Tag Archives: Piano

78th Favorite: Good Old Boys, by Randy Newman


Good Old Boys. Randy Newman.
1974, Reprise. Producer: Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman
Purchased: circa 1992.

good old album

nutIN A NUTSHELL – Piano tunes with Broadway-esque orchestrations about characters from the American South. The lyrics are funny and sad and always pack a punch, and if you’ve got mixed feelings about your own hometown, this record will likely connect with you.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It had more guitar, more rock. It’s sort of like listening to a Broadway cast recording or soundtrack – which isn’t surprising, since Newman has written songs for almost every movie ever made since 1992.
We all have to come from somewhere. Whether we are born in a location and stay there forever, or we move with our family every year, or if we have no family and nowhere to go, there is a feeling inside us that we have come from somewhere – even if we don’t know where that is.

poetryFor those of us who know where we came from, and who stayed there a while, our hometown helps define us. For some it states exactly who we are. Others work hard to prove it never can. Your hometown sets boundaries. It is the meter and rhyme scheme of rest of your life. You can say whatever you want to with your life, but you’ll always say it Iambic pentameter and AABBCC when you do. If you come from nowhere in particular, you’ll live your life in free verse.

lebanon paperA hometown can be the source of anxiety and stress in adults. At times you’ll find yourself reflecting on the good things about where you grew up, and proudly state “That place made me what I am today!” But then you’ll see the negatives and sheepishly murmur, “but I’m not like those people …” while wondering, “Or am I?”

I have written about my hometown extensively over the course of this blog. The history of its industry, the hard-working people who lived there (and the types of graffiti they created), and even what they did for entertainment. And like many grownups, in some ways I love the place I come from, and in some ways I can’t stand it. pa map 2

Lebanon, PA,[ref]Perhaps you remember it as the location of David Letterman’s fictional “Home Office” in the early 1990s?[/ref] my hometown, is in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. This fact often evokes the question from others, “Are you Amish?”
amish I’m not Amish, but I grew up in “Amish Country.” This means it was not unusual to see a horse and buggy driving on the roads near my house, although it would have been unusual to see one out my front window.[ref]Although I seem to recall it did happen once or twice.[/ref] Amish people were just other people in the community. My doctor, Dr. Eiceman (who was not, as his name suggests, an amalgam of 70s NBA greats Julius Erving and George Gervin) had a hitching post at his office for his Amish patients. Learning to drive as a teenager included instructions on dr icemansharing the road with horse and buggies.

However, far more common than the Amish were people from other Anabaptist sects. These other sects were mainly Mennonites and Brethren with a sprinkling of Moravians[ref]Who might not really be Anabaptist, depending on who’s telling the story.[/ref], too. Some of these people dressed a little differently than most other folks – wearing bonnets and hats very similar to those worn by Amish women and men – some drove cars that had no chrome, a good deal of them worked in local Farmers’ Markets.

When I was a kid, in the 70s and 80s, hex barnthe area was mostly farmland. Corn was the biggest crop, and it seemed to grow everywhere – plentiful and common enough that while driving to the pool or baseball games, my sisters and I could easily distinguish the “baby corn” at the beginning of summer from the “teenage corn” mid-summer (“knee high by the fourth of July!”) The Anabaptist religions of the region were evident in the cornfields by the multitude of Bible verse signs displayed in them, mostly warning others to shape up now or be judged later by an angry god.
road sign
My family is “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which is a culture, not a religion. One didn’t have to be Amish or Mennonite to understand what “Schmeis de gaul nibbe der fens fennig hoy!“[ref]Throw the horse over the fence some hay.[/ref] meant. This is a sentence from the Pennsylvania Dutch language, my dad’s parents’ mother tongue. His mother – who I only remember as a thick, round, gray-haired woman wearing cat’s eye spectacles and long, plain dresses, sitting in her stuffed chair, watching Lawrence Welk on a Saturday night – was clearly more comfortable speaking “Dutch,”[ref]My mom’s sister would be very upset if I didn’t mention here that the language “Pennsylvania Dutch” should really be called “Pennsylvania German,” as the term “Dutch” is a mispronunciation of the word “Deitcsh,” which means “German.” She’s quite vigilant about this.[/ref] than English. The happiest I remember seeing her was when her brother “Bench” – short for “Bench-a-min,” which is how one pronounces “Benjamin” with a thick Pennsylvania Dutch (German) accent – would visit and the two would sit in the living room or front porch and carry on zestful conversations in a dying language that sounded like the bad guys in a World War II movie.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/gramma.jpg” captiontext=”My dad (right) with his mom and dad, 1958. They likely offered their congratulations to him on high school graduation in a language I don’t understand.”]

