A Billy Joel State of Mind - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Billy Joel State of Mind

A Billy Joel State of Mind

By Eugene S. Robinson

Billy Joel performing live at The Odeon, Birmingham, 17th March 1977.
SourceTom Sheehan/Sony Music Archive/Getty


Because if we’re called on to defend the honor and sanctity of Billy Joel’s genius, we’re perfectly willing to come out with our knuckles up.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Wipe the smirk off of your face.

There are some things that, inevitably and through no fault of their own, elicit involuntary smiles: tubas, clog dancing and, on the odd occasion when his name comes up, Billy Joel. That’s pretty much got to stop right around now. Why? Because we’re going to force a re-examination of Billy Joel and aggressively agitate for his promotion to none other than … the Man. 

Not in spite of songs like Just the Way You Are, but maybe because of them. The 1977 hit was Joel’s first single to go gold, and with its overly earnest, laissez-faire take on relationships, it alone may be responsible for the knee-jerk amusement his name can conjure.

He even out-punk-rocked punk rock.

But while songs like this seem to be plaintive missives to a missus who might be worried about middle-aged frump, my take is totally different. I hear Joel’s plea for reciprocal understanding of his much-publicized struggles with drink and depression, a suicide attempt and even a brief flirtation with heroin. You see, his vices become virtues because his failures now frame how conscious he is of how much he screwed up — and really, isn’t that enough?

BW image of headshot of Billy Joel with beard

Downtown Boy

Source Getty

And this is the Rosetta stone to appreciating all of Joel, the high school dropout who had to learn to box so he could stop being beaten for playing the piano: His shit is both deep and dark. Even if on first blush it seems totally otherwise.

Joel had a lot to deal with: He grew up a Jewish atheist with a father who escaped Nazi Germany, his parents divorced when he was 11 (back when not many parents were getting divorced), and there were the aformentioned beatings. So it was not that surprising that, when he was 15, he had a road to Damascus moment. It happened while he was watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He was struck by what he figured was Lennon’s class-based anger, and he decided “This is what I’m going to do.”

And do he did. On top of being the sixth-best-selling recording artist in the U.S., Joel’s hits have been hitting the Top 40 for 30 years since his first strike in 1973 with Piano Man. Which in real practical terms means six Grammys, 23 Grammy noms and more than 150 million records moved. But, you know, that’s not at all why I like him.

The fact is that he captured the 1970s, a decade I love, and he captured the place where I came to love the era: New York City. That feat alone is so totally perfect that he deserves all of the huzzahs we could stand to throw his way. For the songs and the lyrics echoing in our heads. 

From “Workin’ too hard will give you a heart attack-ack-ack ” to “They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait / Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t / I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…,” Joel’s songs matched the city and the zeitgeist. And when his seventh studio album, Glass Houses , hit with a vaguely Joel-esque character poised to throw a rock through a large glass window, he even out-punk-rocked punk rock.

The song that sums it up best for me, and that is often the soundtrack for those of us who have left New York but whom New York has not left?

Big Shot.

Happy birthday, Piano Man.


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories