A Few Words in Defense of the Piano Man

The other day, Slate published an anti-Billy Joel screed by Ron Rosenbaum cleverly titled “The Awfulness of Billy Joel“, so titled to give you an idea of what you were in for, because irony is dead and stuff. I’ve yet to determine why Slate harbors such a grudge towards Joel, because this is the second takedown they’ve published. Anyway, Rosenbaum carefully (or rather, condescendingly) explains Joel’s awfulness, his main beef being that some of Joel’s lyrics are contemptuous of phonies, as well as marveling at Joel’s audacity in fashioning himself as a man of the people, when in fact … he’s WEALTHY!!! (Duh-duh-DUH!) Also, he’s self-absorbed prick and a misogynist who steals Dylan lyrics.

First of all, Billy Joel is a baby boomer, which makes him a self-absorbed prick by default. Of course, so is Rosenbaum, and even more so than Joel, because here, he’s written a screed not only fifteen years too late (Joel’s last proper album, River of Dreams, came out in 1993), but utterly devoid of humor. And it’s the latter that’s hardest to forgive, I think.

Complaining about Billy Joel not being a man of the people is an utterly pointless exercise. Springsteen is filthy rich for speaking for and to the Average Joe (Ron admits this, but dutifully also points out that The Boss lost something after going Woody Guthrie on us). The Clash were public school kids. Dylan isn’t starving any day soon. The sainted Bono is full of shit, asking others to sacrifice while demanding tax breaks for himself, but at least he’s up front about it. I suppose I could go on, but then again, selling out is pretty much the very basis of our economy, so if you don’t want your artistic output to be sullied by The Evil Hand Of Commerce, just stay in your fucking basement. Problem solved!

Still, give Rosenbaum some credit for trying to start the essay with some honesty: “I’m reluctant to pick on Billy Joel. He’s been subject to withering contempt from hipster types for so long that it no longer seems worth the time,” which is probably why Rosenbaum’s writing is so uninspired.

Anyhoo, Ron goes to a record store and buys Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits to endure while he jots down his profound insights, but is careful to point out that he also buys Return of the Grievous Angel, a CD of “… covers of Gram Parsons songs by the likes of the Cowboy Junkies and Gillian Welch […] so the cashier might think the B.J. box was merely a gift, maybe for someone with no musical taste”. Hey, isn’t this the very sort of preening bullshit posing that Rosenbaum purports to detest?

(Nor let us forget that Gram Parsons, for all his undeniable gifts, was the man who perpetrated Love Hurts on an unsuspecting public, that song made inexplicably famous by Nasareth and perpetuated down through the corridors of time by scores of terrible karaoke singers and AOR stations. Just sayin’)

So Rosenbaum listens, and Rosenbaum disapproves.

Rosenbaum cares not for Piano Man and the contempt it holds for the losers at the bar and the narrating piano man himself. Contempt is for artistes like Bob Dylan, whose hagiography has been carefully contructed over the course of decades, as insightful critics prostrate themselves before tinny-sounding 12-bar blues tracks like Positively 4th Street – like Rosenbaum does here – which is full of black wit and fire, when it’s not busy being pedestrian. Anyway, where most people hear a fairly accurate description of a dive bar after hours, Rosenbaum sports keener ears, and can “hear the contempt”.

On New York State of Mind, one of the great New York ballads, Rosenbaum trembles with rancour as Joel claims to have seen “all the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines”, because do you seriously think Billy Joel has never ridden in a limo?!! Consider yourself well and truly pwned, mr Joel.

Furthermore, Rosenbaum deplores the phoniness of The Entertainer, in which Awfulness Personified reveals that the industry is full of insincere bullshit artists. Considering that bands like the Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead, The Beatles and Queen – to name a very few off the top of my head – have made music based on this keen insight, it seems like a pointless shot. I’d rather argue that it’s one of his lesser songs, and doesn’t warrant inclusion on a best-of, but that’s just me. Adds Rosenbaum: “Compare The Band’s beautiful, subtle tribute to Dylan’s entertainer insecurities in “Stage Fright.” I love the line in that song, “he got caught in the spotlight”: such a haunting image of a shy entertainer” And in no way a clichéd one. Give yourself a hand, Robbie Robertson, you have blazed lyrical trails hitherto unknown. By the way, here’s a recent quote from The Deity Called Dylan: “The music world’s a made-up bunch of hypocritical rubbish.” Motherfucker!

