are doing or think. Someone doesn’t like what I like? So what? What am I supposed to do? I have listened to Leonard Cohen and Led Zeppelin, almost nonstop the last two weeks. I hardly care that others may not share my enthusiasm for those two. In the Billy Joel song “Pressure”, he says, “But here you are in the ninth, Two men out and three men on, Nowhere to look but inside, Where we all respond to Pressure…” My son had this exact situation in the 2001 NCAA Regionals and came through. My point is simply that music is personal. My question to you Adam is why you would waste your energy with the equivalent of arguing religion or politics? And this guy gratuitously dumps on Paul Simon, just to get a response. I’m not taking the bait. To quote Sarah Silverman, “You can’t tell art what to do.”

ajweberman says:

Billy Joel is an accomplished rock poet, however, the embedded meaning of his poetry escapes most of his fans.

fred capio says:

Who is Liel’s favorite musician?

His failure to come up anything relevant in 30-years makes me really question his legacy.

When I was in HS I went through a phase of not liking Billy Joel. While in college I also didn’t care much for him, but never hated his work. As I’ve gotten older I’ve enjoyed his music more. Some songs are blah, many are good, some are gems. Now when I hear bashing of his music, I think the bashee is just trying to look cool.

It seems that this debate is about 30 years too late, when BJ is no longer a chart or MTV presence.And there’s always been a schmaltzy element in his music that the hits wallowed in. But that being said the early albums had a lot of OTT energy that make them enjoyable to this day e.g. “Los Angelinos” or “The Entertainer”

Some of Billy Joel’s songs are howling bad and terribly treacly–I love you just the way you are, for starters. He was never one of the greats, and he stopped producing new material nearly 20 years ago (that’s not necessarily a bad thing), but his live performances are great fun (that terrific band helps), and several of his songs, played live, take on an energy and crispness they never had on vinyl (or whatever CDs used to be made from)–A Matter of Trust, My Life, NY State of Mind. When he closed Shea Stadium with that series of concerts, he and his audience–tens of thousands of Noo Yawkas, drove each other on. He and Tony Bennett singing NY State of Mind was great. I sure wouldn’t look for hidden Billy Joel gems, Adam. There aren’t any. I do recommend googling Bill Joel National Press Club, which you can find on youtube. He spoke and played for an hour and he came across humble, funny and quite self deprecating. He says he’s the patron saint of hotel lounge pianists. For that alone I like him.

Great forum for unearthing some real gems, like the Kurt Weill-inspired “Vienna.” Listen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZdiXvDU4P0.

Jay Alexander Brown says:

Fascinating … I was a childhood Billy Joel FANATIC. Ten, eleven years old … knew the words to every BJ song, even the ones off (weak/forgotten) albums Streetlife Serenade and The Bridge. Now I’m old enough to gaze more critically upon the man himself, and the haters have a point — what we find isn’t always pretty.

But the criticism is unfair on two levels:

(1) Plenty of folks aren’t all lollipops and gumdrops on the inside. A songwriter has the courage to expose all sides of himself to the world. There’s an honesty regarding the human condition that’s inherent within the songwriting process.

(2) Joel might have begun his career as a pompous prick, but he wised up with age. Listen to these post-1982 gems and you won’t find so much of that obnoxious narcissism; there’s something deeper at play: “Surprises,” “Laura,” “An Innocent Man,” “The Downeaster Alexa,” “And So It Goes” …

Habbgun says:

Billy Joel is ok. His music is all over the place in terms of quality but very few are bad. Using Springsteen as the anti-Billy Joel is a joke.
Springsteen got popular on his worst work. He was at his best when the E Street Band was the E Street Band (a great band). Then Bruce had to become a working class hero or in his case a fauxking class hero and is called a genius for making faux western songs. Billy Joel is Billy Joel and Springsteen is a poser.

I agree with Liel ! enough said. :)

Ugh, Rosenbaum. That guy has probably generated more antisemites than Bernie Madoff. (Well, maybe not. But he’s annoying.)

I like Billy Joel. He’s a solid middlebrow singer who’s made some enjoyable tunes. And probably taught a generation mid-20th-century history with ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’. Yeah, he’s no Leonard Cohen, but who cares? Not everyone has to be deep.

Richard D. Cameron says:

Who gives a damn what Liel thinks about Billy Joel or any artist, for that matter. Make up your own minds based upon what you like. Precious few critics have a clue as what is good music, art or most anything which involves the creative process.

David says:

There is Ron Rosenbaum’s classic piece. And there is this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TC1oTEiKaM

1. His mother’s Puerto Rican and the song’s about her support if his music
2. His first big gig with a band was a jazzfest in San Juan early 70s, and he’s looking back on that in 1979
3. 52nd St. Is clearly a jazz album and tries to explore that
4. Billy has no problem addressing NY neighborhoods and LI towns by name
5. And he often tries to make his songs relatable by using the speaker in the songs as an Everyman, not representing him literally but a poetic device, something he’s said repeatedly in lecture and interviews
6. I liked Nebraska and The Calling when they first came out as Born to Run and Asbury Park
7. Bruce is wealthy. He and Patti have a nice home. He eats well and manages his time well. Billy never ever got in a good position like that. From the time he met Elizabeth then let Frank take over his money…no, Artie Ripp had already messed him up, practically forcing him into hiding at the Executive Club.

