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Chuck Klosterman on Pop: A Collection of Previously Published Essays

By Tommy Bell,2014-11-04 18:24
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From "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs"; "Chuck Klosterman IV"; and "Eating the Dinosaur," these essays are now available in this ebook collection for fans of Klosterman's writing on pop music. Published by Simon & Schuster on 2010/09/14

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Chuck Klosterman on Pop

A Collection of Previously Published Essays

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    Fargo Rock City copyright ? 2001 by ChuckEssays in this work were previously published in

    Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs copyright ? 2003, 2004 by Chuck Klosterman, Chuck

     copyright ? 2006, 2007 by Chuck Klosterman, and Eating the Dinosaur copyright ?Klosterman IV

    2009 by Chuck Klosterman.

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    Portions of this work originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, SPIN magazine, and

    Esquire.

    Contents

    From Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Chuck Klosterman IV

    The Billy Joel Essays

    From Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

    Toby over Moby

    I, Rock Chump

    From Chuck Klosterman IV

    Bending Spoons with Britney Spears

    Mysterious Days

    Viva Morrissey!

    No More Knives The American Radiohead Taking The Streets to the Music Certain Rock Bands You Probably Like

    Eating the DinosaurFrom The Passion of the Garth ABBA 1, World 0 T Is for True

    Every Dog Must Have

    His Every Day, Every Drunk

    Must Have His Drink

    Several months before nineteen unsmiling people from the Middle East woke up early on a Tuesdayin order to commit suicide by flying planes into tall New York office buildings, I sent out amass e-mail to several acquaintances that focused on the concept of patriotism. At the time,“patriotism” seemed like a quaint, baffling concept; it was almost like asking people toexpress their feelings on the art of blacksmithing. But sometimes I like to ask people whatthey think about blacksmithing, too.

    So ANYWAY, here was the content of my e-mail: I gave everyone two potential options for ahypothetical blind date and asked them to pick who they’d prefer. The only things they knewabout the first candidate was that he or she was attractive and successful. The only thingsthey knew about the second candidate was that he or she was attractive, successful, and“extremely patriotic.” No other details were provided or could be ascertained.

    Just about everyone immediately responded by selecting the first individual. They viewedpatriotism as a downside. I wasn’t too surprised; in fact, I was mostly just amused by howeveryone seemed to think extremely patriotic people weren’t just undateable, but totallyfucking insane. One of them wrote that the quality of “patriotism” was on par with“regularly listening to Cat Stevens” and “loves Robin Williams movies.” Comparisons weremade to Ted Nugent and Patrick Henry. And one especially snide fellow sent back a mass messageto the entire e-mail group, essentially claiming that any woman who loved America didn’tdeserve to date him, not because he hated his country but because patriotic people weren’tsmart.

    That last response outraged one of my friends, a thirty-one-year-old lawyer who had been theonly individual in the entire group who claimed to prefer the extremely patriotic candidate tothe alternative. He sent me one of the most sincerely aggravated epistles I’ve ever received,and I still recall a segment of his electronic diatribe that was painfully accurate: “You knowhow historians call people who came of age during World War II ‘the greatest generation’? Noone will ever say that about us,” he wrote. “We’ll be ‘the cool generation.’ That’s allwe’re good at, and that’s all you and your friends seem to aspire to.”

    What’s kind of ironic about this statement is that I think my lawyer friend was trying to makeme reevaluate the state of my life, but it mostly just made me think about Billy Joel. Nobodywould ever claim that Billy Joel is cool in the conventional sense, particularly if they’re

    the kind of person who actively worries about what coolness is supposed to mean. Billy Joel isalso not cool in the kitschy, campy, “he’s so uncool he’s cool” sense, which also happensto be the most tired designation in popular culture. He has no intrinsic coolness, and he hasno extrinsic coolness. If cool was a color, it would be black—and Billy Joel would be sort ofburnt orange.

