In which I talk about some Billy Joel songs for #vizpoem

My daughter (7) has unexpectedly developed a love of the Billy Joel of Storm Front (1989), which though good in its way is surely not his best work. Anyway, in talking with her about the singer and what he’s all about in that album (as opposed to the Joel of Piano Man (1973)or The Stranger (1977) or even the retro Innocent Man (1983), it occurred to me that I could use this as an object lesson in both personae and the distinction between a poem that appears to tell a story and a lyric poem that, in James Phelan’s terminology from Experiencing Fiction (2007), either describes and emotes about what is or meditates on what has been. Many various attempts to define narrative have made their way into poetry theory and criticism, which is great in the sense that comparing two genres is always likely to yield new insight into both – just so long as there’s never an assumption that one genre is better than others (at which point my poetry hackles start to rise).

Phelan’s definition of the narrative mode as opposed to the lyric mode is someone telling somebody else about what happened at a given time or place. The word “mode” as distinct from genre is important here because you can have dramatic or narrative instances within a lyric poem while still remaining overall a lyric poem; you can have lyric moments inside narratives or plays, and plays can have lyric or narrative moments too: such blending doesn’t cause the text to self-destruct. Consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet – the soliloquies are very different from, say, Hamlet’s narration of what happened offstage to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But it’s still clearly a play.

At any rate, Joel’s songs are primarily lyrics. “Piano Man,” perhaps his best-known song, is a lyric masquerading as a narrative: in successive verses, the voice surveys a Saturday audience at a nondescript bar: an old man drinking gin, John at the bar who mistakenly thinks he could be a movie star, the political waitresses, Paul the real-estate novelist who “never had time for a wife” is earnestly chatting up Davey, who is “still in the Navy, and probably will be for life,” wink wink. Even the owner of the bar appears and smiles at the piano man in gratitude for bringing in the crowd in the first place. But the tense is present throughout; the refrain is the same throughout; and there is actually no narrative progression:

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man,

Sing us a song tonight

Well we’re all in the mood for a melody;

You’ve got us feeling all right.

The poem is a bittersweet reflection on how his talent is simultaneously bringing people joy and prolonging their misery by giving them an excuse to drink. He wonders whether his musical pleasure is too commingled with hypocritical schadenfreude. Indeed, the last stanza is a great example of ironic ambiguity:

And the piano, it sounds like a carnival!

And the microphone smells like a beer,

And they sit at the bar, and put bread in my jar

And say, “Man, what are you doing here?”


They admire his playing, and he knows that he’s a good pianist, that they know it, and I suspect as well, that they know that he knows that they know it. The pianist is a heavy drinker, as the hoppy microphone attests, although he’s clearly what we call a “functional drunk” and it doesn’t affect his playing. He can look around, note that the people who make up his audience and “put bread in [his] jar” are foolishly deluded in their attempts to drown their cares in an alcoholic stupor, while still understanding why one would drink, liking them as people, gratefully noting his dependence on their tribute for his subsistence, and enjoying playing for an appreciative audience. But with such self-awareness, what indeed is he doing here? What does it mean to play at a bar until he gets them “feeling all right”? With such talent, why is he content in his role as the piano man? The audience of his playing (which we do not hear for ourselves, naturally) is the publicans. But the audience of the lyric poem (the song) is himself. It’s a meditation on his bar relationships and how it’s all contributed to fairly complex and conflicted feeling.

So what exactly does separate the lyric from narrative? “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)” from The Stranger may be two coupled narratives about Anthony and Sgt O’Leary, who are trying a little too hard to keep up with the rigors of making it in NYC. But at the same time, it doesn’t take too much effort to resituate that as the speaker’s reflections that all of their wasted energy just ain’t worth it. Or consider “The Downeaster Alexa,” one of a surprisingly copious number of activist songs Joel has written.

This song seems to tell the story of the owner of a fishing trawler in Long Island Sound. The speaker describes what he’s doing, and how he had to sell his home in order to hang on to the boat, but how even that will not be enough to forestall the eventual extinction of top-predator fishing in the area as a profitable profession. The song derives its wistfulness in part from the accordion and gulls (srsly), and partly because it’s a record of a rapidly disappearing sort of person who was once a familiar type in NYC and contributed to the overall complexion of the community. But all of the verses are in present tense – the fisherman is sailing in the first verse and he is still sailing in the last, and part of the bitter irony is that, by conjuring up the lyric convention of the eternal present while also gesturing toward the lapsing ephemerality of being a “bayman,” Joel is calling for some attention to be finally brought to bear on a group of good people who are struggling right now. It’s also, unlike “Piano Man,” clearly a persona which is distinct from Billy Joel, who to my knowledge is not a fisherperson.

However, what happens to the lyric “now” when the point of the lyric seems explicitly narrative? “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a bewildering, sonically-driven chronology of historical events:

That sounds like narrative: one damn thing after another, and a voice speaking to us to guide us through how to make sense of it all. HOWEVA, if this is a narrative, it is an extremely muted example of diegetic control. It’s a list, and somebody made it for some purpose, surely, but it’s not as though we have any indications about how we should feel (or how the speaker feels) about this ordered list. I don’t buy the suggestion that the lines Joel emphasizes are the ones that are the most formative or significant of the timeline: clearly, “JFK – blown away – What else do I have to say?” is important, but Joel gives the same shouting, sonic earmarking to “Trouble in the Suez,” “Belgians in the Congo,” “Children of thalidomide,” and most puzzlingly, “Rock and roller cola wars,” which are all over the place in terms of historical significance in a way I will come back to in a minute. Meanwhile, the refrain’s pounding meter exhorts us not to blame the “We” the speaker speaks for for the metaphorical “fire” that predated “We”, and which “We” tried to fight.

But what is the fire, exactly? I mean, I can draw the connection between Harry Truman, Red China, and the bifurcation of the Korean peninsula: that’s the Korean War, I get it. But how is poor Doris Day in any way responsible for the Korean War? She gets equal attention as the president. And although many or even most of the events are horrific, the sort of thing that etches itself permanently into the memory, it’s also peppered with unexpectedly muted or neutral descriptions (just “Joe McCarthy”) or even ingenuously positive insertions (“Brooklyn’s got a winning team”). So… if the fire is made up equally of Elvis Presley as it is Menachem Begin, and we’re not clued into why the name gets a mention, everything devolves into ambiguity. Maybe we had to have Doris Day in order to have the children of thalidomide. Maybe we needed “television” in order for Marilyn Monroe to be mentioned (presumably for her untimely death). You need Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution before you can have the Bay of Pigs invasion, certainly. But I’m quite a bit more dubious about whether “hoola hoops” played a causal role in Castro’s seizure of power.

So maybe it’s just a set of memories, not a narrative but a bunch of stuff that happened and which the speaker remembers. Having a sequentially-mentioned list as your data set makes it very very tempting to construe the list as causally linked: A happened and then B happened because of A; C depends on A and B, and so on. And here’s the proof that the speaking persona is somebody of an identical age as Joel – the “We” is the baby boomer generation, who came to political consciousness late in Truman’s presidency and lived through (what they took to be) extremely seminal events which rocked the world. There are a good seven or eight stanzas about the 50s and early 60s, and then suddenly after the mention of Kennedy’s assassination the last verse crams everything from Woodstock and Watergate to Ronald Reagan’s terms (roughly 1968-88) into one last verse. Admittedly, it’s already a long song, and if he kept going with that sort of minute scrutiny the song would be longer than “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (which by the way is most definitely a narrative poem). And here I want to linger on the last thing that gets mentioned, “Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!!!!”

Who in the world would care so much about rock stars selling out and appearing in TV commercials for Coke and Pepsi? It’s sort of laughable. I think you would need to be a rock and roll star to care that much, frankly. And this helps explain the cramped last verse: once Joel started touring, he paid less attention to world events, sort of in the same way that I stopped watching The Simpsons when I started graduate school – there just wasn’t time or mental energy enough to keep up with it; something had to go and I probably made the right choice in focusing on my studies. Anyway, this is a meditation about what Joel and his generation lived through, what they cared about, and how their social consciousness was diverted in a confusingly diverse array of directions at any given time. It’s a plea to avert culpability, as I mentioned earlier, but on the other hand I do not believe I am in the target audience of this song – my parents are, the same set of people who would not only immediately recognize all of the names that get mentioned, but also why it would be appropriate to mention Elvis Presley in the chronological context of the opening of Disneyland. I would need to look that up, but Joel’s people wouldn’t need to. When the song describes the Cold War and then nudges the listener to admit that it was really challenging to live through, amirite?, they are the ones nodding in emphatic agreement. I get to experience what the fire felt like to the baby boomers, but the fire they passed on to me feels a lot different than theirs.



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