In 1987, the pugnacious singer-songwriter Billy Joel was touring the Soviet Union, as one of the first outside musicians permitted to perform there since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. The tour was recorded and filmed in an effort not only to preserve these historic shows for posterity, but to recoup the tour’s exorbitant costs. Joel was not accustomed to Soviet audiences; they didn’t react to his hits with the same enthusiasm as his American fans. He would later tell a New York Times reporter that the unresponsive crowd at his July 27 Moscow show was akin to “an oil painting.”
“I've been on the road for 11 months,” he went on, by way of explaining what was about to happen. “It's difficult. I'm running ragged.”
Joel’s camera crew—the one he had hired to document the tour—roamed the stage, grabbing closeups of the musicians, and generally getting in the way. They had brightly illuminated the first few rows of fans, and to Joel’s mind, this inhibited the show’s energy and exposed the artificiality of his performance. At one point, during his song “It’s Just a Fantasy,” Joel began to lose his temper.
There is a video of this moment on YouTube. Between sung lines, Joel shouts at the crew: “Stop it! Leave me alone!” Finally, exasperated, he screams, “Let me do my show, for chrissake!” and he tips over his electric piano, which crashes noisily to the floor. The YouTube video cuts some seconds ahead; now Joel’s downstage, a microphone stand in his hands. He raises it above his head and smashes it repeatedly into a stage monitor while the band plays on behind him. When a cameraman gets too close, Joel goes after him. The cameraman turns and runs, but it’s too late: Joel kicks him in the ass.
“It was a real prima donna act,” Joel later admitted to the Times reporter. “But I have to protect my show.”
In the fall of 1983, my grandfather volunteered to drive us all down to Annapolis to watch the Lafayette College football team play against Navy. It would be a longish trip—three hours, at a minimum, if the traffic was light—and there were six of us. So my grandfather acquired a van.
He was a doctor, a Jew, and a prominent citizen, in his day, of Easton, Pennsylvania, the small city on the Delaware River where I was born. If Easton ever had a heyday, it was long past by 1984; it’s one of those towns near enough to New York and Philadelphia to get mired in their effluvia (drugs, poverty, race and class tension), but not close enough to appeal to commuters, or at least the kind of commuters who can stand spending most of their time at home. My grandfather (Robert Stein was his name) was the resident physician at Lafayette, presiding over its student health center and serving as a perpetual sideline presence, stethoscope hung around his neck, at scholastic sporting events. The sight of him running out onto the field when a player got hurt is one of the signature dramatic motifs of my childhood, and one probable reason that my congenital disdain for organized sports remained latent for so long.
Mary and Robert Stein in 1968
Pop Pop was gruff, brooding, mercurial, yet capable of great kindness and generosity. He was also, insofar as this was possible in Easton, a player. He liked to be at the center of things. (His conquest of my grandmother, his rather younger secretary, must certainly have been one of the great social triumphs of his life. I have a photo of them dancing at my parents’ wedding; in it, my grandmother, prematurely silver-haired at forty-one, is undeniably, devastatingly hot, and my grandfather gazes at her with an expression of giddy, almost unhinged and triumphant love. It was the second and last marriage for both of them.) He also liked to spend money. Objects of mysterious origin routinely appeared in my grandparents’ home, fancy things: Obscure and delectable chocolates, the two-inch-thick steaks we ate on Sunday afternoons, bottles of liquor backlit by the deluxe wet bar cleverly built into a hallway of their apartment. Doc Stein collected art, too: I’ve got the Dali now, and Mom’s got the Picasso, and none of us are quite sure what to do about the Frederic Remington bronze cowboy that may or may not have been stolen from a museum in Newark.
My grandfather tended to keep mum about where he got stuff, in part, I think, in order to cultivate an air of mysteriousness and power, and in part because a lot of it came from local mobsters. He was their doctor; he didn’t charge them, and was remunerated in goods and favors. (Thus the Remington, and the fact that, in those days, I never once saw him pay for a meal in an Italian restaurant.) Indeed, this is how my grandfather preferred to do business; he was a handshake-deal kind of guy. So he didn’t rent a van the day we went to Maryland; he sourced one. From a friend who owed him a favor.
