The Corner

The Stranger Rides into Your One-Horse Town on the Downeaster Alexa with a Six Pack in His Hand

Nick Paumgarten’s very long profile of Billy Joel is a good piece of journalism, describing the not-unhappy semi-retirement of the prolific singer-songwriter who, the title suggests, scored 33 hits in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

All Billy Joel profiles must commence in the struggle over rock cred, if not in full-bore contempt aimed at the Piano Man — who this summer “was the fourth-highest-grossing pop act of the season, behind One Direction, Jay Z and Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake,” according to Paumgarten. Joel’s popularity has long been a stick to hit him with, and his opponents never tire of pointing out his lack of true RAWKitude — probably in part because the accusation clearly bothers him.

Disclosure: This reporter has generally joined in the disdain for Billy Joel. I am wary of his music’s superhuman catchiness, and I have a lower-than-normal threshold of patience with its airy ingenuity. I resent that I can’t disentangle in my mind the Ronettes’ 1963 song “Be My Baby” from Joel’s 1976 reboot “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” I think the overly clever “Only the Good Die Young,” though it does get a crowd moving, fails as a carpe diem song because it neither praises the girl nor insults her in a provocative way; and it also fails as an anti-Catholic anthem because it lacks the juvenile lewdness and knowing detail of Frank Zappa’s “Catholic Girls.” (Which can also be more danceable, depending on the crowd.) I always thought Joel’s scrappy jazzman persona — while no more phony, even arguably less phony, than Bruce Springsteen’s workingman character — was preposterous.

Age has not mellowed me on Billy Joel’s music so much as soured me on Joel’s enemies. A few years back, I read in rapid succession a skeptical Joel profile by Chuck Klosterman, a vicious attack on him by Ron Rosenbaum, and various cutting comments by Robert Christgau, all of which turned on the unsurprising factlet that his music lacks the true exploding heart of thermonuclear rock intensity. Who the hell were these jokers to be sniping at an artist of Bill Joel’s caliber, disparaging a composer and performer who once turned out pop standards faster than they changed their underpants? And who cares about rock cred anyway — like rock cred ever cured a disease or covered a payroll?

Paumgarten gives the 65-year-old pop star a chance to rebut these arguments. The Boss himself is wheeled in to report that Joel’s compositions “are built like the Rock of Gibraltar,” which is as solid a judgment as Springsteen has cast in his long, solid history of solidness. Paumgarten also hits on the quality in Joel that has always prevented the audience’s enthusiasm from blossoming into true love: He’s misanthropic, and that is a distinctly un-McCartneyan quality in a pop master. Joel’s too-sharp view of humanity comes through as early as “Piano Man.” (What’s so bad about tickling the ivories for a bunch of mid-Wilshire sad sacks that the song should sound so tragic?) Joel himself now criticizes his sneering anti-drug song “Captain Jack.”

These days the old sourpuss sits overlooking the water on his Long Island spread; listening to Beethoven with his current wife, who is precisely more than half his age; and having the occasional tipple. “There were, in the past decade, a couple of interventions and a couple of stints in rehab, in 2002 and 2005,” Paumgarten concedes, neglecting to mention a January 2003 drunk-driving accident. But Joel seems to have reached a rare mix of indifference to the opinions of others and resources to live as he pleases. A helicopter lands on his lawn every now and then to swoop him to the Garden, where he earns a million dollars a night. Though he putters with music, Joel seems mostly to be enjoying his dotage in a mansion that includes, among other things, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a model of the Queen Mary with a light inside it. “He rejects the A.A. approach,” Paumgarten says, “and favors the kind of self-moderation that A.A.’s devotees cluck at.”

Paumgarten posits a renaissance for Billy Joel’s reputation, most of which was news to me. He is going to be honored by the president of the United States next month. He should get a designated driver to Washington, D.C., but good on him for proving that if you make enough money and live long enough you can say “go ahead with your own life; leave me alone” and mean it.

Whole article, in The New Yorker.

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