The Pennsylvania Dutch culture, by thehex signs 1970s, was mostly residual, evidenced only in the hex signs on barns, the rich, egg-anchored foods and “Dutchified” phrases[ref]”Rutch over, I need a seat!” meaning move over. “Kids, don’t be so schuschlich,” meaning stop rutching around.[/ref] spoken in a sing-song accent that sounds like a combination of German, Yiddish and Irish accents – but nothing like that at all. But there remained a fierce pride in the heritage, and a desire to retain as much of it as possible.

The Pennsylvania Dutch people are, generally speaking, disinclined to get to know strangers. We are brought up to be skeptical of differences and resistant to change. (You might ask my wife – who grew up near Boston – about how difficult it aint dutchcan be to find a place among the insular PA Dutch.) But we are also taught loyalty, and the value of hard work. A self-deprecating sense of humor is endemic among us, and we like to have fun. (And my wife can also tell you about how much we like to laugh, as well!)

But it is this insularity, rigidity, and extreme resistance to change that I find to be the source of most of my anxiety about my hometown. There was a thick coat of racial prejudice over the region when I lived there. I don’t think of it as extreme – I rarely heard the “N word,” for example. But then again, there weren’t many African-Americans around. However, the Puerto Rican population in the city of Lebanon was quite sizable, and I heard the term “Spick” thrown around all the time. So maybe it’s just easy for a white guy to call this “not extreme;” maybe the fact that there were no lynchings doesn’t mean the bigotry wasn’t extreme.

differentBut the point is that anyone who was a little different – whether by skin color, dress, actions, or looks – was viewed with great skepticism. As I got older and started to understand who I was, and what I valued, it became increasingly difficult to stick around that place.

When I was 23, I joined a band, The April Skies, that performed in big cities on the East Coast, and I found myself regularly interacting with musicians, artists, and other creative types – exactly the types of people that my hometown might frown upon. I was hanging out with The Gays, The Lesbians, The Blacks, The Tattooed, The Drug Users, The Green-Haired. Some were funny, some were douchebags. Some were smart, some were idiots. freaksBut they were all just people, and after getting to know so many different ones, it became even harder to hear the comments, and feel the hostility, directed by so many people from my small town – small people with small minds who had never ventured more than a few feet away from their small houses – toward people they had never met from groups they had only conjured in their minds. (i.e. “The Gays.” “The Blacks.”)

When the band broke up a couple years later, the first thing I thought was “I’m getting the fuck outta Dodge.” I moved to San Francisco, and for years I was embarrassed about my hometown. tofu waterIt came out in my creative pursuits, evident in the play I wrote, and had produced, “Tofu Water,” about my town and my difficulties with it. But then again, I loved identifying with the Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and even spoke some Pennsylvania Dutch in my stand up comedy act, and proudly enjoyed the laughs.

In my personal life, my feelings were equally conflicted. I couldn’t wait to go back to visit my hometown, but I’d be there two days and couldn’t wait to go home. I looked forward to introducing my own kids to the region, and showing off places and people and memories from my childhood, but then always felt relieved that my own kids wouldn’t be raised in such a place. My hometown became a difficult conundrum. A source of equal parts pride and embarrassment. I found I both admired and disdained the people. I both extolled and mocked its values. I wanted to hold it in me forever, but forget it ever existed.

And I think it’s because of the opposing force of these feelings that I connect at such a deep level with Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys.

short peopleI had heard of Randy Newman since I was a kid. When his breakthrough song “Short People” hit the airwaves in 1977, I thought he was a comedy singer, like Jim Stafford or Ray Stevens. I thought the song was mean[ref]However, as with many Newman songs, a closer listen reveals the opposite.[/ref] and so I decided I didn’t like him. I saw him at some point as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live (likely in December, 1979, although it could have been a rerun of the October 18, 1975, episode) and realized he wasn’t a comedian, and that I still didn’t like him. In the 80s he surfaced in my world again when he had a minor hit with “It’s Money That Matters,” featuring a signature Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) lead guitar. I liked the sound of the song, but its smug, clever lyrics annoyed me. I was a fan of irony for sure – David Letterman was my idol at the time, after all – but there was something about Newman that rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like David Letterman was with me, and we were mocking others. But Randy Newman seemed to be mocking me, and I didn’t like it.

