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Billy Joel
Billy Joel (Photo: Myrna Suarez

Streetlife Serenade

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Spotify playlist: https://spoti.fi/3O70Erp

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“Songs In the Attic” is my favorite Billy Joel album.

I got on the Billy Joel train with “Glass Houses,” his “new wave” album. By this time Billy was an established quantity, a man with tracks on AM and FM, but that was not the case previously, especially nationally.

You see “Piano Man” was a hit single, when you only listened to AM in the car and FM and albums ruled at home. Billy was never perceived as cool. You couldn’t avoid the hit single, but unless you bought it you probably never heard the album.

And then came two more that were stiff out of the box. You see Billy had no built-in fanbase, to keep his music and career alive. Not at a prodigious level. It wasn’t until “The Stranger” that Billy Joel became a ubiquitous superstar. Never underestimate the influence of Phil Ramone, he gave the album a sheen, he levitated Billy’s sound to a whole new level, and it was embraced by many.

But not all, because “Just the Way You Are” was perceived to be too sappy, especially the change at the end. Oh, it was a gigantic hit, but it seemed to be an exercise as opposed to a reach. And those days were different, the cognoscenti, the FM crowd, only respected you if you tested limits, if you pushed the envelope, if you shot for the stars. Today if you have a hit single you’re considered a god, a success, that’s the goal, but it wasn’t back then.

Then came “52nd Street.” With “My Life.”

“My Life” was bigger than any track of the last ten years, maybe twenty. “My Life” was everywhere. Maybe it was a bit too poppy, but the message resonated with boomers in the seventies, after the youthquake of the sixties had passed and they were forced to take the working world seriously. Their parents told them to do one thing, was that the path they should take? And in truth, most did what their parents wanted, they played it safe, they lived through musicians taking a risk.


But the opening track “Big Shot” had balls.

I could never get over the fact that Billy was pictured on the cover with a horn he didn’t play, but “Big Shot” exploded out of the speakers, I had to drop the needle on it whenever I went to Tony’s house, he owned it, I wasn’t ready to take the risk.

“Because you had to be a big shot, didn’t you You had to open up your mouth You had to be a big shot, didn’t you All your friends were so knocked out You had to have the last word, last night You know what everything’s about You had to have a white hot spotlight You had to be a big shot last night”

Rock stars were anti-establishment, they didn’t want in, they wanted to stay out, which was part of their great appeal. That’s what being a rock star is all about, doing it your way, not caring what everybody else thinks or says.

You didn’t want to hang with the glitterati, the rich and famous, YOU were rich and famous, they needed to come to you, not vice versa. This is the opposite of today’s paradigm where the goal is to become a brand and become a TMZ insider, partying and hanging with the empty drivers of culture, who live to be seen as opposed to create, those who constantly need to tell you where they’ve been, what they’ve done. A true rock star doesn’t have to do this. If you see a banker posting pictures on Instagram on his yacht, laugh hysterically, because they don’t get it, they’re not a rock star, they’re just on the greased totem pole of finance, where there’s always someone richer and money is the only thing that counts. The truly great don’t have to tell anybody, IT’S SELF-EVIDENT!

Then came “Glass Houses.”

Far from one of my favorites today, I don’t know why I jumped in at that point. And I went to see Billy at the Forum. I was worried about being judged, Billy still had little rock credibility, but he gave it all on stage, as much as anybody, no wonder he needed artificial hips.

But then came “Songs In the Attic.”

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Just drop the needle. That’s what I did, and boy did I get a surprise.

I’d read the hype, I knew the story, this was a re-recording of all of Billy’s songs from the early era that most people didn’t know, he wanted them re-exposed with more dynamics, more oomph.

I didn’t know “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway).” It wasn’t a hit, wasn’t played on the radio, it was part of “Turnstiles,” the second step in the wrong commercial direction, but in that case the song ended the album, on “Songs In the Attic” it opened it.”