The van was awesome. I would love to have it now. It was brown, brown, brown, like a mashup of nineteen-seventies kitchen appliances, and plushly accoutered inside, with leather-upholstered seats and carpeting. My lead-footed grandfather rode the brakes all the way to Maryland, wearing them down to the metal, and we ended up pulling into a suburban mechanic’s garage somewhere outside Baltimore, wreathed in a cloud of acrid smoke. Nobody owed Pop Pop any favors here; he and my father had to prod and cajole the mechanic into finding the parts he needed and prioritizing our repair over that of his regular customers.
Even so, we were stuck for a long time, and that van, its back doors open to the balmy fall air, became the crucible of my future adult self. I got angry back there, with my books and tapes and boredom, far from my witty Dungeons and Dragons friends and brutally terrible rock band. I hated football, I realized; I hated road trips, I hated everyone. Familial pressure to attend college (an inevitability I passionately advocated for, yet still somehow managed to resent) was stirring; there would be, post-brake-replacement, many unsubtle hints that perhaps I would enjoy attending the Naval Academy. During those unseasonably warm suburban Maryland hours, my petty resentments would catch fire and begin to change form. Those moments were remaking me into, god forbid, a sort of almost near-man.
I have no recollection of what I was reading that day, but I sure remember the soundtrack. I had one cassette in my Walkman, a Maxell XLII-S90, which I had impregnated with two LP’s while sitting perfectly still at the dining room table, obnoxiously policing my family so that their heavy footsteps wouldn’t rumble or stutter the vinyl: Billy Joel’s Turnstiles and Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenade .
Even within the confines of this exercise, wherein I cast my mind back to an era when, free from the contextualizing influence of rock history that now prevents me from unironically enjoying the music of Billy Joel, I cannot say that I ever regarded Streetlife Serenade as a good album. The follow-up to his waltz-in-limericks hit “Piano Man,” its maudlin, repetitive title-track opener seems to express envy for performers without a hit album or record label—“Streetlife serenaders / Have no obligations / Hold no grand illusions”—and who aren’t forced by circumstance to get along with others. If this kind of dyspeptic number is precisely the kind of thing you’d expect to find on the third album by an unpopular recording artist, you might not expect it to be followed by so much more of the same.
But the whole record’s grumpy: “Los Angelenos” stands up, and then knocks pissily down, a series of stock figures from Joel’s temporary California home (the rich and the vain; the faded and the stoned). “The Great Suburban Showdown” tells the story of his flight back east, which he also doesn’t sound too happy about: “Drive into town / When this big bird touches down / I'm only comin' home to say goodbye / Then I'm gone with the wind.” In “Roberta,” he longs for a prostitute: “Roberta, how I've adored you / I'd ask you over but I can't afford you,” a rhyme of which you can sense the young Joel feeling inordinately proud. And in “The Entertainer” he vilifies his label for a radio edit that took “Piano Man,” a five-minute song that’s two minutes too long, and “cut it down to 3:05.”
In Joel’s defense, Streetlife Serenade was recorded under pressure from the label; the artist admits it’s no good. “I did not have enough time to write new material,” he told actor Alec Baldwin in a 2012 interview. “I had nothin’. I was empty.” He agrees with me that the two best tracks on it are instrumentals.
But perhaps Streetlife Serenade is the ur-flop that ignited my lifelong obsession with bad work by people I otherwise admire. The satisfaction one derives from an indisputably successful book or album or film is sweet, to be sure, but sometimes it strikes me as rote, unimaginative. In the case of Joel’s ill-fated third album, anger and jealousy are the engines of failure. To see Joel so hopping mad, and so openly uninspired, was fascinating to my fourteen-year-old self. As a young songwriter, I would happily scratch out a couple of awful songs exclusively for the empty satisfaction of watching the notebook pages fill up, and the A’s I was earning in English class were less the result of genuine effort than of self-satisfied, condescending cleverness. My teachers were, of course, onto me and my fundamental laziness, but they gave me the grades anyway. The spectacle of Billy Joel sucking was a kind of anti-inspiration, a justification for my own dazzling mediocrity. (I’d like to think that, these days, my persistent affection for others’ failures springs from someplace less callow, more collegial. But probably not.)
