Saturday, August 09, 2008

The ballad of Billy the kid

The Oracle has spoken on the last of the big time spenders. As is his wont, he is absolutely thorough and masterful. Nothing, in fact, needs to be added to, or taken away from that tribute. But since he has kindly linked me in this post, I felt obliged to put forth my two bits on when and how I started to worship the same idol.

I was not a big fan of the man when in college. In fact, I never quite understood his music at that point in time. In college, we were listening to Wham, MJ, John Denver, Eagles, a little bit of Pink Floyd and Dire Straits and all sorts of wrong kind of sound, an ignominy called Modern Talking included. Coupled with the fact that lyric books were not easily available in the 80's, that we would only listen to medium wave radio and some dubious quality tapes on mediocre equipment, made the soul of his lyrics to be largely lost on me. I remember having listened to and vaguely liked Piano Man, and having read somewhere that Manna De's Bengali hit on Coffee House was loosely inspired in theme by it.

Then came 1989 and Storm Front. Even though mtv was not here yet, the crazy video of we didn't start the fire was getting beamed on DD and immediately caught our attention. The power and pace of that dynamic ode to fifty years of Americana and other world events was hard not to get swayed by. It is learnt that he had fired all of his existing band members save the trusted drummer, revamped his team and worked with a new producer to create that new sound. And new it was. It turned everything else on its head.

But the moment of truth for me came on the 1994 Grammy Awards night. River of Dreams had been nominated in more than one categories. And in the runup to the awards the song played over and over. I had never listened to anything like that before. I had hoped it would win song of the year. With due respects to The Boss and sir John, lesser numbers own that year. On the night of awards, the man performed his song. I have been frantically looking for that video on utube and other places, but it's since been removed due to third party copyright issues. (It should be mentioned here that earlier the same night Frank Sinatra was cut short during his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement award.) Billy might have known he was not going to win it that night. He looked dour. At the breath reprise ending the third stanza, where he builds up a crescendo :

I don't know why I go walking at night
But now I'm tired and I don't want to walk anymore
I hope it doesn't take the rest of my life
Until I find what it is that I've been looking for....

He always takes a longish pause at this point, straightening his neck, taking a sip of coffee and all. On that Grammy night, he just seemed to stop on his tracks. A full fifty seconds maybe. Then he said, nay, made an announcement :

Valuable time is passing by. valuable advertising time is passing us by.

He took a sip from his mug, and resumed his song all on a sudden. At that very instant, he made a true believer out of this casual fan.

1 comment:

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Sigh. Now I have to look for that recording. Meantime, check YouTube for billyjoel. He has 30-odd videos there.

Thanks for the kind words. I'm honoured to have inspired a post. My first Billy moment was back in 1983 or thereabouts, listening to our college band play "You may be right" at Rendezvous (IIT-Delhi). And right on "Turn out the lights", they really did.