I’ve written before about my old friend, A., who I’d like to call a former girlfriend, but who was really just … well, someone I hippy chickchauffeured to the airport to meet her new boyfriend, I guess. But anyway, she introduced me to many artists, and – hippy chick that she was – even though it was 1992 at the time, most of those artists were from the 70s. At that time, being in a band and all, I was trying my hand at writing songs – even though I could just BARELY play guitar. I wrote a song called “All You Can Eat Night at the Local Woodchuck Lodge and Men’s Club” which I played for her. I don’t remember much more of it than the title, but it was a song making fun of the Small Town attitudes of many folks from my home town. It featured a first-person narrator who was aggressively bigoted, and used his bigoted language in the lyrics.

I played the song for A. who immediately said, “Do you know the song ‘Rednecks,’ by Randy Newman?” I didn’t, so the next time we got together, she brought Good Old Boys with her and we listened. The album immediately struck a nerve. I soon went out and bought it.

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles, randy 6but spent a great deal of time in New Orleans as a kid – living there and returning for summers until he was almost a teen-ager. Good Old Boys is both a celebration and a condemnation of the US South, written and sung by someone who clearly understands the people there, who genuinely admires a good deal about them, but who is also deeply conflicted about it all.

The first track sets the tone for the entire album. “Rednecks” is a simple song with deceptively simple lyrics[ref]Sensitivity warning: the “N-word” is used throughout.[/ref] that seem to be directly condemning rampant Southern racism.

It tells the story of a Southern white man watching former segregationalist governor of Georgia Lester Maddox interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show[ref]An event that really happened on December 18, 1970.[/ref], and getting so angry at Maddox’s treatment by the host that he writes a song about the joys of being a redneck. cavett maddox At first, the joke seems to be that all the joys he mentions are not admirable – being dumb, drinking too much, being a racist. The casual listener (particularly a snooty Northern liberal who feels nothing but derision toward the South – which is a decent description of me as a 25 year old) finds himself laughing at the disgusting man. Then the narrator compares the South’s African-Americans to the North’s, pointing out that the Northern blacks are free … “Free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City, and he’s free to be put in a cage in the South Side of Chicago …” It’s a remarkable song. In a brief three minutes it attacks both prejudice and hypocrisy, and forces the listener (well, this listener, at least) to consider his relationship to both. Musically, it’s got a catchy, sing-along melody with instrumentation befitting a song by a man who would go on to write loads of music for films. n wordThe blatant, repeated use of the “N-word” is likely offensive to many people, and I certainly understand why. To my ears, he’s writing from the point of view of someone who would speak the word in this manner, so it makes sense he’d use it – and informs the listener about the character of the man. But that’s my perspective – everyone will have their own personal view.

The next song, “Birmingham,” is one of the songs on the album that truly captures the dual, opposing feelings I have toward my hometown.

This entire album will be challenging for me to write about. It’s one of the few records on my list whose lyrics are the main reason I love it. A perfect record, to me, will have music I love paired with lyrics I love. Good Old Boys has music that I can appreciate, but what really brings me back to it are the lyrics. And I’m not sure how to write about them without just saying, “Look, read the lyrics,” and leaving it at that!

birminghamIn the case of “Birmingham,” the lyrics paint a simple picture of a simple man who loves his hometown, set to a catchy melody with another sing-along chorus. He works in the steel mill, like most of the men I knew as a kid, and doesn’t have much to complain about. There doesn’t seem to be much objectionable about him – except he reminds me of the many closed-minded jackasses I knew in my youth, as I was asking myself “Is this really all my hometown has to offer?” People who – when I mentioned I was moving to California – would scoff and say things like, “My cousin moved out there and moved back in 6 months. Said it’s expensive and full of assholes.” I hear the narrator, and I think, “Ha, another song about a dumb redneck!”

But really, this reaction is all about me. randy 2 The guy seems like a good person, going to work and enjoying his life. He’s a simple man, content, and good for him! But I sure do feel superior to him. Does that make me a bad person?[ref]Why do I like this record? Two songs in, and both have made me feel like a dick![/ref] But part of my reaction is also because the music has a hint of sadness to it. The lyrics are “Rah! Rah! Birmingham!” but the slow pace of the song and the horns and orchestra behind it seem to say, “Is this really all Birmingham has to offer?” Newman does a terrific job throughout this record of having the music enhance and comment on the lyrics. It’s a characteristic that makes him a natural to write all those Disney songs.

