A few months back, I had the rare occasion to be channel surfing (I hardly ever do this, as I usually only turn my TV on when there’s something specific that I want to watch). Showtime was airing a documentary called A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia and it was all about Billy Joel’s tour of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Far from being merely a “tour diary” though, the documentary examined the difficulties involved in taking the tour to the USSR and what it meant that Billy Joel was willing to take his then-wife, Christie Brinkley, and young daughter Alexa along with him amid all the tensions between the US and USSR. Brinkley was interviewed, as well as the band members who accompanied Billy Joel, and they talked about the tour and its place in history in the context of the Cold War. It was fascinating to a pop culture junkie with a music problem (like me).
Listening to Billy Joel tell the story of what inspired the song “Leningrad” got me thinking about why it is that basically everyone likes Billy Joel (especially people from New York, who rabidly adore him). There really aren’t a whole lot of singer-songwriters who have been able to bridge generations the way Billy Joel has, after all. The answer was one that seemed so simple, but was (at least for me) overlooked:
Billy Joel is an amazing storyteller.
And I don’t just mean in documentaries or during concerts. I mean that his music actually tells stories. He writes about subject matter that resonates with real people instead of just lots and lots of love songs (to be fair, he has a number of those as well, but I find his more tolerable than others).
The reader and writer in me is particularly drawn to some of those songs that tell stories that you just don’t hear on the radio. They’re working class stories. Regional stories. Life stories. Some writers can only write what they know. Billy Joel is one of those writers who is good at telling stories beyond his own experience, as well. This is very difficult to do (think about books you’ve read where the writer just couldn’t pull off the different perspective and it seemed contrived).
Of course, then I started thinking, “Well, if you like this Billy Joel song, you might like this book….” So I want to talk a little about some of the storytelling that makes Billy Joel’s music so appealing and relatable. Please note that there aren’t book recommendations for all of these, and of the recs given, I haven’t read all of them. Some of them are just based on my understanding of the book, which could certainly be incorrect. Feel free to leave kind rebuttals in the comments.
1. “Goodnight, Saigon”
“Goodnight, Saigon,” as you can probably gather from the title, is a song about Vietnam and talks about the experiences soldiers had during the war. It touches on those themes of brotherhood and looking out for one’s own. The images from Vietnam that are mixed in with this video help to drive that home.
Pair it With: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I’m not typically very big on war stories, but was required to read this one in college. It’s a brilliant novel borne out of a short story about, among other things, what you could learn about another soldier during Vietnam based on the things he carried. Beautifully done.
This might be one of the most interesting stories to me. You can listen to the song and think, sure, it’s about the differences in experiences between children in Russia and the US during the Cold War. And it is (and again, the images mixed in show those differences). But it also tells the story of Viktor, the circus clown. Viktor, as it turns out, was a real person who came to every one of Billy Joel’s shows during that tour of the USSR. This is something he discusses at length in the documentary (the entirety of which is, fittingly, dedicated to Viktor). Every night Viktor was in the front row dancing and just having the best time, and when the two men met, they got to comparing experiences growing up (only a few years separated them in age).
And so everything in this song is based on a true story. Viktor really was a circus clown (the man you see putting the clown makeup on in the video is, in fact, Viktor. You also see footage of him meeting Billy Joel backstage, going through pictures, etc.). Billy Joel’s daughter Alexa, who was young at the time, did indeed find Viktor to be amusing. There is also some footage in the video during that lyric where you see Christie Brinkley (clad in a USA t-shirt) walking with Alexa.
Pair it With: I was trying to come up with the definitive recommended reading on the Cold War, but that’s difficult to do with something that spans so many decades. There was, however, a fiction genre that emerged from that time (though not entirely relevant to this song except in the broadest sense of just the Cold War): spy novels. If those are your thing, some of the top recommendations include: From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarré; The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. (I can’t vouch for any of these — I have not read them.)
And one for Eastern Pennsylvania (although, living in Pennsylvania, I can tell you that all of PA will claim this song as their own, title specifications notwithstanding). This song examines the plight of the blue collar folks working with coal and steel in and around the Allentown/Bethlehem/Lehigh Valley area.
