Movin’ Out: I reminisce about Billy Joel and his music

Dennise and I went to see Movin’ Out last night down at the Fair Park Music Hall. I know the show’s been out for years in New York, but this was our first chance to see it here locally.

It was awesome. Of course, I should say that I’m INCREDIBLY biased. Because Billy Joel is one of my all-time favorite artists. Which leads me to today’s blog…

I know all of Billy Joel’s songs. I mean ALL of them. I didn’t just listen to the show last night, I SANG it. Each and every song. There were over 25 Billy Joel songs in the show, some of them quite obscure and old, but I can report to you I knew each and every one; each and every word. I am sure the person in front of us thought I was crazy. But I didn’t care.

Movin’ Out basically takes the music of Joel, the dance choreography of Twila Tharpe, and combines them together. There is no spoken dialogue, but simply the story of five lifetime friends who go through the 50s, the tumult of Vietnam, the excesses of the 70s, and end up in the present day reunited.

Now, as I just said, I am not impartial about all this. I LOVE Billy’s music. And I love a good musical. So, the combination of the two was just amazing to me. It was real high to see the show last night. I am NOT giving you an impartial review.
When I was growing up, Billy Joel was monster-popular. He was huge. He had a string of pop hits in the 70s and 80s that caused some folks to love him, and others to despise him as a sell out. I was always in the first group, because, to me I always saw him first as a songwriter, and not as a hitmaker.

As you all know, my current love is folk music. What strikes me about Joel’s music –as I listen back over much of it these past few days– is how much LIKE folk music his songs are. Especially his lyrics and storytelling.

Many of his songs use the same kind of third-person narrative position folk music often does, songs such as:

— Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
— The Ballad of Billy the Kid
— Movin’ Out
— Miami 2017
— Allentown
— Goodnight Saigon
— Captain Jack

He tells stories with his music. And that’s what folk musicians do. As I think about it this morning, I am pretty sure that’s what always drew me to his music. In fact, to me it’s always been remarkable that he’s had as much commercial success as he has given the centrality of his lyrics and ballad-y nature of so many of his songs. If you scratch beneath the hits, what you find with Billy Joel is an amazing storyteller.

I was a junior high kid when the “Stranger” came out, and like almost everyone else, that was my first introduction to Billy Joel. However, I soon found myself out buying his earlier stuff….Piano Man, Streetlight Serenader…I even eventually bought a reissue of his band, “The Haggles” LP. (Something I have to believe is some kind of collectors item today).

I was pleased to read in this interview with NBC, that Joel still loves much of his old music. As you might imagine, he’s a little tired of playing “Just the Way You Are.” And, frankly, I could die without ever hearing it again myself.

What’s very cool to me is that Movin’ Out has reintroduced this stuff to a whole new audience. I mean, before this show, how many other folks besides me knew “Summer Highland Falls,” or even “Angry Young Man?” It’s VERY cool, and a little surreal, to find these songs that have always been a part of the private soundtrack of my own life’s history, up on the stage and part of a contemporary musical.

My love for Joel continued through college. I had a cardboard cut out of him up in my dorm room, and we’d listen to each and every album in my room…me and my friends, Ed, Jon, Mike, and many more in our Moore-Hill dorm. In fact, I remember Jon was in a band one year in college, and put a couple of Joel songs in their set list. Just before finals, we’d put on “Nylon Curtain,” and sing “PRESSURE!” at the top of our lungs.

My favorite song then, my favorite song now –and quite possibly my favorite song of all time– was “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” It’s just such an amazing song. It goes through three distinct musical movements. It tells three different stories simultaneously: the story of two old friends, meeting for wine…the story of how they are doing now…and the story of “Brenda and Eddie” from their high school days…then back to the present moment again.

Like any good storytelling, it leaves a lot to the imagination…is this Brenda and Eddie, meeting in the restaurant? Is it their friends? Who?

