Published: February, 2006, Rasputin Manifesto
The many lives of Billy Joel

By Michael Fortes

Have you noticed? Billy Joel is (semi) retired! Happy? Disappointed? Don't care?

It's been a good long while since we last heard from Mr. Joel. Sure, he put out that classical disc a few years back, but who besides his die-hard fans and a few classical buffs heard it? The River Of Dreams (Columbia) was more than a decade ago, and it really feels like it.

You gotta hand it to him - when he went out, he went out on top. So we still remember him as a hit-maker with star power, even though he hasn't had a hit since the days when Kurt Cobain was king and 2Pac was still a member of the Digital Underground.

This memory of Joel the hit-maker is what the man would like to change with the release of My Lives (Columbia/Legacy), the 4-CD plus 1-DVD box set released last December, which he personally compiled. If this set were the only Joel item in one's collection, the overall impression of the artist (and he does want to be viewed as an artist, mind you) would be different from what we already know since a number of his best-known songs are absent. No "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant." No "Uptown Girl." No "Leave A Tender Moment Alone." No "Just The Way You Are." Not even "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" or "Don't Ask Me Why." In other words, it's filled with rarities and alternate versions that obsessive fans will drool over.

But what about the rest of us? We like a little history lesson, sure, but nothing too demanding. We like good sound quality, so those demos better not sound like a cassette that made one too many trips through the washing machine. I think most of us will find at least a few things worth preserving here.

First on the list of 'worth preserving' is "Amplifier Fire" by Joel's prog duo Attila. It's a jazzy Hammond B-3 organ instrumental piece that drew on the musical climate created by groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Argent, only not as brooding. It's a good, entertaining timepiece that many of us probably never realized was a part of Joel's early history. He had other bands before, and some of those recordings by the Hassles and The Lost Souls are heard at the beginning of disc one, but they don't offer anything particularly memorable.

After the shoddy sounding early demos and the original (inferior) version of "She's Got A Way," we start arriving at the good stuff from his solo career. There's the reggae version of "Only The Good Die Young" - honest, it's good! - and perhaps the best moment on the whole set, the unfaded version of "Zanzibar" featuring the great jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard soloing for a good couple of minutes at the end.

Discs two and three continue with even more interesting tidbits that anyone could enjoy. "Captain Jack" is presented in a live version from 1981 which bests the studio release, while "The Prime Of Your Life" shows the genesis of "The Longest Time" sounding like one of his trademark ballads instead of a doo-wop homage. The b-side "Elvis Presley Blvd." is as well-crafted and enjoyable as album tracks like "Easy Money" and the entertaining Ray Charles duet "Baby Grand." This, of course, was Joel's point - there's a lot of fine music in his catalog which has gone unnoticed and unappreciated.

Watch out, though, for those demos. While some of them, like "Christie Lee," are performed with complete sets of lyrics, others, like "The Prime Of Your Life," feature Joel singing nonsense syllables and dummy lyrics where he hadn't quite finished yet. It's a great illustration of how a songwriter like Joel works - mostly music first, and lyrics painstakingly finished later - but it gets old hearing "da da da da, da da da da da da" where there should be some actual words.

Also generously sprinkled throughout My Lives are numerous renditions of songs by Joel's musical heroes. They are, by and large, a mixed bag.

There are a few Bob Dylan songs - a competent but mostly unremarkable live version (from Joel's KOHUEPT live album) of "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" a straight reading of "To Make You Feel My Love" that was vying for popularity with Garth Brooks' version back in 1997 (Brooks won that contest), and fun, rollicking studio recording of "Highway 61 Revisited." None of these are essential, though his arresting performance of Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up" shows that Joel could be a great Elvis impersonator if he wanted (though "Heartbreak Hotel" doesn't fare quite as well).

Leonard Cohen's "Light As The Breeze" also comes off remarkably well, as does the Gerry Goffin-Carole King classic "Hey Girl." The best of the bunch, however, is the Beach Boys hit "Don't Worry Baby," performed at 2001's All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson concert. He navigates Wilson's irresistible melody like the seasoned pro that he is, turning in a masterful performance fit for repeated listening.

Also worth noting are "When You Wish Upon A Star" and Duke Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood," both of which are charmingly sung and serve as prime examples of Joel's singing abilities in non-rock genres.

Which brings us to the last time we heard from Mr. Joel. The audio portion of the set concludes with selections from the 2001 Fantasies and Delusions (Sony Classical) classical recording, which are good for what they are, though they stick out like a sore thumb on a box set full of rock and pop music. As a reward for sitting through them, there's a 'hidden' track at the end of disc four, a recording of Joel ruminating on the promotion of his 1980 album Glass Houses (Columbia), including an improvised jingle in which he rhymes the album's title with "see-through blouses."

Capping the set is a DVD of a concert recorded in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1993 during the River of Dreams tour. This is where you'll hear some of those hits the audio portion skipped over - songs like "Pressure," "Allentown," "My Life" and "We Didn't Start The Fire" - though not during a prime period of Joel's career. It's enjoyable enough, but if you were fortunate enough to have witnessed one of his concerts during earlier tours, you're likely to be disappointed with this relatively tired performance.

After going through all this material, mounds of recordings from an artist I've always found easy to take for granted, I strangely found myself wanting to hear particular chunks of it over again. There's a hefty amount of top-rate material here to make it worth the die-hard's dollar, and even a casual fan like myself finds it worth hogging some shelf space. It's a warts-and-all collection that shows us exactly how Billy himself wants us to hear his body of work. Fortunately, there aren't too many warts.