In “I Go to Extremes,” a sorta grown-up “You May Be Right” and his last real track of significance, Billy Joel proclaimed, “I feel like I’m in the prime of my life.” But it wasn’t true: he was about to say goodbye. Just four years later he sounded drained, dispirited, admitting to fatigue on “The River of Dreams.” “I’m tired,” he sighed over a gospel-glazed doo-wop lope dragged through Paul Simon’s Graceland, “and I don’t want to walk anymore.”
That was back in ’93, and we’ve heard nary a pop peep since. At some point he’d become disillusioned with the whole damn milieu. Stripped of a stream of music to slag, the press, never exactly sympathetic, began picking at the tawdry morsels of his life. His only real new recording has been the 2001 classical excursion Fantasies & Delusions, a double-whammy of whim indulgence and fuck-you to the machine. Everything else has been a calculated run of hits jobs, the latest of which, er, The Hits, launches a 40-year-anniversary reissue campaign of the Joel repertoire, fattened with the usual non-LP singles and vault effluvia.
For an artist whose output over the last 20 years could barely congest a baby, is yet another retrospective necessary? To an ailing music industry, the answer is yes. Why not give a man of Joel’s stature one last bells-and-whistles parade before dispatching it all as vapor to The Cloud? For the rest of us living in an accelerated culture, where even nostalgia’s a passing blur, the answer is, “What was the question again?”
The Hits is your basic, damn-near automated tour of the Joel mausoleum. It democratically culls up to two tracks apiece from each record, which makes it, of course, woefully undernourished. Joel hit a prodigious groove in the late ’70s that carried him through the ’80s with multiple charting singles on every release. So for every “Only the Good Die Young,” there’s no “Just the Way You Are” or “She’s Always a Woman.” “Tell Her About It” represents the smash-addled An Innocent Man (1983), but “Uptown Girl” didn’t make the cut. That a package called The Hits would be missing one of Joel’s biggest — only “Tell Her…,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” charted higher, all at #1 — calls into question said title’s veracity.
But nitpicked chestnuts ain’t Billy’s problem. He chucked that jive years ago; all that’s left is routine canon maintenance for sales bumps. Out come the ancient Polaroids of the young saloon key-slinger with Dylan-esque dreams, a last-call troubadour who turned his piano around to comment on the sad-souled rummies searching for shelter in familiar songs. “Everybody Loves You Now” (not a hit) and “The Entertainer” spoke to the pitfalls of fame, one the pianist had yet to experience on a level he’d one day know too well, thanks in part to the Top 40 “Piano Man” in 1973. Part anthem, part albatross, it was an earnest plod of piano and harmonica, two of the loneliest weapons known to man.
He graduated to “The Entertainer” the following year, a Billboard interloper with the wherewithal to execute the ambition of his wildest hair. Pianos shared space with prog-rock whimsy — kitchen-sink sonics, anything to be heard. The plaintive serenades were now delivered by a wary icon. “But I know the game, they’ll forget my name,” he sighed, “and I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts.” He’d unwittingly become a character in one of his own tales; everybody loves you now, for real.
Billy Joel’s was a pugilist’s spirit, a necessary defense for someone whose heart bled in buckets. Critics waxed their knuckles on his schmaltz, stabbed his discography with indifference. His nostalgia stuck in their tastemaker craw, no matter how he dressed it in contemporary threads. There was no ignoring the greaser libido panting through “Only the Good Die Young’s” verbal swerves toward honeypot paydirt (Catholic girls, those challenging figures responsible for 86 percent of pop’s hormonal ache) and a randy sax solo whisked in via Studebaker from a ’61-model senior prom. Beatles-esque harmonies descended into the otherwise Me Generation-friendly “My Life,” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” rode Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby” thump so hard it resurrected the Ronettes as a droop-lidded white boy from the Bronx. For anyone questioning his sentimental fusion of the hoary and new, Billy had a ready response: “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” complete with rockabilly strut and more of that Sockhop Sax.
He’d plenty more in stock too. An Innocent Man marked the perfection of the formula, adeptly melding scrapbook rhythms to early-middle-age scenarios. “The Longest Time” combined the moonlit kiss of street-corner doo-wop with the flush of a brand new, yet firmly adult love. “Tell Her About It” painted in tones of whitewashed Motown, and “Uptown Girl” — poor, absent “Uptown Girl” — was the perfect Frankie Valli vehicle with a true-life storyline torn from a Four Seasons song: untouchable socialite takes up with a neighborhood runt. That the reality couldn’t match the up-tempo ebullience was indicative of the Valli after-effect: Did love as gushed in teenage declarations ever survive the cosmic three-minute mark? Sometimes they veered into confusion and doubt, as voiced in “A Matter of Trust,” which was driven not by keys but by the toothsome charge of longtime Joel guitarist Russell Javors.
Billy’s wistfulness, nostalgia, and fear eventually gelled into the runaway ’89 smash, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a sing-song time capsule condensing four decades into five minutes of Baby Boomer helplessness. His was a generation of cultural spectators, observing Chubby Checker and Beatlemania giving way to Reagan, AIDS, and crack cocaine. We’ve sunk deeper in the 20 years since, but Billy now prefers to grouse in everyday language. “This country’s going to hell in a handcart,” he harrumphed in 2008. “This country’s been hijacked.” True, it lacks the zest of “Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law / Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore,” but the sentiment’s about the same.
But those days are long behind us in our journey with Billy Joel. All we have left are ivory ghosts, strategically resuscitated every few years to move units, maybe add another wing to the bunker or keep the bloodsuckers fed. Meanwhile, the Piano Man is content to deliver comfort food to priced-out arenas of sad-eyed souls. With its patched-together sequence of rancid leftovers, The Hits reminds us not of Billy Joel’s everlasting artistry, but of a career that stalled, leaving what the Bronx Bard himself would call the cold remains of what began with a passionate start.