For some reason, I was really attracted to this song in high school and college. I guess it’s the idea that you could have such long a history with folks that you’d be able to catch up with them years down the road. Now, in my forties, that actually does happen to me now and then. And it adds another layer to the song for me.

But I can remembering listening to this song in college –with my friends, Ed, Jon, and others– and realizing AT THE TIME that we’d probably be each other’s “Eddie’s.” (Makes me wonder what they’re up to right now, actually…)

It’s also, if I’m not mistaken, an almost eight minute song!!! Can you imagine any major artist being allowed to release an eight minute song today! The record labels wouldn’t hear of it!

Dennise and I made a bet, going in, that that song would play a key part in telling the story. And, sure enough, it did. It’s the first song in the show, and the last reprise of the story too…the song bookends the shows, just as the song itself bookends the story of Brenda and Eddie.

The ONLY question I have about the whole show is so minor, that all yall are going to really see what a Billy Joel geek I really am. I just don’t understand why one of the characters gets the name “Judy.” I mean, it IS cool that Twila Tharpe picked a character from Cold Spring Harbor….THAT’S seriously digging back into Joel’s past. But what about “Diane” from “Sleeping with the Television On?” Or, what about “Virginia” from “Only the Good….?” Judy, as a charcter name, just threw me a little. Still, I guess it’s cool. And it’s really the only question I have about the whole show. See, I am that much of a geek.

So, I aced my prediction about “Scene from an Italian Restaurant” having a prominent role. But I did get another wrong. I guessed that “Where’s the Orchestra?” would be in the show. After all, it’s a show about being IN a theater. Every since the song came out, I’ve actually always imagined that it would be perfect for a musical. Again, this is the question that only a true Billy Joel geek would ask.

Long before iTunes, people used to make cassette mix tapes for themselves. Long before Billy Joel put out his “Greatest Hits,” I put together a cassette of my own favorite Joel songs. We used to play THAT in my dorm room. I used to listen to it in the drive from Dallas to Austin in my ’65 Mustang. My friends borrowed it and made their own copies.

The tape has long since vanished. But this morning, inspired by the musical, and with the help of iTunes, I made a new copy on CD.

Here’s some of my own personal favorite Billy Joel songs:
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
Movin’ Out
You’re My Home
Closer to the Borderline
52nd Street
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
Miami 2017
The Great Suburban Showdown
Summer Highland Falls
Where’s the Orchestra?

There are a few others that I may add later as I think of them. But these are fine, fine songs….great, great American storytelling.

To close these kind of entries, I often quote a person’s lyrics. I guess I thought I’d quote something from “Scenes,” but that seems too obvious. For some reason, I’m thinking of something from “Innocent Man,” which was an album that he got a lot of grief for, because folks said he was nostalgically ripping off the fifties. But perhaps nostalgia has little to do with it. Perhaps it has more to do with honoring a part of his own musical DNA, much in the same way that I’m trying to honor him by writing this.

Joel was writing about the fifties when he wrote “Keeping the Faith.” But as I hear the words today, they remind me of him. After all the fifties were to him what he was to me.

And so, as I look back, and as you read all this sentimentalism on my part, here’s what I’m thinking:

“If it seems like I’ve been lost in let’s remember
If you think I’m feeling older and missing my younger days
Oh, then you should have known me much better
‘Cause my past is something that never got in my way, oh no

Still I would not be here now if I never had the hunger
And I’m not ashamed to say the wild boys were my friends, oh
‘Cause I never felt the desire ’til their music set me on fire
And then I was saved, yeah
That’s why I’m keeping the faith, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Keeping the faith….

You can get just so much from a good thing
You can linger too long in your dreams
Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies
‘Cause the good old days weren’t always good
And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems….

Now I told you my reasons for the whole revival
Now I’m going outside to have an ice cold beer in the shade, oh
I’m going to listen to my 45’s, ain’t it wonderful to be alive
When the rock ‘n’ roll plays, yeah
When the memory stays, yeah
I’m keeping the faith, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Keeping the faith”

(Words and Music by Billy Joel)

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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