Side two of my Maryland van tape, however, was a different story. 1976’s Turnstiles contained some actual terrific songs, including “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (not a hit then, not yet; it would come to greater fame in a live, or pseudo-live, rendition five years later on Songs in the Attic ) and my personal favorite, the awkwardly titled “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” The song opens with a fade-in of emergency sirens and pretty piano arpeggios, then tells the story of New York City’s eventual destruction and abandonment; the swelling chords give way to a Springsteenian (or at least Rick-Springfieldian) guitar rave-up narrated by haunting vocals rendered otherworldly by a bit of slapback delay. Throw in a couple of breakdowns with kick and crash on the ones, and a trilling piano coda, and boy howdy, you had my attention.
I still love it. Joel called it a science-fiction song, but its melding of the fantastical and terrifying with the mundane (it’s not like the world is ending, everybody just moved to Florida) feels more like a kind of speculative, real-estate-fueled dirty realism.
The rest of Turnstiles is pretty good, too. “New York State of Mind” is perhaps the closest thing to a nightclub standard Joel has written (don’t you dare say “Baby Grand”), and “James” is a nice proto-“Just-the-Way-You-Are” ballad, in the same way that “Prelude / Angry Young Man” takes a few first steps, with its soundtracky dynamic shifts and key changes, toward the bona fide future hit “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” But if Streetlife Serenade ’s anger largely took the form of vague, embittered longing, Turnstiles aims a trembling finger at specific characters, a category I think of as People Who Are Annoying Billy.
“James” complains of a figure from the past, an ambitious rule-follower of the singer’s acquaintance: “I went on the road,” he sings; “you pursued an education.” Fair enough. From there, though, Joel proceeds to concern-troll the living shit out of this fellow, accusing him of being shallow, cowardly, and “well-behaved,” before asking him, “When will you write your masterpiece?” It’s hard not to read this question as projection. Turnstiles would soon become Joel’s fourth non-hit record, and he had to wonder if Mr. Integrity himself would ever get around to it.
Joel still has plenty of venom left for his “Angry Young Man,” who is no less callow than poor James, this time because of an excess of integrity: “He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl / And he’s always at home with his back to the wall.” He’s proud, the Angry Young Man, too proud to do much other than sit around “with his maps and his medals laid out on the floor.” Is there hope for him? Nope. “He’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.”
The author at 14
At fourteen, I loved this iteration of Joel. I perceived myself as beset by poseurs, bullies, and dum-dums, and was preparing for my years of rebellion, which lay just ahead. What kind of rebellion, you ask? Oh, sometimes, on the bus between my house and the high school, I would untuck my shirt, and then, six hours later, on the ride home, tuck it back in again. Once, I made out in a movie theater with a girl who smoked cigarettes. I routinely hung out with kids whose parents were divorced, and one time, somebody I was with shoplifted from a convenience store. (I bravely denounced the act.) I was banned from a Perkins restaurant for loud talking.
All right, so my rebellion remained imaginary. Maybe it shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have joined my date for cigarettes, untucked my shirt before I left the house. 1984 was the year of Van Halen—a de-fanged, relatively demure Van Halen, at that—but their unbridled sexuality and scarved-and-spandexed stage acrobatics weren’t to my taste. It was terror of my own desires that compelled me to prefer the virtuosic, nearly decade-old snit-rock of Turnstiles , even though, if I’d been honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was James and James was I: Conventionally ambitious, deeply concerned about what other people thought of me, hungry for the approval of my superiors. My anger, such as it was, I now read as having been in response not to the people who expected great things of me, but from my own complicity in their expectations. They just wanted the best for me! And I was the coward who accepted their notions of what that was.
I am convinced that if there were no Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel would still be writing and recording studio albums. Contemporaries, geographically proximate, near-twins in class and stature, the two men should really not have been able to maintain parallel careers in the arena of piano-, guitar-, and saxophone-based rock music. Somehow, though, for twenty years, they managed. Or, Joel did, in any event. Springsteen merely lived his life as though Billy Joel didn’t exist. But I believe that Springsteen was Joel’s Kryptonite. There were always some similarities in the music, especially in the early days, when Springsteen's records had more piano on them. But ultimately, the Boss (and how Joel must have longed to be so nicknamed by his adoring fans) chose the guitar, and Joel stayed behind the piano.