“You know those lights were bright on Broadway That was so many years ago Before we all lived here in Florida Before the Mafia took over Mexico”

This was when Times Square was still dangerous, Ford had told the city to “Drop Dead.” It was still the greatest city in the world, but it seemed to be in peril. But you can leave New York physically, but you can’t emotionally. You’re always a New Yorker. You still believe, even if you live in Florida.

“Miami 2017” EXPLODES out of the speakers. It’s almost like a rocket liftoff at Cape Canaveral. And when Billy starts to tickle the ivories you’re ALL IN!

But as great as “Miami 2017” is, it’s the following cut that’s my favorite, “Summer, Highland Falls,” also originally on “Turnstiles.”

“They say that these are not the best of times But they’re the only times I’ve ever known”

You may think you were born at the wrong time, but you’ve got to own your experience, which only you know, don’t let others define you, do the best to create your own reality in the era you walk the earth.


“It’s either sadness or euphoria”

Life is up and down. It’s even worse for musicians. Many are prone to depression. They have the highs, and then…

As for the feel of the song… Have you ever been to upstate New York? Outside of New York City? Highland Falls is not that far, but it’s a totally different mind-set. New York is a big state, it’s got the most ski areas of any state on the east coast. There’s a mentality, a feeling upstate, you’re in the hinterlands but you’re still on the east coast, unlike in the west, where you may be ten hours from the next city.

And some might say the killer is “Captain Jack,” but the tour-de-force on the second side is “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.”

“From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island Rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand”

You were a suburban outlaw. Feeling like a big shot at the shopping center. Talk about dynamics… The track starts slowly, a horse clopping down the path, and then it’s shot out of a cannon. You’re listening alone, but you’re caught up in the mania as if you were at a live concert.

But in the middle of the first side of “Songs In the Attic” were two songs I knew from radio play, but never loved. “Los Angelenos” and…

“Los Angelenos” has it right. Billy nails it. But the feel is wrong. L.A. at the time was most definitely a rock town, and the original was too soft. The live version had more energy. But it was the song before “Los Angelenos” on the album that resonated, “Streetlife Serenader.”

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“Streetlife serenader
Never sang on stages”

Frank Zappa knew about doo-wop. But that whole turn of the decade New York sound, the street corner singing, where Dion made his bones, was already in the rearview mirror by time the Beatles hit. Most boomers had no familiarity with it. Billy sang about it, kinda, but mostly we didn’t get it. And the version on “Songs In the Attic” is definitive.

“Midnight masqueraders
Workin’ hard for wages
Need no vast arrangements
To do their harmonizing”

Now before the CD era, in the eighties, the record labels started discounting catalog, which is when I filled out my Billy Joel collection. And in truth, “Turnstiles” is the one I play most, actually the Billy Joel album I play most today, usually when hiking in the mountains, it’s otherworldly, as in it puts you in an alternative reality, in a bubble, you can see the rest of the world if you choose, but you no longer have to pay attention, it’s a release from the real world.

And like I said, “Turnstiles” contains “Miami 2017” and “Summer, Highland Falls,” and it also contains the originals of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “I’ve Loved These Days,” which were contained on “Songs In the Attic.”

But “Turnstiles” also contains Billy Joel’s piece-de-resistance.

“New York State of Mind.”

“Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
Hop a flight to Miami Beach
Or to Hollywood
But I’m taking a Greyhound
On the Hudson River Line
I’m in a New York state of mind”

Billy wasn’t looking for America, he’d already found it. And Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck were still in the city, he was with the rest of the silent strivers looking at the beautiful countryside.

If you grew up on the east coast, listening to “New York State of Mind” makes you want to go back there, immediately. In Los Angeles it’s about your body, in New York it’s about your mind. And that’s very different.

But “New York State of Mind, one of Billy Joel’s most famous songs today, was nowhere yesterday. One can argue strongly that it didn’t ascend into the pantheon until after the Twin Towers fell and it became an anthem of belief. Sure, Frank Sinatra sings about New York, New York, but there just isn’t the gravitas, the underlying feeling contained in “New York State of Mind,” which is now a standard.