In the case of “Louisiana, 1927,” the music – a simple melody played by strings – immediately conjures images of Dixieland, with a tune that sounds straight out of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.

It is a sad song about the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The narrator (every song has a narrator) tells of watching the rains come and water rise, “six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.” President Coolidge comes to visit, but doesn’t offer much more than words. It seems nature and the world outside are conspiring against the state, leading to the refrain, “Louisiana/Louisiana/They’re trying to wash us away/They’re trying to wash us away.”


All hometowns have an “us against the world” component to their collective consciousness. People want to belong to a group, and they want that group to thrive and be respected for it. “Louisiana, 1927” puts you on the “us” side whether you’re from the state or not. The song also became the unofficial anthem of the New Orleans flood of 2005.

randy 3Newman is not what one would call an excellent singer in the traditional sense. He sounds like he needs to blow his nose, for one thing, and he tends to speak his words as much as sing them. But because his songs are always sung from the point of view of a character, a commenter who has a story to tell, it often works perfectly. He uses it to great effect on the romantic ballad “Marie.”

In “Marie” the narrator is a drunken man who’s finally expressing his love to his long-suffering wife/girlfriend, Marie. Newman sounds a bit tipsy as he sings, and his voice almost cracks and nearly misses notes. He’s as much an actor in this song as a singer. The melody is slow and sad. The narrator tells Marie how beautiful she is, and how long he’s loved her, but between these statements of love he admits he doesn’t listen, he hurts her, he has to be drunk to tell her of his love … romcomIt’s a sad love song because he obviously knows he can’t give her what she deserves, and she has clearly stayed with him despite this, and as much as that can be portrayed in stories as a romantic situation (basically, every Rom-Com that’s ever been made …) to me it sounds like a life of daily misery. As with “Birmingham,” it’s the pace and instrumentation of the song that add to the sadness. Also – this couple reminds me of so many couples from my hometown, people who settled for a situation out of convenience or low self-esteem. This record keeps connecting with me.

This type of relationship is revisited on the album in “Guilty,” featuring another couple (the same couple?) who sound better off without each other. The couple finally marry in “Wedding in Cherokee County.” And they sound like they are doomed to a long marriage of mutual torment. After all, on their wedding night she laughs at his mighty sword!mighty sword

But how much is too much? Can an artist really record 12 songs about the mixed feelings engendered by one’s hometown? Well, it’s really 10, as “Naked Man” is sort of a novelty song that might take place anywhere people typically wear clothes.

It’s catchy and fun, and its story of a little old lady who’s purse is snatched by a man in the buff was actually based on a true story Newman heard from a friend. randy 1It’s a favorite of mine because it’s so upbeat and bouncy. And it may actually be commenting on a stereotype of the deep south and it’s ways, as a close reading of the lyrics reveals there may be something going on between the naked man and his sister.

Another character with a story to tell about his sister appears on “Back on My Feet Again,” one of a few songs on Good Old Boys featuring The Eagles’ Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon on background vocals.

The narrator sounds completely unreliable right off the bat, randy 5and the story he tells of his sister and “a negro from the Eastern Shore” of Maryland, and the lyric “open the door and set me free,” makes it pretty clear that the doctor he’s speaking with is a psychiatrist at a hospital. This song is my favorite on the record because it finally features[ref]That is, if the word “features” can mean an instrument plays quietly in the background[/ref] a guitar. If you’ve read many of these posts, you’ll know that I like to discuss what the instruments are playing throughout a song, and that I love guitar and drums. But this record is all about the piano and the orchestration, the lyrics and the feelings a melody can carry. So when a guitar appears, a slide guitar soloing in the background throughout the verses and the chorus, my ears perk up and pay attention.

randy 7Politics are covered on the songs “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” a terrific song about the working poor, and “Kingfish,” about the populist 1930s governor and senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long[ref]Newman also includes a version of Long’s campaign theme written by Long himself[/ref]. Both songs are great, and I particularly like “Kingfish” because when the chorus, “Here come the Kingfish, the Kingfish,” comes around the music takes a sinister turn away from the upbeat tales of all the good things the governor has done. Once again, the music helps inform the listener about the lyrics.

The album closes with “Rollin’.”

