In a parody of his own song about outlaw “Billy the Kid,” Billy Joel gives us a glimpse of his own history: “From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island, came a boy with a six-pack in his hand.” Born and raised in New York, Billy still calls it home though he’s traveled around the world a dozen times over in his life. In the aftermath of Sept 11, 2001, Billy’s benefit concert drew a standing ovation as he ended his set with “New York State of Mind.”
New Yorkers were introduced slowly to this native son who would go on to become one of the most poplar singer/songwriter/performers of the 1980’s and beyond. Billy, an accomplished pianist, made his living playing in New York City’s piano bars – a part of his roots that he never abandoned. Years later, during live performances, Billy was still at the piano.
Billy Joel’s top ten songs include a few that never made it to the top of the charts as so many others did. But to his followers, these songs are not the least bit obscure; they’re exquisite classics of lyrics and musical arrangements, performed with Billy’s ever-present vitality.
1. “Until The Night” Unless you’re familiar with Billy’s album, “52nd Street,” you probably don’t know this song. Give yourself a treat; log on to Amazon.com and order it right away, and make this the first song you listen to. This is Billy Joel at his absolute best. The poignant lyrics speak of deep, passionate love and the beautiful musical arrangement makes you just want to sit and listen, over and over again. Can you identify with leaving your lover every morning to go out into the world to earn your pay? And then comes the night, when you can finally live your real life. “As they pour into the streets, I will be getting closer, as the cars turn their headlights on. Until the night, we just might make it, until I see you again.”
2. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is another stunning achievement that didn’t make it to the Hit Parade. Yet Billy Joel devotees were/are known for being able to sing the “fast part” of the song without ever blowing a lyric! Imagine sitting in your favorite Italian restaurant with an old friend whom you haven’t seen in years, reminiscing about the old days and catching up on what’s new in your lives. All the gossip about Brenda and Eddie, nights of hanging out together on the Village Green, your wives, family and job. “A bottle of red, a bottle of white – whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight. I’ll meet you anytime you want at our Italian restaurant.”
3. “Piano Man” was Billy’s first mega-hit – uniquely written Ã?Â¾ waltz-tempo. This is an autobiographical song about his early days playing in local piano bars. He knows all the bar’s “regulars” and their stories – their unfulfilled dreams, their loneliness, the old man who asks him “Son, can you play me a memory, I’m not really sure how it goes. But it’s sad and it’s sweet, and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.” Thirty years later, Billy Joel is still a “piano man.”
4. “Pressure” is an angry, sarcastic song. Life, Billy tells us, is all about pressure and whether or not we can cope with it. Until you can, you’re just taking up space, not really living. Scornful of the pasted-on smiles of robotic, plastic people who wander through life, Billy sings “And here you are with your faith and your Peter Pan advice; you have no scars on your face and you cannot handle pressure!”
5. “Goodnight Saigon” also received little radio air time due to its unflinching portrayal of the men -boys, really, – who fought and died in Vietnam. This isn’t an anti-war song, but it’s still uncomfortable to hear because it puts human faces to the soldiers who lost sight of the mission of the Vietnam conflict, and only wanted to stay alive. Billy was never a soldier, but somehow he captured the false bravado and the terror of those who were. They held their rifles tightly “Ã¢Â?Â¦and prayed to Jesus Christ with all of our might. We said we’d all go down together.”
6. “Big Shot” was pure gold, lingering for weeks on the top of the charts. It’s a song that is both angry and amusing; Billy has no sympathy for his lover who, fueled by alcohol and drugs, “sure put on a show.” Unmoved by her day-after hangover, Billy sings “Go on and cry in your coffee, but don’t come bitchin’ to me. You had to be a big shot, didn’t you? You had to prove it to the crowd.” Haven’t we all been there?
7. “Captain Jack” is street-slang for heroin. In this controversial song, Billy sings the story of a young rich kid who seems to have everything – except happiness. Friends, sharp clothes, money; cars; they aren’t enough to ease his loneliness and boredom. Only one thing can do that for him. “Captain Jack will get you high tonight and take you to your special island. Captain Jack will get you by tonight; just a little push and you’ll be smiling.”
8. “The Stranger” was one of Billy’s early hits, his commentary on the duality of human nature. “We all have a face that we hide away for ever. We take it down and show ourselves when everyone has gone.” We’re not who we seem to be, Billy tells us. We’re actors carefully playing a part, being what the world wants us to be. “Have you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?” Good question.
9. “My Life” is Billy’s anthem for anyone who has ever wanted to just be left alone to live the way they want without being lectured by those who would impose their way of living onto others. This is how it was in the 1980’s; the “flower power” days were over but the aging hippies still wanted the freedom to enjoy who they were and how they chose to live. “I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life. I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to go home. Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone!”
10. “Movin’ Out” was an enormously popular song with a catchy beat and a strong message about what’s really important in life. Billy sings the story of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Hard-working taxpayers who suddenly decide they’re had enough of the American Dream. “You can pay Uncle Sam with your over-time; is that all you get for your money? Good luck movin’ up cause I’m movin’ out!”
For all his early promise and mid-career genius, Billy Joel has not aged well. Divorced from his first wife and from super-model Christie Brinkley (the “Uptown Girl”), Billy’s only anchor is his daughter, Alexa. Except for the 9/11 memorial concert, he no longer performs or records. His musical genius made Billy Joel enormously wealthy, but like the boy in “Captain Jack” his wealth doesn’t appear to have bought him peace of mind. His struggle with alcohol is well-known, and many say he’s a lost soul. Perhaps, for the first time, Billy has met the Stranger in himself.