[Like the abyss, you can look over the transom and sometimes the transom throws back. From time to time this space will feature unsolicited-and-stayed-that-way submissions I made that would otherwise be lost to history. My frequent outlet, HiLobrow.com, features capsule profiles of cultural figures that debut on their birthday, but not this one, though I’ve done a lot. So, in this case, no waiting ‘til May 9; happy advance birthday, ya bald bastard!]
Highbrow gatekeepers like to indulge in the exercise of deciding whether things that everyone has loved were indeed worthwhile. But BILLY JOEL (born 1949) resists “reassessment” ’cuz the facts of the case have always been right there to take or leave. A true intellectual and a genuine working stiff; a lot of inescapable pop static and just as much stubbornly brilliant songcraft. He himself spent too much time wondering who he should please — ersatz punk and avant-garde like the Glass Houses album and the “Pressure” single; pandering hit-fodder like “Baby Grand” — but he’s at his best when he thinks just enough and feels without heed, from exhilarating throwaways like “Get It Right the First Time” (which he hates) to somber marathons like “The Night Is Still Young” and pop-suites like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (which everybody loves, or at least has no good reason not to).
It’s hard when you get known by so many that you have to be all things to all people, but Joel resists being one thing, and if that means the cerebral troubadour and experimental tin-pan-alley prodigy he was through The Stranger mostly shows up for cameos among the dependable or trendy gold records — as that guy did with the grand cabaret bubblegum of “Don’t Ask Me Why,” the catchy insurrection of “Allentown,” the deep suburban blues of “This Is the Time” or the tense cast-against-type post-human synth-balladry of “Blonde Over Blue” or the lovely meta-kitsch of “All My Life”’s Bennett impression or the bloodcurdling chart-suicide of “Christmas in Fallujah” — then some of the people have all gotten what they want.
Joel did an album of instrumentals played by a formal concert pianist as his last full-length release to date, but from the start more than anyone he’s a pioneer of not just “classic” rock but classical — if the pure, percussive piano had been the basic unit of pop rather than the guitar, it would all play like this, and if the rockstars of 18th-century concert halls had kept their hold on what hit music sounds like, it would sound like him. He’s said to be working on an instrumental (maybe vocal?) cycle based on the long story of his native Long Island, and I hope this refection on history forms a musical future for him. Otherwise, unlike other icons who plow along with endless anonymous albums, Joel keeps his peace, just popping up in concert with the reliable songbook he won’t sully (and adds to when he actually feels like it). They compete with their past; he let his past win, and so he’s happy, and so he’s young.