The Stranger, too, gets a deserved beatdown: “So deep! Yes, B.J., you’ve nailed it: We’re all phonies hiding our true faces! Everyone wears a mask!” Yes, we do, Ron. It’s pretty basic psychology. The Deity Called Dylan, for example, has worn several “masks” in his lifetime. Folkie, rock innovator, grizzled old bluesman … and heck, if you want to get all literal about it, a good third of his songs seem to be about harlequins and jesters futzing around, but hey, whatever.

Oh, somewhat off-topic, but speaking of random contempt: did you ever listen to Idiot Wind by Yer Man Bob? It’s an interminable  symphony of withering animosity, bruised emotions and it’s completely fucking ridiculous, because it’s not supposed to be funny. (See how easy this stuff is?)

Lest we forget that She’s always a woman borrows heavily from, or rips off, Bob Dylan’s (hey, there’s That Name again!) Just like a woman, here comes Ron to beat us over the head with it, and to take Billy Joel to task for not just copying, but also for: “recycling every misogynist cliché in the book.” I’ll let Gawker answer this one:

[He] also writes that “She’s Always a Woman” is misogynist. It’s also a total copy of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” Rosenbaum adds, but Dylan’s song isn’t misogynist because it came out first, and God knows no one was writing about how women are contradictory and confusing before he did.

It is indeed a well-known fact that Dylan came first to every subject and can get away with everything simply because he is Bob Dylan, God of Tinny-sounding Rock, Drug-Fueled Lyrics and Voice of a Generation Deeply In Love With Itself.

Anyway, the essay ends on this note: “They hate you just the way you are,”  which is A Very Clever Pun. You see, Billy Joel wrote a song called Just the way you are and the chorus goes “I love you just the way you are”, and this is just like that, except he’s saying the opposite! My sides! Splitting! This is the level of wit on display, people. Any commenter on gawker.com would tear Ron to shreds.

OK, Ron Rosenbaum really doesn’t like Billy Joel. That’s fine, but honestly: who gives a shit? I admit, I do like Billy Joel (his 70s stuff anyway, which is why I’m writing this), but I certainly also enjoy a good takedown. Had Rosenbaum’s writing been sufficiently scathing or funny, it could have been very entertaining, but he fails (epically!) to bring the snark. In fact, he’s nowhere near reaching the required levels of bile: it’s just kinda pathetic and limpid, like an email from some embarrassing uncle still trying to be hip and with it. (Did you read Stephen King exhorting the virtues of My Humps over at the Entertainment Weekly website? It’s a bit like that) What is even more annoying is Rosenbaum’s condescending tone throughout, as if we’re not smart enough to Really Get It, which doesn’t help him at all. You’re supposed to get us into your corner, Ron. It doesn’t work otherwise.

The sole amusing part is when Rosenbaum admits to liking the songs The Longest Time and An Innocent Man, two of Joel’s most abysmal efforts, and quite possibly two of the worst songs written in the 1980s. Now that’s pretty funny.

26.01.2009 • Permalink

So I’m sitting in the waiting room. It’s clean and neat, and full of people just like me. I usually remember to bring a cool with to  alleviate the boredom. Alas, I forgot to bring one today, and I’ve already read Monday’s papers. At times like these, I give thanks for gadgets like my cell phone. While I don’t believe in the grand unified gadget theory, I love being able to check my mail or read my feeds. Most everyday gadgets don’t do more than entertain us, but I can’t really complain. Especially when the toys keep me very entertained. Still, I sometimes wonder if they always are beneficial. My attention span is shot, but the question is whether I should blame my gadgets or myself. Nevertheless, the waiting room is a far better place to be these days. Now, if they could only find a way to make the needle hurt less…

