Tag Archives: Billy Joel

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.




Lately, I’ve been thinking about memes a lot – not the silly “internet memes”, but the original idea that Richard Dawkins first proposed. Annoyingly, if you search on Google for “Richard Dawkins meme” the first result is actually image results of, yes, Dawkins’ photo with silly captions. Below that we do find the Wikipedia entry for Meme:

A meme… is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of how people develop their ideas. For instance, few people I know wake up one day and decide that, although they are totally neutral on the subject, they would like to inform themselves about Marxism, read Das Capital, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and, I don’t know, maybe some later things like Marcuse or Zizeck, and maybe they read a few arguments against Marxism, Communism and Socialism and after about six months or a year of calm detached study, he or she decides to be a Marxist. Now, I know someone will almost certainly say, “But I did exactly that,” and I’m sure that’s true, especially if someone is assigned books in school when they didn’t really want to read them. However, when I think of friends I knew who became Marxists, mostly they didn’t do that. Their move towards Marxism went in fits and starts. First they have a sense that the world is unfair. They are bothered by poverty. The hear Patti Smith sing “The People Have the Power.” Maybe they watch “Metropolis” or read The Jungle. Ideas come in chunks, which is maybe why I’m relating it to memes. By the time they actually read any theory, they have already accepted some ideas without conscious examination.

This behavior has nothing to do with intelligence. One of the smartest woman I’ve known became an anarchist in this way. This was back in the days before the internet. Eventually, an anarchist newsletter started appearing on her coffee table and she started saying things that indicated that she had actually read at least Emma Goldman. She was so smart. I can’t even begin to describe it adequately. She certainly could have read heavy works. Still, she came to anarchism through punk rock and the East Village club scene. It is very possible that my dislike of anarchism comes from the fact that my very interesting, intelligent friend with whom I was once able to have long discussions in which we could disagree on a variety of things started to become filled with certainties and could brook no dissent. She wasn’t alone in this attitude, the new friends to whom she tried to introduce me were similarly certain and unable to discuss too many things for me to enjoy their company.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I grew up with a highly unfavorable opinion of the United States, despite having no real reason for that.

The other day I heard some Billy Joel. Now, I’m a not Billy Joel fan and it’s rare for me to listen to his records, but I was in junior high school when the albums 52nd Street and The Stranger came out. This was not the height of his fame or sales, but it was the height of his reputation. Just having finished bingeing on multiple listens of those two albums plus “Piano Man” I’m really struck by how influential Billy Joel was on my peers. He was one of us in a way that other performers were not. He was very frankly a lower-middle class kid. In “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” he sings, “From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island, rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand.” Joel was born in the Bronx and grew up in Levittown, a planned suburban community comparable to the one I was living in on the other side of New York City, out in New Jersey. The brutal honesty of “Captain Jack” established a suburban equivalent of “street cred.” For me, personally, as a pre-teen, Captain Jack described a young adult or older teenager who was exactly what I didn’t want to be, an unhappy, dissatisfied person who, instead of trying to change his life, gets high. Now that I think about it, it might done more than all the well-intended anti-drug messages to keep me from over-indulging in drugs. The song evoked the barrenness of suburban life. In the first installment of my memories, I discussed a reexamination of that evaluation, but at the time, growing up in suburbia, I very much felt the dissatisfaction.

The song “My Life” from the album 52nd Street starts with the following lines:

Got a call from an old friend.
We used to be real close.
Said he couldn’t go on the American way.
Closed the shop, sold the house
Bought a ticket to the West Coast.
Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.

When I listened to these lines, which I had heard hundreds of times before and sung along with nearly as many times, but suddenly sounded fresh because I hadn’t heard them in years, an unintended irony made me sit up. We all understood what Joel meant by “the American way,” although it might be hard to put your finger on it. At that time, it was expected that you would go to school, work hard, make a little money, probably not a ton, and spend that money on little suburban comforts, more than necessities but less than luxuries. A slightly nicer car. Slightly nicer clothes. A big teevee. A barbecue grill in the back. The friend in the song rejects this empty life and moves out to L.A. What, however, can be more American than doing a stand-up routine in L.A.? Americans had been railing against suburban conformity for almost as long as that middle class suburban life has existed, but it was the thing they were rebelling against, not the rebellion, that was seen as “American.”

A long time ago, I had a boyfriend from England who, upon arriving in the U.S., wanted to finally do what he saw as a stereotypically American thing that he had always fantasized about doing. He got a motorcycle and rode from New York out to California. It was only on arriving there and finding that all the Americans he met were vaguely amazed he had done that and thought it was outrageously “cool” that he realized that it wasn’t as typically American as he thought. Lots of things happen here. Some of them get dubbed “American” by Americans, some get dubbed “American” by outsiders, and some never get dubbed American by anyone at all.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Scott Alexander’s essay, “I Can Tolerate Anything but the Outgroup.” In it, he mentions the strange bit of “alchemy” that allows some people to appear to hate the social group to which they belong. In his essay, he explains that when people use certain words, one of which is “American,” they don’t always mean “American” in the most literally sense of the word, but a specific American subculture. Although the subculture Alexander has in mind is “guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism,” that is not the way the term was used when I was growing up. Back then, “American” signified the materialistic, suburban life the characters in Joel’s songs are rebelling against.

I don’t think Joel had any intention whatsoever of being anti-American, but when I heard that lyric more recently and it jumped out at me the way it did, I thought of it as one more drip in a constant drip, drip, drip of anti-American platitudes that was the background noise of my childhood. It is like one of Flaubert’s received ideas, only one that has remained generally unexamined. We are essentially brainwashed to hate ourselves.

When I try to find the origin of these assumptions, it can be very difficult because it’s rarely presented as a complete thought. It comes, instead, in off-hand remarks and associations that are secondary, or at least appear to be secondary, to the main subject under discussion.