That is, he usually stayed behind the piano. I can think of one notable exception. It’s the moment that marks, I contend, the beginning of the end of Joel’s recording career, a moment when he made the error of openly acknowledging his rivalry with Springsteen. It is embarrassing to watch, and you can watch it right now. It’s the video for “A Matter of Trust.”
The video opens with a descending crane shot of an ordinary summer’s day in New York: Pedestrians strolling down a faux East Village sidewalk, unaware that one of pop’s brightest stars is mere feet away. Cut to an interior: A spacious practice room that is obviously a soundstage, with French windows offering views of the street. Joel is giving orders. “First two chords are open fifths,” he tells the piano player. “Second two chords are open fifths.” (The piano player does not, for some reason, reply, “So you’re saying it’s all open fifths. Why not just say it’s all open fifths?”)
Wait, did I just say piano player? That can’t be! Billy is the piano player! Not this time, friend. Billy’s on guitar: a suspiciously pristine Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. “Okay, girls!” he calls out to the band, none of whom are women. “Matter a Trust!” He makes a Spinal Tap joke to no one in particular, then counts in and starts the song.
Cut to the street. Muffled by the closed French doors, the music barely registers on the jaded pedestrians. This won’t do. Inside, Billy stops playing. “It’s too hot in here!” he says. “Could you guys open the windows?” Windows open, the song begins again.
Reaction shots: heads turn, shoulders twitch. Now, what have we here? we’re meant to believe these people are thinking. That voice. . . that sound. This is no mere noise; it’s the unmistakable sonic footprint of one of America’s most beloved rock stars. It’s the great Billy Joel! Heads poke out of doorways, men in undershirts peer down from fire escapes. Cops bark orders into walkie-talkies. A lady in a housecoat leans out a tenement window and shouts, “Shut up!” Back inside, a beautiful woman and an adorable child have suddenly entered the practice space—supermodel Christie Brinkley, Joel’s then-wife who apparently had nothing better to do, and their two-year-old daughter Alexa.
For context, this video was produced just a few years after Springsteen’s most iconic filmed appearance, the video for his hit “Dancing in the Dark.” Lip-synced in front of what appears to be a real concert audience, a Springsteen uncharacteristically unburdened by his own signature instrument, the guitar, pulls an “anonymous fan” up from the crowd. Actress Courtney Cox, sporting a fetchingly short haircut and a sleeveless Springsteen tour tee shirt, chastely jitterbugs onstage with Springsteen as Clarence Clemons pretends to serenade them with the song’s famous saxophone outro.
The video is pretty goofy, but it’s still exciting to watch Springsteen’s seemingly effortless sexiness and self-confidence, Cox’s fresh-faced beauty, and a general air of straightforward American romance and fun. At one point Springsteen hazards a knowing glance at the camera, as if to say, Yeah, this stuff’s pretty stupid, but we’re all havin’ a good time! There’s nothing complicated about the video: The camera stays on Springsteen the whole time, reveling in his moves, his rolled-up sleeves, his tight jeans. There is one subject, one plotline.
Compare and contrast with the “A Matter of Trust” video which, as the title implies, has no trust whatsoever in the charisma of its star. It cannot resist turning Joel’s practice session into a spontaneously transcendent Genuine New York City Street Event, featuring every imaginable stock urban character, and the results are confusing and embarrassing. Joel’s sweat looks like Vaseline, and his Les Paul, we can see in one closeup, is actually autographed by Les Paul. Setting aside the plausibility of anyone playing a rock show, let alone practicing, with a Les Paul that Les Paul has signed, let me say that there is nothing in the world more inherently, appallingly perverse and fake than an autographed electric guitar. Any famous musician who signs one is effectively consigning it to death inside a wall-mounted plexiglas vitrine. And try to imagine Springsteen playing a guitar another musician has autographed. I mean, please.
That said, it’s possible to imagine these two videos inhabiting the same contiguous universe, wherein Springsteen puts the guitar down for a moment to film the “Dancing in the Dark” video, and Joel, sensing an opportunity, snatches it and runs away.
