Billy Joel Day

Here’s my coming out blog entry.

I adore Billy Joel. From his 70’s jew-fro to his early 2000 balding. Through poppy doo-wop revivals into his affair with classical composition. The man had me at the Nylon Curtain before I was even born. I used to listen to “Piano Man” on a loop on my old stereo tape player when I was in eighth grade and falling asleep at night. And even though I had never been to New York, Billy Joel reminded me of New York in the autumn, wandering windy alleys in a knee-length tan trench coat while thinking long romantic thoughts. A perfect launching point for nerdy puberty – moody songs of heartfelt misunderstanding. And loneliness. And somehow, despite 11 multi-platinum albums, the man is scorned in discussions of musical celebrities. Not scorned actually, now that I think about it, so much as teased and taunted like the poor kid on the playground of musical greatness. This judgment somehow translates to Billy Joel fans as well. Those of us who have the lack of taste to enjoy the popular classical chords and the get-stuck-in-your-head-all-day tunes of Mr. Joel. How unfortunate that we don’t know any better than to follow a doofy leader on the pop scene.

What’s interesting though about Billy helming the dorkiness movement, however, is that seemingly he couldn’t make a record without it propagating into a series money-spinning singles (3 #1 Singles and 13 Top Ten Hits). Which means that some of you are lying, some of you are still closeted Joel fans. Over the years, I’ve connected with people on the subject of Billy Joel: his musical prowess, his technical ability, his struggles, and his lyrics and the feeling of his songs, often over a bottle of red or a bottle of white. It’s a quiet confession that comes on the heels of singing along to one of his songs under your breath in the grocery store or someone stopping to listen to “Allentown” on the radio. I elbow them (since that’s a nerd’s secret handshake) and say “I know how you feel.”

Perhaps some of us have taken it too far, though.

A few years back, some Joel fans and myself assigned a randomly-selected day in August to celebrate “Billy Joel Day.” That’s right, we made up our own holiday where we delight in the entire catalogue and biography of Billy Joel. We read essays about his work, play his music, watch interviews with Joel and talk about what’s great about this piano man. When it comes right down to it though, it’s more than the man and it’s more than his music.

Billy Joel Day, for me, is a day when I really try to own it when I say “I don’t care what you think is cool.” Something that Billy Joel himself ought to remember. Essayists and journalists often focus on Joel’s sensitivity when it comes to the critics. Unlike so many rock stars that stand atop their citadel of success having earned the right not to give a snail’s shit what anyone else thinks of them, Billy Joel has felt distress over the cruelty of a few critics. He has literally torn their words apart in front of an audience of screaming fans. And that’s with multiple platinum albums, all the drugs and women necessary, and mattresses stuffed with money. All of the external affirmation that one could ever want and Billy stresses about what you think of him. A feeling I am achingly familiar with.

If there is anything that makes Billy Joel (and me, for that matter) decidedly uncool, it’s that after all this time, we still care about what you have to say about us. It’s not that he’s too technically accomplished and classically trained as some people suggest, it’s not that his style is derivative of the masters that have come before him, it’s not that he’s just too popular. It’s the very fact that Billy would let this conversation even enter into what kind of artist he wants to be.

And that comes with its own brand of longing and loneliness that translates into all of his compositions. When I sit and listen to Billy Joel, it’s to tap into a feeling of unachievable yearning. Even his upbeat 80s tunes long for a lost time or a place, the ability to be a better man, to be better loved or understood, or to find the capacity to treat himself or his lover with the affection that they both deserve. They are songs about falling short, nostalgia, about wanting and the loneliness that comes with unfulfillable desires. Even you nay-sayers know what that feels like and none of you have expressed that gloom half so well as Mr. Joel does. Despite his insecurity even in the face of success, he never stopped practicing a craft that he began pursuing in his adolescence. It is reminder to serve your talents and passion even when you remain in doubt about everything, even your own self-worth.

Also, he’s a brilliant melodist and rocks the shit out of any piano he touches. That also might have something to do with why every album he creates goes platinum.

