Thursday, September 30, 2010

Celebrating the Genius of Billy Joel

We've been dealing lately with some grim subjects--suicides, mysterious deaths, pedophilia, and the like--so we thought it was time for a musical interlude. What better place to turn than the music of Billy Joel, who we consider one of America's finest pop composers.

Joel entered our thoughts in a roundabout way recently. Having both been cheated out of our jobs, Mrs. Schnauzer and I can't afford to enjoy many special occasions. But we did treat ourselves to a movie one recent afternoon. (An insight: One of the advantages of unemployment is that you can go to a midweek matinee and be assured that the theater will be almost empty. Trust me, it's great. Now, if we could only figure out a way to sneak in without having to pay.)

We thoroughly enjoyed "The Kids Are All Right," a splendid little film about a lesbian couple (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), who see their family unit turned upside down when their children track down the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who is their biological father. "The Kids Are All Right" probably isn't in theaters anymore and should be out soon--if it isn't already--on DVD. We give it four thumbs up.

One of the movie's key scenes comes when the family visits the sperm donor's home for dinner. Bening's character is amazed to discover that a "manly guy" like Ruffalo is into Joni Mitchell. She loves Mitchell so much that she named her daughter after her. After a few glasses of wine, they begin to rhapsodize about Mitchell's brilliance and agree that Blue is her finest work.

The scene is beautifully written and acted, serving as the film's centerpiece--wrapping up what came before and setting the stage for what comes next. On the way home, we started talking about Joni Mitchell. I had to admit that I've never been that big a Joni Mitchell fan--and I probably fall well short of Ruffalo's "manly guy" status, too. Mrs. Schnauzer piped up, "You know, I think I've got a Joni Mitchell album, but I can't remember the name of it."

That sent me off, upon our arrival at home, on a search to discover if we, indeed, are the proud owners of a Joni Mitchell album. And I'll be darned if the answer isn't yes. Somewhere along the way, Mrs. Schnauzer acquired the Court and Spark album, a 1974 release that includes "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris," two of the few Mitchell songs with which I actually am familiar. The only two others probably are "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio," and "Big Yellow Taxi."

I hate to admit being so ignorant about Joni Mitchell, but that is the shameful truth. Mitchell, for me, is one of those artists I admire, without truly being a fan. And I don't know why. I love Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, and numerous other female artists. Maybe Joni Mitchell is just too deep for my "every man's" taste. I'm the same way about Bob Dylan. I know that Dylan, like Mitchell, is an important and hugely influential figure in music. But to buy his records and actually listen to his music . . . no, thanks.

Anyway, I proceeded to prove just how clueless I am about Joni Mitchell. My intent was to play her album--if I discovered that we actually owned it. But while holding Court and Spark, I caught a glimpse of my treasured copy of Billy Joel's The Stranger. I wound up playing that instead and still haven't listened to the Joni Mitchell album.

Most folks are familiar with Billy Joel's numerous hits--"Piano Man," "Just the Way You Are," "Uptown Girl," "Allentown," "It's Still Rock 'n Roll to Me," "We Didn't Start the Fire," and many more. But to me, the measure of an artist's greatness lies with the songs that weren't released as singles--the ones that reveal the depth of a musician's catalog.

By that measure, Billy Joel has produced an astonishing body of work. In fact, I would gladly pay major dollars (if I had them) to attend a Billy Joel concert where he did not play any of his hits. The depth of Joel's work is so strong that he produced an album called Songs in the Attic, which is live versions of largely unknown songs from his earliest records.

One of those songs is "Captain Jack," a gritty tune about a real person, a drug dealer who lived near Joel in Oyster Bay, New York. Joel has said in interviews that he considers "Captain Jack" to be an anti-drug song. It has long been one of his concert staples, and this is from a 2008 concert at Shea Stadium:

The Stranger is the album that vaulted Joel to superstar status. The title song never was released as a single, but it is the album's centerpiece and one of Joel's finest compositions:

Finally, we have Billy Joel's magnum opus, the masterful "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," from The Stranger. Pop/rock music does not get any better than this. Enjoy:

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