5 Billy Joel songs that marked my life


Billy Joel’s 2016 tour has only two European dates – one of them (September 3rd) is in Germany. Unfortunately, it won’t be in Leipzig. So I’ll be traveling to Frankfurt to catch the American pop music legend.

I’m shelling out a significant amount of cash for the concert ticket and journey, considering my tight budget. I only do something like this for the special ones.

But it’s not his international popularity that makes Billy Joel special to me. It’s not his interesting life story, either. Such as, did you know his father was a German Jew and classical pianist who moved to New York to escape the Nazis? Did you know Billy Joel was a boxer as a teenager? That he stole his first music partner’s wife, and that she became his manager and first of four wives? That he once tried to commit suicide by drinking furniture polish?

Can you follow his great loves, his great tragedies, his life story via his songs?

I can, and I can follow my own life story, as well. And that’s where Billy Joel’s main appeal lies for me, and why I’m spending so much money to go to his concert.

Billy Joel is an amazing wordsmith and this will be his lasting legacy, when the 67-year-old leaves this Earth. More so than his piano, I think.

Right now he doesn’t even need to come up with new songs anymore. He has enough classics.

By Alishayan79 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org
By Alishayan79, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

In my head, a soundtrack plays everyday. I have a song for everyone who has meant something to me, and for the most important periods in my life.

Five of Billy Joel’s songs keep playing in my head through life, reminding me of such things:

1. “Vienna”

When the romantic comedy 13 Going On 30 came out, with its unspeakably adorable protagonists, I had just turned 20. I was very ambitious career-wise and was balancing multiple activities at the same time. I was also beginning to get the travel bug, and was itching to use the money I had saved up working to travel to Europe for the first time.

Perhaps the romantic comedy (see clip below) would’ve been like any other for me had it not been for a Billy Joel song included in its soundtrack, “Vienna.” The song described my life situation exactly at that moment of high hopes and hormones, and of longing to begin my overseas travels and my climb up the media corporate ladder. Really, I couldn’t have gotten better advice from a psychiatrist.

“Vienna” also happens to be one of two songs Billy Joel has said he’s proudest of. He wrote it when he went to track his father down in Vienna, where he had moved off to when Billy was only 8. And there, surrounded by cultural crossroads and some of the most beautiful and ugly bits of history, he spotted an old lady sweeping the streets and reflected on life. The episode inspired this song, which is one of my favorites by any artist.

2. “Piano Man”

“Piano Man” is a song so famous that it has pretty much become one of those cliche classics in our collective conscience. This sort of status is both the ultimate glory and the ultimate downfall of a great song.

The lyrics to “Piano Man” have got to be one of the greatest ever written in pop music, and the song title has fittingly become Billy Joel’s nickname. It’s such a perfectly illustrative slice-of-life song, and the fact that it’s about just what it describes – no need for obscure metaphors or any added sugar – makes it all the better, I think.

It was Billy Joel’s first (!) single; he wrote it inspired by his gig as a bar pianist in Los Angeles in 1972, and by real people he met during his six months there. It’s more than a song – it’s a piece of magazine journalism in its human portraiture.

I could totally relate to it because in the period I got into the song, the first few years of my 20s, I was singing at a restaurant (in South Florida) on the weekends. I never sang “Piano Man” there – too much text to memorize – but it did occur to me a few times when I noticed the different regulars coming to watch me sing. I got to know a little bit about their lives during the breaks from singing, and a few of them did leave a lasting impression on me.

I didn’t play the piano, though. Never learned an instrument, so I always had to sing with a partner. If I could change one thing in life, it would probably be having learned an instrument as a child. I think piano.

3. “Uptown Girl”

This song I actually did sing during my two-year restaurant gig in South Florida. It was one of the regular ones on our set list. So it reminds me of my time as a restaurant singer for different reasons than “Piano Man.”

The lyrics in “Uptown Girl” don’t tell the story, per se, of what I was doing at the time, but were a piece of what I was doing. Whenever I think of “Uptown Girl,” I remember myself as a very young woman swaying on a stage to the sound of my music partner’s guitar, singing with glee and the warmth of my favorite Port wine in my veins.

When I learned the lyrics to the song, I also looked up Billy Joel’s muse for writing it (or one of them): Christie Brinkley, his second wife. She was a big deal as a fashion model in the 1980s and 90s, and has quite a few nice pictures online.

Years after my restaurant gig was over, “Uptown Girl” was one of the songs over which my current boyfriend and I bonded, in an impromptu karaoke session in my living room. We’re now going to the Billy Joel concert together, as this is one of the few artists we have in common in our largely disparate tastes in music.

4. “Movin’ Out”

Looking back at my previous choices and this one, I guess you could say Billy Joel music represents the soundtrack of my early 20s. No wonder I like these songs so much; what a beautifully chaotic period they call to mind!

“Movin’ Out,” in particular, featured in one of the last mixed CDs I ever made, before I had an MP3 player. I distinctly remember listening to said mixed CD as soon as I returned from my post graduation Euro trip. Each workday in summer 2006, I’d drive to and from my newspaper internship in Ft. Lauderdale while playing it.

I had come back home from my jaunt abroad even more restless than I’d felt before. I wanted a great job in journalism, but I also wanted to be in Europe (anywhere in Europe, really).

Soon I realized these two wouldn’t go together, at least not that early in my career. So I settled for first moving out of my parents’ house and to another state, delving into my first full-time newspaper job.

The song lyrics were more or less fitting for the situation of a young person getting into the full-time corporate work mill,  and wanting to “move out” to an alternate, less materialistic life; but in this case I must say that, ironically, it was the melody more than the lyrics that kept me playing the song on repeat. Only later did I give some thought to the fact that the lyrics could relate to me, too.

Fun fact: “Movin’ Out” became the title of a Broadway musical made up entirely of Billy Joel songs.

5. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Ok, this song does not remind me of my 20s, but of a few years before then. I was a high school junior in Florida, and we had to write lyrics not only set to its melody, but also following its concept, for Civics class.

My teacher must have been a big fan.

I gave it my best shot, but all my teenage poetic ability and enthusiasm of course couldn’t come close to Billy Joel’s mini historical masterpiece. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” features no less than “100 headline events between 1949, the year of Joel’s birth, and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front.”

I did sing my intellectually impoverished version in front of everyone in class with gusto and some belting, though, which gave me some extra points. And the original song, which I had to study deeply, has stuck with me until today.

Come to think of it, a lot of the Billy Joel music I love reminds me of the times when music helped me move forward somehow. Whether paying my bills by singing at a restaurant, getting a better grade in class, reflecting constructively on life or simply getting me through the daily grind…

How about you? Any Billy Joel favorites to share?

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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