Monday, December 09, 2013

Piano Man/Kennedy Center Honors - My Take

This was the headline I saw today, "Billy Joel, four others receive Kennedy Center Honors:. I read further, "Billy Joel, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and opera star Martina Arroyo are being awarded the nation's highest honors Sunday for influencing American culture through music..."

I guess this is more about how I feel about Billy Joel in the here and now than whether or not her really deserves this honor, because I haven't really researched the true significance of this honor nor it's other recipients.

Billy Joel's music has been an integral part of my life and he as both a song writer and performer has also had significant impact. However, and this is something I have been vocal about, over the last twenty years, I feel he has bastardized his career and his body of work to some degree. I am not saying that his songs mean less than they ever did, but I do feel like he has damaged his integrity and I don't know if the total package of Billy Joel today measures up to such an honor any longer.

This might sound a bit judgmental, it might be a bit extreme, and may sound as if I hate Billy Joel but I can tell you, it's hard for me to say because I have been a huge fan of his but have had a very hard time respecting his handling of his career. After his last record, he announced publicly that he would be "retiring from rock and roll". This made me sad but he has every right to do so so and his body of work would remain in tact - so be it.

The thing is, he's not written any more rock/pop music (except for the song "All My Life" which he recorded and "Christmas in Fallujah" which was recorded by Cass Dillon). He made a big to do about wanting to write classical music. In 1998, an album of classical music written by Joel, but not performed by him was released (Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano) but that's all the public ever got to hear about that area of his life. Again, I had no issue with him ever releasing any classical music or anything. As far as I was concerned, I had no expectation of anything from Billy Joel and was fine to have his past works to enjoy forever.

The thing is, he never went away! Tour after tour - solo and with Elton John, Joel continued to tour, recycling set lists and old material. I saw him in 2009 and enjoyed the show but in recent years I've seen him perform at way less a level than he should. I don't expect his performances at the age of 63 to be the same as they were at 37 (though somehow the might anomaly known as Bruce Springsteen still brings it night after night, tour after tour) but I do expect a show that respects the music, the fans and the "legend". My assessment of his career over the last 20 years is that he's just gotten lazy and only goes out there to perform to replenish his bank account and not to make any kind of statement as a performer. If he's not performing anything new, all he has left as a performer, or more accurately, a performer with integrity, is to provide something special - not just the same old show people are familiar with.

Joel recently signed on to do a "residency" at Madison Square Garden; one show per month for as long as the public demand remains. Will the "Piano Man" step it up finally? Will the shows dig deeper into his catalog? Perhaps expose some of what influenced his life and career? Will he finally make the musical statement he's lacked for the last two decades or will he just sit down and the bench, play the songs we all know over and over the same exact way and collect his paycheck? All that remains to be seen and after which, maybe then should he be considered for something like the Kennedy Center Honors.

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