This past Friday, my good friend Liz and I ventured up to Pittsburgh to see my first musical idol, and the one musician of whom I have been a fan for the past twenty-five years: Billy Joel. So, when ThrowBack Thursday rolled around again, I felt myself being overly nostalgic about the music that has influenced and defined my life since I was old enough to have my own tastes.
I met Billy Joel in 1989. I was twelve years old and in the seventh grade. That was the year he released the album Storm Front and the mega-hit single from that album, We Didn’t Start the Fire.
I learned every single word of the song. When my Dad told me it was stupid and amounted to nothing more than a long list of people, places, and events I couldn’t even explain, I set out to prove him wrong. Of course, this was before the internet and long before Wikipedia, so I had to search through the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia that sat on top of our piano. But in the end, I had learned more about the previous forty years of history than I ever had in school.
But, as I explained to Liz as we drove home the following day, I didn’t just discover a pop musician I liked a whole lot. If that had been the case, my interest in Billy Joel would have faded with time. Eventually those old cassette tapes and CDs would have been shoved to the back of a closet or lost like my collection of Garth Brooks, Joan Osborne, Alanis Morissette, and Elvis Costello.
I’m not saying I don’t like those artists anymore. Indeed, I still enjoy their music. I still sing along at the top of my lungs when their songs come on the radio (now played on adult contemporary stations–I’m getting so old…), and I’ve even taken the time to purchase and download their biggest hits to my iTunes account. But I don’t follow them anymore. I don’t jump to say they are the people writing the soundtrack of my life anymore.
But when it comes to Billy Joel, I can still say that. I have every album he’s ever put out (in threes: on vinyl, on CD and in MP3 format). The difference with Billy Joel and all the others isn’t just musical–It’s about what was happening to me and to the world that autumn of 1989 when Billy Joel first entered my life.
As I said, I was twelve years old, and I was a pretty sheltered kid. The extent of my musical knowledge revolved around what my parents listened to: country music, bluegrass, and in my Mom’s case, bubblegum pop from the late sixties and early seventies (think, The Monkees and Donnie Osmond).
When I started junior high I was also beginning to assert my own individuality, maybe a bit later than my friends. But I began discovering all sorts of music that wasn’t on my parents’ radar. And even though Billy Joel got his start in my parents teen years, they weren’t followers of that type of music. For me, Storm Front was the first Billy Joel album ever.
I was surprised to find that summer, at a yard sale, marked a mere twenty-five cents, a Billy Joel’s greatest hits compilation. (I bought it and discovered Piano Man, Captain Jack, and New York State of Mind amongst others).
But back to 1989 and Storm Front: Billy Joel had changed a lot over his career, from the poor kid from Long Island to a world-wide rock star who owned his own little fleet of airplanes, boats, and motorcycles… He had traveled the world, he had met all sorts of people. Although his early music often carried a social message centered around blue-collar city folk, Storm Front dealt more with the social issues of a global world.
And 1989 was a happening year. That was the year I began to see a lot of things that would forever change my world perspective and would influence my life. Each of those things is worthy of a blog entry in and of themselves, but so that you can understand what was happening, here are a few of the images that invaded my sheltered juvenile life that year:
There was the “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square:
This man redefined courage for me and I realized that a man with a shopping bag had the power to stop the military-industrial complex in its tracks.
The Berlin Wall came tumbling down:
And with it, enemies became allies. The people I was taught to fear became friends.
And revolutions in the USSR brought the demise and fall of Communism:
The Cold War came to a screeching halt, Russia opened up to the West, and I had a new dream (one which would finally be realized in late 2011 when I stood in Red Square amongst my new friends, who had also been raised to be my enemies):
When I listened to Storm Front the first time, my life was in flux and that album somehow helped me to make some sense of if. And it helped me to see that I had a role to play in it. Songs like Leningrad gave me hope in a future filled with peace, when war and enemies would be a thing of the past. Downeaster Alexa helped me to see that there were issues right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. that needed my attention. And We Didn’t Start the Fire reminded me that this struggle, this determination to make the world a better place, to right the wrongs, had been going on long before me and would continue after I was gone. But a fire had been lit in my own heart, and it has burned solidly ever since as I fight the destructive fires of the world that rage on and on.
For me, Billy Joel’s music is about coming of age in a crazy world. It’s about waking up from a long slumber and realizing that there are people outside of my little bubble. It’s about finding friends in the midst of enemies, finding hope in the midst of hopelessness, and finding a sense of responsiblity where only carelessness had existed before.
I grew up with Storm Front and so Billy Joel’s music just became intertwined in my life in a way that will never be undone. So, yeah, from time-to-time I get a little fanatical–and you might laugh at me when I defiantly proclaim the Piano Man to be the greatest. musician. ever. But music is never just about the music. It’s about life. And to quote one heckuva great piano rocker, “this is my life, so go ahead with your own life and leave me alone!”
(Okay, not really–I love you all, but it was a good way to wrap it all up, wasn’t it?)