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Now if you pull up the Legacy Edition of “Piano Man” on your streaming service of choice, you’ll hear a phenomenal concert broadcast on Philadelphia’s WMMR back in April 1972, fifty years ago, which broke Billy in the city. “Captain Jack” was a local hit, it sustained his career until he ultimately broke through nationally.

But that’s not what I wanted to hear today.

I had to hear “Songs In the Attic.” You see it’s in Hi-Res Lossless on Apple Music. Not that every Billy Joel album is, “Piano Man” is not. The logic here? I cannot tell you.

So I decided to go through Billy’s albums and see which ones were in Hi-Res. I went back in time, usually the old albums are not, but not only was “Turnstiles” in Hi-Res, so was Billy’s second Columbia album, probably his least successful commercial endeavor, 1974’s “Streetlife Serenade.”

Unlike “Turnstiles,” “Streetlife Serenade” is not laden with songs that ultimately became classics. The most famous song on the LP is “The Entertainer,” which supposedly is a reaction to Columbia’s handling of Billy’s career, but to this radio listener it seemed to be cut in the same mold as “Piano Man.” And it had this ersatz non-FM rock feel. I mean this was not the way to win your way into the hearts of fans who lived for music.

And they played “Entertainer” on the radio. But even more “Los Angelenos” in L.A. They played “Streetlife Serenade” rarely.

“Streetlife serenader
Never sang on stages”

Today’s musical acts play to the last row. Their songs are not intimate. But this album-opening cut played to you only, it tugged on your heartstrings, it made you think. You were a bit nostalgic, and pondered your choices, your future.

“Child of Eisenhower”

Now that’s someone who’s been forgotten. People still reference JFK and those who came after, but the fifties, despite rampant racism, were perceived to be quiet, with an undercurrent of rebellion that most people could neither see nor feel.

“Midnight masquerader
Shopping center heroes”

There’s that localism. Bringing it right back to the suburbs, where everybody wanted to live back then, to escape the grit of the city, the rebellion against these lands of split-levels and lawns came later.

And the definitive version of “Streetlife Serenader’ is on “Songs In the Attic,” but after listening to a bit of “Los Angelenos,” I pulled up the original on Apple Music.

This is decades ago. You think about all the technological improvements since. You’d think the old records would sound quaint, as if the seventies were a backwater. They were not.

But the studio “Streetlife Serenade” lacked something from the live version. But then it slid into the second verse.

Don’t let anybody say you can’t hear the difference between Hi-Res and regular lossless, regular HD, CD quality. If you’ve got the equipment to play it back the differences are self-evident, it’s the difference between being out of focus and crystal clear.

And the goal of yore used to be to get a stereo system that reproduced all the music. That got as close to the original as possible.

But in this headphone world, we’re used to compromised sound, THAT’S THE STANDARD!

So when the second verse started to play, underneath the crystal clear piano and Billy’s vocal was this overpowering bass and drums. It’s like someone lifted the curtain and the band kicked into gear. And kick is the appropriate term, I could feel it in my gut.

I never heard it like this before.

But I’d never heard it in Hi-Res before. Where the bottom was not only present, but defined, not a mass of distortion. The music is there, I just needed a system to reproduce it. The subwoofer was proving its worth. THIS is what music sounds like, THIS is rock and roll, despite being at times quiet. Because rock and roll is about dynamics, soft to loud, emphasis, it’s played with all your heart, as well as all your energy. You lay it all on the line. This is not the Philharmonic, on salary, going through the motions. These are people with no safety net, who either get it right or go back to their hometown, oftentimes to a dead end job. Billy and the band are playing like they need it. They’re not showing off, they’re just doing what they do, and that’s enough.

It’s not like we lament not having been able to shoot selfies at the show way back when. It was a personal experience. There were usually seats. The music was respected. It was just you and the sound. That was more than enough, it was EVERYTHING!

 

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