Monday, June 9, 2014

Just How Innocent Could A Man Really Be (With A Girlfriend Like That)?

See, you get a supermodel girlfriend, and let me tell you, your priorities change. Vietnam? Unemployment? Touring Norway while pumping your veins full of heroin? For Billy Joel in 1983, that stuff was so "last album." Christie Brinkley made Billy Joel forget the late '60s even happened. On An Innocent Man, he was feeling so innocent, it was like JFK hadn't even been blown away, and what else did he have to say?
After I did The Nylon Curtain and we went on the road, I wanted to do something that was 180 degrees in the other direction. I'd gotten divorced, and I started dating these different women, I was going out with models ... I was a rock star, a single guy who was a rock star, I was like amazed at my good fortune at the time, and I started dating Christie Brinkley at the time too, and I started writing songs about these experiences. I kind of felt like a teenager all over again. All those songs that I remembered from the early '60s - the R&B songs and the Four Seasons and Motown music and soul music - that's how I felt ... I was kind of re-living my youth.
Oh my God, I totally know the feeling!

Jesus. Just looking at it makes me sick.

So after getting the late period Beatles out of his system, Billy went back even further, further, to early '60s pre-Beatles pop: doo-wop, girl groups, Motown, Atlantic Records. He went back to music that, like the Beatles, was also great, but great in a very different way. The funny thing is, I don't know if this was really a stylistic departure so much as a return to the piano-based, New York-flavored sound of The Stranger and 52nd Street, except with less of a singer-songwriter feel and more of a Top 40 bent.

Well, if it was Top 40 he was going for, it was Top 40 he got. An Innocent Man was Billy's Thriller, his Sports, his Born In The U.S.A., his Can't Slow Down, where the album ultimately consisted of more hit singles (six) than non-hit singles (four). The radio milked this one for all it was worth. Like a lot of blockbuster '80s albums, though, I don't really know if it's a "classic" album, even if I think there are more "classic" songs on it than non-classic. Let's say this: I don't think, song for song, it holds together as well as The Nylon Curtain does, but if I were making a "Best of Billy Joel" mix tape, I would include more songs from An Innocent Man on it than I would from its predecessor. We're talking about some of the core canon here.

Quick run-down on the album tracks: "Easy Money" sounds like someone chopped Wilson Pickett's balls off and dropped them in a glass of New Coke, "Careless Talk" sounds like your orthodontist shot Dion & the Belmonts on safari, then stuffed and mounted them in his lobby, and "Christie Lee" sounds like Little Richard ate a bowl of Raisin Bran mixed with Metamucil and left the microphone on while he took a shit. I used to think "This Night" was actually pretty good until the day I heard Beethoven's Piano Sonata #8 (Pathetique) and realized that Billy Joel had stolen the chorus ... from Beethoven! Procol Harum turning Bach into haunting psychedelic pop ("A Whiter Shade of Pale") is one thing, but turning Beethoven into ... doo-wop? I guess when your girlfriend is Christie Brinkley, you start to think you can get away with anything. But the singles. Oh man, the singles.

Despite being the title track, "An Innocent Man" is, ironically, one of the album's least representative cuts, and even thought it was the third biggest hit off the album (peaking at #10), I think it's been sort of lost in the blinding glare of "Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time," etc. And yet, it might actually be the album's most sophisticated, mature single. In other words, when I hear of people who claim to hate Billy Joel, I just want to play them "An Innocent Man" and say, "How can you hate such a crystalline torch song/traditional pop standard?" It's like hating Sinatra. You can't even call yourself American. There are a lot of qualities in Billy's music that I imagine listeners would find irritating, but to me, "An Innocent Man" possesses almost none of these. If you don't like "An Innocent Man," then ... I got nuthin'.

Although I certainly get that Porter/Gershwin vibe, I think the musical reference point Billy was actually going for was the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk," with a touch of Ben E. King for good measure. It certainly boasts the best usage of a triangle since "Spanish Harlem." Well, although the bass line is supposed to be from "Under the Boardwalk," I always thought it sounded a bit like the one from Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," which itself was lifted from Horace Silver's "Song of My Father" ... so I guess everybody gets a pass.

While stylistically, with its early '60s homages, it's of a piece with the rest of the album, its bitter, defensive lyrics set it apart from the other songs' giddy celebrations of young romance. Methinks this was the last final holdover from his first divorce, and Billy thought it too strong to keep off the album. Elizabeth Joel, ladies and gentlemen - still making the hits happen. Or perhaps Billy was caught with three underage Guatemalan prostitutes, the judge asked him if he had any defense, and here it was. The point is, while it's no "Laura," "An Innocent Man" is definitely the darkest song on An Innocent Man, but it's not dark so much as it's moody. It starts out soft and gentle, Billy's philosophical lyrics gelling nicely with the sway of the Drifters bass line:
Some people stay far away from the door
If there's a chance of it opening up
They hear a voice in the hall outside
And hope that it just passes by

Some people live with the fear of a touch
And the anger of having been a fool
They will not listen to anyone
So nobody tells them a lie
Actually, whenever I hear a voice in the hall outside, I usually shout, "Hey, who is it? Why are you in my hallway?" But never mind. Billy's lulled you into a cozy vibe, you think you can just lay back and relax, but the bridge suddenly gets intense: "I know you're only protecting yourself/I know you're thinking of somebody else/Someone who hurt you." And then swoop! He takes you right back to the cozy vibe again:
But I'm not above
Making up for the love
You've been denying you could ever feel
I'm not above doing anything
To restore your faith if I can

Some people see through the eyes of the old
Before they ever get a look at the young
I'm only willing to hear you cry
Because I am an innocent man
And then Billy sits on a tack because WHOA, what a high note. I'll bet you didn't even think he could hit a note that high. He didn't either, and he couldn't - at least not for much longer: "I had a suspicion that was going to be the last time I was going to be able to hit those notes, so why not go out in a blaze of glory? That was the end of Billy's high note." Indeed it was. In subsequent live performances, one will hear a young male back-up vocalist take over as Billy approaches the chorus. But at least he captured it for posterity.

Now that I think about it, "An Innocent Man" might be Billy's best performance as a pure singer. No one has actually spent very much time talking about Billy Joel as a singer, but without a great vocal performance, this song wouldn't be nearly as effective. He soars high on the choruses, he swoops down on the verses ("you've been de-ny-ing you could ever feel" - seriously, you try it sometime), he's hushed, then he's full-throated - the man's covering left, center, and right field.

Honestly, I can't tell if the song is from the point of view a guy trying to convince a girl who's still bitter over a previous break-up to open up and love again (the lines about restoring faith, or never believing promises again) or if it's about a previously established couple that's falling apart (the lines about resurrecting a love, or going back to the start), but whatever man, he sells it. There's even a second bridge that's more dramatic than the first ("You know you only hurt yourself out of spite/I guess you'd rather be a martyr tonight!") which slides right back into the soothing Drifters verse:
That's your decision
But I'm not below
Anybody I know
If there's a chance of resurrecting a love
I'm not above going back to the start
To find out where the heartache began

Some people hope for a miracle cure
Some people just accept the world as it is
But I'm not willing to lay down and die
Because I am an innocent man
Well, in the eyes of the law, he may be an innocent man, but if it's a crime to create a timeless Yuppie Rock ballad, then I'm afraid Billy Joel is guilty as charged.

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