In honor of the third annual Billy Joel Day (August 27th, for those of you interested in honoring a day of musical hubris), I will be discussing his songs, creating a collaborative fan video, lying on the floor and listening to “New York State of Mind” and sharing one of the highlights of The Nylon Curtain: the music video for “Pressure” here on this blog.

“Pressure” is from the early days of mainstream music video, before there were MTV video music awards or VH1 and despite the medium’s lack of definition, Billy Joel and director Russell Mulcahy had a vision that hung together astonishingly well.

That doesn’t mean that it lacks for seizure-inducing imagery or that it is in any way sensible. The song is all about the violent pressure that can accumulate simply from everyday living… supposedly. The video, on the other hand, seems to be about reliving some truly upsetting movie imagery (yes, the allusions to Clockwork Orange and Poltergeist are intentional). The stressful synthesizer pangs that drive the song are well-underlined by the stress of Billy’s melodramatic acting when he feels the “pressure.” Please especially enjoy the opening photo snapshot of his disturbed and perverse expression. Why are their vegetables and cornflakes being sucked into the Poltergeist television set along with the kid? Who knows. What’s with all the water imagery? Intentional, sure, but symbolic of what? We don’t really know. And what’s with the guy in the wheelchair in the theater alleyway? Not a clue. But what it all adds up to is a video that strikes a mood more than a pose. A hard balance to find in this decade. By the end of the video you feel both unstable and paranoid.

Which Billy certainly felt more than once. He weathered depression, near suicide, three marriages, and the pressure of delivering winning album year after year. And after more than forty years of dedicating himself to the creation of art and trying to live up to the men that inspired him, he’s still a piano man. One brutally haunted by lost love, days gone by, and his own weaknesses, yes, but despite being at that loss, he has never stopped serving that passion that he tries to live up to.

Happy BJ Day to you all (ahem)! Here’s to one of America’s greatest balladeers and composers. Cheers, Billy Joel!

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Hot for Van Halen

1984. Who can make sense of it? People were starving in Ethiopia. We had a former movie star for a President. The Olympics were held in Los Angeles and people were being murdered in fast food restaurants. Strange times. And Van Halen’s album, 1984, I still can’t make sense of that, either. But it became the source of some of the greatest singles from the 80’s and generated one of my favorite 80’s videos: “Hot for Teacher.”

I think my bemusement by this particular video began when I made the mistake of thinking of it as an intentional plot with a premeditated sequence of events, characters, and commentary. In the case of this video, it seems that Van Halen premeditated very little, and instead seemingly selected a variety of themes that they thought might be fun. For example, creating the tortured, nerdy Waldo character didn’t contribute to any part of the video or narrative throughout. It also (apparently) didn’t contribute anything to Waldo’s career, for that matter. David Van Gorder shows an empty IMDB profile – boasting only the “Hot for Teacher” video and a bit role in Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top.

I, of course, identify enormously with Waldo who is seemingly fascinated by the things that terrify him, which include attractive women, hard rock, public transportation, and writing utensils. Whenever Waldo faces any of these things, he grips the edges of his chair, wipes away the motor grease dripping from his increasingly disheveled hair, and gawks in abject fear and unbridled attraction. If you ever wanted to know what I’m like at a party (in my head, anyways) look no further than Waldo. Which, for an otherwise superfluous plot device, is actually a pretty important role.

Then there’s the occasional dance segment of the video dubbed “Dave and the Pips” by the band. This choreographed number features the whole of Van Halen in plum-colored wedding tuxedos getting their boogie on. The choreography is so simple that I can do it, but it took an entire extra day of filming to lock down these 37 cumulative seconds of footage. And if you watch closely, you can tell who the culprit is… Alex. How is it that one of the greatest rock drummers of the age has no sense of rhythm? That’s just another mystery presented by “Dave and the Pips.”

Also – what’s with the porn sounds from the dowdy Mom at the beginning of the video? Followed by Phil Hartman as the voice of Waldo? Followed by whale sounds as the bus pulls away from the curb? And the hot jailer with the whip at the video’s end? Inscrutable additions, all.

So, once you’re removed all of the excess plot apparatuses, it turns out that the whole video really is just a vehicle for seeing a hot, bikinied teacher. That’s Wayne Gretzky’s wife that we’re ogling, by the way, Ms. Janet Jones. Worth every inch of those fabulous legs. And it turns out that in spite of the slapdash storytelling, shallow characterizations, and bad dance numbers, the video loses nothing. It’s fun, satisfying, and cheeky (with a little extra cheek). The raucous, brash attitude, the sex that all those parents protested, the naughty epilogues for each band member (David Lee Roth apparently had a real dream of becoming a game show host, by the way), they entirely match the attitude and eager posture of the song. In that way, it’s one of the most successful music videos I’ve ever seen.

And even if Van Halen’s not touring Seattle today, their videos can still make me hot for teacher. And for them.

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Boys and Their Toys

It was 1985. “We Are the World” was recorded by USA for Africa. Route 66 was officially decommissioned. Nintendo was introduced to the world along with Super Mario Bros. Five lionesses at the Singapore Zoo were put on birth control after the lion population increased from 2 to 16. And the video that took home Video of the Year at the second-annual VMA awards was Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” a video that should be honored in its own right for its lack of narrative unity and gratuitous make-out segment. But I would like to pay tribute to a video that was nominated for five awards that year and lost to Mr. Henley and a few other notables: Bryan Adams’ “Run to You.”*

Bryan was 25 when he wrote it and had been trying his hand at song composition for other bands. “Run to You” was a song he originally wrote for Blue Oyster Cult (who turned it down), then offered to 38 Special (who turned it down), and a few other bands (who turned it down). He and Jim Vallance (who helped write it) considered the song to be an orphan until Bryan recorded it himself and included it on the Reckless album.

The song is, of course, about an affair. With suggestive lines like “She’s got a heart of gold she’d never let me down, but you’re the one that turns me on” and “I know her love is true, but it’s so damn easy making love to you,” you know that Bryan was thinking dirty when he put his video together. So dirty that he cast young hottie and “face-of-the-80’s” movie star, Lysette Anthony, as the woman he betrays.

The woman that he’s running for in the video?

A ‘62 Fender Black Reissue Stratocaster.

That’s right. Bryan Adams’ hot and heavy video single “Run to You” serenades an inanimate object. We follow the illicit lovers through the seasons (though winter looks more like a tour of the surface of the moon to me) and cut back and forth between this and Bryan in concert. My favorite moment is when Bryan shreds out the “Don’t Fear the Reaper”-inspired mini-solo on his “girlfriend” while a literal and metaphorical bolt of lightning strikes a tree in the foreground and the disgraced Lysette runs through the snow and rain away from the humiliation of Bryan playing the offending guitar.

In all of my research, I have found nothing to indicate that Bryan finds any inanimate objects sexually alluring, so I think we can safely assume that this video is a work of fiction. In fact, typing “Bryan Adams affair with” into my Google search engine causes the search to pre-populate with “Bryan Adams affair with Princess Diana” (a rumor that I am a decade late to). No Stratocasters come up anywhere in the search results.

But really, the preoposterous and poorly-executed love story in this video isn’t enough to make me dislike it. In fact, I really can’t turn away from the young Adams as he slowly puts on sunglasses in front of his soundstage sunset. I can’t help but appreciate the intensity of his delay-drenched vocals. And, despite the fact that the nearly four-minute song is almost entirely the chorus repeating itself, Bryan Adams still has the vocal charisma to make me enjoy the naughtiness of the affair he’s describing. It’s so inappropriate and ludicrous, it’s appealing.

Stewart Mason from Allmusic said “Run to You” was the first of the album’s six Top 30 hits, and in retrospect, “one of the weakest of the lot. Although the song has a thundering chorus, the kind that sounds truly excellent blasting through FM speakers, there is quite literally not much else to the song.”

Whether you’re right or not, Mr. Stewart Mason, Bryan Adams’ song and video still command the crowd. In 1984 when recording the concert footage for the “Run to You” video in Vancouver, a 6 a.m. free ticket giveaway to the concert caused an overwhelming number of fans to show up resulting in a traffic jam and a riot-on-the-brink. But Bryan and his manager (classy guys that they are) bought pizzas and coffee for the waiting crowds. This video, more than anything else, is their reward.

*“Run to You” was nominated for Best Direction, Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Editing and Best Cinematography.

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My Deal with Kate

There’s one thing sure to make you feel uncomfortable for five minutes no matter what decade you’re in.

Interpretive dance.

“Running Up That Hill” is the song that has been playing on a loop for me lately. Watching the video for very long, however, makes me feel somewhat awkward. Not only because watching most dance makes me feel both bulky and graceless, but because this video seems to be so achingly sincere even when they’re thrashing violently. Michael Hervieu (Kate’s partner in this interpretive duet) lifts her into the air, weaves her round his body, lays her out on the floor, and one hand drifts painfully past her cheek in the seemingly endless blue church light and shadows. Oh it hurts.

It’s a song that’s chronically misinterpreted, but somehow compelling anyways. Most people assume that the deal with god is to swap places with his holiness – a sort of “Kate Almighty” situation, but what the song is actually about is the insecurity and misunderstandings that occur with romantic love and the wish for God to allow us to swap places with our lover so that we might truly understand each other.

The video was choreographed by Diane Grey and primarily features just the two dancers wearing Japanese hakamas. It was designed to be different than everything else on MTV at the time when Kate thought that the majority of movement in mainstream videos was haphazard, trivial, and exploited. She wanted something meaningful, classic, and different. And the team succeeded. So much so that MTV wouldn’t air this version of the video supposedly because, just then, MTV was much more geared towards videos that showed artists lip synching their songs. Kate’s invisible bow-and-arrow moves weren’t quite their speed. So MTV aired one of Kate’s live performances instead.

It’s also slightly disturbing (in that way that old, under-budgeted Star Trek episodes can freak you out) that as the song begins to climax, the lovers are pulled apart by a stream of anonymous masked strangers wearing photocopies of the other person’s face or their own (See? Low budge – still freaky.). Kate said the effect was to be that of drowning in yourself and becoming distanced from your lover, but mostly it just leaves me with my head cocked to the right with a painful nose wrinkle that asks “Why?”

But then again – that’s sort of what I love about Kate. The “why’d you have to do it like that?” abandon that says to me that she really means the weird things she does and trusts implicitly in her own art. That level of faith has always been reassuring to me. I was listening to a recent BBC interview with her where they were asking her about her process and techniques as she writes her new album. She said that she has some gardening bone meal housed on her piano while she’s composing. It was all accidental – she was on her way to the garden and stopped at the piano, abandoning the bone meal, but the work she produced in the following days was so satisfying that when she discovered the bone meal was still there she thought to herself, “why not?”

They also asked her, “when was the last time that you heard one of your songs as you were going about your business?” and she said that the last time that had happened to her was six months ago while driving in her car. “Running Up That Hill” came on the radio and they asked her what it was like to hear it again. She said, “I thought it was all right, that one.”

We think so, too, Kate. We really do.

Bless you and your weirdness, Kate. Keep the good tunes coming and we’ll overlook any number of odd dance moves – that’s my deal with you.

PS – Incidentally the song was supposed to be called “Deal With God” but the record company made her change it since they were afraid that having the word “God” in the title would cause the record to be too controversial and result in lower sales so the title was changed to be “Running Up That Hill.”

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Like a Rainbow

If you’re in the mood to unhinge yourself from the constraints of reality and logic, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” video provides a lovely vacation from common sense. Gaudy and seemingly using the dreams of a meth addict’s childhood as the departure point, “True Colors” makes less sense than a karaoke music video.

Okay, first of all, “True Colors” is a song written by Tom Kelley and Billy Steinberg –the same gentlemen who gave us “Like a Virgin” by Madonna or Heart’s “Alone.” Steinberg wrote it for his mother in a Gospel style. Cyndi dismantled it from there.

The video, though… well, it took three days to shoot it and probably less time to edit it. They basically dumped a thousand pounds of beach sand on a New York sound stage and allowed the loosest parameters of interpretive dance and storytelling to guide the process.

Open on Cyndi under a single light pounding on a drum, tribal-style. This leads logically…
To a group of children on a fake beach dressed like adults. Which can only be followed by…
Two women in a beached canoe having high tea… proceeding imagery includes…
Cyndi in a Theda Bara costume with a chandelier on her head, Cyndi’s boyfriend and manager, David Wolff, topless unraveling white silk chiffon from Cyndi’s bed, an irradiated kissing sequence, and a newspaper skirt (among other things).
Close, of course, on the tribal drum beating spot-lit by a fake moon.

According to Pop Up Video and several, ahem, reliable fan forums, there was an intended storyline. Supposedly, the tribal drum action is Cyndi taking on the role of a storyteller as she follows a girl from childhood through adulthood, capturing that sense of wonder. Apparently, the random conch shell is supposed to symbolize the “tides of change” but it really just seems to be a metaphor for vagina (maybe that’s just me). Cyndi returns on a walk through the desert/beach with new children in the background and then finishes her story by banging on the drum.

…maybe the fan forums don’t have the answers either.

But here’s the fact of the matter. “True Colors” is one of the best and sweetest songs to have come out of the 80’s. It’s been covered more than 30 times since its 1986 release. The video was meant to be a plea for everyone –young and old –to love themselves exactly as they are. It’s easy enough to forgive a song its latter day video sins when the message is so positive and wholesomely affectionate across the board. It’s why the song is continually reprised by so many artists: from Staind to the cast of Glee. And why I continue to share it again and again as one of my favorite 80s videos.

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Should’ve Been Gone

Steve Perry commands two kingdoms: that of the plummy and powerful vocal styles that forever defined the rock ballad and that of the inscrutably dorky.

This title was secured for him by the music video for “Oh Sherrie.” The particular 80’s video model being used here is the “Talky Bookends” style meaning that the actual song is framed by an inexplicable (and probably unnecessary) narrative. In this case, before we get to the warm and strident “Hold On’s” that Steve shouts from the stairwells, we first see him in full Renaissance garb with crown and spats at an enigmatic coronation. Or wedding. Or whatever.

Okay.

This gets shut down very quickly, of course, and the audience realizes that we’re on the production set for the shoot of this video and Steve’s irked at how the video is turning out. How very meta.

But then we get what we’ve been waiting for. Steve Perry turning up his solo career with as much gusto and hair tossing as possible. The whole song, which is about the typical turbulence of a bad relationship that you don’t want to get out of, is accented by various violent guitar stabs and a keyboard riff from the same guy who gave us “Bette Davis Eyes.” It’s a totally unhealthy relationship (I mean, “you should’ve been gone”), but you just can’t help but dance all the same.

This fact is evidenced by the woman in copious amounts of Renaissance gown (also my favorite part of the video). She is seated on a bench with her feet not quite touching the floor, jiggling her ankles a bit in time to the music as if to say “Groovy Steve, but this superfluous medeival get-up prevents me from doing much other than attending milords.”

Steve, meanwhile, is so excited by his own song that he begins to reach for anything in close enough proximity to substitute as a dance partner: this includes a lute that he plays badly and hands off to another extra and a broom that he sweeps the lobby steps with for about five seconds before deciding that he’d rather run up and down steps some more.

And that tiny blond? That’s actually Sherrie Swafford. Maybe she and Steve didn’t work out, but she will forever be 80’s hot in this video.

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“So it’s sorta’ social…

…demented and sad – but social.”

That’s me. That’s my blog.

This is a grab-bag 80’s blog. My parents, lovely people though they are, refused to let me watch MTV when I was kid. Even if I went up the street to Heather’s house to watch on her TV, I’d have to lie about what we did. Which was usually overdosing on Fritos and listening to Nina Blackwood introduce some other truly ridiculous video.

So I didn’t get my 80’s television until early 2000 when streaming video became commonplace and I lost many productive hours trolling the internet.

If you lived through the 80’s (and I can’t really say that I did), it must have made sense at the time. But now, 30 years later, most of the artifacts from that time leave me with a feeling of both bewilderment and delight. I’ll post my favorites here. Maybe they can eat up some of your workday and replace it with a little superfluous amusement, too.

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