I am not the Billy Joel fan I once was.
Back in the 1980’s, I was a big Billy Joel fan. Big. I first learned about Billy Joel with the release of The Stranger. My brother Jimmy introduced me to him, and the songs ranged from rough hewn rock songs to lovely ballads, all tinged with wonderful stories of hopes, dreams and disappointments.
Then, came 52nd Street. Side A began with a mundane collection of routine pop songs, but by the time I flipped the album over to Side B, there was an explosion of jazz and Phil Specter influenced power pop, that for me, stands today as one of the finest Side B’s ever.
Then came the heavily Bruce Springsteen influenced Glass Houses. Nylon Curtain followed, and was Joel’s statement on industrialization and suburbia, and then An Innocent Man, Billy Joel’s love letter to 1950’s doo-wop music.
I loved it all. My friends and I bought every album, attended every concert we could, and watched his HBO concert from Long Island incessantly. I slept in my car one night just to get concert tickets.
Joel kept releasing albums, and I kept growing older. I became interested in Bob Dylan, The Band and Los Lobos. I was listening to early blues music, eclectic hip hop and the folk music of the 1960’s. Billy Joel seemed forever to be Billy Joel. His music stayed somewhat sedentary as I became interested in new things. In 1993, Joel released his fine “River of Dreams” album, and then he stopped. He kept touring, but years came and years went with no new music. It’s been over 25 years now, and still every tour and every concert (and there are many of them) brings the same collection of greatest hits and carefully selected collection of deep cuts. It feels like I grew up and changed, but Billy Joel never did.
But when I go back to that music that I originally connected with, I find myself still amazed with “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, the last song from Side A of The Stranger. A wonderful tale of two old friends who meet for dinner, and regale each other with stories from their shared youth, specifically the story Brenda and Eddie, the couple that everybody in high school loved who couldn’t quite make it as an adult couple. A story, within a story, within a story.
“A bottle of white, a bottle of red
Perhaps a bottle of rose instead
We’ll get a table near the street
In our old familiar place
You and I, face to face”
The song begins innocently enough. A couple of friends meeting for dinner, catching up on what is happening in their lives, and soon enough, they are reminiscing.
“Do you remember those days hanging out
At the village green
Engineer boots, leather jackets
And tight blue jeans
Drop a dime in the box play the
Song about New Orleans
Cold beer, hot lights
My sweet romantic teenage nights”
What began as a slow ballad how now speeds up to a raucous, New Orleans styled romp. We are now remembering high school, a time that was fun, busy, joyous and maybe a little scary. We learn about Brenda and Eddie.
“Brenda and Eddie were the
And the king and the queen
Of the prom
Riding around with the car top
Down and the radio on
Nobody looked any finer
Or was more of a hit at the
We never knew we could want more
Than that out of life
Surely Brenda and Eddie would
Always know how to survive”
Brenda and Eddie graduate high school. They get jobs. They get married. Money gets tight. The arguments begin. Brenda and Eddie realize that being adults is hard, and as much as they might want to, they can’t return to high school. They divorce. The music slows down and we return to our friends tenderly reminiscing over a bottle red, a bottle of white.
I am no longer the big Billy Joel fan that I once was.
My tastes have changed and evolved a bit over the years, and I find myself interested in other types of music though I still and will always love the music I loved in high school. Also, it feels like Billy Joel stopped trying. As a younger man, he was actively producing new music, some of it good, some of it not so good, some of it great. After the hits slowed down a bit, it felt like he no longer wanted to explore what he could do, or the songs he could write. He gave up. It’s almost as if he became Eddie.
“From the high to the low, to the end of the show, for the rest of their lives.” It’s not too late Billy. It’s never too late.
From the “Live from Long Island” concert my friends and I watched over, and over, and over.
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”
Written and Performed by Billy Joel
Released September 29, 1977