Gosh, this all makes me sleepy. Billy has problems, pushes himself when he can, but at least he excels at his instrument and always has. Bruce learned a new chord recently. So I heard.

Here’s the best surviving clip from that PR festival. He’s far from home, with his band, killing it. He’s 23 years old.

http://youtu.be/n2RexLoAOpA

I love Billy Joel, up until the 90s stuff. Liel is full of it. Rosalinda’s Eyes is not one of Joel’s better efforts, but he’s the rare singer-songwriter whose most Muzaked stuff is actually terrific, provided your sense of it is not distorted by the fact that you heard it a thousand times in your dentist’s elevator. I still listen to him when I drive long distance, singing every word to every song. As a professional academic who does textual analysis for a living, I can attest that Joel’s lyrics are actually much better crafted than is usually recognized. He’s not Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens by any means, but he is a master of the sort of concise precision that eludes most pop lyricists. Just try listening to the Decemberists without throwing up. And much as I love R.E.M., it took Michael Stipe years to arrive at lyrics that made any sense whatsoever.

It’s Springsteen I detest (except for a handful of songs that are so good they don’t fit his usual pattern). The E Street band is among the least musical collections of noisemakers I have ever heard (along with the abomination that is The Band). And Bruce is maddeningly self-indulgent, taking himself as seriously as his idol, Bob Dylan. Talk about a couple of certifiable narcissists!

David Ross says:

So here’s the thing – the article says that Liel hates Billy Joel’s music. As a musician myself, the operative word for me is MUSIC! Billy is a brilliant music writer. His chord progressions are unbelievably complex – much more than the vast majority of music out there. Most bands know 3 chords. Billy also knows how to write intense & memorable melodies. His piano playing is wonderfully textured and he plays as if the piano itself is the entire band/orchestra (much harder to do than what most keyboard players can do). Liel & Rosenbaum’s criticisms are mostly based on the lyrics & tone of his songs. To me, the lyrics are just a small part of the overall equation of a song. If I want to focus on brilliant words, I’ll go take a poetry class. Billy’s lyrics may not be unnecessarily poetic & filled with obscure meaning that the vast majority of listeners could care less about interpreting, but his lyrics are much more poignant than most of the crap that’s on the radio today (and was on the radio then as well). And not to diminish his partner Elton’s contribution to music, but at least Billy does both jobs (writing music & lyrics) quite admirably. Liel’s criticism of the instrumentation on Rosalinda’s Eyes should be directed at Phil Ramone, the producer. So let’s just be honest about this conversation. If you are only about the lyrics, then say that you hate his lyrics. But purely from a music perspective, Billy is far and above more intellectual & complex than most of the music out there. And although his classical music is clearly influenced by Bach, Chopin, & Debussy, it’s still rather complex and well formed. Ironically he cites Beethoven as one of his biggest influences, but it’s influenced his pop music, not his classical music. And to be honest, I’d like to see any pop star who has done better classically. Just my 2 cents.

Always a Woman is just one example I’ve found of Billy’s tendency to create ridiculous irony between a song’s genre and its actual words. A lovely, pleasant, acoustic guitar driven waltz that’s all about how nobody can trust that woman? It’s like sonnet 130, that in spite of herself, she’s really a nice person once you get to know her. Trying to think of other examples…

Billy Joel’s 99th farewell concert in 1999 at Madison Square Garden was my first ever pop concert (and so far my only). To see 1000′s of 3-generational families holding each other and singing and with him was intensely moving and, asking myself why and how, I have listened to his music, lyrics and rhythms ever since. Many are famous. Take the iconic “Goodnight Saigon” [rage with 'We didn't start the fire...'] which includes helicopter cloppings used later by Stockhausen in his “Mittwoch Aus Licht” opera; take the eternally teenage “Movin’ Out” with its existential despair leading to the unknown; “She’s always a Woman” which places you in the lover’s mind even if you are a woman yourself; the plaintive innocence of “Where’s the Orchestra?”; “Lullabye” ['Goodnight my angel'] which every parent should sing and try not to weep out of love, pity and the awareness of the fragility of trust. When I’m not listening to BJ I’m into Haydn and Handel oratorios, Beethoven sonatas and Bartok. So. And he’s even got a great voice and plays the piano along with his band. A Musician!

Janet says:

I’m with Liel.

Anything relevant? For the last 20 years He hasn’t recorded ANYTHING – period.
In the ten years before that he had multiple hit records and sold millions of albums. He walked away at the top of his game – like a champion. [which some others should have considered before they became irrelevant.]
His legacy is quite secure. The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame gave the highly regarded Johnny Mercer Award to him, which only a handful of other great songwriters have ever received.

And I’ll bet the two of you have plenty to kvetch about.

My favorite Billy Joel song, and in my opinion his quintessential song, is Scenes from an Italian Restaurant — a ballad of overheard conversations describing characters nobody ever really knew or cared about, who milled around for a while, never grew up but could never make their way back to the “glory” of their teenage years. In short, it is about local life in Long Island. Billy Joel is excellent at describing that.

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Jewish Conversion: The Billy Joel Experiment

Part I: “Rosalinda’s Eyes”

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