September 4, 2012 by NowhereButPop
Billy Joel is divisive. He’s sold more than 100 million records world-wide, won six Grammy awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, yet most critics don’t like him. One of the earliest and most notable music critics, Robert Christgau, hasn’t rated any Billy Joel album higher than a B. He says of Joel in the early 70s, “he’s one of these eternal teenagers who doesn’t know how to shut up.”
Joel has always tried to be a little cooler than he actually was. He owns a motorcycle shop, sports a goatee and dances like Mick Jagger. But when Billy Joel tries, he succeeds. He can wear a suit and jeans, dance like the whitest man in the room, and make the audience dance along because he is does it with so much fervor. Go on YouTube and look up any 1970s Billy Joel performance (especially him playing here in 1978). He tries, admittedly so, to make The Old Grey Whistle Test feel like “a sleazy jazz club.” He lights his cigarette, keeps his sunglasses on and plays the piano like a kid messing around after having learned a Billy Joel song on piano. He’s trying to sing like Ray Charles and move like him too. He’s not cool, but he’s passionate, he emotes.
Go through Billy Joel’s discography and you’ll find that almost all of his songs reflect not only who he is, but how he’s feeling. As Joel gets older, his albums mirror each point in his life. Listen to An Innocent Man (1983) and you’ll get a 34 going on 16-year-old Billy Joel singing like Frankie Valli on Uptown Girl. This is at a point in his life when he was selling out arenas and living like this. Listen to River of Dreams (1993) and you’ll get a much different Joel, telling his daughter that he’ll always be there for her even when he’s not, in Lullabye. His music is his life.
Joel released his first solo album, the all but forgotten Cold Spring Harbor in 1971. It’s understandable that The Stranger (1977) and 52nd Street (1978) are usually the first to be discussed when looking at Billy Joel’s success. They were major achievements and almost every song on both albums is a Billy Joel standard (I know this because songs that are sung verbatim by everyone in Long Island are classics). But Cold Spring Harbor is one of the few Joel albums that have songs that were written when Billy Joel wasn’t Billy Joel. “I wrote this album not as a singer-songwriter, but as a songwriter,” Joel said recently when discussing the re-mastering of his discography. On this album you get a Billy Joel who not only a failed to make it big with his psychedelic rock/pop group The Hassles or his heavy metal duo Atilla (yes Billy Joel played metal) in the years prior, but a Billy Joel who tried ending his own life by poisoning himself. “I drank furniture polish. It looked tastier than bleach,” Joel said in a in his biography, Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man. He was sent to a hospital on Long Island and treated for depression.
Songs like Summer Highland Falls and I Go to Extremes illustrate the depression Billy Joel has faced throughout his life. They discuss the ways in which his moods can get the better of him and how he’s sorry he can’t change this part of himself. But no song comes as close to getting to the heart of Billy Joel as Cold Spring Harbor’s eighth track, Tomorrow is Today, possibly Joel’s most overlooked song of his career. With lyrics based on his suicide note and a melody that is as somber as it is haunting, Joel sings about how living for the moment and dreaming don’t matter because everyday blends into the next; his life will never get better. The singer is trying, waiting, listening for an answer but nothing comes. The song unexpectedly changes tempo and the listener gets a rougher, more assertive Joel declaring that he’ll be going to the river where the “lord will deliver me.” He’s ready to end his life. He closes by slowing down the tempo, just him and his piano. He repeats that he doesn’t “have to see tomorrow because he saw it yesterday…it will all be over because tomorrow is today.” This song doesn’t end optimistically; he’s just stating how he feels.
Using only an acoustic guitar, Joel confesses his love to a woman who left him and questions why he is alone in Why, Judy Why? “A man my age is very young so I’m told, why do I feel so old?” What makes this song so unique is that he’s not weeping over lost love. Instead, he’s relating his loss to his own depression and analyzing from there. While many discuss how they feel after a breakup, Billy Joel questions and reflects.
The album is full of hidden gems including the quickly paced Everybody Loves You Now, about someone who has everything, but is blind to the inadequacies of existence, “Only speak to those who will agree, yeah, and close your mind when you don’t want to know/See how all the people gather ’round Hey, isn’t it a thrill to see them crawl? Keep your eyes ahead and don’t look down yeah, and lock yourself inside your sacred wall.” The feelings Joel emits in this track seem as though he is speaking to a young girl, lecturing her on the ways of life. But after listening to the song in its entirety, it seems he is speaking to himself; he’s warning of the dangers of sycophants and being ignorant to the troubles of life.
In a Howard Stern Interview in 2010, Joel discussed putting words to some of his melodies was like drawing a mustache on a portrait. Nocturne is one of those songs. It doesn’t need lyrics. You listen for the first time, wait for the lyrics to come and they never do. And when they haven’t you realize that the instrumental was able to speak for itself. It’s a composition that feels classical but sounds modern.
Billy Joel tries on Cold Spring Harbor. He wants to be Paul McCartney (he even looks like him here). He tries to be a poet confessing his love to an old flame. He tries to tell stories. He tries to be older. And even if he is not Paul McCartney, not a lover, not a storyteller, even if he is only 22-years old, he is still all of these things because his songs reflect his life.
Yes, Billy Joel is divisive. Critics may never appreciate it him the way his fans do. Fans may never look past mainstream songs like Piano Man and We Didn’t Start the Fire. And Billy Joel may not care. He hasn’t recorded a pop album since 1993’s River of Dreams and it doesn’t look as though anything new is on its way. Cold Spring Harbor is a deeply personal album from a young artist who is trying to put his thoughts of life on a record. Many listeners will not see it as his best. It’s an album that, like all of his records, reflects a phase of life. It mirrors the point in time when one is trying to find his/her voice and identity, when feeling old at 22 is more about life ending rather than becoming mature. Billy Joel may try too hard, but when an album like Cold Spring Harbor is forgotten by time, you can see why.
Three reasons why Cold Spring Harbor isn’t discussed today:
1) It’s completely overlooked by everyone you know. You ask anyone to name a song off the album and you may get a fan who tells you She’s Got a Way (a song that was released as a single in 1982, and peaked at number 23 on the Billboard hot 100) but that’s only because the song was re-mastered and sold later on. Otherwise the songs on the album are nowhere near as recognizable as every other album he released subsequently.
2) The album was recorded at the wrong speed, making Joel’s voice sound much higher than it actually was (when listening to the album it’s not as bad Joel proclaims it to be, but it’s noticeable).
3) With poor distribution and Artie Ripp (A producer who suckered Joel into a terrible contract, one that gave him royalty checks for the next ten years) leading Joel’s career, this album was destined to fail.
 With the exception being his 1985 greatest hits album to which he gave a reluctant A- saying, “He’s pretentious, but never pious–going for the pop jugular is all he knows. The worst you can say about him is that half the time his aim isn’t perfect.”