    Yet Billy Joel is great. And he’s not great because he’s uncool, nor is he great because he

    “doesn’t worry about being cool” (because I think he kind of does). No, he’s great in thesame way that your dead grandfather is great. Because unlike 99 percent of pop artists, thereis absolutely no relationship between Joel’s greatness and Joel’s coolness (or lack thereof),just as there’s no relationship between the “greatness” of serving in World War II and the“coolness” of serving in World War II. What he does as an artist wouldn’t be better if hewas significantly cooler, and it’s not worse because he isn’t. And that’s sort of amazingwhen one considers that he’s supposedly a rock star.

    For just about everybody else in the idiom of rock, being cool is pretty much the whole jobdescription. It’s difficult to think of rock artists who are great without being cool, sincethat’s precisely why we need them to exist. There have been countless bands in rockhistory—T. Rex, Jane’s Addiction, the White Stripes, et al.—who I will always classify as“great,” even though they’re really just spine-crushingly “cool.” What they are is more

    do. And this is not a criticism of coolness; by and large, the musicalimportant than what they

    component of rock isn’t nearly as important as the iconography and the posturing and the idea

    of what we’re supposed to be experiencing. If given the choice between hearing a great bandand seeing a cool band, I’ll take the latter every single time; this is why the Eagles suck.But it’s the constraints of that very relationship that give Billy Joel his subterraneanfabulousity, and it’s why he’s unassumingly superior to all his mainstream seventies peerswho got far more credit (James Taylor, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, etc.). Joel is the onlyrock star I’ve ever loved who I never wanted to be (not even when he was sleeping with

    Christie Brinkley). Every one of Joel’s important songs—including the happy ones—areultimately about loneliness. And it’s not “clever lonely” (like Morrissey) or “interestinglonely” (like Radiohead); it’s “lonely lonely,” like the way it feels when you’re beinghugged by someone and it somehow makes you sadder.

    Now, I know what you’re thinking: What about that godawful current events song that seemedlike a rip-off of R.E.M. (1989’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”)? What’s lonely about that,you ask? Well, my response is simple—I don’t count that song. I don’t count anything that

     album, and I barely count that one. And aesthetically, this iscomes after his An Innocent Man

    totally acceptable. Unless they die before the age of thirty-three, nobody’s entire careermatters, and we all unconsciously understand this. If you’re trapped in a Beatles-Stonesdebate, it’s not like anybody tries to prove a point by comparing to . BlackHelp!Steel Wheels

    Sabbath is the most underrated band in rock history, and that designation isn’t weakened by1994’s Cross Purposes. Even guys who make relatively important albums in the twilight of theirartistic life—most notably Bob Dylan and Neil Young—are granted unlimited lines of criticalcredit simply for not making albums that are completely terrible. The unspoken (though much-denied) conceit of everybody who loves rock ’n’ roll is that nobody old and rickety can berelevant at all, so anything remotely close to social consequence is akin to genius; that’swhy Love and Theft was classified as “classic” in 2001, even though it would have beennothing more than “solid” in 1976. So no one is denying that Billy Joel has put out crap foras many years as he put out quality. But it doesn’t matter, because he never had theresponsibility of staying cool. His crappiest albums (The Bridge, River of Dreams, etc.) can

    just be separated out and ignored entirely. Unlike Lou Reed or David Bowie, “Billy Joel” isnot a larger pop construct or an expansive pop idea. Billy Joel is just a guy. And that’swhy—unlike someone like Jeff Buckley—his records wouldn’t seem any better if he was dead.

    What I’m saying is that there are no conditions for appreciating Billy Joel. I’m not sureloving an album like Glass Houses says anything about me (or about anyone). And in theory, thisshould make it a bad record, or—at best—a meaningless artifact. It should make liking Glass

     akin to liking mashed potatoes or rainy afternoons. You can’t characterize your self-Houses

    image through its ten songs. I was eight when that record came out in 1980, and I vividlyrecall both my sister Teresa (who was nineteen) my brother Paul (who was eighteen) playingGlass Houses constantly, which was normally unthinkable; Teresa liked the Police and EltonJohn, and Paul liked Molly Hatchet and Foreigner. The only albums they could play when theywere in the same room were Cheap Trick’s At Budokan and Glass Houses. Retrospectively, the

    unilateral Cheap Trick fixation made perfect sense: Cheap Trick was good at being cool for

    . They rocked just hard enough to be cool to metal kids, they looked just cool enougheverybody

    to be New Wave, and Robin Zander had the kind of hair that semimature teenage girls wanted toplay with. Even today, the Cheap Trick logo stands as the coolest-looking font in the historyof rock. But none of those qualities can be applied to Glass Houses, now or then; in theory,

    there is no way that record should have mattered to anyone, and certainly not to everyone.

    However, even I liked that record, and I was eight. And I didn’t like records when I waseight; I mostly liked dinosaurs and math. This was all new. But what’s even weirder is that I

     to this album. And I can still relate to it—differently, I suppose, but maybecould relate

    less differently than I realize. What I heard on Glass Houses (and what I still hear) is

    somebody who’s bored and trapped and unimpressed by his own success, all of which aresentiments that have never stopped making sense to me.

    It’s always difficult to understand what people think they’re hearing when they listen to theradio. This was especially true in the 1970s, when there seemed to be no difference betweenwhat was supposedly “good music” and what was supposedly “bad music.” WMMS, the premiereradio station in Cleveland during the Carter administration, was famous for playingSpringsteen’s “Born to Run” every Friday afternoon at exactly 5:00 P.M. For years, that wasthe station’s calling card. And this was done without irony; this song was supposed to serveas the anthem and the spirit for working-class Northeast Ohioans. Eventually, that’s what“Born to Run” became. But what nobody seemed to notice is that this song has some of the mostridiculous lyrics ever recorded. Half the time, Springsteen writes like someone typing a PG-13

    Penthouse Forum: The lines “Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims / And strapletter for

    ” is as funny as anything Tenacious D ever recorded, except Bruceyour hands across my engines

    is trying to be deep.

    Now, it’s not like this song is necessarily terrible, and it’s certainly better than

    . (except “Glory Days” and maybe “I’m Goin’ Down”). Buteverything on Born in the U.S.A

    it’s difficult to understand why “Born to Run” is considered a higher poetic achievementthan Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” or Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with theDevil,” two equally popular songs from the same period that expressed roughly similar themeswhile earning no cred whatsoever. So the real question becomes: Why did this happen? Part of itis probably based in fact; I suppose Springsteen is “more real” (or whatever) and took alegitimately emotive risk with his earnest eighth-grade poetry; referring to your guts as “myengines” may be idiotic, but I have little doubt that Bruce really thinks of his rib cage inthose terms. However, Springsteen’s sincerity only mattered if you had a predetermined opinionabout what he was trying to accomplish. David Lee Roth might have been sincere, but he was justa cool kid trying to get laid; Meat Loaf might have been sincere, but he was just a fatgoofball who was cool in spite of himself. But Bruce was trying to save you. He appealed to the

    kind of desperate intellectual who halfway believed that—when not recording ortouring—Springsteen actually went back to New Jersey to work at a car wash. Before he evenutters his lyrics, people accept his words as insights into their version of existence. HadBruce written “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” people would play it at weddings.

    Once again, I want to stress that I have no qualms with how this process works. I’m notinterested in trying to convince anyone that they should (or shouldn’t) adore whichever denim-clad icon they choose. However, this abstract relationship between the perception of the artistand the appreciation of his product unfairly ghettoized Billy Joel while he was making the bestmusic of his career (and some of the best music of the late seventies and early eighties).Because Billy is not “cool,” like Elvis Costello— and because he’s not “anticool,” likeRandy Newman—Joel was perceived as edgeless light rock. All anybody noticed was the dulcetplinking of his piano. Since his songs were so radio-friendly, it was assumed that he was theFM version of AM. This is what happens when you don’t construct an archetypical persona: Ifyou’re popular and melodic and faceless, you seem meaningless. The same thing happened toSteely Dan, a group who served as the house band for every 1978 West Coast singles bar despitebeing more lyrically subversive than the Sex Pistols and the Clash combined. If a musiciancan’t convince people that he’s cool, nobody cool is going to care. And in the realm of rock’n’ roll, the cool kids fucking rule.

