Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: "The Nylon Curtain" by Billy Joel

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.

Is Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain a good album? This is a question I have found myself asking over the past month or so.

My relationship with Billy Joel and his music has evolved over the years: as a teenager I hated his music; when I was in college I didn’t listen to it at all, in my early twenties I “liked” his songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or “Still Rock n’ Roll To Me” ironically; in my mid- to late-twenties, I realized that albums like 52nd Street and Glass Houses actually had some lyrical and musical merits to them and that even an album like The Stranger warranted some attention beyond the hits. Now, in my thirties, I can honestly say that I actually like Billy Joel and his songs. I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.

The way I feel about Billy Joel songs, the way I have come to appreciate them, in some ways resembles the way I have come to appreciate sentimentality in art and in life. Crazy Rich Asians was, by many accounts, not a great Film with a capital “f.” But it did its job as a major studio movie giving non-traditional (e.g. non-white) lead actors a chance to shine and hopefully encouraging more diversity in popular filmmaking. It also did its job as a pure romantic comedy. I cried during parts of Crazy Rich Asians when I went to see it with my girlfriend and her friends.

If Crazy Rich Asians were a Billy Joel song, it would probably be “Vienna” from The Stranger—it’s slick, romantic, and feels slightly emotionally manipulative (in a good way!). In the rare instance that I am paying attention to anything these days, I can tear up listening to “Vienna.”

But I also find myself near tears if I see kids playing on the sidewalks or the streets. The other evening, I walked by a young girl and boy (a sister and her younger brother) playing a modified game of soccer with a big roll of blue painter’s tape. The little boy kicked the tape and it began to roll toward the street, the boy followed. But his sister sprang into action and held him back. I stopped the tape with my foot and knocked it back to them, letting their game continue. They smiled and started playing again. Their father, sitting nearby on the sidewalk and dressed in painter’s pants and shirt, waved his hand and said thank you. I felt a sense of weak pride and then walked on. As I reached the corner, I looked back at their group of three and felt as if I could stop and cry. There was something about the way they all orbited each other, the way the little girl immediately put her body in front of her brother as he began to go after the tape, the way in that moment they were only what they were.

What I am saying is that I have gotten older, my brain has gotten softer and less focused. Billy Joel songs don’t sound so bad to me anymore. The emotions their melodies aim to manipulate feel soothing to me: emotions like vague remorse, vague longing, and vague romance seem like a reward after working and living for a day. Turn out the light, don’t try to save me.

I had never listened to The Nylon Curtain before I read Chuck Klosterman’s essay “Every Dog Must Have It’s Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink” in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, which I had never read until my girlfriend and I found it in a give-away box in the hallway of her apartment building. The essay is about Billy Joel, but spends a good deal of time focusing on The Nylon Curtain, which Joel released in 1982 after his successful Glass Houses album.

In this essay, Klosterman makes the argument that Billy Joel’s greatness lies in the fact that “there are no conditions for appreciating Billy Joel.” He explains that Billy Joel is great: “[H]e’s not great because he’s uncool, nor is he great because he ‘doesn’t worry about being cool’ (because I think he kind of does). No, he’s great in the same way that your dead grandfather is great. Because unlike 99 percent of pop artists, there is absolutely no relationship between Joel’s greatness and Joel’s coolness.”

He then goes on discuss The Nylon Curtain and specifically two songs: “Where’s the Orchestra” and “Laura.” He analyzes why he believes they are two of Billy Joel’s best songs for a variety of reasons (you should go read the essay). Klosterman moves his discussion of these songs into an observation about how The Nylon Curtain is actually in some way addressing what he calls the “New Depression” of the 1980s, a time when, he says, “there just seemed to be this overwhelming public consensus that being depressed was the most normal thing anyone could be. In fact, being depressed sort of meant you were smart.”

I can’t speak to how people felt about depression in the early 1980s because I wasn’t alive then. And this isn’t the direct reason why I like The Nylon Curtain. But there is a certain feeling the album has that leads me to understand what Klosterman is talking about.

The Nylon Curtain was meant to be Billy Joel’s ode to the Beatles. There are some accounts that the sound and approach were influenced by the assassination of Joel’s idol, John Lennon, in 1980. According to AllMusic, it is a “song cycle about Baby Boomers living in the Reagan era.” The lead song, “Allentown,” is probably the best known track on the album (it went gold). It is a song about Baby Boomers who don’t want to stay in Allentown, Pennsylvania anymore, mainly because there are no jobs but also because “the restlessness is handed down.” The song “Goodnight Saigon” is about the friends the narrator lost in Vietnam.

“Pressure” is about facing the fact that you are getting older and settling down in, I presume, Long Island suburbia. Strange lines like “All your life is Channel 13 / Sesame Street / What does it mean?” stand out from frenzied piano playing. This song, and the whole album really, makes me think of Long Island and how just because I grew up there I am obsessed with it. And that no matter how hard I try, I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to write about it or capture it the way I’ve seen it and the people who cross back and forth on its length by slow-moving highway, or along its coasts by Sound or Ocean, for cycles and cycles of years without end, in my life.

I also often think about the very late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not really sure why. There is something compelling to me about the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. Speaking in unfortunate generalities: A generation had already been disillusioned by the end of the 1960s and the lack of any real, substantive change in the country, the Vietnam War divided the country and families, the same goes for Richard Nixon. I didn’t live through it, so I can only imagine what all of that must have felt like. The way I imagine it, that era feels like a continuous cloudy fall day—the summer is over, it’s not yet cold, but it seems like something good, something easy is definitely over. Maybe it’s just that the late 1970s and early 1980s was the last whole-hearted analogue gasp before the rise of the internet and the world we live in now. Maybe it was that New Depression that Klosterman was talking about.

In any case, when I hear the synths on “Surprises” I feel something—I am put in a time and place that I recognize but that feels foreign. I want to learn more, but that would only involve me reading history books and learning the facts—what I want to learn is how it felt, actualyl felt to live at that time. I don’t mean in a Midnight in Paris sort of way. I mean physically and mentally understanding what life in America at that time was like. And that is, of course, impossible. It is also a futile thought exercise and, most likely, a futile sensation to entertain.

Listening to The Nylon Curtain makes me feel sad. When I hear the narrator of  “Allentown” say, “Well I’m living here in Allentown,” I think about where I am in fact living and what my circumstances are. My life and circumstances are not terrible and yet each day I feel unsatisfied or as though I am lacking purpose. I could be more politically involved; I could volunteer more of my time; I could have a better job; I could write more; I could pay more attention to the news; I could be smarter about what news I pay attention to; I could be saving more money; I could be buying a house; I could escape from the life I have now; I could stop wanting more and be happy.

What I think The Nylon Curtain does when I listen to it, is make me feel melancholy, but melancholy in a way that makes me feel sorry for myself. And there is no place for a white man’s self-pity in the world now. I think what The Nylon Curtain does is make me aware of my blatant whiteness, my privilege, my lack of curiosity, and the part of me that always wants to look backwards. And, so, when I listen to it, I feel weak and so I feel sad. I lean into the easy emotions—the small sensations we can drum up, the things we can think about to make ourselves cry.

In Klosterman’s essay, he says the song “Where’s the Orchestra” is Billy Joel singing about the emptiness of his own life. The lyrics certainly seem to back that up. I wouldn’t classify my life as empty—what is lacking is simply my ability to engage with and enjoy what I do have. And I wonder if that isn’t some kind of New New Depression. Or maybe if that’s just always been the problem.

So, is The Nylon Curtain a good album? Well, I like “Allentown” and “Laura” is a pretty spot-on Beatles homage. “Surprises” isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is for me. If you don’t like Billy Joel, you might like The Nylon Curtain. But also, if you don’t like Billy Joel, you’ll probably hate The Nylon Curtain.

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