Sunday, May 26, 2013

Billy Joel, Still More of an Original Artist than an Egotist

Out of the generation of musicians that produced Mick Jagger, Elton John, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Billy Joel, only the last two have stayed true to their originality. Who knows what Lennon would have produced if he’d lived, but somehow it’s hard to believe he’d have followed in the path of Paul McCartney. At their peak these musicians all poured their emotions out in their music and each of them had their own unique stamp, kind of like the Impressionists. 

They pretty much emptied the barrel, though, yet when the music industry changed Mick Jagger, Elton John and Paul McCartney tried to hold onto the fame they had by towing the line and doing badly what young musicians were excelling at.

What of Billy Joel? It seems that it's more important for him to be real than to be famous. Andrew Goldman recently interviewed him for the New York Times and revealed a man who has remained as unique as he was when he wrote My Life. Billy Joel is 64 now, and lives in Sag Harbour with the woman he’s been seeing for three years, his two pug dogs, a boat and a couple of vintage motor-bikes with sidecars. Unlike Elton John, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, he hasn’t written a pop song for 20 years. Because he’s run dry? No. Because that medium doesn’t inspire him anymore. He excelled at it back then. Just as the others did, in their own way. Unlike them, though, he continued to be unique. 

Now he composes different music: dramatic pieces and pieces for piano and orchestra. He doesn’t seem to care what the world thinks of him. Elton John has accused him of backing out of promises to continue the duo act in concert but Joel says he kept the promises he made, he just didn’t want to make any more. He got tired of being an ‘oldies’ act. 

Back then, his music was so full of life and energy and came from the truth of who he was. The flame of that will never die. Trying to cling onto fame by writing songs that don't come from the heart hasn't worked with Elton John, Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger. Their talent lay in their originality. There's nothing original about what they've done after their peak. It's just desperation and pandering, and a considerable amount of plastic surgery I suspect. It's kind of grotesque watching them try to sustain their popularity. It diminishes them horribly. Billy Joel hasn’t done that. 

In the Goldman interview he comes off as an ordinary guy, which also makes him unusual amongst that generation of performers. Actually, as an ordinary guy he's quite boring; he won't deal with his emotions and he seems to have a pretty a one-dimensional view of women. Which might account for 3 failed marriages. Maybe, maybe not, who knows?

The thing is, we don’t love artists for their private lives, we love them for their art. As a musician and artist he poured his emotions out in a very original way, which is what made his music so spectacular. That he's still being authentically creative despite that it won't bring him pop fame is extraordinary. It takes a courageous artist to do that and step out of the limelight instead of trying to cling onto fame by prostituting his creativity. Letting that era go and doing something completely different now proves he's still the original artist he was back then. It gives him dignity, truly sets him apart and cements his legacy.