Break all the records . . . burn the cassettes . . .
It’s 1982. The United States (and the world at large) is adjusting to the next phase of the Cold War tensions in the first tenure of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Punk is gone. New Wave is taking its toll. Elvis Presley and John Lennon are both dead. And Billy Joel has released his ninth album, The Nylon Curtain. In its words and music, he tries to find some answers to the state of his country, the world, and relationships. He comes to grips with the loss of Lennon and allows the artist’s ghost to envelop and inspire him.
Joel had always been a fan’s favorite and a critic’s punching bag. He hit the big time with his 1977 release The Stranger thanks to the ballad “Just the Way You Are”. After that, the hits just kept on coming. Yet even at that point, he was the target of much flak, taking heat from the Catholic Church thanks to his tongue-in-cheek smash “Only the Good Die Young”. He was labeled as a sexist for the lyrics of another hit single, “She’s Always a Woman”, and branded once again with the same charges for 52nd Street‘s “Big Shot”. That album’s huge hit “My Life” came under fire when an unknown musician claimed Joel had stolen the tune from him. Joel was advised to settle out of court for a paltry sum, even though he thought this was a bad idea. His legal matters would worsen years later when it was discovered that he was bilked out of fortunes thanks to mishandling of his royalties.
But Joel just kept on fighting. Not caring what the critics said (so he claimed), he would rip up reviews in front of his live audiences and had an ongoing battle with Rolling Stone for a few years. In 1980, he released his Glass Houses album, one filled with rock songs to prove that he wasn’t “just a balladeer”. Rolling Stone readers voted “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” as the worst song ever written about rock. And for all of its harder songs, one of the best on the album was “Don’t Ask Me Why”, an acoustic guitar-driven number that showcased Joel’s unflappable talent for beautiful melodies and endearing hooks.
It had been an interesting career up to that point. Joel had always been used to business hassles. His debut album, Cold Spring Harbor, had originally been mastered at the wrong speed, causing Billy’s voice to sound speeded up. After that, he decided to get out of a bad contract by disappearing to California and performing in piano bars under the name Bill Martin. These escapades led to his penning the song “Piano Man”, which also became the title of his second LP and spawned the favorites “The Ballad of Billy The Kid” and “Captain Jack”. After that came the better (yet critically disliked) Streetlife Serenade and the return to New York essential album Turnstiles that housed the likes of “New York State of Mind” and Joel’s best ballad of all time, “Summer, Highland Falls”.
But now it was the early ‘80s. Joel’s 1981 album Songs in the Attic gained favorable press. He had divorced his first wife, Elizabeth, who had also been acting as his manager for many years. On top of that, he was also the victim of a bad motorcycle accident in which he sustained a number of serious injuries. It was time for Billy Joel to break through all the personal trauma and create his masterpiece.
I’d be lying if I told you that I had no regrets . . .
The Nylon Curtain served as both social and personal commentary. The leadoff track, “Allentown”, exposed the Pennsylvanian city’s economic plight in grim detail. “Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time / Filling out forms, standing in line” sings Joel in what may be his finest sounding single of all time. His words seem to offer no hope, resulting in such observations as “So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all / No they never taught us what was real / Iron and coke and chromium steel”. The tune may have had to do more with the city of Bethlehem’s problems, but Joel said he named it after Allentown because it sounded more “American”. Indeed, the song’s genesis was formed years prior as a happier piece named “Levittown”, after an area where Joel had grown up as a kid.
Also housed on the LP’s first side is the Vietnam ode “Goodnight Saigon”, which Joel had penned for many of his friends who had served in the war. Opening with the ominous sounds of approaching helicopters disrupting wind chimes blowing in the breeze, the song finds Joel fantasizing about what it must have been like deep in the combat-addled terrain. “We dug in deep, and shot on sight / And prayed to Jesus Christ with all of our might”. Joel sings these words in an eerily calm fashion, but the whole number explodes in larger than life Phil Spector-type choruses that exclaim, “And we would all go down together / We said we’d all go down together / Yes we would all go down together”. On occasion, Joel would have veterans of the Vietnam War sing these parts during his live shows.
The rest of side one is no less harrowing. The second song, “Laura”, finds Joel pulling through the death of John Lennon musically, creating the most Beatle-like melodies of his career to that point. It is a surreal song, dealing with a bad relationship centered around its title character who seems a bit mentally unfit, a condition that also wears away on the narrator’s psyche. “I should be so immunized to all of her tricks / She’s surviving on her second chances / Sometimes I feel like this godfather deal is all wrong / How can she hold an umbilical cord for so long?” It also contains the line “Here I am, feeling like a fucking fool”, with the “fucking” over-emphasized so you won’t miss it. Although such lyrics now seem like an average day at the playground, they were shocking by 1982 standards (especially from Joel; this move probably proved tougher than any of his tunes on Glass Houses at the time).
