Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #90: Billy Joel, The Definitive Biography
It's popular to dismiss Billy Joel as a schlockmeister, a muzak maestro, a lesser light in American popular music. Like many other things that are popular, this is stupid and wrong. Billy Joel is indisputably one of the towering musical talents of the last half-century, a singer-songwriter of infinite influence. His success should not be held against him. In fact, let's go to the numbers:
33 Top 40 hits (all of which he wrote, too)
Three #1 singles
23-time Grammy nominee and 6-time winner
The third best-selling solo artist in American history
Over 150 million records sold
I get it. Some of his stuff is schmaltzy, but those judging based on bubble-gum fare like Uptown Girl or the elevator theme Just the Way You Are are missing the point. Joel is a versatile composer and a gifted musical chameleon, with influences ranging from the Beatles to Gershwin, from Ray Charles to Beethoven, from Dave Brubeck to Fats Domino. Wandering through his huge and iconic discography yields ballads and rock anthems, operettas and rags, and everything in between. Heck, go check out one of his early pre-fame Long Island ensembles, the heavy-metal group Attila. These guys were almost Gwar without the live sheep.
Joel ranks alongside the classic post-60s generation of musician-poets who still resonate today. What Springsteen is to Jersey, Joel is to New York - and while the Boss rocks harder, Joel is the more insightful lyricist. For every Born in the USA I give you Goodnight Saigon, for every Born to Run I give you Allentown. Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Steve Winwood, troubadours of the middle-American experience. Throwbacks to when talent mattered more than looks, when substance trumped style at the record labels.
His music is the soundtrack to my own life, from high school heartache to thwarted ambitions to parenting agonies. His work still speaks to my soul, and at the end of the day that's what music is supposed to do.