“Some say that love’s a little boy,
And say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
—W.H. Auden, “O Tell Me the Truth About Love”
Billy Joel’s best songs are so jolting that you can’t help stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. Like the best music, Joel’s begs attention. His storyteller’s lyricism, his piano mastery, and that voice, like stained glass—the kind you see falling off old buildings like Asbury Park’s boardwalk Casino. It’s frosted and brown. A dilapidation that doesn’t mask former grandeur, but assists in its recreation. There is so much beauty to Joel’s abraded spirit. He writes about love’s great hoaxes better than anyone else. He’s fearless on love matters, entirely unafraid of revealing his vulnerabilities and his (sometimes) callousness. He’s sexy and he’s real, and he can turn a phrase as deftly and perfectly as the great poets.
Joel’s new mega box set, My Lives, is stacked with those eye closing moments. Many of which come via a selection of live tracks capturing his blissful vocals in ways that no studio album really can. The purpose of the release is to showcase Joel’s development from his super-early days in The Lost Souls, The Hassles, and Attila, through his superstar solo period in the ‘70s and ‘80s, up to his reinvention as a classical pianist following his retirement from lyrical songwriting in 1993. The set features alternate versions and demos of Joel’s best known materials and collects for the first time his soundtrack contributions, classical work, choice live recordings, and covers. There’s also a live DVD from the “River of Dreams” tour. My Lives reaffirms Joel’s importance as a songwriter, but it’s more than that; it’s a look back, a rediscovery, and a document of the artist as a creator and interpreter.
Cool as much of the stuff here is, the alternate or unreleased demos are where the real gold lies. It’s fascinating, finally learning how “Piano Man” evolved from a few ramblings on a piano to an epic, poetic short story song; or how “Prime of Your Life” became “The Longest Time”. The tunes remain the same but the words, for the most part, and thus their significance, is altered. “All About Soul”, for instance, started out as the sleek, peripatetic “Motorcycle Song”; “Worse Comes to Worst” was once “New Mexico”, and the perennial “I’ve Loved These Days” was once a slightly different song called “These Rhinestone Days” (the version here is beautiful). The best of these shifts appears on a jumpy thing called “The End of the World” that would become “Elvis Presley Blvd”. It has to be heard to be believed just how a sad ode to Elvis’s legend started out as a sardonic tale of dissolving marriage.
Reshaped demos of “Miami 2017”, “And So It Goes”, “Christie Lee” and others further highlight Joel’s ability at mastering his sound. Some of these versions aren’t wholly different from the finished products, but, as with various live recordings on which Joel holds notes longer or lifts his voice higher, these new versions breathe life into some standards. The alternate version of “Miami 2017”, for instance, is much the same lyrically (the “rats lie down” line is one the few missing), but this subdued, stripped-back version nixes powerhouse to become a soft, speculative ballad—one of the new versions here that’s better than its famous counterpart.
Joel adds a personal flavor to the set, too, including some easily accessible tracks from his studio albums between the rarities. The reason for this, he notes in the set’s comprehensive booklet, was to introduce listeners to some of his personal favorites from his catalogue. It’s Joel’s belief that he is an album artist; his albums as complete works represent him rather than his numerous chart singles. This is likely true, particularly in albums like Storm Front and The Bridge, that work to create soulful moods—seeking out sanctuary in the storm and recovering from high anxiety, respectively. His selected songs range between famous cuts like “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “An Innocent Man”, and lesser-known tracks, “Until the Night”, “She’s Right on Time”, “She’s Got a Way”, and “The ‘Downeaster’ Alexa”. Joel clearly knows what he’s doing including those last few songs. Each represents a different side to Joel: the confused romantic, the unapologetic romantic, the hopeless romantic, and the literary journeyman. Perfect.
The best moments on My Lives, though, are the new old love songs, some written as far back as the early ‘70s. To hear them here for the first time is so cool, especially since we’ve been dry of Billy’s evolving views on life since River of Dreams. If we can’t go forward in Billy’s mind, it’s suitable enough to go back. Two of the best songs to do that are “Cross to Bear” and “Oyster Bay”. “Cross to Bear” contains more of those challenging relationship lyrics and vocals that navigate registers with criminal ease. Joel sings: “I just got to have my freedom, / And if that’s giving you the blues, / That’s the price you pay, / Lord, there ain’t no other way, / But to get down on your knees and pay your dues”.
The price of fame is tackled on “Oyster Bay”, which is almost a companion piece to “The Entertainer”, with Billy’s voice so divine it recalls Mandy Patinkin in Sunday in the Park with George. Stunning to think the song, including this outburst—“I never thought that things would go this far, / I never thought I’d be here today, / I never thought I’d be a superstar, / Oh, Jesus Christ, I wish that I was back in Oyster Bay takin’ it easy”—was recorded in 1973, long before Joel had any clue how apt those words could eventually become.
Both of these songs feature on disc one, which is really the super old stuff—right back to recording so early they creak and crackle. Disc two kicks up with new, alternative, and live versions of the better-known stuff. The Sparks Saloon version of “Captain Jack” is a masterwork: angry, sharp, with some excellent audience noises in the background. The charming “Nobody Knows Me” is on there, from the kids’ album In Harmony II. Other stand-outs on disc two include the “Baby Grand” duet with Ray Charles from The Bridge, “Getting Closer” with Steve Winwood, and two of Billy’s best B-sides, “I’ll Cry Instead” and “House of Blue Light”.
Disc three covers the 10 years following Storm Front, and so includes a range of soundtrack additions and covers. “In a Sentimental Mood” from A League of their Own is there, as are the Elvis covers from Honeymoon in Vegas, and Disney songs “When You Wish Upon a Star (from Simply Mad About the Mouse) and “Why Should I Worry” (Oliver & Company). The covers are the real thrill of this CD, though, with Joel taking on “A Hard Day’s Night”, Leonard Cohen’s “Light as the Breeze” (with Clint Black and Trisha Yearwood helping out), Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” and “Highway 61 Revisited”.
If I haven’t mentioned Joel’s vocals enough already, these covers are superb because of the richness of his voice and the devotion he affords each note. “Light as the Breeze”, featured on Joel’s third Greatest Hits record, has to be one of the best Cohen covers ever recorded. His “In a Sentimental Mood, too, is sublime—eye closing on a level all its own. An artist as proficient in describing his own moods and reactions as he, it’s fun to hear his take on others’. “Highway 61”, for instance, with Joel’s voice on it is a brand new song—a whiskey-soaked blues belter worthy of that House of Blue Light.
The set finishes with a short collection of Joel’s piano stuff from Fantasies and Delusions that each prove you don’t need lyrics to write a heartbreaker. Joel’s contribution to the 9/11 fundraiser, “New York State of Mind”, is also here, alongside his “Don’t Worry Baby” (dedicated to his daughter, who also did the cover art here) in the All Star Tribute to Brian Wilson. There’s also a song from the Millennium Concert, and a few from Joel’s Essential Video Collection. These tracks aren’t rare, but simply collected for the first time. I know I would have been thrilled with an entire disc of Billy’s classical stuff, especially his amazing “Fantasy (Film Noir)”. Something from the “Movin’ Out” musical might have slotted in well, too.
Still, My Lives is the definitive chronicle of Joel’s musical genius. There’s nothing he can’t do, little he can’t rework in order to do it better. Some tracks are more immediately relevant that others—more demos of unreleased tracks would have suited listeners and lovers craving unheard lyrics—but as far as a document of growth and achievement, with a few festive surprised tucked in, it’s a fabulous gift.
// Notes from the Road
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