Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Just the Way You Are

I have very mixed feelings about the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington. On the one hand, I grew up liking a lot of his stuff—primarily, but not exclusively, the hits. On the other hand, even as a kid, there was often something about even the songs of his I liked that made me kinda squint and think, "really?" Sometimes it was an awkward lyric, or what I took to be embarrassing dressing up in new wave clothes for "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me." I was about 11 the first time I thought, "man, it seems this guy's trying way too hard to seem tough," an impression that (his amateur boxing aside) never entirely left me. But whatever. I've always preferred melody to lyrics—although in the best of worlds, both are good—and there was no question the dude could write a killer melody and I really liked Liberty DeVitto's drumming.

And what sums his problems up more than his multiple-Grammy-winning-electric-piano-laden-mega-smash, "Just the Way You Are"?

Don't go changing to try and please me
You never let me down before
Don't imagine you're too familiar
And I don't see you anymore
I would not leave you in times of trouble
We never could have come this far
I took the good times, I'll take the bad times
I'll take you just the way you are

Um. Okay. That's nice, I guess. Something about it seems kinda off, but okay. Let's keep going.

Don't go trying some new fashion
Don't change the color of your hair
You always have my unspoken passion
Although I might not seem to care

OH. That's why it seemed off: she's imagining he doesn't see her anymore because he's acting like he doesn't see her anymore. What the hell else could "you always have my unspoken passion, although I might not seem to care" mean?

I don't want clever conversation
I never want to work that hard
I just want someone that I can talk to
I want you just the way you are

Honest to pete, when I was 10 or whatever, this verse bothered the hell out of me. It felt like he was telling her actively wanted someone not very smart as a partner, someone he could not talk with, but talk to. And even at that age that just seemed totally jacked to me.

I need to know that you will always be
The same old someone that I knew
What will it take 'till you believe in me
The way that I believe in you

Dude. The reason she doesn't believe in you is because you're acting like you don't give a shit about her. You openly say you actively do not want her to change or grow, but to just to stay in her place, like she's a bug encased in amber. This isn't rocket science, man.

I said I love you and that's forever
And this I promise from my heart
I couldn't love you any better
I love you just the way you are

You know, I'm not claiming I'm the greatest husband in the world. (I am, in fact, I'm just not claiming it.) And "I love you just the way you are" is a really sweet line. But when it's preceded by "I couldn't love you any better," well...I mean, the thing is, I do love my wife better than I did 10 years ago and I loved her 10 years ago better than I had 10 years before that. You do something a lot, you get better at it. So, sure, I realize that for some couples, it doesn't work that way—that's just reality. But if you're supposed to be writing a love song, you don't come right out and say that. (Or you do and you've got a subversive masterpiece. This ain't that.)

To be fair, I'm not the first to criticize the song, and my ambivalence is pretty unimpeachable: the late Sir William Joel himself has often claimed he never really liked the song much, and only released it either because Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow insisted he had to (his version of the story) or because the album would have been too short otherwise (his producer's version of the story). Either way, he seems to have had some idea that it was perhaps somewhat flawed. I'm sure he cashed the checks of course, as well he should.

Why am I doing a half-assed fisking of a 37-year-old song that does have a lovely melody and some, let's be honest, groovy 1970's electric piano and sultry sax? Because I just heard a cover version of it that throws into even more stark relief the issues with the original version.

Because I think this is what the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington was initially going for—same melody, same lyrics (but with a different time signature) and oh such a different vibe:

Leaving one to wonder: is there aught the late great Isaac Hayes couldn't cover and made sound amazing?

(The first 2:47 seconds—nearly as long as the 45" version of the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington's version of the song—omitted because, well...okay, the late great Isaac Hayes did like the sound of his own voice talking talking talking before getting down to the business of singing the hell out of something. And on the other hand, he's the one playing the sax solo because I mean really you know?) 

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