Friday, July 17, 2015

Billy Joel 18: My Lives

While he wasn’t writing new songs, Billy Joel did tour on a regular basis, and his old label was determined to milk the catalog as best they could. Naturally, 2001’s The Essential Billy Joel and 2004’s Piano Man: The Very Best Of Billy Joel didn’t really offer anything not already covered by the other two Greatest Hits volumes, so it was surprising that a box set would be primarily devoted to rarities. You know, like the sets already covering Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, and other letters from the alphabet.
My Lives begins at the beginning, with a couple of demos from his early band The Lost Souls. “My Journey’s End” apes the Beatles, while “Time And Time Again” is Dylan via the Byrds, and both prove why they didn’t make it. The Hassles, a more soul-influenced combo, are represented by two tracks; Billy’s uncomfortable moaning on “You Got Me Hummin’” should never have made the cut. Then there was Attila, the organ-drums duo depicted on their only album cover standing in a meat locker, and represented here by an excerpt of “Amplifier Fire”. All that out of the way, the first disc moves through various recordings labeled as demos, some of which would be recognized as future hits, and a few album tracks to present a wider view of the hitmaker. Some are band performances, some are solo at the piano; standouts include “Oyster Bay”, an early lament that the road to superstardom wasn’t easy, and a simple sketch of “Miami 2017”.
The second disc continues chronologically with fewer demos, but more in the way of rarities and straight album tracks. A decent club performance of “Captain Jack” leads into a demo of “The End Of The World”, a cousin of “Don’t Ask Me Why”, on its way to “Elvis Presley Blvd.”, a Nylon Curtain B-side. A piano-driven live cover of “I’ll Cry Instead” leads into an unfortunate dance remix of “Keeping The Faith” and “Modern Woman”, the worst song from The Bridge. Along the way we hear the original 1983 piano demo of “And So It Goes”, more interesting than “House Of Blue Light”, a Storm Front B-side, and the kids’ song “Nobody Knows But Me”.
By the third disc, it’s clear he’s running out of original ideas; hence the pile of covers, both live and contributed to soundtracks throughout the ‘90s. (Performing “Shout” at Yankee Stadium, after about three minutes of baiting the audience with local references and call-and-response “whoos” is just about the definition of pandering.) The three covers from Greatest Hits Volume III may be contextually important, but they’re hardly rare. Still, there’s no questioning how well his voice is suited to “When You Wish Upon A Star” and “In A Sentimental Mood”. And it took us until hearing “Motorcycle Song” (an early version of “All About Soul”) to realize that the “na-na-na” part is the same as the bridge to “Just The Way You Are”. And truly helps illustrate that the well was dry.
The disc that covers the new millennium is therefore dominated by live versions and twenty minutes’ worth of music from Fantasies & Delusions (which, again, he composed but did not perform). There is, however, a new piece in the form of “Elegy: The Great Peconic”, an orchestral/symphonic/whatever composition that’s lush and familiar. Hidden at the end of the disc is a curious nine-minute conversation at the piano between Billy and Phil Ramone discussing possible promotional exercises for the Glass Houses album.
One has to be a Joel fanatic to appreciate My Lives, so it can be only recommended to that handful of diehards. Anybody else can content themselves with any of the hits collections or live albums that came before or since.

Billy Joel My Lives (2005)—

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