Friday, November 22, 2013

The Nylon Curtain: Yuppie Rock Goes Psychedelic / "Allentown": Billy Joel Meets 1982 ... And He Doesn't Like It

And then Billy Joel went psychedelic.

Boy, if you thought Glass Houses was weird, then get a load of The Nylon Curtain.

One doesn't hear too much about The Nylon Curtain these days. On the Acclaimed Music website, for instance, the album doesn't even make an appearance on their "Best albums of 1982" list - and they list about 80 albums! Yes, Amy Grant's Age To Age and Captain Beefheart's Ice Cream For Crow garner some votes, but no love for The Nylon Curtain.

But man. If you want to know the truth, The Nylon Curtain has got to be, by mainstream early '80s standards at least, one of the darkest, weirdest, most ambitious, complex, honest, acerbic, and just all-around fascinating albums of its era. It's a big, heaping plate of '80s malaise, created by just the man for the job. Who better to tackle the least sexy topics of the early '80s than the early '80s' least sexy rock star?

Most reviews will mention that The Nylon Curtain is Billy Joel's "political" album, and to some extent that's true, although only two songs are overtly "political" and even those are open to interpretation regardless. The interesting part about The Nylon Curtain is that it's also Billy Joel's "divorce" album, as he divorced his first wife Elizabeth just prior to the album's creation. Maybe he figured, "Well, if I'm already chronicling the collapse of American society in the Reagan years, I might as well chronicle the collapse of my marriage while I'm at it."

But there's more! If, lyrically, The Nylon Curtain is Billy Joel's "political/divorce" album, then musically, it is his "Beatles" album. You see, after boldly confronting the musical present on Glass Houses, Billy Joel swiftly changed tack and decided to boldly confront the musical past. What happened to cause this sudden turnaround? Did he realize he could not single-handedly vanquish the forces of punk and New Wave? Yeah, not exactly. What happened is that John Lennon got shot. The louse.

I'm often fond of saying that Billy Joel is what Paul McCartney's solo career should have sounded like if McCartney's solo career had been any good, but in an interesting twist, on The Nylon Curtain, Joel spends most of his time trying to sound like John Lennon. He never sings about this directly, but the ghost of the Lennon assassination hangs over this album like a sticky film of goo. Amusingly enough, I have actually read, in two different books, that Lennon was something of a Billy Joel fan and expressed his admiration for both "Just The Way You Are" and Glass Houses to certain friends before he died (an opinion which, had it become more widely known, would have shattered the fragile value systems of the era's rock critics). Even more amusing is that Julian Lennon, upon hearing The Nylon Curtain, became so impressed with the sound of it, he hired the album's producer, Phil Ramone, to produce his own debut album (!). Talk about a pop music mobius strip.

"But didn't Billy Joel already sound a lot like the Beatles anyway?" you say. Well sure, like any pop singer of the '70s, of course Billy Joel had always been heavily influenced by that Liverpudlian foursome. However, on The Nylon Curtain, he wasn't merely influenced by the Beatles. He was the Beatles. Turn your head and spit and you'll hit a White Album or an Abbey Road lick. It's a full-on Beatles revival. Hey, if you're gonna rip off a band, you might as well rip off the best. I suppose one could accuse Joel of being derivative, but the nice thing about The Nylon Curtain is that, while the music owes much to the Beatles, the lyrics are firmly rooted in the life and times of Billy Joel circa 1982. And those were some zany times, let me tell you.

The Nylon Curtain is such a deranged Yuppie Rock stew, I might end up breaking the whole thing down song-by-song when all is said and done, but for now let's just take if from the top. Perhaps more Dylanesque than Beatlesque, the stately "Allentown" quickly wipes away any lingering memories of the goofy, drunken spirit so prevalent in "You May Be Right" and "Sometimes A Fantasy." But, somebody tell me: whose idea was it to throw in those little grunting "machinery" noises? What is this, a Spike Jones record?
Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance, danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown

But the restlessness was handed down
And it's getting very hard to stay

Well we're waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard, if we behaved
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, chromium steel
And we're waiting here in Allentown

But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down
But I won't be getting up today

Sure makes you want to visit, doesn't it? Of course, Allentown could be any town, in any state, in any decade even (perhaps our own). What I like about "Allentown" is that Billy doesn't try to offer any solutions; he simply paints the picture and scratches his head. Maybe working class Americans didn't deserve more, but they certainly expected more. "They threw an American flag in our face," as he puts it. You want a job? Here's Ronald Reagan's big fat grin instead.

"Allentown" is almost a description of the apocalypse, but it's like the world's most boring, drawn out apocalypse. Everything is just slowly, gradually becoming ... worse. The coal's gone, the unions are fleeing, the factories are evaporating ... I mean, if you actually visit Allentown, I'm sure it just looks like some crummy Rust Belt city, but when I listen to the song "Allentown," I almost see a darkly curling, Edvard Munch-ian sky overhead, while vultures and crows pick at the bones of the abandoned machinery. It expresses such a deflating sense of apathy and defeat. When he sings, "It's hard to keep a good man down," I'm thinking, "Yeah, that's right, this is America, we're gonna take Midwestern industrial decline and kick it in the ass." That's the vision we have of ourselves; we're gonna be Bruce Willis and we're going to blow shit up and take care of business. But the protagonist of "Allentown" just shrugs, "I won't be getting up today." Hey ... wait a minute. This isn't the movie I paid to see. And there's not enough butter on my popcorn! "Allentown" is like paying to see an overly-hyped action movie, realizing halfway through that it's one big letdown, and there is no refund. Or, as Joel would put it by the end of the album, "Where's the orchestra?"

It speaks to Billy Joel's red-hot popularity that a song this depressing managed to become a sizable hit; according to Wikipedia, in a strange case of longevity, although "Allentown" only peaked at #17, it spent six consecutive weeks in that spot. Well congratulations. In the video, Billy is a modern-day Woody Guthrie, strumming an acoustic guitar on a park bench, but he seems a bit oblivious to the glistening male torsos around him. It turns out that in 1982, Billy was still a little green when it came to picking up certain signals; perhaps after touring enough times with Elton John, he's learned a thing or two. Here are some recent comments:
That's the gayest video. I just realized, I was watching it the other day. The director was Russell Mulcahy, he's a terrifically talented director, but he had an opportunity to get a bunch of naked guys in a room, takin' a shower. I didn't think about it. "OK, they're in the army, they're in a factory, they're takin' a shower" ... and there's a lot of this throughout the video - I just saw this recently, I said, "There's another bunch of naked guys, and there's another bunch of naked guys!" I didn't pick up on it back then, but man, that's a gay video.
Billy Joel: putting the "gay" in post-war industrial decline.

No comments: