In the comments to my previous post, my dad said he’d never expect to see a Billy Joel album review on this blog. (I have a long history of being the only person in my family who hates Billy Joel.)
Well, it’s the old man’s birthday. And I just happen to have a Billy Joel album review sitting in my back pocket. I wrote it for my old blog, for a feature called Off The Shelf, in which I would take down records I hadn’t listen to in years and give them a fresh listen.
This review isn’t very good … but neither is the record. Happy birthday, anyway.
When I was a kid, everyone else in my family loved Billy Joel; so I felt it my duty to loathe his music with a passion.
I wasn’t sure which made me squirm harder — the mushy ballads, or the self-conscious “rocker” moments when Billy would put on his hard face and say something tough.
Amidst the fear and loathing, though, there was always one album I had a soft spot for:
“Turnstiles,” Billy’s fourth album, released in 1976.
I guess the album’s major lyrical theme — changes; arrivals and departures; hello and goodbye — resonated with me when I was a pre-teen and teenager, and prone to thinking about such things.
I liked the album cover, too. BJ’s other covers ranged from pretentious to flat-out scary, but the subterranean shot on the cover of “Turnstiles” had a certain mundane grit that spoke to me.
Ironically, the album I liked most was Joel’s least commercially successful effort (excluding his misbegotten solo debut “Cold Spring Harbor.”)
Joel’s two prior albums had each reached the Top 50 on the album chart and produced a Top 40 single. But “Turnstiles” failed to crack the Top 100 albums or produce a hit single.
Neither the LP nor any of its eight songs shows up on a single survey in the online ARSA database of local radio surveys.
(Edit: “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” appears to have been re-released in 1981 and shows up on a couple of surveys.)
But it was always my “favorite” Billy Joel album.
For that reason, and really for no other, it’s the first album I took out for the Off The Shelf feature.
What’s it sound like to me now?
Side One kicks off with a winner: “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” which sets out the album’s Big Statement over a baion beat respectfully lifted from Phil Spector:
“Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes / I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”
Beej sings with all the full-lunged Ronnie Spector mojo he can muster. His handpicked band (making its first appearance on record) can’t quite conjure up the Wall of Sound, but they do OK for long-haired bunch from Long Guy Land.
I’m not thrilled with the ending — fading out on the baion so suddenly is kind of a weak choice — but really, I can’t find much fault with this one.
Oh, and before we move on, let’s not overlook the opening line, which sets the scene nicely: “Bobby’s driving through the city tonight / Through the lights / In a hot new rent-a-car.”
I like the rent-a-car touch; makes it clear that this song will not be populated with young Springsteen-style outcasts clutching their hard-won pink slips, but with characters who are older, more jaded, financially richer but perhaps poorer in spirit.
Anyway, the parade continues with “Summer, Highland Falls,” a song known to casual BJ fans everywhere as “Sadness or Euphoria” because of the payoff line at the end of each verse.
Joel’s rolling piano sets up a song of adolescent romantic angst (waitaminnit, I thought we were getting twentysomethings in hot rental cars!) that would go marvelously in one of those drama shows aimed at teenagers, like “Dawson’s Creek” or “One Tree Hill” or something.
(“So we’ll argue and we’ll compromise / And realize that nothing’s ever changed / For all our mutual experience, our separate conclusions are the same.”)
If the first song was a hat tip to Spector (Phil and Ronnie), this tune is predigested Paul Simon at his most sensitive, set over piano arpeggios instead of acoustic guitar.
Of course, it’s still better than …
… track three, “All You Wanna Do Is Dance.”
In which BJ castigates a young woman whose sole crime seems to be retrograde musical taste.
(“Oh baby, I think you are lost in the ’70s / Oh baby, the music she ain’t what she used to be.”)
All of which is set over a hinky quasi-reggae groove that doesn’t, featuring a vaguely calliope-ish organ solo that I bet even BJ has trouble listening to now.
Suffice it to say that the accusation “Oh baby, you want to crawl back into yesterday” is rather an odd thrust for a man who only two songs ago was positively busting out the ouija board to get closer to Phil Spector.
Leaving that misfire behind, Side One closes with the album’s sole single, “New York State of Mind,” in which the callow young piano-pounder from Hicksville decides he’s going to meet Hoagy Carmichael and Ray Charles on their own turf — and damn near succeeds.
For my money, this is as heartfelt, memorable and well-observed (love the detail in “the New York Times / the Daily News”) a love letter to New York as any rock songwriter has ever come up with.
It’s also a nice antidote when you’ve had a bit too much of Bono singing about New York as if he owned the place, or Lou Reed muttering things like, “I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag with Latin written on it that says, ‘It’s hard to give a shit these days.’ ”
(Those NYC songwriters, as we’ll see in a minute, tend to lean a little too heavy on the cynicism.)
Four on one side, four on the other, and so we flip to hear “James,” a song addressed to a dutiful son (“so relied upon / Everybody knows how hard you try”) overloaded with family demands and expectations.
It’s cut from the same musical cloth as the later “Just The Way You Are,” with a gentle melody and chiming electric piano.
Joel could have turned this into another acrid character assassination in the manner of “Captain Jack;” but to his credit, he sounds sympathetic to his friend, as though they were meeting to vent over coffee.
Or perhaps I am biased because I root for James … but that’s another story.
Good song, anyway.
From the easy listening, we burst into the most electrifying two minutes on the record: “Prelude/Angry Young Man.”
(Love the echt-’70s title. The instrumental prelude of a ’70s rock song always gets its own title, like Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” or Steve Miller’s “Space Intro/Fly Like An Eagle.” I wonder if Beej ever mixed it up onstage and played “Prelude” leading into “New York State of Mind”? Or “Fly Like An Eagle,” for that matter?)
Anyway, the Long Island Wrecking Crew gets two minutes to show off its rock’n’roll chops, complete with pick slides and just the right amount of Hammond organ; and if you close your eyes, it’s not hard to imagine them in the summer of 1976, blowing the roof off a theater near you.
“Angry Young Man,” meanwhile, features BJ spouting rapid-fire lyrics about what sounds like an aspiring Symbionese Liberation Army member perpetually stuck in his folks’ basement — the anti-James, more or less.
It’s all a bit broad-side-of-a-barn-door, of course.
But unlike some other characters in BJ’s world, the Angry Young Man richly deserves a cynical kick in the ass.
Especially given that by 1976, anyone still clinging to Sixties-style Angry Young Mandom was (as the hip kids nowadays like to say) DOING IT WRONG.
Nice plangent bridge, too: “I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage / I found that just surviving was a noble fight.”
Unfortunately, this would not prove to be autobiographical: The real-life BJ would continue to do snotty, juvenile things, like calling out critics from the stage, for some years to come.
On the seventh song, “I’ve Loved These Days,” we revisit the rich but spiritually bankrupt characters who showed up at the beginning of the album. The narrator of this song probably attended the party to which Bobby was driving his rent-a-car.
There’s more than a whiff of F. Scott Fitzgerald to this one.
(Yeah, I said that. Meant it, too.)
Strings of pearls, caviar, foreign cars and fine cocaine add up to a morning-after dead end, as real in 1976 Hollywood as it was fifty years before.
Suddenly, the reference in 1973’s “Captain Jack” to “they just found your father in the swimming pool” reminds me of George Wilson lumbering out of the bushes toward Gatsby.
I’d better stop now.
(Hey, East Egg was on Long Island, wasn’t it?)
On the heels of that lament, the album closes on a singularly weird note with “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out on Broadway.)”
We are left to wonder what the point is, as Joel closes Side One by exalting New York and closes Side Two by destroying it.
It’s somewhat reminiscent of “King of the World,” the vision of nuclear apocalypse that ends Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” album, except without even the minimal edge or chill Becker or Fagen were able to conjure.
Joel’s vision, by comparison, plays like a bad, mega-million-dollar summer blockbuster movie; I cast Megan Fox as the female lead.
(BJ has apparently explained the concept vaguely as “a science fiction song.” Of course, the song gained renewed notice following the Sept. 11 attacks, when everyone was too numb to remember that it’s just fundamentally … inexplicable. What if Van Morrison had ended “Astral Weeks” by having Godjira rise from the ocean and devour Belfast?)
We never find out what happens to Staten Island — does it annex itself to Jersey and slip under the radar?
But we do get the obligatory Big Apple cynicism in Joel’s observations of New Yorkers too callous to notice the destruction of their own city because it always burned and crumbled before.
Uh, yeah. Kinda like what happened on 9/11, BJ?
Cynicism is cheap; and in this case, it’s counterfeit coin.
The album also ends on the line “… to keep the memory alive.”
Having spent so much time listening to songs about changes, goodbyes and relocations, we are left grasping at the past as the lights come up.
Something of a thematic misfire, if you ask me.
Given that lineup of tracks, it’s probably no great surprise that 1977’s much stronger “The Stranger,” not this, was the album that made Billy Joel a megastar.
This one still has a little bit of nostalgic appeal, though.
Change for the Rockaway Line, anyone?