Chris Leo Has Always Been a Billy Joel Man

The Van Pelt frontman on why he prefers the Piano Man, despite being from Bruce country.

I like Billy Joel. There, I said it. I’m sure I even have a copy of The Stranger lying around somewhere, and I’m sure it even makes it onto my turntable every now and then. 

That being said, I think I like Billy Joel even more in the context of Bruce Springsteen being the Patron Saint of the Everyman here in New Jersey. It never felt like Bruce really represented the everyman to me, so I suppose I created — or maybe embellished — this dichotomy between the two. One was from New Jersey, the other from Long Island. One was serious and cool, the other was goofy and corny-as-all-hell. One you were supposed to like even if you were a punk, the other was for norms with whom, in theory, your social network would never cross.

Look, there is no denying that The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle is one of the greatest albums to ever come out of the Garden State. There’s no denying that Suicide’s influence on Nebraska made for one of the most hauntingly sick records from the Garden State as well. There is no denying that The Boss snuck crass and crude lyrics past the masses like a Jedi master with gems like, “Hey little girl, is your daddy home?” and “I know it was her pink Cadillac…oozing down the street.” But there’s something about a rich artist singing about the plight of the people that’s always rubbed me the wrong way. Go to any Bruce concert and witness it yourself: As soon as he gets political, the crowd starts screaming for him to “just play music.” It seems that a significant faction of his fans only want Bruce as their voice of the Working Man when it applies directly to them. As soon as the discourse spreads to a larger cause, they hate him. 

This is the way the masses work. Masses, lest we forget, are a near synonym for mobs. Making them any more noble than they are is patronizing and out of touch with the human condition. The fact that Bruce can’t see this is his fatal flaw to me. It’s that film between him and me that prevents me from really “feeling” him like everyone around me seems to, since I don’t think he’s really feeling us. Or, to put it another way: if there is a wide disconnect between the artist and their fans, at what point is it fair to ask if that disconnect is also at least partially a result of the artist’s own disconnect?

Not so subtly hidden in the previous paragraphs is my lowly opinion of humanity. I’m sort of an optimistic nihilist who believes in going through the motions of fighting for progress while truly just setting my sights on bursts of real human connection along the way. Like I can only connect with you if you have heart, even if the betting man in me thinks that heart is just chasing windmills. Which brings me to my “tu quoque, Brute” moment: despite the fact that I am a proud son of the Garden State — my drummer Neil O’Brien even lives on the sanctified grounds of Asbury Park — I’ve always been a Billy Joel man. 

Maybe me pitting Bruce against Billy is just to cover up my insecurity in liking Billy, even in a vacuum. But I do feel that the Piano Man is the manic artist we all need — the one who truly has the power to bridge the gap between Us and Them. He is the one who can’t help but constantly flash us with all his vulnerabilities; the ultimate hypnotist who can have us all engaged in dangerous dialogue with each other, if only we too would allow ourselves to be as vulnerable as he is.

It’s hard for me to precisely pinpoint when and where my respect for pop lyricists like Billy Joel began, where it was that I became enthralled with the idea of passing provocative topics off as ordinary chatter — and conversely, where I started to wonder if maybe there’s a weirdness in the Average Joe that far exceeds that of the fringe artist in certain circumstances — but I think it began with either of these two moments. One of them was that time I was at a Yankees game and the grounds crew sang The Village People’s “YMCA” during the 7th inning stretch. Here I am in a stadium where — forgive me for taking this statistical leap without supplying any references to back it up, but I am correct — the rate of homophobia exceeds my normal social circles by a ratio of at least a trillion to zero, yet the grounds crew had tens of thousands of people dancing and singing along in their seats about “hanging out with all the boys” where “you can do whatever you feel.” That, I thought, is the spirit I want my art to embody.

The other potential beginning was when I found myself slow dancing at an all-girls Catholic high school semi-formal, with a date I had just met moments before the dance began. (That’s how it worked back in the day: somehow, someone told her to call me and invite me, so she did, and I went and met her there and pinned on her corsage as we formally introduced ourselves.) The song chosen for the slow dance was “She’s Always A Woman” by Billy Joel. In my attempt to do anything I could to avoid intimate conversation with this girl I didn’t want to get intimate with, I decided to focus on the lyrics. “She can ask for the truth but she’ll never believe you/And she’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free.” Wait, what? This is an all-girls school, and… “She never gives out and she never gives in/She just changes her mind.” This song is screwed up! And then — even though I had already heard this song a thousand times — I heard for the very first time the bitter seething in his voice when he says, “She’s always a woman to me.” Billy’s got issssssues, and yet he’s laying them out as if they’re romantic — and even this finishing school for girls bought the act!

Obvious non-condoning of the misogyny aside, the gall, the craft, and the rawness all packaged up and disguised as a pop hit sent me through the roof. I went back and picked all of his hits apart. “You should never argue with a crazy ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-mind” all of the sudden actually started to sound crazy. That he showed such disdain for the everyman (while simultaneously aggrandizing himself) in “Piano Man,” and still got us to all sing along as the losers who came to “put bread in his jar” is pure evil wizardry. Then he gives us “White Hot Spotlight,” about how he loathes Uptown culture, and follows that up with “Uptown Girl” about how much he loves Uptown culture. Give us your bi-polar mania, Billy, and watch us blow bubbles all the same. Then, how about the time he essentially took Dylan’s counter-culture anthem “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and changed it to the ultimate Boomer shrug-off in the form of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”?! This guy has been violently spitting in our faces for decades, and we, the masses, willingly lather ourselves in it.

I could go on and on, song-by-song, about how the true pop muse for New York metropolitan artists should be Billy, that he truly deserves his due from those who know what’s what, but the real clincher for me is “Only The Good Die Young.” Here we have Billy’s ability to pull the veil over all our pathetic faces at its best. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked across the Williamsburg Bridge watching Hasidic babes go back-and-forth like they’re enacting some sort of lost Talmudic ritual and wondered to myself if there was any way I could get them to come with me, grab a few drinks in secrecy somewhere, and really get into it. OK, I wanna say “sleep with them” but I’m having such trouble writing it out loud. Yet along came Billy, a Jew from Long Island who wrote a chart-smashing hit about a Catholic girl oh-so-cleverly named Virginia who “starts much too late” — and even though her mother warns her against him, “sooner or later it comes down to fate,” so Billy “might as well be the one.” He pulled this majestic feat off in 1977 when people still actually went to the Church and the Synagogue, yet when I pause to even just articulate an inner dialogue about a similar theme in 2022, I shiver with fear, nevermind try to put it to lyrics and sell it to millions of Americans. 

Does my Bruce-versus-Billy dichotomy hold up after all of that, or has it fallen apart? That’s a rhetorical question, because I still feel it. Bruce’s lyrics — in all their perfection — are direct, about unsurprising topics, and he rarely risks overstepping. Billy, on the other hand, is completely unhinged and unpredictable. He sells us vitriol covered in cheesiness, and he’s often straight up terrible. So for what it’s worth, that makes me a Billy man — though with god as my witness, you will never see me at one of his concerts.

Chris Leo is a seasoned musician and writer best known for his bands The Van Pelt, The Lapse, and Vague Angels, as well as his books White Pigeons, 57 Octaves, and Feathers Like Leather. The Van Pelt are currently awaiting the release of their first album of new material in 25 years, Artisans & Merchants, out March 17 on Spartan Records (US), La Castanya (EU), and Gringo Records (UK).