And then there is “Pressure”. The video for the song featured Joel getting swallowed up by a deep pile white carpet and a childlike version of himself getting sucked into a television set, an idea once explored by David Bowie on “TVC15” from Station to Station. But here, Joel is dealing with the daily grind, the weekly stress. Is Joel singing to himself? Such lines as “You’ve only had to run so far so good / But you will come to a place where the only thing you feel / Are loaded guns in your face / And you’ll have to deal with pressure” seem like they could be an inner dialogue as much as warnings to someone else. The somewhat psychotic and unforgettable synth riffs that punctuate the song mix perfectly with the unnerving lyrical maladies.
There were so many mistakes, and what a difference it makes . . .
“Allentown”, “Pressure”, and “Goodnight Saigon” were all huge hits, but the rest of The Nylon Curtain is just as exceptional as, if not better than, its singles. Containing some of Billy Joel’s most overlooked work of the ‘80s, these songs are meticulously crafted and feature some of Joel’s finest musical accomplishments.
The opening track to the second half of the album, “She’s Right On Time”, is a bit of an oddity for Joel as well, as it is a tune about Christmas, more or less. Waiting for his lover on Christmas, actually, but the music and lyrics are just as moody as anything else on the album, finding Joel examining personal strife once more: “Left to my own device, I can always make believe that there’s nothing wrong / Still I will choose to live in the complicated world that we shared for so long/ Good or bad, right or wrong”. The middle of the tune features a terrific harpsichord solo that sounds just plain weird, and some wonderful nylon stringed guitar work throughout.
“A Room of Our Own” is a dirty blues-based number of lyrical opposites, and another song that seems to find Joel coming to the end of his threads. “I can still remember packed together like a can of sardines / Pushin’, shovin’, that’s where lovin’ starts to come apart at the seams” and “You got yoga honey, I’ve got beer / You got overpriced and I got weird / But it’s alright” gives a glimpse into the seamier side of Billy Joel, as if he were Lou Reed’s bastard younger brother. Joel boogies his ass off on the electric piano at the break and spits the lyrics out with glee; “You’ve got pills and I’ve got razor blades” says it all, really.
Beginning with “Surprises” and running through to its conclusion, “Where’s the Orchestra”, The Nylon Curtain continues to twist its way through troubled psyches and strange situations. The almost paranoid “Surprises” is absolutely beautiful, with its haunting synth lines building up swelling undertones of nail-biting drama. “Don’t look now, but you have changed / Your best friends wouldn’t tell you . . . Now it’s apparent, now it’s a fact / So marshal your forces for another attack / You were so young and naïve, I know it’s hard to believe, but now it shouldn’t surprise you at all / You know”. Again, Joel could have very well been singing to himself on this, the album’s highlight where all the darkness envelops him.
Musically, things go right off the deep end in a highly stylized fashion for “Scandinavian Skies”. A sort of travelogue of a Billy Joel world tour? Who knows? One can only make conjecture as Joel sings, “We watched the power fall / Inside the Oslo hall / While all the cold Norwegians cried / Who could say / What was left and where was right? / By the way / I could play the blues all night”. Strings gather up and wash over the mix as military beats and classical themes run amok. Billy Joel at his strangest.
But it shouldn’t surprise you at all . . . you know . . .
Closing with “Where’s The Orchestra?”, The Nylon Curtain takes a solemn bow. Indeed, it sounds like a plaintive Broadway kind of tune, and finds Joel once again looking at everything that has transpired: “At least I understand / All the innuendo and the irony / And I appreciate / The roles the actors played / The point the author made”. The song fades with an eerie reprise of the “Allentown” melody played wearily . . . a neat bookend to a stunning album.
In the years following, Joel would trump his own popularity time and again with albums like An Innocent Man and Storm Front. He would also issue in a strange sort of mediocrity with 1986’s The Bridge and sort of wash away with 1993’s River of Dreams (which just felt like a genre exercise, save for the enigmatic “Great Wall of China” that sounded, oddly enough, like a Nylon Curtain outtake). Recently, Joel has abandoned his pop song format for constructing classical pieces, but one can’t help but feel that he’ll return to his rock roots no matter what he may say regarding his work in the genre.
The general consensus amongst the fans is that The Nylon Curtain is Joel’s crowning achievement. Indeed, it features sounds and themes that Joel never returned to again. Never content to make the same album twice, anyway, it doesn’t seem like Joel could have done it quite like this again no matter what. In essence, The Nylon Curtain, with its grim lyrics and sobering outlook, is a perfect snapshot of the Reagan Era. But it is also a majestic piece of work, filled with all sorts of songs that can literally take weeks to delve into if one so allows himself. It was also one of the first albums to be digitally recorded. The 1998 reissue has even better sound than the previous CD version, and includes videos for “Allentown”, “Pressure”, “Goodnight Saigon”, and the rare “She’s Right on Time”. In all, The Nylon Curtain is a timeless chunk of rock’s history, and Billy Joel’s best work, bar none.
// Notes from the Road
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