For today’s adventures in Hommage à fromage we will be hitting the road again but, we’re not going to be travelling internationally. No, for today we are stopping over in the Great State of New York to see what audio reflections peak our attention.
One of New York’s charms is that the things that come out of New York to reach the rest of the United States and the world is that you can nearly always tell that they are from there; it’s a New York thing. Music, art, theatre, actors and actresses, all keep something close by that anyone who is not from New York can always recognize even if they don’t quite know what it is. And to New Yorkers themselves, there’s always a layer there that seems like a private wink and a nod to other New Yorkers that they only seem to understand. We – who are not – New Yorkers, know something is going on but we’re not a party to the joke. (If it is one… They are from New York after all.)
By the 1970′s New York and New York City especially, had long since formed a reputation as the place where great music comes from for the rest of the world to hear. When two young men, one from New Jersey and the other from Queens, New York, met while in college in Annondale – a bit north of New York City – they combined to make perhaps the most quintessentially New York rock n’ roll band ever. Style, musical precision, attitude and actual success on a massive level, and longevity over the course of four decades and counting.
This however, is not about them. (At least not directly…)
No, this is about the Bronx, New York born Billy Joel and how for at least one song, he basically – borrowed – the entire concept of another band.
The band in question, for those not already stamping their feet impatiently, is Steely Dan.
When Billy Joel recorded his sixth studio album – the 12 million plus selling album - 52nd Street, in 1978, Joel had become one of the major acts of the day and was enjoying a long string of high charting hits. 52nd Street became his first number one album with the hits “Honesty” and the massive single ”My Life” leading the way.
Being a New Yorker with some sudden clout in the music biz, Joel also took it upon himself to pay a bit of a tribute to that other New York band of the day, Steely Dan. Things like these are always difficult to figure out after the fact – especially with an artist like Billy Joel. Was this an Hommage à fromage to the wildly creative and successful Steely Dan, or was it a cheap copy?
One of many things Joel did right was getting some high powered jazz musicians to come in and do their thing. You have the legendary Freddie Hubbard, who had worked with John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Monk and Wes Montgomery, Ornette Coleman and others playing trumpet and flugelhorn on Joel’s ode to Steely Dan. On top of that you throw Mike Mainieri and his vibraphones and marimba into the mix and you have two of the best jazz artists of the age riding along with Joel and his studio band.
What went wrong?
Well, I’ve always been fairly fond of Billy Joel myself though I can’t say I own more than four or five songs of his. What I like from Joel, I tend to like quite a bit. What I don’t like, well, there are reasons that radios have knobs and remote controls. I change the channel.
“Zanzibar” sounds so much like a Steely Dan record that it crosses the line from homage to – shall we say – borrowing liberally? I wouln’t mind if Joel contented himself with a true homage as in the wink and nod kind of thing. With “Zanzibar” it just seems like a well performed copy of a – bad – Steely Dan song.
Where is that line? I couldn’t tell you.
But, somehow you know when it’s made that transition from honoring another’s music that you love, (a very noble goal,) into becoming a discount version of the real thing.
And – despite my limited appreciation – for much of Joel’s music, he’s better than that.
When Joel writes a true “Billy Joel” song, they can be quite wonderful. Who else could have gotten away with the ego fest that is “Piano Man” with not only a straight face but, making you believe it as well? And then backed it up?
That is perhaps why the adventures through other’s musical styles is so maddening.
Joel wandered from the charming “Just the Way You Are” to the pleasingly creepy “The Stranger” without blinking. And they both work. But even on “The Stranger” Joel “borrows” from Italian Spaghetti Western movie soundtrack songwriter Alessandro Alessandroni with his “impromptu” whistle introduction.
Joel and producer Phil Ramone had enough sense to bring in some high powered jazz legends to make “Zanzibar” work but, when all is said and done… It doesn’t.
“Ali dances and the audience applauds
Though he’s bathed in sweat he hasn’t lost his style
Ali don’t you go downtown
You gave away another round for free.”
This, about Muhammad Ali in 1978? It’s nonsensical at best. I get that it’s a reference or perhaps even an allegory. About what? I haven’t a clue and neither does anyone else.
“Me, I’m trying just to get to second base,
And I’d steal it if she only gave the sign
She’s gonna give the go ahead
The inning isn’t over yet for me,for me.”
So, we’ve gone from boxing to baseball. In boxing, apparently, you sweat and people applaud as you give stuff away? Your heart? Your soul? Your sweat? Who knows?
By the time you get to baseball in the third verse, all you want do to is sleep with the waitresses. (I think I’ll go no further with that line of inquiry.)
Aside from the banalities of bar-hopping in search of that waitress with the secret smile who’s going to pull down the curtain – just for me… This is just kind of dumb.
But it’s Jazz! Right!
It’s actually got guys who play real jazz music on it so it must be Jazz!
Heck, the chorus can’t go wrong can it?
“I’ve got the old man’s car,
I’ve got a jazz guitar
I’ve got a tab at Zanzibar
Tonight that’s where I’ll be.”
This a a fine example of why Billy Joel drives me crazy. He’s a great singer and piano player. He writes great hooks that pull people in and he also had Phil Ramone, one of the best and most influential producers in popular music history behind the console and – it still – just kind of sucks…
Where’s that New York attitude in the lyrics?
“She’s gonna pull the curtains down for me, for me” is nice. Yes, nice as in what you say when your next door neighbor shows you his newly completed collection of The 1999 Official Pokemon series of cards. (And he’s nearly 50 years old… Yes, back away slowly with a smile on your face and all will be well.)
How about some New York attitude then? Steely Dan in a quiet moment…
“Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive.”
Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Billy Joel, for all the New Yorker that he is, just doesn’t have that in him. With wonderful hooks and great melodies that make you want to love him and his music, he somehow managed to become lost in all the images of New York without any of the edge – the attitude – that makes New York well, New York.