Friday, September 21, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: My Life

So I was reading this recent interview with the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington. And a few things hit me.

One was the understated badassness of this bit:
I remember the show at the Garden after the Charlottesville riot when you wore a Star of David. How do you decide when you want to make your beliefs known?  
Wearing the Star of DavidAt his show on August 21, 2017, Joel sported a Star of David on his jacket. At the same concert, Joel had images of Trump officials like Anthony Scaramucci and Sean Spicer — as well as James Comey and Sally Yates — projected behind him as he and guest Patty Smyth performed Scandal’s “Goodbye to You.” wasn’t about politics. To me, what happened in Charlottesville was like war. When Trump said there were good people on both sides — there are no good Nazis. There are no good Ku Klux Klan people. Don’t equivocate that shit. I think about my old man: Most of his family was murdered in Auschwitz.The story of the Joel family’s experience with Nazi Germany is told in full in the 2001 German documentary The Joel Files.The story of the Joel family’s experience with Nazi Germany is told in full in the 2001 German documentary The Joel Files. He was able to get out but then got drafted and went in the U.S. Army. He risked his life in Europe to defeat Nazism. A lot of men from his generation did the same thing. So when those guys see punks walking around with swastikas, how do they keep from taking a baseball bat and bashing those crypto-Nazis over the head? Those creeps are going to march through the streets of my country? Uh-uh. I was personally offended. That’s why I wore that yellow star. I had to do something, and I didn’t think speaking about it was going to be as impactful.
The other was how very much criticism has taken its toll on him over the years. He denies it...again and again and again. He has to, because he very noticeably keeps bringing it up again and again and again. And that sucks. Because someone who's accomplished as much as the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington has should really be delighted with their life.

As one of the guys who's sometimes publicly mocked him ever so gently and lovingly, allow me to take a moment to talk about one of the many Billy Joel songs I really truly love and the thing about it which never ceases to impress me, no matter how many times I've heard it.

"My Life" is quintessential Billy Joel, with a lyric that aims for John Lennon, with perhaps some of Chuck Berry's braggadocio, but falls short (mainly in the second verse, which starts great but fizzles into empty albeit rhyming platitudes). Meanwhile, musically, it's a composition of which Paul McCartney himself could be proud, insanely melodic and with a plethora of hooks, including a few which are strictly instrumental and never actually translate to the vocal line.

It's got a compelling (and not entirely dissimilar to "Silly Love Songs") intro that starts quietly and builds until the whole band kicks in and delivers the first hook, just before the second hook is introduced—and again it's only this second hook which will actually turn into a vocal line and even there only as a faint vocal in the outro. Who does that? A guy who can produce the kind of melodies that the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington can, that's who.

So the song is pretty standard, from a structural point of view. With one exception, but it's a pretty big one, and that's what always strikes me about this one. It's not that the verses and the chorus share the same chord changes and melody, although that is kinda interesting, especially given that the intro and outro—which normally would share either the verse or chorus changes—are different. It's the placement of the bridge and the treatment of the second chorus, as well as the way he repeatedly goes to the intro/outro music, using it almost as a substitute for a guitar or keyboard solo.

The song goes:
  • intro
  • first verse
  • intro/break
  • first chorus
  • first bridge
  • second verse
  • intro/break
  • second chorus
  • second bridge
  • intro/break
  • third chorus
  • outro
For the second chorus, though, he has Liberty DeVitto bring the drums down to half-time, lending (or trying to) gravitas, to the first two lines. Then things kick back in and we go to the break section. Then back to the chorus for a third and final time...but only half of it. And then we're into the extended outro, which is just the intro/break section, but with vocals this time, singing the keyboard hook from the original intro.

It's an odd construction. There are only two verses, he keeps going back to the intro music, and the song gets heaviest almost right before it closes it out—and then once it does get ready to close out, it hangs around for a surprisingly (and pleasantly) long time. It's...weird. It feels like a standard 8-bar pop song, structurally, but it's really not. It's slightly, or maybe even more than slightly, askew, but you don't really notice the first few dozen times you hear it, as you're just caught up by Joel's phenomenally catchy melodies and compelling lyrics.

But he's the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington, a guy who's a master of songcraft, so he undoubtedly knows what he's doing. Which makes it even more perplexing and, for me, at least, appealing.

Well done, good sir. Well done indeed.

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