15.01.2009 • Permalink

It Was Old Age Having a Go at Youth

So I got off work early today. Not much to do and just two of us at the office, so no big deal to leave and get a head start on the week-end. I drove home, stopping on the way to get some groceries. I got my few items and went up to the register, an old man with a cane before me. Now, he stopped a few steps after the person who was unloading her cart before him. I dutifully waited behind him. A lady with a shopping cart appeared on our right flank. She seemed uncertain, as was I, about the old man’s imminent course of action. She asked, before I could, “Are you in line?” and he replied  “I thought the other register was about to be opened – but you go right ahead”

She said thanks, but “there’s a guy behind you too” and he turned around, looking almost startled. I smiled and said “Well, I’ll just slip by, then” and walked around him. The old lady unloading her cart at the register looked at me murderously and said very loudly, very demonstrably “Well, you just go before me. I’m not in any hurry.” I said “Oh, that’s alright, he was waiting for the other reg…” and she cut me off: “No, I insist you go before me” and held her groceries back on the conveyer belt. “No, really…” I tried, but it was no use. “Go!” she said, as very apparent thoughts of my murder, or at least good mauling, swirled behind her grey, steely gaze.

I knew I was undone, outed as the ruthless, ill-mannered young cur she obviously thought I was, and said “Oh, all right.” I only had three items anyway. Fuck it. Behind me, the old man tottered over to the other register which just opened, the lady with the cart getting behind him. I paid the girl at the register, who by now had shed her usual cheery demeanor in favor of an ulwelcoming look as she gave me my change. What the hell, I thought: I didn’t actually do anything wrong, so why am getting shit for this? As I left the store, I saw the old lady shake her head at the teller with world-weary perfection; a subtle bob of the head that expressed all the weight of her years, hell, of the disappointing, uncaring world itself. And all this because I was polite enough to wait in line. I hope winter will be long and hard.

09.01.2009 • Permalink

Wild In The Streets

It’s pretty unreal to see riots in Oslo. The sort of clash we saw here last night is the first of its kind since the early 80s. I went to a few demonstrations when I was younger, but they were peaceful protests of the show-up-and-be-counted kind. Yesterday, 500 people showed up to voice their support of Israel. Roughly 1.000 others, mostly youth of Palestinian background and radical lefties, showed up and went mental in the streets. An Israeli flag was taken from a man and burned. The protesters threw bricks and sent fireworks at police; someone even threw a molotov cocktail, though thankfully no-one were hurt. Meanwhile, a peaceful protest was held a few blocks away, a candlelit vigil for the victims of the conflict. Roughly 10.000 people showed up for that, but few reporters, if the papers are to be believed.

Reading today’s papers, the reactions are fairly predictable: One school of thinking contends that the riot is yet another sign that Islam is taking over the country and that we must fight Allah on the beaches, etc. The other side demands that Israel must withdraw from Gaza completely, that Norway must sever relations with them  and that they’re nazis and it’s all their fault and there was never trouble in the Middle East before this.

The middle ground gets lost in all this. The Gaza Support council in Norway were upset, as they now feel discredited by the rioters. The vital democratic right to voice dissenting opinions and not worry about getting hurt for it also took a hit. I also read that a school class recently cancelled their visit to a synagogue in Trondheim. The pupils were so angry about what was happening in Gaza that they felt it would be best to postpone the whole thing. This saddened me, because now is the perfect time to visit a temple. Most Jews are not the Israeli government; some agree with their policies, others do not. But it seems we’re going down a dangerous road if we say that this line of reasoning is OK. After 9/11 and the London bombings, much effort was made to reach out to muslim communities. Surely Jewish communities deserve the same respect? After all, it was Jews who wrote this:

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Leviticus 33-34)

I’m not going to pretend to have a very informed opinion on the conflict. I can only go by what I read in the papers, and I remember speaking to a Jewish friend in college about it, who reminded me to look at both sides. I think israel has often been to aggressive in their policies, but I also recognize that they have to be able to retaliate. Likewise, Palestinians should have a place to live, that much is obvious, and it saddens me that they are ultimately pawns in a bigger game. But then, isn’t that also true of Israel? Israeli spokespeople on CNN said they were fighting the “tyrannical regime of Hamas” – despite the fact that Hamas was democratically elected. Ironically, being an activist militant group, they have done an appalling job of running things in Gaza. Had Israel waited – and the US had had competent advisors for them – Palestinians most likely would have elected someone else all by themselves.