It sounds like another look at the character from “Birmingham,” again proclaiming that life is good, and he ain’t gonna worry no more. But the source of his comfort is the whiskey he pours. The song connects with me, as does the whole album, because it offers a look at people you can’t help but feel sorry for. In this case, a guy who doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but who just seems lost, or maybe extremely limited, stating that life is good while his condition indicates otherwise.

randy 4But again – maybe that’s just my perception. Taken at face value, the character’s words make him sound content, if not downright happy. I associate these songs with my hometown and the people I knew there, and how sad it all seemed to me. But that perception is my own. The people where I grew up might not be sad, they might not be limited – in fact, they might even be happy to be there! It’s condescending of me to assume that because it’s not where I wanted to stay there’s no reason anyone would want to stay.

You can’t go home again,” the saying goes. But that has nothing to do with home. It’s because of you. Good Old Boys always reminds me that I can’t go home again, and that makes me both happy and sad. I’ll let the Birmingham-born southern writer Walker Percy sum it up:

“It’s one thing to develop a nostalgia for home while you’re boozing with Yankee writers in Martha’s Vineyard or being chased by the bulls in Pamplona. It’s something else to go home and visit with the folks in Reed’s drugstore on the square and actually listen to them. The reason you can’t go home again is not because the down-home folks are mad at you–they’re not, don’t flatter yourself, they couldn’t care less–but because once you’re in orbit and you return to Reed’s drugstore on the square, you can stand no more than fifteen minutes of the conversation before you head for the woods, head for the liquor store, or head back to Martha’s Vineyard, where at least you can put a tolerable and saving distance between you and home. Home may be where the heart is but it’s no place to spend Wednesday afternoon.”

Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)
Louisiana 1927
Every Man a King
Naked Man
Wedding in Cherokee County
Back on My Feet Again


93rd Favorite: Songs In the Attic, by Billy Joel


Songs in the Attic. Billy Joel.
1981, Family/Columbia. Producer: Phil Ramone
Purchased ca. 1988.

album cover

nut IN A NUTSHELL – Eleven songs recorded live by Billy and his band. Joel sings his heart out and pounds the keys, but the star of the record is Billy’s band, who sound tight and electric and powerful. These songs weren’t well known when the record came out, but have become some of Joel’s biggest favorites. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it wasn’t so piano-focused. I’m more of a guitar guy.


I am the youngest of three siblings, the only boy. But I swear I wasn’t spoiled!

Okay, I probably was, but not too badly. My sisters are 5 and 3 years older than I am, and I always tried to see myself as their equal – not as the younger, dumber brother. But try as I may, I was always the younger, dumber brother.

70s 1Because they were older, I turned to them to know what was cool in life. Here is a photo that shows I learned my cool lesson well. A huge part of my coolness lessons included music. Almost any music “the girls” liked, I was bound to like as well. And music played a big role in our lives.

I’ve written before about my early musical life but I’ll reiterate a bit here, in case you haven’t quite memorized everything I’ve written just yet.

Music was always a part of my family life. My dad’s father had been the leader of a German Oompah-type band called “Die Lauterbach German Band,” which had quite a following in the middle of the 20th century around the Pennsylvania Dutch region in which I grew up. Here’s a poster for the band, with a close up of the bass drum showing my grandpa’s name.

photo 2photo 1 (1)

My dad played trombone as a youth, even performing with his Lebanon High School marching band at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC around 1954. broadwayMy mom was a music appreciator, with a strong love for Johnny Mathis and Ricky Nelson as a girl and a bent in her later years for Broadway musicals, especially Annie, Fiddler on the Roof and Carousel. When I was a kid, my mom and dad both played albums (lots of brass bands and Broadway) and listened to music on the radio throughout the day.

We had an old upright piano in the back room of our house (which was therefore called “The Piano Room”) and my sisters and I each took lessons for varying lengths of time. My eldest sister also learned the saxophone, and I took up the trombone.

We talked a lot about the songs we heard on the radio, and discussed the pros and cons of them. To this day I associate most 70s songs with spending time with my sisters. Many of pool these songs are what the three of us now refer to as “pool songs,” songs that immediately bring to mind our daily summertime trips to the local pool – songs like Wings’ “Listen to What the Man Said,” Firefall’s “You are the Woman,” and Starbuck’s “Moonlight Feels Right.” (By the way, I don’t expect you to watch every video I post, but if you get a chance please open that Starbuck link and go to the 1:52 mark to see a man in a funky 70s open-chested unitard play a crazy xylophone solo – it says everything you need to know about the 70s).

