I hate that the title is the first thing you’re supposed to write. Sometimes I start with one thing and end with another and the title is only tangentially related to the main subject.
Two days ago, I was writing a longish post on Billy Joel. I mentioned him in a post the other day and, as I was listening to his songs, I found the lyrics, especially in his first six albums, to be far more interesting than I recalled. Everything was going well. I was on something of a roll. Lots of ideas were floating around in my head. I had about a dozen tabs open with the lyrics. A couple of others on subjects related, not to Joel himself, but to the ideas I was trying to express.
I have a huge weakness when doing creative work. I’ve never been able to make outlines. Ideas stew and churn in my brain. (Can things stew and churn at the same time? Am I mixing metaphors, or is it okay because they’re both food related?) Depending on the size of the project, the stew period could be just a few hours or it could be weeks. Then, when it all comes together, I just start to work.
Here’s the key, I can’t be interrupted, not by anything that demands mental attention. When I get onto a creative streak, everything falls by the wayside. It’s why I’m not really a loner, but I need to spend long hours, preferably days, alone. It’s why I don’t paint unless I’m dedicating myself to painting and I can paint day after day. I don’t cook. I only eat when my stomach tells me I must, and then the easiest thing to grab without losing my train of thought. I want to go to sleep thinking of my project and wake up thinking of my project. It’s as if I’ve held up my skirt and let leaves fall into it. If I let my skirt drop and the leaves fall, they’ll never go back in the same order.
When my project is done, then I have a chance to do the dishes, get myself something normal to eat, do my laundry, run the vacuum. If I’m lucky, another idea doesn’t come until I’ve at least managed a haircut. I frustrate boyfriends. I’m the feminine version of Jekyll and Hyde. One moment, nicely dressed, looking pretty, with a reasonably tidy apartment, happily accommodating to their needs. A few days later, no make-up, wearing sweats, living in a pig sty and acting as if I’d rather they’d just leave me alone.
So there I was, typing away, when my mother had a problem. Normally, a brief chatty phone call is not enough to get me off track. However, the other night and the following day, I spent hours helping her with a little computer problem. When I returned to my Billy Joel essay, I’d lost it. I can remember a few of the ideas, but I’m missing something, something that made it worth writing. Now, it’s coming out sounding like a shoddy term paper on a second-rate poet.
So, I thought I would just share with you one of the songs to which I’ve never paid much mind, but piqued my interest the other day. It wasn’t going to make it into the main essay, in all likelihood.
The main character described in “The Angry Young Man” sounds like most of the people I knew when I was young, some of whom I still know. Indeed, it could have been me from the age of about fourteen to twenty-four. Have a listen:
There’s a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans
I really liked the phrase “working class ties.” Many of the radical kids are not truly working class, but they have “ties” to the working class. Often, they emphasize those ties. Sometimes, as in the case of one person I know, who I’ll call Rocco, they have no family ties whatsoever. His mother’s father was a large landlord in New York City. His father’s family was given a significant land grant on Long Island from the King of England. Yet, to hear him talk, you’d think he watched his father come home half-dead every night after working in the factory, not teaching at the university. He has no money now, but he doesn’t acknowledge the privilege he was born with and that his family (his parents are radicals, too) essentially frittered it away. They turned themselves into the victims they identified with.
And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost
And struggles and bleeds as he hangs on his cross
If I had a penny for every time I heard one of my associates invoke phrases like “fighting the good fight” or “the side of the angels,” I could buy a summer house out in the Hamptons and pretend I never knew a person with “working class ties” who wasn’t a servant. The important point here is the emphasis on nobly failing. They don’t look to create something that endures, which would involve compromise and working with people who don’t agree with them. No, they’re actually proud of their losses. They feel most comfortable in the position of martyr. This continues in the second stanza and a sense of isolation is added.
He’s been stabbed in the back he’s been misunderstood
It’s a comfort to know his intentions are good
And he sits in his room with a lock on the door
With his maps and his medals laid out on the floor
Note the sense of victimization. In his mind, he’s done nothing wrong, made no mistakes. If he’s failed, it’s because “he’s been stabbed in the back.”
Then comes the next stanza, which makes me feel akin to the speaker, whom I take to be Joel himself. I don’t know my musical terms, but this stanza has a different melody which sets it apart from the rest of the song. It’s less staccato, which makes it sound as if the speaker is more mellow than the angry young man.
I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight
I once believed in causes too
I had my pointless point of view
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right
One day, around the age of twenty-four, I realized I didn’t like suffering. Actually, I guess I already knew I didn’t like it, but I decided that I didn’t want to suffer anymore. Certainly, I didn’t want to suffer futilely. Believe it or not, this had a major effect on my politics. I realized it was wrong to ask anyone else to suffer for your ideals. If I didn’t want to suffer, I couldn’t ask anyone else to do so, either. It sounds pretty simple, but, once I thought it out in so many words, I was struck by how often my radical friends either wanted others to suffer or were surprisingly blase about whether or not they did.
If the song had been just about being radical when young and mellowing and getting older, it would have been uninteresting. It was the next stanza that really got me excited. It begins, as the first and second stanzas do, with a couplet that starts with the same first line:
And there’s always a place for the angry young man
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand
Then we find what is really the problem with the angry young man. It is not that he’s radical or even angry. It is that he can’t learn, grow, develop and change.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes
So he can’t understand why his heart always breaks
And his honor is pure and his courage is well
And he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell
“Boring as hell.” That’s so perfect.
The first, second and fifth stanzas all end with the same line, “And likes to be known as the angry young man.” Since the fourth stanza is the only one of the four with the same format to end in a different line, it stands out in importance:
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man
There we feel the real sense of futility of being an angry young man who can’t change. It also makes it clear that we are not talking about the folly of youth, but radical politics. I don’t think I need to draw the parallel to some current politicians.
The final stanza simply repeats the first.