Counterbalance: Billy Joel – The Nylon Curtain

This week's Counterbalance looks at what is most likely Billy Joel's weirdest album, 1982's The Nylon Curtain, which has yet to make the Great List, and probably never will.
Billy Joel
The Nylon Curtain

Klinger: Few mainstream artists this side of the Eagles took as consistent a critical beating as Billy Joel. Throughout his career, critics have taken immense delight in razzing and belittling him. When he wrote polished ballads, they accused him of not knowing how to rock. When he’d record more rock material, they teased him for being a poser. The poor bastard just couldn’t win. Of course, part of the reason critics kept picking on Billy Joel was he made it so much fun for them. Joel would actually go so far as to read his bad reviews onstage, which had be a perverse delight for the writer who got that far in his head.

Over the years, though, Joel’s massive commercial popularity meant that some concessions would have to be made by the critics, so your more mainstream publications would usually throw a bone to 1977’s The Stranger (Currently No. 622 on the Great List and one of only two albums there). Fast forward 40 years or so, though, and it seems that our Mr. Joel may be having a last laugh. In addition to headlining this year’s Bonnaroo, today’s poptimist youngsters honestly and admirably have no use for those old-timey critics’ rockist notions of cool, and several articles have popped up reassessing the musical output of Billy Joel. So all this has emboldened me to the point where I feel OK saying it — I enjoy a surprising amount of Billy Joel’s work, and to mark this occasion, I’ve chosen to make us write about what is most likely his weirdest album, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, which has yet to make the Great List, and probably never will, but for a brief moment there, the critics were nearly on board. “I guess I grew up,” he almost sheepishly explained to an almost baffled Rolling Stone, and for a little while there it looked like they might be willing to accept him as a link in the great rock songwriter chain, one who took on the Vietnam War before Springsteen, who knew where to drop a well-placed F-bomb, and who brought some borderline avant-garde string arrangements to the mainstream.

Of course, it only took a few love songs to Christie Brinkley and a “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to get the critics right back on their snark train, but I remember all this reappraisal distinctly. You were a babe-in-arms, though, Mendelsohn, so I’m going to ask — does The Nylon Curtain sound like a different kind of Billy Joel album to you?

Mendelsohn: As opposed to other Billy Joel albums? I couldn’t really tell you as I haven’t listened to any other Billy Joel albums for all of the reasons you listed above. As a kid, I do remember liking “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “For the Longest Time” because I was a kid and those songs were fun. But then I got a little older and music got a little more serious and fun wasn’t allowed. As an adult, I am more than happy to admit that those songs still put a smile on my face. And why shouldn’t they? Excellent pop music, both of them. Is it any surprise the younger generations are starting to discover the guilty-pleasure pop music from their parent’s generation? The Internet has killed the gatekeepers and neutered the once powerful music critic. No one cares what the wackos on the world wide web have to say. In fact, if you like listening to Billy Joel while bathing naked in a large tub of popcorn, I bet there are more than a few like-minded individuals who would climb into that tub of popcorn with you. I’m not going to Google that. I would be horrified to find out I was right.

I’m just starting to dig into The Nylon Curtain and I’m finding a record that is both smart and weird but not particularly engaging. It wants to be engaging. “Allentown”, “Laura”, and “A Room of Our Own”, are great examples of songs that are almost engaging. Hummable, but not quite. Then it gets weird or sentimental or weirdly sentimental. For example: Joel may have beat Springsteen to the Vietnam War for material but give me “Born in the U.S.A.”, over “Goodnight Saigon” any day. That song sounds like something Roger Waters would have written if he had a soft side and wasn’t such a self-absorbed prick with delusions of grandiosity.

But through it all, The Nylon Curtain is incredibly listenable. It goes down smooth but my berating is sort of my default position. So help me out here, Klinger. Why this record? What is it about The Nylon Curtain that you find so engaging?

Klinger: Well, first of all comparing “Goodnight Saigon” to “Born in the U.S.A.” is like comparing Platoon to The Deer Hunter — they’re not really about the same thing at all. Anyway, The Nylon Curtain is a fascinating album to me precisely because it’s his least “engaging”, in the sense that you mean it. Joel’s not necessarily aiming to please here, he is willing to get weird (at least by Billy Joel standards). Don’t get me wrong, he’s not channeling Ornette Coleman (RIP) here, but he is challenging himself and his audience.

“Laura”, at first glance, is a clever little Beatle homage (with an absolutely uncanny George Harrison-style guitar solo by David Brown), but instead of striving for some universal Beatley theme of peace or something, it’s a pissed off rant about being trapped in the clutches of a pathologically needy woman. And lyrically, well let’s just say I’ve been there.

“Scandinavian Skies” features some truly jarring string arrangements, which are appropriately evocative of the band’s difficult tour of northern Europe and Joel’s fleeting dalliance with heroin. So, yeah, maybe not as hummable as The Stranger (or Turnstiles, which is the other Joel album I considered subjecting you to), but I maintain that he actually made this album on purpose.

Mendelsohn: I’m sure he did. All albums were made on purpose, except maybe Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. To me, that album still sounds like somebody accidentally pressed record while the band was moving their instruments into the studio. And then they decided to keep the first take to save on tape, which I understand was expensive.

I’m not looking to be pleased, I understand an artist’s need to flex their creative muscle, to step outside their bounds a bit and make the listener work a little bit. What I’m looking for is an album that captures my imagination, or at the very least, sticks a couple of songs into my head and gives me a reason to do the required work to find the nut of the album. Forgive me for saying this, but I’m not sure I want to find the nut in this album. It might not be worth the work, sort of like Brazils. And like Brazils, I’m not even sure where to start. Nutcracker? Hammer? Vice? Maybe I should just start with The Stranger.

I get the feeling that Nylon Curtain is an album made by Billy Joel for Billy Joel fans, to show off some of his bonafides and thrill his listeners with a little something unexpected. Am I off the mark?

Klinger: Well, in 1982, Billy Joel was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, so it seems unlikely. I have my suspicions that Joel pushed himself out of his comfort zone in response to the constant critical haranguing he received. While it helped a bit, there were still quite a few holdouts. In the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh especially lays into Joel for writing “Goodnight Saigon”, which Marsh views as being insufficiently protesty and blah blah blah. Never mind that Joel wrote the song to express just what his peers — many of whom were on his road crew — went through at that time without judging them for something that was never their decision. (Marsh also hilariously refers to the song as “Saigon Nights”, which suggests he wasn’t paying super-close attention and might actually not be especially good at his job.)

But as ambitious records from mainstream artists go, The Nylon Curtain manages to work both sides of the street pretty well. There are enough “Billy Joel” songs on there to make it worth it for the casual fan (“She’s Right on Time” leaps to mind), enough oddities (see above) and enough that split the difference (“Allentown” manages to still be affecting, silly video and all, and that little reference to the song that ends closing track “Where’s the Orchestra” is a nice touch.

So while Billy Joel never got past the antagonistic relationship he had with the press, it’s clear that he’s won some sort of war of attrition as a new generation looks past the people who used to be the gatekeepers and basically likes whatever the hell they want to like (something I applaud them for). Of course, I’m sure there are still some people who will question my cred for even suggesting this (and I hate to sound petulant here, but I feel a neurotic need to remind people of my love for everything from Eric Dolphy to Black Sabbath to Gang of Four here), but I stand by this album. May God have mercy on my soul.