Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 27, 2008

“My Life” – Billy Joel & Me, Then & Now

” said he couldn’t go on the American Way, / closed the shop, sold the house, bought a ticket to the West Coast / now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A. “

One of the first records I ever bought was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street album, released in 1978. I was thirteen at the time — a budding rock fan still in the first blush of a new love (and finally with a bit of disposable cash).

Just as curiously, I bought it on 8-track tape, one of the lamest formats ever. What can I say? I was thirteen. And it was the Seventies… we all had a ridiculous lack of style back then, didn’t we?

I now have cassette bootleg versions of my handful of 8-tracks, which I listen to once in a blue moon. But in no case did I replace any of those 8-tracks with CD versions of the same material. Maybe because alot of what one likes at thirteen, one moves past as an adult (or not, …but I know I did). I still enjoy Billy Joel occasionally, even though his material that I have on cassette or LP never graduated to my CD collection either. [Interesting side note: 52nd Street happens to be the first recording ever released on CD, in 1982 in Japan.]

At thirteen, I didn’t know diddly about the musical history of New York’s actual 52nd Street, one of the main homes of the jazz clubs where Charlie Parker and others gave birth to bebop. (I later became a jazz DJ, for three years during college, and thus upped my musical credentials considerably.) Nor did I know very much about the music industry in general, which was on the verge of one of its biggest developments ever: MTV (more on that in a minute).

What I did recognize, and still do, were Joel’s unique combination of musical sophistication and his accessible, almost working-class lyrical style. The public and critics recognized it as well, and awarded this record both the top slot on the Billboard album charts (first time for Billy), and the 1979 Album of the Year Grammy (his fourth overall Grammy).

What put me in mind to go nostalgic about this album today was a viewing of the original music video for the song “My Life”, which I watched through the  On Demand feature on my cable service. For some reason, I recalled before actually viewing it that the record had come out before the emergence of MTV (in August of 1981). So I watched it partly to see what passed for a music video in 1978–in terms of production values, editing, and various technical or creative elements.

And sure enough, it was very basic: Billy and his band in a little studio space, looking sort of lifeless, all playing together (lip-synching, actually). No storytelling. No quick cuts and mugging for the camera. Just some obligatory mini-concert they probably got talked into by their record label. There’s one slightly creative moment where they cut to a shot of Billy and the boys singing the “la la” harmonies in a separate space, but other than that, it’s mostly close-ups and slow zooms on Billy from two different angles, or a wide shot of him and the whole band.

All of which may explain why the later, revisionist version that’s more commonly available, on YouTube  and elsewhere, took the first two minutes of the song and put more interesting footage on top of it: Billy and the guys hanging out on the NYC streets, going into a basement entrance that looks like one of those classic jazz clubs, getting changed for the taping, sitting in the engineer’s booth chatting, and so on. Then from about the halfway point onward, it’s Billy at the piano, same as the original music video.

Billy looked a bit jaded and abused by life, even in 1978. (He was 29 at the time.) Or maybe not jaded. Experienced. Maybe it was that early amateur boxing career and busted nose that caused his face to have that weathered look. Or maybe it was his parents’ early divorce, putting him in the position of being the family’s main breadwinner as early as age 15 or 16. Or maybe it was the now semi-famous bad record deals he’d gotten into earlier in his career, thus causing him to mistrust the industry and this video shoot.

I really wish I could do the same kind of revisionist history for myself. To make myself seem a little smarter or cooler at age thirteen. To have Billy’s ego strength and survival skills, to be that disciplined and dependable at age 15 (enough to learn an instrument that well, or tough/quick enough to box well). To have had the drive in college or as a young adult to get to that place of “success” I was targeting in my mind’s eye. But I still haven’t arrived. Maybe I’ve had to let some of those ideas about success go anyway, as shallow, or at least not what I’m called to. Billy, for example, left a couple of marriages and a motorcycle or two in shambles on his way to stardom. Success always has its cost.

In contrast, I had a cushy suburban situation, with a two-parent family, and with challenges and gifts that were not so unusual as to massively re-form my personal character. So maybe I’ve been paying for being boring and middle class ever since, at least creatively speaking. Or maybe that’s just an excuse. But I definitely don’t feel like I have that “survivor” quality that I see in Mr. Joel. Can one still have success, even without that killer instinct?

Furthermore, I’m re-creating that cushy, white-bread, suburban reality for my son, at least so far. It remains to be seen whether he’ll rise above it, or sink into it, or be grateful for the stability and use it to go on and do great things. It’s the American Way: feed ’em, love ’em, then let ’em begin making their own choices when they start to grow up. If Graham becomes a rebellious fan of death metal music, and yet a world-class computer-programmer, I can live with that. I’ll have to. It’s his life.

In any case, as the lyrics to the song say, “I don’t need you to worry for me, ’cause I’m all right.” A little bit regretful, maybe feeling a little like I’m dying on the vine while waiting for my big break. But I’m hanging in there. I’ve taken a few punches now in middle age, but I ain’t throwing in the towel just yet.



  1. Beautiful. Very well written.

    I’ve been a Billy fan since the Nylon Curtain, which a friend duped for me and handed me on the school bus. I’ve been an obsessive pretty much ever since.

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