Something interesting: During that tour of the USSR, when Billy Joel performed this song, he told the crowd (through a translator) about how the people living in Allentown had experienced something that was not totally unlike what they (the crowd) were experiencing, and this made them go crazy over “Allentown.”
4. “Uptown Girl”
Yes, it’s kind of a love song. It also gets into issues of socioeconomics just by nature of what it is. Blue collar “downtown” guy falls for highbrow “uptown” girl (and because it’s a story, it works).
This is one of the first music videos I can remember watching when I was little and I still love it. I love that Billy Joel’s mechanic character has posters of Christie Brinkley hanging up, and that there’s a dance sequence, and throughout all of it, Christie Brinkley looks like she’s having a blast (but like she needs to watch Billy for the dance moves).
I legit used to think that this is what all mechanics did — sing and dance while fixing cars.
Pair it With: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth. Aside from being a similar story about “blue collar guy from Newark falls in love with high-class girl from Short Hills,” this is just one of my favorite stories, period.
5. “Downeaster Alexa”
Simply enough, a seafaring tale about the struggles of fishermen in and around Block Island Sound, Montauk, the Cape, etc. Another example of how Billy Joel can take a life he doesn’t live, jump into that point of view, and tell a good story through it.
Billy Joel has been known to say that this song was inspired by a fisherman he knew on Martha’s Vineyard who went out to sea one day and never came back.
6. “Big Shot”
We all know someone who is a train wreck and drives everyone insane (even more so now that we have Facebook). That’s pretty much what this song is about. Not a terribly deep story, but one that everyone can relate to, which is what matters most in storytelling.
Pair it With: I wouldn’t say these are the closest fit, but the whole “train wreck” aspect of this song reminds me of some of the characters in Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers or maybe even Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.
7. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”
There are two kinds of stories running here, the way I see it. The “present” story, which is two people getting together at their old spot to catch up and reminisce about the good old days, and the flashback itself that they get into about Brenda and Eddie, being teenagers, growing up, etc. Also, I’d like to briefly mention how much I love that Brenda & Eddie, timeless as they may be, did not have a happy ending, no matter how good things started out being. And also that these two people are, essentially, gossiping about them. And here we are, waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye.
I was fortunate enough to see Billy Joel and Elton John together in concert in 2002, and one of the things I remember from the “storytellers” version of this song is that Billy Joel said, “Think of the saxophone as a passage of time.” Good advice for a song that happens in 3 different movements.
8. “Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out)”
The immigrant experience (something he likely would have encountered quite a bit growing up around New York). I could listen to The Stranger album forever, probably. And in fact, once, on a road trip years ago, it felt like I was, haha. That title track, though…
Pair it With: There is a wealth of books that deal with the immigrant experience. Check out this Goodreads list for pages and pages and pages of recommendations.
9. “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)”
It’s funny… when this song was written, 2017 must have seemed so far away. And now it’ll be here before we know it. Regardless, I feel pretty comfortable saying that this little bit of sci-fi prediction (tongue-in-cheek though it may be) won’t be happening, as this song imagines the destruction of New York, thus telling the story of how we all come to live in Florida.
10. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
This is the grand-daddy of story-telling songs because the stories happen as part of a collective memory. All he has to do is mention the events by name, and, as long as we’re old enough and/or paid attention in history class, we get many of the references (or, if you want to go down the rabbit hole to learn more, ask Wikipedia). The most amazing thing about this song is that he covers all of the major historical events from 1949-1989 in just about 4 minutes.
Knowing all of the words to this song not only gives me an insufferable superiority complex, but it also has helped me more times than I can count when answering history-based questions during games of pub trivia.
Pair it With: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; Peyton Place by Grace Metalious; On the Road by Jack Kerouac; The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway; Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein;
(I can vouch for Catcher, Peyton Place, and On the Road. I haven’t read the others.)
OR: If you’re super hardcore about history and all of the references in this song, someone created a Goodreads booklist called “1949-89: A History Lesson by Billy Joel” of all of the subject matter contained within this song. There are 161 books. Get reading!
Just because I think it’s cool, check out this video from when Billy Joel was recently on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to promote A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia:
What’s your favorite Billy Joel song? Which stories draw you in? This list is by no means comprehensive, and I’m open to other [respectful] interpretations. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Image: By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons