Music

Eddie Money, the Slightly Undersold Rock Artist

Eddie Money in an undated photo released September 13, 2019. (Kevin Foley/Handout via Reuters)
A poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, perhaps, but one who certainly seemed to have a lot of fun.

Eddie Money was the quintessential “regular guy made good.” He was a hard-working, rough-voiced rocker who somehow found an audience at a time when trends were pointing toward spandex, synths, and hairspray. Lots and lots of hairspray.

Money’s death earlier this month came just weeks after he made public the diagnosis of stage-4 esophageal cancer. He was 70.

Money was born into a family of New York City cops and for a time he was an NYPD trainee himself. In time, though, Edward Joseph Mahoney took on a stage name, became “the Money Man,” and embarked on a career in the world of music out in California.

“You know, all the football players were getting the chicks,” Money told the Hillsdale Collegian in 2012. “I was a third-string soccer player. Rock ’n’ roll was the best way to get women. Now I do it for the living room furniture.”

His career arc was fit for a VH1 Behind the Music episode, even if one never was produced: early success, difficulty in following up, drug use, a near-death experience, revived chart success in the MTV era, and, finally, settling down into annual appearances at summer fairs and rib fests across the country.

Rarely photographed without a lit cigarette in hand, Money’s enduring popularity spoke to the power of his working-man, blue-collar appeal. What John Mellencamp was for the heartland, Eddie Money was for those who might have vacationed along the Jersey Shore. A poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, perhaps, but one with a much different lyrical focus. Money was far less interested in whatever darkness lay at the edge of town when compared with the girl sitting right beside him in the front seat of his car.

Success came quickly with the release of his self-titled debut album in 1977, which features two of his most iconic songs, “Two Tickets to Paradise” and ‘Baby Hold On.” Classic-rock radio stations across the country might have an increasingly shrinking playlist, but you can be assured that both Money songs will turn up once a day on most of those outlets.

The follow-up, Life for the Taking, contains one of his best compositions, the Wild West tale of “Gimme Some Water.” Although it stands as his highest-charting studio album, reaching No. 17, Money’s second album bears the marks of an artist straining under the pressure to produce another hit single in the midst of non-stop touring. No song from his third album, Playing for Keeps, cracked the Top 40.

It was during these hard-partying days that Money nearly bought the farm. In 1981 he inadvertently snorted some fentanyl (he thought it was just cocaine!) and ended up in a coma. Money seriously damaged his kidneys and a sciatic nerve in his left leg, leading to mobility issues for the rest of his life.

Upon recovery, Money poured himself into the making of his next album, No Control, the title track a reflection on his wild ways: “Well they took me to the hospital / And I swore I wouldn’t go / My blood was running much too high / My heart was much too slow.” The album includes two other well-known hits, “Shakin’” and “Think I’m In Love.”

Where’s the Party? (1983) also failed to produce a Top 40 hit, leading his record label to augment  his work with a team of outside songwriters. Can’t Hold Back was the result, and it catapulted Money back into public consciousness in 1986. Radio took a liking to the new, extra-smooth, processed-pop sound of the record and played three tracks into Top 40 singles, none of which Money had any hand in writing. However, the strengths of the songs — the resigned nostalgia of “I Wanna Go Back,” the soaring chorus of “Endless Nights,” and the passionate delivery of his best-known song from the decade, “Take Me Home Tonight,” which rose to No. 4 — all felt like classic Money.

“Take Me Home Tonight” was in part a tribute to the Ronettes, the 1960s New York City girl group produced by Phil Spector and responsible for the 1963 hit “Be My Baby.” However, tracking down Ronnie Spector to sing on the track was tougher than first imagined.

“I could hear clinking and clanking in the background,” Money told The Hippo in 2015, referring to a conversation with her on the phone. “I said, ‘Ronnie, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m doing the dishes, and I gotta change the kids’ bedding. I’m not really in the business anymore, Eddie.’”

Eventually, Money was able to convince her to come down to the studio to recreate her iconic “Be My Baby” vocal part for the song.

“When she got there, she didn’t even remember it; she had a mental block against [Phil] Spector,” Money told The Hippo. “But then she came out and did the song. She was even better on a cheap bottle of wine and some crappy grass, I gotta tell you.”

His next album, Nothing to Lose, took on even more of a pop sheen and featured a Top Ten hit in ‘Walk on Water,” a song that screams “I’m from 1988!” While Money was nothing if not a crowd-pleaser, that didn’t mean he was always thrilled to play the hits.

“I hate singing ‘Na na na na na na na na na’” (in “Walk on Water”), Money told Rolling Stone in 2018. “I feel really silly singing the song. . . . You try doing that for 30 years in a row. It’s not even a lyric. It was supposed to be a horn part, but the horn player never showed up, so I had to do it with my mouth.”

His commercial fortunes hit the skids as the new decade dawned and musical tastes shifted, but he eventually worked his way into a permanent spot on the summer-concert rotation for mid-sized cities around the country. And with good reason: A trip to a Money show was essentially a guaranteed good time, a sing-along party atmosphere conducted by the common-man rock star at the front of the stage.

Money popped up from time to time in the media in recent years, running the Eddie Money Travel Agency in a Geico commercial (“I’ve got two tickets to paradise!”) and making cameos on The King of Queens and The Kominsky Method. Most recently he was the star of the reality series Real Money on AXS TV, which featured Money and his family members.

If he had become a joke in any way, it always was clear he was laughing right along with the rest of the audience.

With eleven Top 40 hits to his name, Money is slightly undersold as a rock artist. Listeners can forget how many of his songs they actually know. Yet, somehow, many remember all the words once they burst through the speakers, guaranteeing that the sing-alongs will long continue, even now that Money is gone.

Scot Bertram is the co-host of the Political Beats podcast at National Review. He also serves as a lecturer in journalism and general manager of the student-run radio station at Hillsdale College.

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