Lex Neon on Billy Joel

Lex talks about his favorite Billy Joel album to commemorate the man himself, born May 9th.  Happy birthday, Billy.

It happened in my Uncle Will’s big red ’71 Ford Galaxy 500.  He had an 8-track tape player in his car (which was modern technology in the 70s, folks).  I was five years his junior, and usually rode shotgun on his hunt of automotive parts and car cosmetics.  He played a variety of music in his car; one week it was funk, another week it would be new wave.

It was fall of ’79 when he discovered Billy Joel.  Joel’s then-current album, 52nd Street, became the staple of the mighty 8-track player and I heard it over and over again during our automotive hunts.  For my young ears, 52nd Street was damn near the perfect pop album.  It has smart, ballsy rock (“Big Shot”), pop standards (“Honesty” and “My Life”), smooth latin beats, and sophisticated uptown jazz.  What a wicked pop cocktail!

The first song that stood out for me was “Stiletto.”  The jazzy staccato of that opening piano hook drove me crazy and got my attention.  The vividly descriptive lyrics and the ryhthmic shift during the chorus made me want to sing in a lowdown, bluesy vocal like Billy’s.  This lead me to other vocalists like Ray Charles and Steve Winwood who, as I found out later, were two of Billy’s idols as a young musician.

There was also “Half A Mile Away,” with that seductive horn section, and that uptempo rhythm that made me pat my feet against the floorboard of the 500.  It was one of the songs on the album that made sense to me.  The narrator of that song could have been any of the guys who hung out on my block back then (and how they loved their wine, folks).  The latin rhythm of “Rosalinda’s Eyes” spoke to me as a young guy who had crush on a pretty senorita in my 5th grade year, when the album was burning up the charts.  This song, along with the romantic ballad (ala the Righteous Brothers) “Until The Night” takes me right back to learning how to juggle to impress this young crush.  I succeeded in impressing her, but she started asking me about my best friend! Ouch!

Another of my favorite tracks, “Zanzibar,” was my first REAL introduction to jazz.  The lyrics got my attention because Muhammad Ali was bigger than anything in my neighborhood.

Ali dances and the audience applause
Though he’s bathed in sweat, he hasn’t lost his style
Ali, don’t you go down town
You gave away another round for free . . .

The jazz breaks in the song made sense to my musical ears.  I’d heard my Uncle Kenny playing Freddie Hubbard solo albums, but I never “got it” until Hubbard’s trumpet is given a shining solo spot on the song.  I became a Billy Joel fanatic, and started collecting every record I could find.  At one point, I made sure to get copies of his albums on both vinyl and 8-track (kinda expensive, but I didn’t care – it was Billy Joel, after all).

More importantly, I became a pianist because I wanted to play like Billy.  I wanted to learn to play songs from 52nd Street, The Stranger, and “Root Beer Rag” from his Streetlife Serenade album.   I wanted to grow up and write classy sounding music that stayed in your mind, and sounded great in the car!  Billy’s music gave me the confidence to try a new musical instrument and to try to write music.

Happy birthday, Billy.  Thanks for the great music, the strength, and the guts.

(Lex Neon is the musical mastermind behind the music of indie sunshine pop / rock band Poppermost.  For more info, go to http://www.poppermost.com)

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~ by Poppermost on September 4, 2008.

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