Anyway, we haven’t had a riot in Oslo for many years, and I’m not about to start seeing the apocalypse in this. Most countries have a good riot every now and then; in France, it’s practically a day out for the family. Windows were broken and garbage cans torched. But while damages were costly, the city was not in flames, and although 30+ were arrested, nobody were seriously hurt. I imagine that – for example – the French riot police would have been less polite.

What a way to start the new year, eh?

09.01.2009 • Permalink

New Year’s Resolutions for 2009

I realize new year’s resolutions often are futile attempts to impose some semblance of control over one’s life, and I know from experience that they only work if it’s something you really want to do. January 1st is The Big One for casual self-improvement buffs everywhere, but I think stressing a certain date brings with it a certain fatalism; you get tied to it to such a degree that if you fail, you have to wait until the next New Year rolls around. But since these are a few things I wish to go through with for my own self-improvement anyway, I figured, why not make them “official”?

1) Lose Some Weight
This isn’t as intimidating as I first thought. I attempted to go through with it last year, by changing my diet and walking home from work every day (about an hour); it worked wonders, and I lost 3 kgs pretty quickly. Then I hurt My Left Foot, and have struggled with a hairline fracture in it ever since. But at the very least, it proved it’s doable. My goal last year was 5 kilos by summer, and I was well on my way. Stupidly, I let the diet slide for a while, expecting my foot to heal quickly, and paid for it when it drew out. On the other hand, I’ve been stable at 80 kgs since, suggesting this is sort of where I level out. Now, it’s far from obese, but it’s still enough to make my shirts embarrassingly tight about the midriff. Therefore, I want to slim back down to my 72-73 kg heyday and slip back into 33″ or maybe even 32″ jeans. By going slow and steady, which They say wins the battle, I should be able to shave off at least 5 kgs with little problems by summer.

2) Cut Back on the Brew
This is almost an addendum to the first item on this list, as well as being a generally healthier approach. The past couple of years, I’ve taken up the extemely bad habit of always staying for one more drink, which is the opposite of what I used to do. One shouldn’t become less responsible as one gets older, so this is a very logical step which should be good for my health, weight and wallet. Secondly, hangovers that ruin your day are no fun and lastly, I was told I acted like a bit of a dick at a drunken night out recently, and that’s just not me.

3) Get Off the Couch
As a loner prone to bouts of mild depression, holing up at home isn’t necessarily a good thing. As a movie fan, I pledge to see more movies with other people, and as a music fan, I will try to attend shows by unfamiliar (to me) artists. I’d like to get back into theatre, and lastly, I need to explore more culture; as a former art student and current designer (albeit one of extremely limited talent), I really should take a bigger interest in the world of contemporary art. All I have to do now is find artists whose works I like and whose heads are on their shoulders rather than up their asses. I admit this could be a major stumbling block.

4) Create More Stuff
It’s been a long time since I really sat down and drew a picture or made a collage or wrote a terrible poem. I suspect this is an occupational hazard for those who are creative for a living, but I nevertheless want to recapture the joy of making something for no reason at all.

5) Read More Books
This is pretty self-explanatory. As a blog junkie, I realize I need to put the laptop down and WALK AWAY!
So: My five-point program for 2009. Is it doable? Very much so, but will I do any of it? Well, I can’t guarantee anything, but I think I should be able to get there if I put a modicum of effort into it. Nevertheless, wish me luck.

08.01.2009 • Permalink

Coming back into Norway, the landscape is so alien, so different from the colorful sights of Uganda. It’s as if everything here has been crystallized and fossilized, colors drained and removed; trees point solemnly northwards, sentries in silver garb, and a cold sun rises in the east, blanketing the horizon in pale amber. It’s austere and forbidding, like the darker side of a fairy-tale, and equally beautiful.

05.01.2009 • Permalink

It’s my last day in Uganda, and I’m in Kampala, sitting in an Irish pub, drinking a South African beer, eating a German hot dog for lunch and watching a Norwegian play football on the TV. Small world, indeed.

03.01.2009 • Permalink