Sunday, May 26, 2013

Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel (1977)

In popular music, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you do produce and perform well into your 60s and 70s, you're ridiculed and compared to a dinosaur. If you don't produce and perform, choosing instead to just live your life, you're a wash-up. 

My local grocery store, for reasons unknown, plays baby boomer music at all times, which of course I appreciate to no end. Yesterday, Billy Joel's Tell Her About It was one of the songs on the playlist, and this morning, there's a huge interview with him in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. So it's probably about time for me to write about the man and his music, as I see that I never have.

The interview devotes far more time to grilling Joel about his mistakes and why he hasn't put out an album in 20 years than about the music that he did produce, which is unfortunate. When you look at the guy's discography, it's really rather startling how prolific he once was as a singer-songwriter, and what a great piano player and showman he was and is. To say nothing of the variety of styles and emotions his songs embodied.

Cases in point: the raw vulnerability of the lovely doo wop number, The Longest Time, to the outrageous swagger of one of my favorites, Only the Good Die Young

One of my most enduring memories of the song I owe to my then-boyfriend. Not being a Catholic boy myself, I wasn't really tapping into the lyrics at first, just the great rollicking vibe it had. But he was a boy who'd been brought up "by the nuns," as he always put it, and to hear him tell it, it was very scarring to him. (Drama queen.) Once I realized what the song was actually saying, and why it resonated so much with him despite the fact that he was well into his late 20s at the time and could have all the sex he wanted, I realized what a gloriously subversive song it was.

Decades later, I was on the board at the Cleveland Play House. By this time, Twyla Tharp's musical Movin' Out, which was scored with Billy Joel music, was a hot item, and for a fundraiser, we brought in Michael Cavanaugh, a Cleveland native who'd starred in the show for the first several years of its Broadway run. Through the night he sang and played one Joel song after the other. Finally he said he'd open it for requests.

Now you must realize that I was one of the youngest people on this board, by a decade or more. I love the theatre madly, but in Cleveland it's typically the well heeled that end up in these civic roles. So I was always kind of an anomaly there, trying to figure out how to make theatre relevant to younger generations, or even a broader spectrum of the populace in general. Suddenly I was seized by the realization that Cavanaugh had not sung Only the Good Die Young yet.

Could I get away with requesting it, in this crowd? I decided to go for it, and yelled out the song title. I will never forget it - there was a beat where something like shock reverberated in the room; I think even Cavanaugh paused for a minute. Then I remember a wave of relaxation and laughter coming over the room, and the then-managing director, Dean Gladden, flashing me his winning smile of approval, and suddenly we were off and running to the song. Ah, it was a great moment.

Anyway, the interview today shows that Billy's pretty much doing what he wants, regardless of what people expect of him. If he never puts out another record again or goes on a nostalgia tour, he will have done more than enough.  

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