Why Billy Joel is the Best Storyteller [With Book Recommendations!]

By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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. Continue reading


A Strange Fascination With Tragedy…

When I was in third grade, we learned about The Challenger explosion, which happened 25 years ago today and is the reason why I’m thinking about all of this. In some way, my nine year old mind managed to turn this lesson into a cause for concern, that perhaps something equally as tragic could happen to my beloved teacher or even to me someday when I became a teacher. I managed to convince myself that if I really paid attention and became totally fixated on in, I could somehow prevent further tragedy from happening.

When I got home from school, I told my parents all about what I’d learned. In turn, my dad told me about how he remembered watching it live in the kitchen at my grandmother’s house where we were living at the time (whether I was there with him or not is still unclear. I may have been at pre-school, but he thinks I was there). He was talking to my mom on the phone and told her that it had just blown up, and she didn’t believe him. I have a memory of being in my grandma’s kitchen, of my dad sitting there with the TV on. I can see the coiled phone cord stretched across the room. I just don’t know if that’s the same memory. It’s been driving me kind of crazy for 19 years.

Continue reading