by Kevin Burton
My friend the late Jeff Welch handed me a vinyl copy of “52nd Street” by Billy Joel. Just gave it away. That’s how I first heard it.
From that point forward Billy Joel was my spokesman in the same way The Who spoke for British teens with songs such as “Can’t Explain” and “My Generation.”
“52nd Street” was like rocket fuel for me and I was convinced I was going places.
This is my third post in answer to the “album challenge” where I talk about those records that were most influential to me when I was younger.
My parents had gotten divorced and the president of the United States had been forced to quit his job a few years before the record came out in 1978. That was all the evidence I needed that the adults were asleep at the wheel and I was in charge.
If there were any lingering doubts about that, they were obliterated by “52nd Street.”
The song “My Life,” obviously typifies that theme, but it didn’t stop there. The album oozed not just rebellion, but cool rebellion. It wasn’t some nonsense about acting a fool in the streets.
It was about musical art and meeting women, resetting boundaries, creating a brand. It was about making better rules, my rules, not just breaking rules to break them.
I love “Piano Man,” as many do. But my Billy Joel parenthesis if you will, begins with “My Life” and ends with “Famous Last Words” from the album “River of Dreams.”
“My Life” is the song I sang with Scott Weaver on the school bus, knowing smiles on both our faces. Armed with that song we couldn’t be stopped.
The “My Life” vibe is in full force on “Half A Mile Away,” a rollicking tune, a roaring celebration of early adulthood. It’s a very New York song but it spoke to me in Ohio.
In a more subdued way “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” covers the same territory, confidently, leaving no questions unanswered.
When Billy Joel and Elton John came through Wichita I was beyond thrilled when Joel did “Zanzibar” as part of his set. I think it is the ultimate album cut for Billy Joel fans.
If I were forced to rank Billy Joel tunes, ”Zanzibar” would sneak way, way up the list past many of his radio hits which just didn’t have the same feel.
Speaking of hits that didn’t quite hit with me, “Honesty” is not a bad tune. I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it if I had written it. But I wish Joel had given it to Barry Manilow and put something better on his record. Again, it’s not a bad tune, but I want something more from Billy.
“Until The Night” delivers that something more for me. Great story, just enough “wooh-ooh oohs.” to be classic Billy Joel. Good harmonies, great music. It’s a little slow, so I get it if you’re not a big Billy Joel fan and you’re not into it.
“Stiletto” was and is one interesting tune for me. If there is any song on this album that dented my teenage, ready-for-the-next-step bravado, this is the one. Stiletto high heels, stiletto knives…didn’t know too much about either one. This is where the record maybe got a little too New York for me. But I liked it then and still do.
“Big Shot” is another good tune. Peaked at number 14. Really good tune, but if I’m listening to Billy Joel for an hour I’m not reaching for “Big Shot.” That just speaks to the number of great songs available from this artist.
Joel didn’t seem to put much thought into the title song so I won’t either. I found it strange but in no way could it take away from the brilliance of this record that serves as a landmark on my rock and roll journey.