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.