Singling out the absolute worst Billy Joel song of all time is difficult work. For one thing, you have to listen to a whole bunch of Billy Joel songs: Over the past 35 years the Long Island schlockmeister—now in the midst of an 11-show, three-month stand at Madison Square Garden—has sold somewhere in the vicinity of 100 million albums. And though that figure includes roughly 21 million copies of his 1985 greatest-hits set, it also comprises sales of lots of other records. So there’s quite a bit of competition for the worst-ever distinction, much more than for the best-ever honor. (That’s a two-horse race: “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” versus “Only the Good Die Young.”)
Personally, I resent “Pressure” for robbing Andrew Lloyd Webber of an arpeggio whose rightful place is in The Phantom of the Opera, which premiered a mere four years after Joel’s The Nylon Curtain was released. And I kind of want to puke when I hear “Piano Man,” thanks to my overdeveloped sense of smell; the idea of a microphone perfumed like a beer really grosses me out.
Nonetheless, after a thorough examination of My Lives, a new four-CD, one-DVD box set that stretches from Joel’s teenage days fronting the Lost Souls to his recent excursions into treacly faux-classical music, I’m prepared to designate “I Go to Extremes” the number-one worst Billy Joel song ever. My Lives offers two opportunities to sample the tune’s shittiness, neither of which is the original studio version from Storm Front. (Too bad: That 1989 album, recorded in the aftermath of Joel’s historic tour of the USSR—during which he exercised his cultural ambassadorship by famously shoving a piano offstage—is, in retrospect, a small wonder of fin de siécle white-guy paranoia.) The first, found on Disc 3, is a previously unreleased live cut recorded at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena in 1990; it’s typical of the era, thick with leftover late-’80s synthesizer cheese. (What’s sort of great about the track, I must admit, is the unhinged Howard Dean yowl with which Joel kicks it off.)
It’s the second rendition of “I Go to Extremes”—part of the 1993 Frankfurt concert presented on the box set’s DVD—that perfectly crystallizes my beef with Joel (beyond those fucking TV spots for Broadway’s Movin’ Out that plagued reruns of Law and Order all last year). The song is about exactly what the title suggests: Joel can’t explain to his lady friend why he’s either “out of the darkness” or “into the light,” either “wrong” or “perfectly right”; he’s always too high or too low—with him “there ain’t no in-betweens.”
Yet Joel’s performance here—onstage before an adoring crowd that includes one guy with a sign reading, “YOU ARE THE BEST”—has to be one of the most dispassionate things I’ve ever seen: Joel stares into space, as if wondering how to say “cola wars” in German; he moves his water cup to better read his lyric book. The last thing Dude’s doing is going to extremes—especially compared to the members of his band, whose batshit enthusiasm emphasizes Joel’s Zen-like calm. The only lyric in the song he lives up to: “Sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I’m shot.”
Why on earth would anyone feature this clip in a box set intended to demonstrate his artistic zeal? Because that’s Joel, the most tone-deaf guy in pop. The Piano Man is unsatisfied with his song-and-dance status; in his eyes he’s Dylan or Springsteen, so he has to wrest meaning from even the slimmest shard of frivolity. Yet with a few exceptions that’s precisely what saps Joel’s music of its energy and life (as indeed it’s done to some of Dylan’s and Springsteen’s). Absorbing My Lives is like having some beer-buzzed guy in a bar yell in your ear for four hours straight about his family tree. Which is energy in a sense, I suppose—an energy of in-between-ness. Joel’s stuck between mattering and Mattering. And he chooses incorrectly nearly every time.
Billy Joel plays Madison Square Garden February 9, 11, 16, 25, and 27, March 2 and 4, and April 19.