In which I say goodbye to Hollywood
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Billy Joel’s fourth studio album. This boils down to convenience; it simply gives me a chronological excuse to talk about something I’ve wanted to talk about for some time now. Mostly because I don’t hear anyone else doing it.
Maybe I’m not looking in the right places. Far be it from me to call myself a scholar of the Bard of Long Island.* But given that people will (justifiably) analyze The Stranger until they’re blue in the face, I figured I’d transfer a byte of that energy to its immediate predecessor, which I wasn’t exposed to until much later, and which is in many ways equally strong.
Only eight tracks, and not a weak one among them. I don’t go crazy for “New York State of Mind”—chalk it up to too many second-rate covers (except this one and, of course, Babs, who helped him go mainstream)—but nor would I call it a bad song. From the Spector-esque glory of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” to the keyboard-sweeping range of “Miami 2017,” it’s basically all killer no filler.
Come to think of it, Joel does not make records with lots of tracks. He takes musical ideas and follows them through to their endpoint. This results in many of the songs being quite long, compensating for length in time as opposed to quantity. I think he is one of the artists who helped usher out the era of people couching their singles among two-minute throwaway tracks to reach a total of 14 (thanks, Capitol) and usher in an era of greater democracy for what constituted ‘radio-friendly’ or a proper LP.
For me, the album happened slowly and then completely. I listened to it at intervals—particularly over the past year as a sonic background for work—and realized one day that I knew all the words. Although the first song I knew to be a Turnstiles song was “Summer, Highland Falls,” which I learned because my dad needed me to sing it as part of a presentation he was giving. Long story.
“All You Wanna Do is Dance“ struck a big chord last fall, when all I wanted to do was dance. Some projects were stressing me out and I decided not to think about them until I absolutely had to. The line “you don’t want to deal with the future / you don’t want to make any plans” seemed to me to sum up the entire COVID-ravaged world. “James,” meanwhile, is as beautiful a tune as he’s ever written—a statement that may not be impartial, as it holds specific connotations for me. It’s also a suitable precursor to the next year’s ballad, “Vienna,” which if you ask me is his greatest song, full stop.
It is a Power Move that “Prelude/Angry Young Man” has the word “prelude” in its title and is not the album opener. No way could he have pulled that off a couple years prior. I love the journey it takes us on. This one too has a weirdly COVID-relevant line: “I found that just surviving was a noble fight.”
“I’ve Loved These Days” is the last one I got to know, and I was like, wait a minute, this is an incredible song. It’s like any number of those Grand ‘70s Nostalgia songs, except it isn’t like any of them at all because it doesn’t drown us in sentiment. It sounds instrumentally full, but there’s a hollowness just underneath. “I don’t know why I even care,” the narrator admits. The Marvin Hamlisches of the world were not writing those feelings into their songs. Love you tho, Marv.
I did hear “Miami 2017” a lot as a youngster, when the date seemed impossibly far-off, so the fact that we are now four years past it is a whole different level of crazy. And the Mafia haven’t taken over Mexico yet, to my knowledge. But that chord progression is Good Stuff. The rise and fall of the orchestration? Never gets old. This one must be a real stunner live.
But my favorite at the end of the day might almost definitely be “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” I just, I can’t. The melody sounds like it was preordained by God. Whoever arranged the strings deserves an award. Go listen. I mean, it’s in C fucking major. Using the simplest of tools to create something incomparable.
No less notably, I really like the cover photograph. It reflects the artistic essence of the man: someone who will play wherever he is needed, surrounded by a ragtag cast of everyday characters thrown together in an urban setting as spirited as it is grungy, deriving their transient glamour merely from their appearance in the songs. You may be a nobody, but if Billy Joel writes a line about you, you may just be a somebody.
My dad and I used to debate whether Joel was the best of the ‘bad’ songwriters or the worst of the ‘good’ songwriters. Now I know this album, I reject both of those categories. He could have just been the Piano Man, ridiculously lucky on one isolated occasion, but putting together a collection of songs like this one proved that he was only getting started. I don’t think he straddles any kind of middle zone. I think he is simply a good songwriter.
*Not my intellectual property. But I ain’t citing no sources.
Image: released 19 May 1976, Family Productions/Columbia (photograph taken in Astor Place subway station)