But it’s the evidently pointless presence of Brinkley and daughter that really brings Joel’s Springstenvy into focus. It’s not enough that Joel is saying, Hey, I can play guitar too! Hey, people are cheering for me, too!! He’s also saying, Hey look! I can attract a hot woman too! I actually married one! In fact, I fucked her! That’s where the baby came from!
This wasn’t the last Billy Joel record or video, of course. But it’s the beginning of the end. The hellhound’s on his trail. His marriage and recording career both have about six years left to go. But who am I to talk? As I write, my own marriage is now in its latter stages of unraveling, and I feel, as I always do, that the death blow to my career is just around the corner. Look, we’re all going to die and be forgotten. I know that. It’s not like I expect, or even want, my work to last forever. But I don’t wish to live out my productive years in a state of terror of the inevitable.
Billy Joel didn’t just want to live, he wanted to win, and to stay on top. More importantly, he wanted to be legit, and to enjoy his legitimacy like a seasoned pro. The literary figure Joel most resembles is Stephen King, a man once so dissatisfied by his own massive success that he generated a pseudonym to prove to himself he could become famous all over again. King’s obvious longing for approval from the muck-a-mucks at universities—his manifest and tiresome mockery, through his work, of professors, intellectuals, and other cultural authorities—is akin to Joel’s habit of augmenting his songs with snippets of classical piano, as though to remind his listeners he’s no dummy, unlike certain people he could name. Like Joel, King tried to quit writing; but unlike Joel’s retirement, King’s didn’t take. Joel did release one more studio record after his ostensible 1993 swan song, River of Dreams ; it’s a collection of neoclassical pieces performed by a legitimately trained pianist, and is called, wincingly, Fantasies and Delusions .
I moved back to the northeast in 1997, after a four-year exile in Montana, where I had studied writing and written my first book, where I met my wife, and where we produced our first child. Before settling in upstate New York, where today we live in separate households, we spent a couple of months in my home town of Easton.
I’d seen my grandfather during my years away, of course, but not in the context of his day-to-day life as a minor local celebrity, a condition that had seemed to me inviolable. But nothing lasts forever. We went out to eat, and people didn’t know who he was. One day I was giving him a ride in the dented and rusted Toyota my wife and I had hauled east behind our rental truck, and something gave way; the car bucked and juddered and ground to a halt on some downtown side street.
Pop Pop’s disappointment in me was palpable: Driving good cars and maintaining them was a family value I’d failed to inherit. Indeed, I’d long felt a little hurt about never being the one my grandfather asked to ferry him around on his gray-market errands, this job typically falling to my more automotively-responsible father and brother. I wasn’t sure why I’d been recruited this time around, but I had clearly blown it. I apologized profusely, said I’d call Triple A.
Pop Pop stopped me. “Don’t,” he said. He had a guy. His guy would come. The implication was that the guy would fix the car gratis. He gave me a name and number, and I found a pay phone and called Pop Pop’s guy. “I’m with Doc Stein,” I said. “My car broke down.” The guy didn’t know who I meant, not at first. But eventually I made him understand, and my father came to pick us up.
The car was fixed, eventually, but the work was shoddy and the repair cost $900. My grandfather lived out most of his declining years in Florida, contentedly listening to Danielle Steel audiobooks. Once, I flew there from Ithaca, mistakenly believing that his death was imminent. My grandmother and I sat by his bedside, waiting. At one point, he gestured to me with a trembling finger. Come closer, he seemed to be saying. I took his hand, leaned over the bed. He tilted his face up to my ear, the plastic oxygen tubes creaking and stretching. What would he say? I wondered. What dark truths might he reveal? A family lineage mystery? A secret crime? The true origins of the Remington cowboy?
Through cracked lips, he whispered, “Bring me...some lemonnnn...icccccce.”
“Some people think it’s because I’m lazy or I’m just being contrary,” Joel told The New Yorker ’s Nick Paumgartner in 2014, on the subject of his apparent retirement from recording. “But, no, I think it’s just—I’ve had my say.” He went on, though, contradicting himself: “You can’t create something that’s an independent entity, made out of whole cloth. They know who you’re in a relationship with, what your past is. They tend to draw their own conclusions. Your image becomes more powerful than the things you create.”
The “they” Joel refers to is his audience: His fans and, of course, his detractors. The “you” he refers to is himself. It isn’t surprising that Joel employs the universalizing second person here; he wants to think of his decision to stop recording as inevitable, the kind of thing that just happens when anyone finds themselves in his situation. But the fact is, many artists—the ones who keep working—don’t see themselves this way. You can create something out of whole cloth, primarily for yourself, without regard for how it will be received. And it’s possible to think about your audience without making assumptions about what they think about you.
But Joel’s not that kind of artist. “Long ago,” Paumgartner writes, “Joel grew tired of having to look out at the fat cats in the two front rows. . . guys who’d bought the best seats and then sat there projecting a look of impatience and boredom.” So nowadays, those seats aren’t sold to the public; before each show, the stage crew hand-picks pretty girls from “the cheap seats” to occupy them.
Joel’s songs were extensions of his inner adolescent, his bullied and wounded self. His most honest music—not the pastiches, not the bombast, but the good stuff—drew upon his insecurities and, unfortunately, his anger. It isn’t surprising that so many of his most passionate fans are people who never grew up, people who remind Joel of the self he wants to leave behind. It must have gotten harder and harder to be honest, the more successful he became: All the cheers did was remind him of who he wished he no longer was. Nowadays, Joel plays it safe: His primary language is shtick. He’s got a canned speech for every number, he’s got his jokes and his funny voices. He’s got his motorcycles and his boat and his dog, and people bring him lemon ice whenever he wants it.
A meme of recent years invited us to identify our “spirit animal.” My understanding of the term is as a pseudo-shamanistic appropriation, a kind of casual embrace of the familiar spirits of European folklore: supernatural entities in animal form that guide us in our metaphysical pursuits. I guess we’re supposed to feel, whenever we’re doing our thing, whether it’s writing a novel or making a record or roofing or plumbing or whatever, some ineffable bear power or bee power or elk power that is meant to motivate and define us.
It feels like an empty exercise to me, but OK, fine. Just let me ask you this. Does it have to be an animal? Can it be another human? Can it be Billy Joel? Because I think my spirit animal is him. Or, to frame it as a different passé cultural phenomenon, it’s like I’m wearing a bracelet that reads What Would Billy Do? I don’t usually behave like Billy, but sometimes my every action feels like a reaction to him. Responding to professional rejection with nervous laughter and awkward standup patter. Finding solace in the creation and dissemination of insecure novelty art. Caring too much about the wrong things, and not caring enough about the right ones.
I don’t want to do those things, and I don’t want to be the person who has done them. But I guess there’s a limit to how much we can subvert or sublimate our essential nature. Billy Joel is the poster child for this disappointing epiphany: He’s never not Billy Joel to the hilt. At times, I envy him his big, irritating, sloppy personality, his unabashed embrace of his own worst qualities. And honestly, would you want him to be any different?
I wouldn’t have wanted my grandfather to be any different, either, although he and I share a few flaws: hedonistic urges, fiscal profligacy, marital disharmony. He wasn’t actually my grandfather, by the way. My biological grandfather was a physical and psychological abuser whom my grandmother wisely divorced in her early thirties. But Pop Pop is the grandfather who was actually there for me, and I will admit inheritance of his foibles without shame, even as, every day, I endeavor to tamp down the impatience and anger that is my genetic heritage. I need to believe that a good person can sometimes do stupid things or produce shitty work. After all, I have to protect my show.
And yes, I proudly claim Billy Joel as an influence, too. Maybe the most important one, who knows. He’s with me every time I try to amuse my children’s friends with a dumb joke, every time I lose my cool, every time I recycle my own ideas or somebody else’s, or otherwise make an ass of myself, and I guess even when I manage to do something pretty good. My first act, upon moving into the divorced-dad condo that is now my home, was to buy a used LP of Glass Houses and give it a spin. Billy Joel is the clown prince of my middle age. He is driving, for better or worse, the brown borrowed van to Baltimore that is my adult life, and riding the brakes all the way.