Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" / Billy Joel

Am I a Billy Joel fan?  I can't say I am.

This album, The Stranger, is the only one I ever bought and the only one I ever listened to. Although, truth be told, I listened to it a lot during the year I lived in Arlington, Virginia, an odd lacuna between grad school in England and the life I was meant to live in Manhattan. All bets were off for that year, as I made a reluctant re-entry into American life. With few friends in town, and little commitment to life in the D.C. area, I spent a lot of time writing and filled my turntable with uncharacteristic records like Steve Miller's The Joker and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (okay, me and everybody else in 1977) and The Band's Greatest Hits.  I'd like to say this was a precursor to my 21st-century interest in Americana, but that would be utter bullcrap. It was just what I happened to have in the house.

But this Billy Joel album? For a few months there, it really spoke to me.

And now, 37 years later, I have heard this song -- not "Just the Way You Are," not "Vienna," not "Only the Good Die Young," not "She's Always a Woman," but this particular song -- on random sound systems and radio stations three times in the past week. After not hearing it at all for decades.

What gives?

First of all -- 7 minutes and 36 freaking seconds? Who does that anymore? Our modern attention spans are way too short for this, but people let me tell you -- in the vinyl 1970s they did it ALL THE TIME. Because they could -- who was gonna bother lifting the tone arm and skipping a track? So we just sat through it. And yes, that meant we sat through some awful self-indulgent crap. But in this case, not so much.

Because it's really a suite, a succession of songs tracing a storyline. The opening -- "A bottle of white, bottle of red / Perhaps a bottle of rose instead" -- sets the scene, taking a table at the restaurant. But soon we move on to the album's hero's story -- "Got a good job / Got a good wife" -- a nice follow-up to the album's opening track, "Moving Out (Anthony's Song)." Everything is hunky-dory, with saxes and clarinets and Billy's rapid-fire piano wizardry.

And then he shifts to a little human-interest observation -- the story that's really at the heart of this song, though cleverly framed with the restaurant stuff. "Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies / And the king and the queen of the prom / Riding round with the cartop down and the radio on/ Nobody looked any finer / Always more of a hit at the parkway diner / We never knew we could want more than that out of life / Sure, and Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive." I didn't grow up on Billy Joel's Long Island, but I know my equivalent -- "Jack and Diane" by John Mellencamp.

But oh, Billy J doesn't leave Brenda and Eddie in the limbo of could-have-been -- no, he leads them all the way through their co-habitation, the wedding, the furniture bought on time at Sears, the squabbles -- "they started to fight when the money got tight / And they just didn't count on the tears" -- well, who DOES count on the tears?

And so it ended as a million other marriages do, with a divorce. (All of this taking place in the summer of '75, mind you.) And then, "The king and the queen went back to the green / But you can never go back there again." Because, as Thomas Wolfe said, you can't go home again, and all the kids (LIKE OUR HERO) who idolized these paragons of popularity have moved on already. Too bad, Brenda and Eddie.

Full circle: We come back to the bottle of red, bottle of white, only a good deal more boozy in the reprise. (I picture Eddie at the bar, drowning his considerable sorrows.)  We're still at the restaurant, still in Long Island, but now perhaps we see the folks at the tables around us a little bit differently. They've got back stories now, and those back stories are laden with disappointment and inevitable regret. But -- here's the kicker, and the reason for the story's layers -- those of us who weren't prom kings and queens, but who are making it okay? We should feel damn proud of ourselves.

And in 1977, as a recent college graduate with no boyfriend and no freaking idea what I was going to do with my life -- well, that was a message I was relieved to listen to.

Note to self: In the intervening years, I had become so cynical about Billy Joel's talents as a social commentator. But what was I thinking?

Maybe he didn't keep it up record after record, but on The Stranger?  Home run, slam dunk, touchdown. Boo yah.


Beat Girl said...

I used to listen to this track a a lot when I was in high school. Bought it at The Red Owl on sale for four bucks. More truth than I really needed at that time, but I was always nosing around for the truth. Just confirmed my suspicions.

Holly A Hughes said...

A shot of truth like this can really warp a kid -- unless it, on the other hand, sets the kid free!

Alex said...

There's always been an instinctive backlash against things that were popular -- and this record definitely suffered from an intense backlash (as did "Rumours").

But the artistry exhibited here is phenomenal... and helps remind me that not everything that's popular is automatically bad. :)

Holly A Hughes said...

I've been thinking a lot about that lately, ever since reading this piece by Saul Austerlitz -- -- about how music critics today bend over backwards to show that they "get" Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and Robin Thicke. Time was when a blockbuster pop album was the last thing you'd want to admit liking. Well, I don't listen to Rumours anymore but I so find this record wears very well with age.

NickS said...

Good song, not one that I would have thought about without you writing about it, and one that does use the 7:36 minute length effectively.

His singing in the section that beings with, "Things are okay with me these days" reminds me of Harry Nilson (who you've also been writing about recently).

In the intervening years, I had become so cynical about Billy Joel's talents as a social commentator.

I think it's a well-written song, which mostly offers familiar and predictable stories. In the Allmusic review they note, of the album, ". . . his lyrics are often vague or mean-spirited. His lyrical shortcomings are overshadowed by his musical strengths." I think the strength of that song is that it picks it's targets well, and that it has just enough sympathy for Brenda and Eddy that it doesn't feel cruel, but ultimately it seems to believe that they got exactly what you would expect.

"They lived for a while in a / Very nice style / But it's always the same in the end"

Compared to, say, a Springsteen song, in which he presents himself as part of the scene that he's writing about, it feels in this case like Billy Joel may be the person pouring wine for Eddy (or, perhaps, the piano man playing in the restaurant).

I definitely hear a cynical edge to the story -- but it's an enjoyable cynicism; he performs it well.