    In fact, I sometimes suspect that if I had first heard Glass Houses five years later than I

    did—when I was, say, thirteen—I might have hated it before I even put the needle down. Thewhole metaphor behind the cover shot (“Look! I’m self-reflexively throwing rocks at myidentity!”) might have seemed forced, and the skinny tie he’s wearing on the back cover wouldhave seemed like something from the Knack’s closet, and everybody hated the Knack in 1985(including, I think, the actual members of the Knack). But because I was too young tounderstand that rock music was supposed to be cool, I played Glass Houses in my basement ad

    nauseam and—in that weird, second-grade way—I studied its contents. My favorite song was“All for Leyna” at the conclusion of side one, where Billy claimed to be, “Kidding myself /

     .” However, I mostly listened to side two, which included “I Don’t Want toWasting my time

    Be Alone Anymore” (where Billy enters a relationship only because his female acquaintance isbored with dating), “Sleeping with the Television On” (where Billy expresses regret for beinga “thinking man,” which is already how I viewed myself at the age of eight), and the pseudo-metal “Close to the Borderline”1 (where Billy suddenly becomes Frank Serpico). Certainly,it’s not as if Billy Joel was the first artist who ever sang about being inexplicably

    by his daddepressed. But he might be the first artist who ever sang about getting yelled at for being depressed, which is less a commentary on his father and more an illustration of howJoel couldn’t deny that he had no valid reason to be unhappy (yet still was). When Ieventually learned that Joel tried to kill himself in 1969 by drinking half a bottle offurniture polish (how Goth!), I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Joel’s best work alwayssounds like unsuccessful suicide attempts.

     sold seven million records, mostly on the strength of its singles “You May BeGlass Houses

    Right” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” These songs are okay, I guess, although theynever struck me as being particularly reflective of anything too important. They felt (andstill feel) a tad melodramatic. They seem like they’re to be “hit singles,” whichsupposed

    means they sound like they’re supposed to be experienced in public. Because Joel has no clearconnotation as a public figure, these songs don’t gain any significance by being popular. Thatparadox is even more evident on Joel’s 1982 follow-up album an opus withThe Nylon Curtain,

    three decent songs that lots of people know by heart—“Allentown,” “Pressure,” and“Goodnight Saigon”—and six amazingly self-exploratory songs that almost no one exceptdiehard fans are even vaguely familiar with.

    Granted, I realize that I’m making a trite, superfan-ish argument: I constantly meet peoplewho love some terrible band (usually the Moody Blues) and proceed to tell me that the reason Ifail to understand their greatness is because I only know what I’ve heard on the radio. Mostof the time, these people are completely wrong; while the finest Led Zeppelin songs (forexample) are all obscure, the most important Zep songs are “Whole Lotta Love,” “ImmigrantSong,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” These are the tracks that define what Zeppelin was about,beyond their tangible iconography as a loud four-piece rock band. Houses of the Holy is a great

    (small g) album, but those aforementioned three songs are why Led Zeppelin is Great (big G).

    This is true for most artists. So that being the case, it seems strange to advocate BillyJoel’s Greatness (big G) by pointing to unheralded songs off The Nylon Curtain, an album that

    only sold one million copies and was widely seen as a commercial disappointment. Logically, Ishould be talking about 1973’s “Piano Man,” his bread-and-butter tour de force and the oneJoel song that’s forever part of the cultural lexicon. But that deconstructive angle wouldn’twork in this particular case; to argue for Joel’s import on the strength of “Piano Man”would make him no more consequential than Don McLean or Dexy’s Midnight Runners. “Piano Man”now belongs to everybody, and most of that everybody couldn’t care less about its source.Saying you like “Piano Man” doesn’t mean you like Billy Joel; it means you’re willing to goto a piano bar if there’s nothing else to do.

    Meanwhile, saying you like “Immigrant Song” (or even just saying that you don’t hate

    “Stairway to Heaven”) means you like Led Zeppelin—and to say you “like Led Zeppelin” meansyou like their highly stylized version of cock-rock cool. It means you accept a certain kind ofart. Pretty much everybody agrees that Zeppelin is—at the very least—cool to mainstreamaudiences, so their timelessness and significance is best defined by their bestknown work.That’s how it works with cool artists (Miles Davis, Iggy Pop, whoever). But—as I’ve statedall along—Billy Joel is not cool.2 Even though “Piano Man” is autobiographical, it’s notimportant that he’s the guy who wrote the words and sang the song; I’m sure it would be justas popular if Bernie Taupin had come up with those lyrics and Elton John had released it as thesecond single off Madman Across the Water. Because there’s nothing about Joel’s personage

    that’s integral to his success, he’s one of the only hyper-mainstream pop artists who’sbrilliant for reasons (and for songs) that almost no one is aware of.

    Which brings me back to The Nylon Curtain. The reason I generally dismiss the popular songs on

    this record is because they seem like big ideas that aren’t about any specific person, and

    Joel is better when he does the opposite. “Allentown” has a likable structure, but it’s justthis big song about why baby boomers supposedly have it rough. “Pressure” is the big

    Bright Lights, Big City coke song; “Goodnight Saigon” is the big retrospectivekeyboardy

    Vietnam song that’s critical of the war but supportive of the people who fought there, adistinction nobody seemed to put forward until they starting reading Time-Life books in theearly 1980s. All of this is fine and painless, and my assumption is that these three songs arethe tunes conventional Joel proponents adore. But it’s two other songs—“Laura” and“Where’s the Orchestra”—that warrant a complete reinvention of how hipsters should look atJoel as a spokesman for the disaffection of success.

     to be like a mid-period Beatles record, which would be like meJoel wanted The Nylon Curtain

    wanting this book to be as good as . But “Laura” and “Where’s the Orchestra”Catch-22

    really as good as most of what’s on . This is because the first song saysareThe White Album

    things so directly that its words shouldn’t make sense to anybody else (and yet they do),while the latter is so metaphorically vague that anybody should be able to understand whathe’s implying (yet I’ve listened to this song for twenty years and still feel like I’mmissing something).

    “Laura” is about a relentlessly desperate woman (possibly his ex-wife, possibly someone else,possibly somebody fictional)3 who is slowly killing the narrator by refusing to end arelationship that’s clearly over. Making matters worse is the narrator’s inability to say“no” to Laura, a woman who continues to sexually control him.

    Now, the reason I keep using the term narrator (as opposed to Billy) is because this amazingly

    personal song never makes me think of the person who’s singing it. Whenever I hear “Laura,”I immediately put myself in Joel’s position, and he sort of disappears into the ether. It’salmost as if Joel’s role in the musical experience is just to create a framework that I canplace myself into; some of Raymond Carver’s best stories do the same thing. The Lauracharacter has specific—but not exclusionary—traits (her behavior seems unique, but stillsomewhat universal), and the mood of Joel’s piano playing has a quality that jams hopelessnessinto beauty. This is a song about someone whose life is technically and superficially perfect,but secretly in shambles. It’s about having a dark secret, but—once again—not a cool secret.

    This is not a sexy problem (like heroin addiction), or even an interesting one (like theentanglements expressed in Rufus Wainright’s “Instant Pleasure” or Sloan’s“Underwhelmed”). It’s mostly just exhausting, and that’s how it feels.

    “Where’s the Orchestra” reveals the same sentiments, only sadder. The lyrics are one longallusion to watching a theatrical production that isn’t satisfying, and virtually anyone canfigure out that Joel is actually discussing the inexplicable emptiness of his own life. Thewords are not subtle. But it paints a worldview that I have never been able to see through, andthere has never been a point in my life—be it junior high, college, or ten minutes ago—whenthis song didn’t seem like the single most accurate depiction of my feelings toward the entireworld. In fact, sometimes I tell people that they will understand me better if they listen to“Where’s the Orchestra?” And you know what? They never do. They never do, and it’s becausethey all inevitably think the song is actually about them.

    That’s what all of The Nylon Curtain is really about, I think: the New Depression, which

    started around the same time this album came out. People have always been depressed,but—during the early eighties—there just seemed to be this overwhelming public consensus thatbeing depressed was the most normal thing anyone could be. In fact, being depressed sort ofmeant you were smart. And in a larger sense, Joel’s music was documenting that idea from thevery beginning. A song like “Honesty” (on 1978’s 52nd Street) implies that the only way you

    can tell whether someone really cares about you is if they tell you you’re bad. “So It Goes”(a ballad released in 1990 but actually written in 1983) has Joel conceding that every womanwho loves him will eventually decide to leave; “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” off The

     is about how the most perfect relationships are inevitably the most doomed. Joel’sStranger,

    music always has an undercurrent railing against the desire for perfection. Another song offThe Stranger—“Just the Way You Are”—proves that sentiment twice (once cleverly, and once

profoundly).

    To this day, women are touched by the words of “Just the Way You Are,” a musical love letterthat says everything everybody wants to hear: You’re not flawless, but you’re still what Iwant. It was written about Joel’s wife and manager Elizabeth Weber, and it outlines how hedoesn’t want his woman to “try some new fashion” or dye her hair blond or work on beingwitty. He specifically asks that she “don’t go changing” in the hopes of pleasing him. Theshort-term analysis is that this is a criticism of perfection, but in the best possible way;

     she’s not perfect, and that he could neverit’s like Billy is saying he loves Weber because

    leave her in times of trouble.

    The sad irony, of course, is that Joel divorced Elizabeth three years after “Just the Way YouAre” won a Grammy for Song of the Year. Obviously, some would say that cheapens the song andmakes it irrelevant. I think the opposite is true. I think the fact that Joel divorced thewoman he wrote this song about makes it his single greatest achievement.

    When I hear “Just the Way You Are,” it never makes me think about Joel’s broken marriage. Itmakes me think about all the perfectly scribed love letters and drunken e-mails I have writtenover the past twelve years, and about all the various women who received them. I think abouthow I told them they changed the way I thought about the universe, and that they made everyother woman on earth unattractive, and that I would love them unconditionally even if we werenever together. I hate that those letters still exist. But I don’t hate them because what Isaid was false; I hate them because what I said was completely true. My convictions could nothave been stronger when I wrote those words, and—for whatever reason—they still faded intonothingness. Three times I have been certain that I could never love anyone else, and I waswrong every time. Those old love letters remind me of my emotional failure and my accidentallies, just as “Just the Way You Are” undoubtedly reminds Joel of his.

    Perhaps this is why I can’t see Billy Joel as cool. Perhaps it’s because all he makes me seeis me.

    ?

    BUT I STILL THINK “ALL FOR LEYNA” IS AWESOME

    When I was writing Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs in the spring of 2002, I would occasionally

    forward the rough essays to my editor at The New York Times Magazine, mostly because I had this

    fear that they all fucking sucked (and that he would tell me if they did). One of those essayswas about Billy Joel. My editor found it slightly bizarre that I liked Billy Joel, since he wasliving under the impression that I sat in a bomb shelter listening to Warrant and snortingcocaine off a Ouija board. He asked if I wanted to write a profile on Joel for the Times

    magazine, and I said, “Of course.” This has retrospectively confused some4 people, as theyassume the story I did for the Times also appears in S,D&CP. This is not true; I think there

    are only two or three sentences that appear in both versions. But here’s why I mention this:The reason I was asked to do a story on Billy Joel was because I liked Billy Joel. And this

    proved ironic, because now Billy Joel hates me.

    When I delivered the story to the Times magazine, my biggest fear was that it was boring (and

    maybe even a tad fawning). Joel just seemed sad and alone, and we talked about how he missedbeing in a relationship. It seems like we talked about girls and love all afternoon, and theconversation was excellent—there was very little small talk. It was almost all “big talk.”Still, nothing we discussed seemed remotely controversial; Billy just seemed like a rich dudewho eventually came to realize that money and success can’t kill loneliness. That isn’tgroundbreaking material.

    Yet—somehow—this story got more media attention than anything I’ve ever written. It seemslike half the people who read it thought it was some kind of a hatchet job, and the other halfthought it was a three-thousand-word personal ad for Billy Joel (for months afterward, womenacross the country would e-mail me pictures of themselves, requesting that I put them in touchwith Billy, as if I were his butler or something). In the wake of this piece, there were

    suddenly all these tabloid reports that Joel fell off the wagon and started drinking again; healso crashed his Mercedes in the Hamptons, which suddenly seemed suspicious. Billy even went to

    New York Post and claimed that I had (somehow) fucked him over with this story, although hethe

    didn’t dispute any of the quotes.

    Part of me feels bad about all this, but I honestly have no idea what I could have donedifferently. I mean, profile writing is a rather rudimentary process: you ask people questions,and then you write about the most interesting things they say. There’s really no other way todo it.

    THE STRANGER

    ?(SEPTEMBER 2002)

    Billy Joel has led the kind of life only a fool would hope for. No realist would ever dream ofattaining the level of success he has achieved. He has sold more than 100 million records,which is more than any solo artist except Garth Brooks and Elvis Presley. He has datedsupermodels, and he married one of them. Drunk people will sing “Piano Man” for as long asthere are karaoke bars, so he shall live forever. This fall he will embark on a stadium tourwith Elton John, and they will sell out Madison Square Garden on the strength of songs that aretwo decades old; next month, Twyla Tharp will take a play to Broadway titled Movin’ Out, which

    will interpret twenty-four of Joel’s songs through the idiom of modern dance.

    And yet as Joel and I drive around the Hamptons in his surprisingly nondescript car, none ofthese facts hold his attention for long. We talk about his sixteen platinum records, and hismemories of making An Innocent Man, and his love of Italian motorcycles, and the obsessivenessof his dental habits. But whatever subject we touch on, the conversation inevitably spiralsback to the same thing.

    Women.

    Since he sold his East Hampton mansion to Jerry Seinfeld, Joel has been living in a modestrented house nearby. But he tells me that he is trying to rent an apartment in Manhattan forthe sole purpose of meeting women. “I’m not going to meet anyone out here,” he says. “Thehappiest times in my life were when my relationships were going well—when I was in love withsomeone, and someone was loving me. But in my whole life, I haven’t met the person I cansustain a relationship with yet. So I’m discontented about that. I’m angry with myself. Ihave regrets.”

    Our conversation continues in this vein for most of the afternoon, and after a while I findmyself in the peculiar position of trying to make Billy Joel feel better. I point out that manythings in his life have gone amazingly well; I remind him that he’s in the Rock and Roll Hallof Fame. “That’s a cold comfort at the end of the day,” he tells me. “You can’t go homewith the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You don’t sleep with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Youdon’t get hugged by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you don’t have children with the Rockand Roll Hall of Fame. I want what everybody else wants: to love and to be loved, and to have afamily. Being in love has always been the most important thing in my life.”

    This sentiment is so universal that it’s cliché. But that’s not a criticism. In fact, it’sprobably why Joel is able to connect with people in a way that even he doesn’t completelyrealize: he musically amplifies mainstream depression. He never tried to invent a new way to besad.

    Joel’s sardonic gloom has been at the vortex of almost all his most visceral work. “Honesty”(on 52nd Street) implies that the only way you can tell that someone really cares about you isif they tell you you’re bad. “All for Leyna” (on Glass Houses) is about an emotionally

    capricious lover who leaves the song’s protagonist shattered and alone. “And So It Goes” (aballad released in 1990) has Joel insisting that every woman he loves will eventually abandonhim. Even “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (on The Stranger) is about how relationships

    that seem perfect are always doomed.

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