Both of the girls were wild about music. As a child I listened to music nearly constantly, just by walking around the house. discoLiz, the middle child, was a huge Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 fanatic, and lover of Elton John. Anne, the eldest, became a 70s rock chick, owning classic albums and 8-tracks by Foreigner, Steely Dan, and The Beatles. And both of them were HUGE disco fans. It didn’t seem incongruous back then for someone to like both rock and disco. Of course there was the whole “Disco Sucks” movement in America but at our house music was music, and if it sounded good to my sisters, it sounded good to me.

And of course, both of them were way into Billy Joel.billy 70s Liz had all the albums, and followed him religiously into the 90s. She remains an expert on all things William Joel. Anne had a couple of his 8-tracks, and made plans to see him live at the Hershey Arena during his 1979 tour … plans that were thwarted by a little incident at a nuclear reactor near my home, Three Mile Island.tmi See, when the accident happened, in March of ’79, people had to be evacuated. And those people had to go somewhere. And there just weren’t a whole lot of large buildings suitable for holding thousands of radioactive refugees in the area at that time, so The Hershey Arena had to be put to use, even if it meant canceling a few Hershey Bears games and a Billy Joel concert … So Anne didn’t get to go to her first concert, and she didn’t get to buy either of these really cool shirts … (the second of which sort of gives the impression John Belushi will be performing.)

tour shirttour shirt 2

As I said, I tried to do all the things my sisters did, and picked up on most all of their tastes, (though I never got into CHiPS the way Liz did) learning to love rock and disco and pop and pretty much anything my sisters played.

So, I had heard a lot of Billy Joel in my youth, and I owned a few tapes that I made from my sister’s albums. I liked Glass Houses and Turnstiles and liked a lot of his radio hits. But I was never a huge fan – I never felt compelled to rush out and buy Billy Joel albums.

I got a new perspective on all things musical when I met Dr. Dave, who I’ve written about frequently, in college in Philadelphia. red wagonI have a memory of driving in a car with him – either his huge fire-engine red station wagon, or his little white LeCar – and the live version of the song “Miami, 2017,” from Songs in the Attic, playing lecar on the radio and him just gushing about how great it was. I really liked it too, and soon I went out to the local record store and bought the album.

“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights go Out on Broadway)” is the first song on the album, and it is immediately recognizable by the blaring sirens that open the song, and which are set against a beautiful, rolling, quick-paced piano phrase that is most memorable. This opening is perfect, as the song itself is a juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, devastation and hope. The lyrics describe a future (the year 2017 seemed so far away in 1976, when the song was written – I’m sure people thought we’d be wearing uniforms and flying around in jet packs by 2017) in which New York City is being destroyed because … well, it seemed like the natural progression for New York City in 1976. nyc 76

But despite the horrible events that are described – Bronx blowing up, Manhattan being sunk, maybe worst of all the Yankees being rescued by the navy – the song plays like an ode to the strength and resilience of New Yorkers, and became a sort of anthem. This was most evident in Joel’s performance of the song in the Concert for 9/11, just weeks after the twin towers collapsed in 2001.

At first the song seemed to me to be an odd choice to play on such a night, but despite the eerie similarity between the lyrics of the song and the recent events in Manhattan, it is clear from watching the performance, and the crowd’s reaction to it, and Joel’s words to the crowd after the song, that it’s a song about fortitude and community, and that maybe the lyrics aren’t exactly what they appear to be about at first.

Many people dislike Billy Joel. Some actively hate him. A few years ago, a respected (apparently) journalist, Ron Rosenbaum, penned an item for Slate.com calling Joel “the worst pop singer ever.” The article basically confirmed everything I already knew about critics in general: they are failed artists struggling to use academic arguments in an attempt to rationalize their obvious jealousy of others’ artistic successes. This guy Rosenbaum never made it in a purely creative outlet – and he did (unsuccessfully) give it a try – and so takes out his anger on someone whose material he dislikes.rosenfailure

I have no problem with Rosendouche stating that he hates Billy Joel and then outlining why. I think that would be a great read! Instead, he tries to make an objective case that Billy Joel is the worst at something that is not quantifiable. And he uses phrases like “We hate you,” as if the 150 million albums Joel has sold were all bought by Billy’s parents, and the rest of the world knows the secret.

