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Jewish Conversion: The Billy Joel Experiment

Part II: “Los Angelenos”

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In case you missed yesterday’s dispatch, one of my resolutions for 2013 is to convince my stiff-necked colleague Liel into reconsidering Billy Joel, a musician he loathes without relent.

He was not as fond of “Rosalinda’s Eyes” as I had hoped he would (but compelling points were made in the reader comments), but I believe the Billy Joel oeuvre is wide and too hard to cross without bumping into something that might warm Liel’s cold heart. Since it’s near impossible to avoid hearing the most popular of Billy Joel’s tunes, I’ve picked strictly from his lesser-known songs.

Today’s pick is “Los Angelenos” from Billy Joel’s 1974 album Streetlife Serenade, although inevitably to Liel’s chagrin, the video below is Joel performing the song live at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut.



I chose “Los Angelenos” for one reason. It’s great. A terribly good terrible rock song. Maybe I’m a sucker for songs about the decay of Los Angeles life, but this one in particular exaggerates why L.A. remains so worthy of our derision. The song was written during the three years Joel lived in Los Angeles, an experience he is said to have called a “big mistake.”

The lyrics hit at the futility of manifest destiny; Los Angeles as the Mecca of false self-reinvention, where people escape to hide their true selves under shallow veneers and the sheen of life without seasons.

Tanning out in the beaches
With their Mexican reefers
No one ever has to feel
Like a refugee
Going into garages
For exotic massages
Making up for all the time gone by

It’s not deep. It’s probably not even true. It’s just a rock song laced with scorn about living in a place you hate, seeing new things and realizing they are irreducibly the same.

***

Liel’s response:

I thought nothing could top Rosalinda’s contempt for humanity. I was wrong. Joel has outdone himself. I’m not even going to mention the four-chord catastrophe that is the music, which sounds like what Steely Dan might have come up with if Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had both been deaf and severely dumb.

And then there are the words: “Midwestern ladies / High-heeled and faded,” “Electric babies / Blue-jeaned and jaded.” Let us forgive for one second the decision to write a song about how people in LA are weird, which is as innovative a creative undertaking as declaring that roses are red and violets blue; if you want to say something about the town, there are much better observations to be made. Angelenos aren’t jaded; it’s the opposite. They are a thicket of self-improvement schemes underscored by a deep sense of existential anxiety. And they are never faded, but always fading. And there are no “New York cowboys” riding around; all you need to do to know that is watch Annie Hall. And no one makes love with the natives: the natives are either black or Mexican–in which case, they’re invisible to most of the white population of LA, which is clearly the only one that matters to Joel–or born-and-bred Angelenos, cool cats who wouldn’t dream of mixing with the aspiring hordes who wash up on their shores. “The streets with the Spanish names”: this is like a dim child reading a Reader’s Digest article about LA and inspired to write a song. Jesus.

Earlier: Part I: “Rosalinda’s Eyes”

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marjorie says:

bwahahahaha

Sounds like someone was paying homage to Bernie Taupin:

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must have seen her dancing in the sand
And now she’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand

Oy! Liel needs to get over himself. No Billy Joel is not the worlds greatest Jewish pop star. I would hand that crown to Paul Simon. It’s pop music and that is all it was ever meant to be. It is a way to make a good living and it has served him well. As for Liel’s condemnation of LA in general: New York is not the center of the universe! Most folks in LA are just trying to lives their lives and be left alone. It is the small sub culture of fame seekers that give LA a bad reputation and yes they do exist there.

But the people really do go into garages for exotic massages?

These critiques of BJ’s legacy as a pop musician are odd examples of musical criticism, reading more like facile literary criticism misapplied to its chosen subject. Even non-fans of BJ’s ouvre (such as myself) have to admit the guy could write a catchy tune and some memorable – if shallow – lyrics. It is strange for a critique of music to focus almost entirely on the literary value of the lyrics, with but one small anti-comment about the music (“I’m not even going to mention…”). The Rosenbaum article on which Liel bases his critique makes the further faux pas of announcing his italicized irritation to BJ’s “tunes” – even instrumental versions – without a single comment in 4 pages about their tunefulness, musical creativity, hummability, musicianship, instrumentation, sonority, etc. There is also scant attention paid by either critic to the poetic value of the lyrics (the music of the language) – whatever conclusions one wishes to draw about BJ’s talents in this area. Further, while BJ’s lyrics do not hold up under the scrutiny of literary criticism, not many pop songs do – a context for what standards of literary criticism reasonably apply to the genre is missing from these analyses. As literary critic, Rosenbaum makes the rookie error of equating the perspective of a song’s subject with that of its author. It may be that BJ is singing about himself, but this case must be made, not assumed. Finally – and most importantly to this reader – Liel discredits his reliability as an arbiter of the artistic with the throw away comment about Paul Simon. It may not be his personal taste, but “insipid”? PS has written some of the most lyrically and musically compelling pop songs of the past 50 years while profoundly influencing the development of the genre. Make a case if you’ve got one, but you’ll find PS much less of an easy target – even if you do strangely reduce the value of music to the exclusively literary plane.

