Jewish Conversion: The Billy Joel Experiment
Part II: “Los Angelenos”
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.
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”
Sierra Leone’s parliament building as a symbol of Israel’s presence in Africa