I've seen Billy Joel in concert twice -- once when I didn't know any better (like, oh, Randy Newman and Richard Thompson and Paul Simon), once when I did. And both shows were pretty tolerable and maybe downright enjoyable, if only because Joel used to write songs that were memorable -- if, by memorable, one means those songs exist as commercial-jingle echoes that can no more be lodged from the brain than a bowling-ball-sized tumor. Damn near all of 1977's The Stranger was a Hit Single: "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "Only the Good Die Young," "She's Always a Woman," "The Stranger," "Just the Way You Are." There isn't a person alive older than 35 who can't hum at least one of those melodies -- your parents included (or, more likely, especially). And to think, The Stranger isn't even The Fly's most convincing platter -- not when Glass Houses topped that, not when The Nylon Curtain bested Glass Houses, not when An Innocent Man outperformed The Nylon Curtain. By that, I mean only that those discs shucked the self-pitying sleaze of Joel's early albums (from 1971's Cold Spring Harbor to 1976's Turnstiles, which does include the rather terrific "Say Goodbye to Hollywood") and looked outward, which is what separates the amateurs from the artists. Not that I'd ever go back and listen to The Nylon Curtain ("Goodnight Saigon," and good-bye), but at least I respect its intentions -- even if they did smell a little like Bruce Springsteen's bandannas after a four-hour show with Elton John in Hoboken.
Of course, the boomers who shell out mighty bucks for a little B.J. come for only one thing: to hear the old shit, Greatest Hits Volumes I & II banged out from start to finish, with a little "Allentown" or "Uptown Girl" thrown in for mediocre measure (and maybe "Shameless," since Garth adopted it as his theme song). The guy's a singles artist -- much like his stylistic (certainly not artistic) predecessors, among them Irvin Berlin and George Gershwin and the rest of their Tin Pan Alley posse. For better or worse, his hits approximate modern American standards; they are, if nothing else, sing-alongs that wear their poor-poor-me hearts on unwashed sleeves and grow more satisfying with age. Astonishing how a little distance removes a lot of smarm, even smarm shot through with "sensitivity."
Joel never once succeeded when he tried to "rock"; "Big Shot" and "We Didn't Start the Fire" even now sound like parodies, like those moments when Sinatra would strain to make a Beatles song his and wind up reaching Perry Como heights. His legacy rests firmly with soft-rock radio now, those oldies stations that blend him in with James Taylor and pre-Hearts and Bones Paul Simon and post-Genesis Phil Collins. Those admirers and even detractors who long insisted Joel was a vestige of another era have always been right -- first it was the '30s, now it's just the '70s. Long live Billy Joel, especially in the past. Maybe that's why he hasn't released anything since 1997's Greatest Hits Volume III -- let's just assume he listened to that rag-tag collection ("Light as a Breeze," indeed) and decided he wasn't what he used to be. In other words, last album of new material: 1993's River of Dreams, available in your finer cut-out bins at half the Nice Price. But be afraid: He's threatening to release a "classical record." Worst idea since Iggy Pop started singing about his Nazi girlfriend.