Friday, August 08, 2008

.. trawling Atlantis / and I still have my hands on the wheel

My weekly trips from Stony Brook to New Jersey on the world’s slowest railroad, the LIRR, were leavened by one mundane activity. Changing trains in the town where he went to school. He finally graduated 25 years after he left – he’d had to leave school to work for a living, and it took them that long and a few platinum discs before they waived the requirement for some English credits. His English is all right, folks. He may hang on to his street-life accent (and serenades) but he writes pretty good. I never actually looked up the school he went to. I like to think that if the situations were reversed, he would have.

Because he is the kind of man I respect the most. An honest trier. Not that he makes a big deal of honesty. Just does his stuff straight up, no frills, no flaming guitars. Which may be one reason why it took so long for him to be accepted as a great. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1999 (though he was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in ’92). He even griped about it in interviews ten years ago. That was right after they started using one of his songs to teach history in schools. Now he’s sixth on the all-time list of album sales. But it’s the minor details that touch me.

That he learnt classical music as a kid. And ballet. Which led to his taking up boxing, because of course the kid who dances in tights has to take on the bullies some time. Won 22 of 24 fights on the Golden Gloves circuit, finally pulling out when his nose was broken in his 24th fight (it’s still kind of blobby). Then he saw the Mop Tops on the Ed Sullivan show and decided that he wanted to be an entertainer. Came the hard years. Quick-dying singles with invisible bands. The first album - named after a working-man’s town near his childhood home - was a disaster, because it was mastered 1/16th too fast and he ended up “sounding like a chipmunk”. The hard years out west, the journeyman period on (how appropriate) Sunset Boulevard that provided the material for some of his biggest hits. The bitterness remained even after the album that had 3 numbers on the Billboard charts, even after the multiple Grammies, because he had signed away the rights to those first few songs. He once said that he must have earned about $7000 from the sale of all that material.

One of my other idols dissed him in an interview to Playboy. Said, in effect, that his songs hovered on the edge of greatness without ever breaking through because his lyrics didn’t “think it all the way through”. Basically, that he could have said more with fewer words. But then he isn’t Paul Simon, he doesn’t deny his early work because (paraphrase) it was so steeped in Eliot that it embarrassed him (which was what Paul said about the Songbook). And oh, his voice. From a purely selfish point of view, perhaps it’s a good thing he gave up classical music. Opera’s loss is our gain. I don’t understand opera anyway, and I feel triumphant – and a whole lot more – when I listen to his voice soaring across nearly 3 octaves in this song. Which is my favourite among his ballads, don’t ask me why. It fits that he should cite as an influence Gordon Lightfoot, another beat-up journeyman with a voice like velvet magic.

He hasn’t recorded a new album in 15 years. About 8 years ago, well before Mama Mia or even the Doors musical, his songs were woven into a Broadway show that turned out to be a major hit. It’s still running. And he still performs. Despite the broken marriages and the broken hopes that led to rehab, despite the broken bones from that motorcycle accident. Had to schedule a repeat of his performance for the farewell to New York’s Shea Stadium before they tore it down. The tickets for the first concert sold out in 45 minutes. (The second went slower. 48 minutes. Damn). These days, he’d rather build powerboats than go in the recording studio. Can’t argue with that, it’s his life. But one of my biggest regrets is that he performs at Stony Brook every other year and I had to choose the gap year to be there.

You know whom I’m talking about, right? If you listen to his stuff, what’s your favourite? Or favourites? And thanks to fellow enthusiasts Partho and Bombay Addict for setting me off on this ramble.


Partho said...

Profuse thanks for linking your humble reader.
That history syllabus song, you meant We didn't start the fire, right? Didn't know the mastering story behind cold spring harbor.
Gripes. Your fav ballad link is not working. Typo in Ed Sullivan.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Partho, the URL on that link might make things clear. Thanks for the typo warning - I noticed it when I "viewed blog" but was too lazy to correct it. Shall do so now.


Neeraj Banerji said...

They're sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it's better than drinking alone.

Great post, JAP. I will be home this winter. Let's share a drink somewhere with waitresses practicing politics as the businessmen slowly get stoned?

No Thanks said...

Keep in mind we love Christie Brinkley and Katie Lee too.

Phantasmagoria said...

An Innocent Man.

Your turn.

progga said...

JAP - visiting after ages (black funks preclude frequent blog visits) and loved this. The brother and I have frequent (read: each time we meet) discussions around our top 5s, and Billy Joel makes the top 5 lyricists list EVERY time. Along with Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters and Sting.

Favourites: An Innocent Man, Just The Way You Are, New York State of Mind, For The Longest Time, This Night, Downeaster Alexa, Movin' Out, You May Be Right, Pianoman... aaarrgh, too many.