Bollocks.
Unrelenting loathing is the same as blind hatred. Joe’s catalogue is too eclectic and varied to simply smear all of it with a broad brush. Your friend’s contemptuous trashing of his complete body of work is the exact equivalent of what he accuses BJ of doing lyrically.
Anyone can misinterpret art to try to prove their own preconceived opinions.
He is making the mistake of analyzing ‘lyrics’ instead of listening to the entire ‘song’.
Joel’s music is just as important as the words – maybe even more so.
Yet Liel is as blatantly incoherent as Ron Rosenbaum regarding the substance and ingenuity of Billy Joel’s musical compositions. So he chooses to “not even mention” it.

How convenient.
Bollocks.

Do Summer, Highland Falls!

mildmannered says:

I’ve misunderstood the point of this. Why would the author expend energy convincing his pompous, pseudointellectual friend to like Billy Joel? Isn’t there enough other music in the world to enjoy if you don’t like a particular artist?

Neither do I get this loathing of Jews by this article and many like it in Tablet. Jews have enough enemies, they don’t need to turn on each other. Let’s find other pasttimes.

betheboy says:

Like your friend I too had avoided Billy Joel until the beginning of last year when I decided to flip my own script and listen to EVERYTHING he ever did and document my experience. You may want to point him to http://ayearofbillyjoel.com/ I just wrapped it up. Sorry to plug my own project but I thought it was appropriate.

Dear Robert,

We weren’t going to discuss this song — it isn’t on Adam’s list — but I was intrigued and sat down to listen. The first thing that struck me is the song’s terrible impotence: it’s every bar seems to ache for some sort of release, some soaring refrain that will rescue the song from sounding like something that might accompany a cheesy 1980s movie montage. The release never comes; this is musical flat-lining. The lyrics don’t make it much easier. At first blush, they seemed utterly nonsensical to me. What, for example, is one supposed to make of a line like “And so we’ll argue and we’ll compromise / And realize that nothing’s ever changed / For all our mutual experience / Our separate conclusions are the same”? The experience is mutual, but regardless the conclusions are separate, but they’re still identical. This is a terrific combination of bad grammar and bad logic, which about sums up Billie Joel for me. When I listened to it again, however, I realized that this song sounds like the work of a manic-depressive, and was not surprised to read online that Joel had indeed hinted that the song was about such a mental affliction. Had it not been penned by one of pop’s most arrogant and overrated dudes, that might have elicited a touch of compassion on my part.

Thank you for taking the time to comment,

L.

Dear Robert,

We weren’t going to discuss this song — it isn’t on Adam’s list — but I was intrigued and sat down to listen. The first thing that struck me is the song’s terrible impotence: it’s every bar seems to ache for some sort of release, some soaring refrain that will rescue the song from sounding like something that might accompany a cheesy 1980s movie montage. The release never comes; this is musical flat-lining. The lyrics don’t make it much easier. At first blush, they seemed utterly nonsensical to me. What, for example, is one supposed to make of a line like “And so we’ll argue and we’ll compromise / And realize that nothing’s ever changed / For all our mutual experience / Our separate conclusions are the same”? The experience is mutual, but regardless the conclusions are separate, but they’re still identical. This is a terrific combination of bad grammar and bad logic, which about sums up Billie Joel for me. When I listened to it again, however, I realized that this song sounds like the work of a manic-depressive, and was not surprised to read online that Joel had indeed hinted that the song was about such a mental affliction. Had it not been penned by one of pop’s most arrogant and overrated dudes, that might have elicited a touch of compassion on my part.

Thank you for taking the time to comment,

L.

michael says:

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!

For the most part, I loathe Billy Joel. I am 42, and I have been listening to Billy Joel my entire life. He has inhabited the airwaves of radio and video for all of my formative musical listening years, the years when one is most passionate about music and consume it with the most voracious appetite.

Billy Joel’s music is not alone in how certain classic rock or pop artists of the 70s and 80s became so familiar as to lose all meaning (if they ever had any to begin with – “Stairway to Heaven,” I mean you!). However, I can specifically point to my junior year of college, where I roomed with a rabid Billy Joel/Eagles/Boston fanatic as the point where I finally began to loathe Billy Joel.

