Sailing with Captain Jack

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Denial is one of my favorite, as dictionary.com puts it, “unconscious defense mechanisms” – just ask my credit-card company – but it will only take you so far. Nothing suits me more than a big, steaming cup of denial, but I’m also going to be 33 in a few weeks, so it’s time to put down that cup and face up to the truth.

And the truth is, I like Billy Joel.

That’s right, I said it. Billy Joel is just fine by me. As long as he’s not driving me anywhere.

This disturbing, yet extremely liberating, realization set in one morning last week when I stopped by Valero seeking tamales and some smokes. The radio (which some people apparently still listen to) was playing “Piano Man,” a song, I might add, that is currently comfortably ensconced in iTunes’ Top 99 rock songs…and was released in 1973. I have heard “Piano Man” approximately 75,000 times in my life, but this time it really sank in. I really felt Joel’s empathy for that old guy making love to his tonic and gin (ew) and disgust with that damn beer-smelling microphone. I’m almost always in the mood for a melody, and “Piano Man” had me feeling all right.

When I came down from my reverie – what’s up with that dude Davy who doesn’t want to get out of the navy? – I started thinking, “You know, I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with Billy’s songs over the years.” “Uptown Girl” is one of the first songs I remember hearing (and liking) when I first started becoming aware of Top 40 radio, and I’m pretty sure seeing Christie Brinkley in the video helped light the puberty fuse in my nine-year-old brain. I always thought there was a certain wisdom (and a pretty cool guitar part) to “A Matter of Trust” too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away a fool or a king, so don’t ask, and sometimes love really is just a lie of the mind.

One of my favorite Austin bands, Grand Champeen, used to do a rip-snorting cover of “You May be Right” at their shows. My friend, Houston native and Austin singer-songwriter Hilary York, who plays NotSuOh December 20, used to have a bunch of us back to her place after her Tuesday-night shows at Eastside watering hole the Scoot Inn for alcohol-fueled singalongs to classic ‘70s albums like Heart’s Dreamboat Annie and 52nd Street. We harmonized really well on “My Life,” I swear to God. And Billy may not have intended it to be so, but the video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is still about the funniest thing I have ever seen.

This may put me out on a limb among my fellow music critics (who all secretly enjoy “Only the Good Die Young,” no matter what they say), but who cares? Just like he says in “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Billy Joel has heard all that next-phase New Wave, hot funk and cool punk and he just doesn’t care. Billy Joel has no use for street cred because Billy Joel is a motherfucking pimp. His Grammys have won Grammys.

Billy Joel didn’t graduate from high school because he was out too late partying one night and slept through one of his final exams. He had an affair with the wife of the drummer in his first band and they eventually married. One time he tried to kill himself by drinking a bottle of furniture polish. A former rock critic himself, he tore up a bunch of his negative reviews onstage in Los Angeles, and as one of the first Western artists to tour the Soviet Union in 1987, he thanked the Russians for their hospitality by flipping over an electric piano into the audience when the lighting engineer wouldn’t turn the house lights down. (Take that, Commie bastards!) His current wife, wife No. 3 if you’re counting, is 29 years younger than he is.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I see “I Go to Extremes” is playing on XM Satellite Radio’s mix channel The Blend. Maybe it’s not in the same league as “She’s Always a Woman” or “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” but hey, there’s no going back now. – Chris Gray

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