Again, I don’t care if he likes Billy Joel. Some of my best friends HATE Billy Joel. I myself am not even what one would call a huge fan of his, even though I like some of his songs. But I just CAN’T STAND the position phony baloney critics take, as if they know things that the rest of us don’t know. Ron – GROW UP! Just say “I hate Billy Joel.” You don’t have to be RIGHT or WRONG about it – it’s a fucking OPINION, YOU MORON! Sorry. I get carried away. But the man doesn’t even write persuasive arguments. Frankly, they’re amateurish.

rosenloser He calls Billy Joel a misogynist, yet speaks wistfully of an earlier version of Bruce Springsteen – you know, the one who wrote that paean to date rape, “Fire.” He is outraged – outraged! – at Joel’s deriding, with a wash of superiority, a would-be hipster in the song “Captain Jack”, yet loves Bob Dylan, writer of “Like a Rolling Stone” – a song that derides (with superiority in abundance) a former girlfriend (but not in a misogynistic way, I guess). The funniest part of the piece (for its transparency is pretty funny – I can see Rosenturd in his footy-PJ’s stomping around the room while he thinks up his arguments) baby rosen is when he condemns Joel for calling out Hollywood phonies and big shots in fancy cars in his songs. This is ironic because for Rosenfailure’s lone artistic endeavor, the celebrated (just kidding!) mystery novel Murder at Elaine’s, he chose to satire … phony celebrities!! (Then again, maybe it wasn’t an artistic failure – maybe he didn’t want anyone to read it and was happy it never even made it to paperback. Even though, well … EVERY mystery ever written gets published in paperback!) He likely pretends to wear it as a point of pride that his masterwork was widely unread, as – obviously – commercial success is evidence of a lack of artistic merit, and says things to his friend [I doubt he has more than one] like, “I’m SOOOOO GLAD that M.A.E. [his pet name for his magnum opus] wasn’t more popular,” then goes home and puts his head in the oven. (But only because he’s a drama queen – he’s too chicken to turn on the gas.)

Sorry – critics like this asshole always get me riled up. It’s part of the reason I started this entire project. I wish critics would just say, “I like this, but I don’t like that,” instead of trying to pretend that their opinions are facts.


Anyway, my point here is that as many people as there are who adore Billy Joel – and the man was recently a Kennedy Center Honors recipient so it’s a pretty sizable number – there are people who dislike him. And if you do, this might be the one Billy Joel album you could stomach. One of the things I like about this album is that it doesn’t sound so much like a Billy Joel solo album as it does an album by a rock band that just happens to have Billy singing.

70s bandThe album’s liner notes give a great summary of the band’s history, and Joel’s desire to capture the band’s live energy on record. There is no between-song chit chat on Songs in the Attic, or drum solos or other aspects of some live albums that are supposed to make you feel like you’re at a concert. It’s simply the songs, recorded live. The following video of the track “Everybody Loves You Now” shows the band as a band, and offers a good example of what you’ll hear on Songs in the Attic:

This song sounds like one of Billy’s “eff you” songs. Billy has a few song types that he frequently writes: love songs, character studies, big picture songs and “eff you” songs. This one begins not with furious piano pounding but with furious guitar strumming – for this album is a band effort as much as a solo album.guitars The drums kick in, Billy starts thumping the piano, and starts to sing. Now, one of the things I like about Joel’s singing is that he puts his all into it. He’s not restrained or subtle in any way, and this might be a reason that some people don’t like him. But I like that he puts his heart into it – whether it’s a love song, or an “eff you” song, he sings like the words are the most important words ever sung.

eff you I always thought this song was a kiss off to a former flame. But when you read the lyrics a different story emerges. They seem to taunt a performer who has finally made it big after a long struggle, reminding the performer that he will now be surrounded by phonies and if he doesn’t watch himself he’ll be sucked into their world and become one of them. The song may be an eff you to a former flame, maybe he was dating another singer on the verge of stardom, but it very well could be a warning to his young self to be careful in the big bad world of entertainment. As with “Miami 2017,” Joel’s words aren’t always what they seem at first listen.

Another song on the album that is an “eff you” song is “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.”

The song opens with drummer Liberty DeVitto liberty pounding out a 60s girl-group beat, and it has a Supremes/Chiffons type of feel throughout – from the beat to Joel’s vibrato. (As a teenager, Billy actually played piano on the demo track of the classic Shangri-Las song “Leader of the Pack,” so it’s familiar territory for him.) The lyrics sing of Bobby and Johnny, the former in a hot new rent-a-car and the latter with a style so right for troubadours. troubadour

Bobby is trying to fit into the scene in a car he doesn’t even own and Johnny is a singer being tricked into sitting with his back to the door, a reference to mobsters and wise guys (knowing Joel’s history of dealing with shady characters in the recording biz, I’m quite certain they’re record executives). The narrator has seen enough and is moving on. The singing, the girl-group beat, the sing-along melody together make this one of my favorites in the Joel catalog. And I prefer this live version to the original.

Speaking of Liberty DeVitto, he is one of my favorite drummers in rock. He isn’t the fastest or fanciest drummer, but he plays with an energy that I like, and adds enough cool touches to make me like him. For example, the song “Los Angelinos”

opens with an electric piano riff, and DeVitto answers it with one snare hit, then two, then three, then four. nerdI don’t know why I find this cool – maybe because I’m the least coolest person on Earth – but I do. “Los Angelinos” is a Joel “character study” song, and these may be my favorite type of song by him. Songs in the Attic features a few of his best early ones.

Like “Captain Jack.”

“Captain Jack” is a song that, when I was a young teen, I wondered how it ever got played on the radio. For one thing, it is very long – over 7 minutes. Big Top 40 hits, like The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” or The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” were sometimes that long, but very few non-hits were played that were over the 7 minute mark. (A couple are Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and Lynyrd Sknyrd’s “Free Bird.”) For another thing, it is extremely dark, lyrically. It’s a slice-of-life about a young man trying to be cool but failing, and listening now in middle age I recognize its unmistakable description of a man battling depression. captain jackIt mentions drug use, pornographic magazines, masturbation, apparent suicide … lots of stuff that I, as a 14 year old, didn’t realize could be included in song lyrics. Musically, it follows the soft-piano-verse/big-rock-band-sing-along-chorus format that makes it a perfect live song. On the recording you can feel the audience’s frenzied response. I was a young man trying unsuccessfully to be cool (not the dude described in “Captain Jack,” but That Dude I’ve described previously) and the lyrics definitely resonated with me. As I got older, the line “you’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed/and that’s too long” particularly angered/prodded me.

Other “Character Study” songs on the album include “Streetlife Serenader” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” the lyrics of which, equating the young piano-slinger Billy Joel to the young gunslinger billy the kid Billy the Kid, my friend Dan once submitted in 11th grade English when he was assigned to write his own ballad for a unit on poetry! (I don’t remember what grade he got.)

Some of Joel’s best-loved works are his love songs, and Songs in the Attic includes two: “She’s Got a Way” and “You’re My Home.”

billy 70s 2

“She’s Got a Way” has become one of Joel’s most popular songs over the years, but in 1981 it was still not widely known. It is one of two songs on the album that feature simply Billy and a piano. If you’re one of the Joel haters, you should skip this song. I think this song has a nice melody and words, but it’s not the style of love song I enjoy. The lyrics are too direct for me, almost as if Joel himself had been assigned homework to write a poem about his girlfriend. I prefer love songs like “You’re My Home,” with its heavy use of metaphor, to describe his feelings.

The remaining Joel-type songs on the album are the Big Picture songs “Summer, Highland Falls” and the album’s closer, “I’ve Loved These Days.”snl 78

“Summer, Highland Falls” has an intricate piano line played very quickly, and Joel – who has a fondness for words and always packs them densely within a song – crams as many multi-syllabic words as possible into 3 minutes. Dr. Dave used to say he needed a thesaurus to figure this one out, but I heard an interview with Joel recently and he stated the song is about depression and bi-polar disorder.

yuengling Whatever the intention, I’ve always liked the words and melody together and associated them with the struggle we all have with any relationships – parent-child, spouses, friends, romantic. Random note about this one: I may have gotten tipsy and listened to this song a million times as a younger man. MAY have.

“I’ve Loved These Days” is a great album closer, a mid-tempo anthem with dynamic changes that makes good use of the entire band. The lyrics describe people having a good time, but maybe not behaving at their very best – self-indulgent, short-sighted, selfish. But despite the fact that our actions may not always represent the pinnacle of what humanity has to offer, Joel sings, it’s still all part of being alive, and all one can do is appreciate this fact. We can focus on the negative in our lives, but in doing so we dismiss a lot of the positive.

This is the spirit of this 100 Favorite Albums blog. These 100 albums may not be The Best, they may be flawed, and they may even represent to some people – particularly frustrated would-be novelists – the worst of what popular music has to offer. But I find a lot of good in them. They’ve meant something to me. I’ve Loved These Albums.

Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
Summer, Highland Falls
Streetlife Serenader
Los Angelinos
She’s Got a Way
Everybody Loves You Now
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Captain Jack
You’re My Home
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
I’ve Loved These Days

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