I can’t find fault with his musical ability as pianist or composer per se. But the voice, and the characters in his songs became like trips to an unfavorite aunt’s house, where you knew cheeks would be pinched and the house would smell just a little past due.

Mama Leone, Virginia (and the overzealous shmo trying to get in her pants), Brenda and Eddie, the old man sitting next to me making love to his tonic and gin: I learned to hate these people. Unlike Springsteen’s characters, they felt forced, even formulaic. I learned to become intolerant of Billy Joel’s vocal mugging for the camera on songs like “Big Shot.”

And then there is “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” This song, in and of itself, is a singular loathsome achievement in the Billy Joel ourve. The stabbing rhythm. The stream-of-consciousness random historical moments. The vapid chorus. It ranks as a cultural low point with songs like “We Built This City” by Starship and “Break My Stride” by Matthew Wilder.

But I really like songs like “Miami 2017.” At the recent concert for Sandy Relief @ MSG I got into “Movin’ Out” because the electric guitars were up in the mix; it gave the song a fresher, more aggressive feel. However, there’s no Billy Joel song, for me, that rises to the level of anthem, of being necessary to my life.

For all of the Billy Joel ubiquity in my life, he only became something I had to tolerate, like bad school lunches.

So I get the dislike – and I doubt you’ll be able to make a convert.

Stepping away from cases in point for a second… how many of his peers are as generous about bringing audiences into compositional/performance practice? See this whole page on his website – http://www.billyjoel.com/questions-and-answers

Bollocks again.
It seems that some of the negative comments about your friend’s dearth of musical opinion in his previous rants have struck a nerve. So he has responded with yet another predictably scathing review. However, his overwrought attempt to actually critique the musical composition of ‘Summer, Highland Falls’ by using Wagnerian phrases like “the song’s terrible impotence”……….”every bar seems to ache for some sort of release, some soaring refrain that will rescue the song”………”this is musical flatlining”…….. is not only technically useless, it is incoherent.
His fevered overreach for hyperbolic scorn seems to be symptomatic of a personality disorder. Mr. Leibowtz has evidently made up his mind to eviscerate any and all of Joel’s work because, for some reason, he despises the man ["one of pop's most arrogant and overrated dudes....".]
And yet he has the condescending pomposity to pen that BJ, the arrogant pop dude, is unworthy of eliciting even “a touch of compassion” from the benevolent heart of Liel Leibowitz.
Bollocks.
Also, I see no examples of bad grammar in the lyrics that were quoted.
And where is the “bad logic” in those lyrics?
What is so difficult to understand about the implicit ending of the phrase “Our separate conclusions are the same” i.e. AS THEY ALWAYS WERE? Liel should have re-read the last line of the previous verse, “and realized that nothing’s ever changed”, to comprehend Joel’s clear meaning.
But he won’t. Because then he would have to admit that he was mistaken; and that he might be mistaken about his neurotic loathing of all things Joel.
It takes a very closed mind to refuse to recognize what is obvious to many. Apparently, his mind is shut as tight as a tomb when it comes to this subject
I am not a diehard fan of Billy Joel but I do recognize the man’s talent and I admire the universal success of his extensive catalogue. And so have people like Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Barbara Streisand, among other influential artists. Some of his songs have given me and millions of others joy and pleasure. As I am yet unfamiliar with the works of Mr. Liel Leibowitz, I will reserve judgement about his accomplishments.
While I don’t know Mr. Joel personally and I certainly wouldn’t form an opinion on his character or personality based on the wretched dreck I read about celebrities in the media, I do find it offensive to see an artist’s entire body of work condemned mainly because of something as irrational as personal hatred. In my opinion, Mr. Leibowitz and his type of absolute intolerance smack of facism. To me, it is not that far removed from throwing books into bonfires.
Bollocks to him.

Charlie says:

People: The music is what matters, what is all this fuss about the words? The content of the music is the way harmony, rhythm, melody, sonority, and emotional expression create and foster a feeling. If you want profundity, go read Goethe, don’t listen to Billy Joel. But if you want a good tune and inventive overall pop music (thank goodness his songs sound different from each other, unlike the ‘boss’), listen to Billy. All this negativity cloaked in laughable pretentiousness by Liel is so absurd, it’s like he’s secretly in love with Joel, and going overboard in trying to say how bad he is…you can’t hide, Liel, you doth protest too much.

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Jewish Conversion: The Billy Joel Experiment

Part II: “Los Angelenos”

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