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Published:May 31st, 2008 15:25 EST
My Lives: Billy Joel Album Review

My Lives: Billy Joel Album Review

By Maria Grella

Imagine if scores of admirers were singing alternate lyrics to Joel`s bonafid hits.  Instead of the chorus All About Soul " in the self-titled track, consider singing Jericho Roadin the Motorcycle Song ".  Rather than The Longest Time ", try The Prime of Your Life "?  It is a mix of delight, shock, and amazement how many songs have been altered or reworked to create the monster classics that the mainstream music scene has made popular.

Disc 1 takes us from the mid 1960s through the 1970s.  The first 5 tracks may leave the listener in a state of confused amusement.  A far cry from the near 8-minute masterpiece that Scenes from an Italian Restaurant " is, these tracks are mercifully short, barely creeping over the 2-minute mark.  Billy`s first band, The Lost Souls, create My Journey`s End " and Time and Time Again "; both displaying poor audio with often-indecipherable lyrics.  The Hassles provide You`ve Got Me Hummin` ", a hokey, psychedelic Sam and Dave cover.  Attila`s contribution to this set is Amplifier Fire " where the tune is a drum and organ heavy bad jam session.  It is hard to choose which is more laughable-- Billy`s early attempts with these bands, or his looks; the included booklet has photos and a short biography. 


The essence of what Billy Joel`s career would become is found in the rest of the tracks.  Once going solo, the true talent shone through, even on misproduced albums like Cold Spring Harbor, (where the original album release was mixed so that the pitch was too high, and was left sounding like Mickey Mouse).  The demo of the romantic She`s Got A Way ", one of the most endearing love songs of all time, showcases some of the songwriting skills that Joel is known for.  Other demos included are rare gems.  Oyster Bay " is a future prophecy that proved to be a true sentiment; it foretells the dark view of fame before he became famous.  The Piano Man " first draft features Joel solo at the piano, playing his harmonica, and singing.  Though plagued by sharp sound, an overload of echo in the vocals, and humming in place of incomplete lyrics, this is a decadent treat for Billy Joel fans.  Who knew that by fine-tuning Piano Man ", it would become the signature song of this accomplished singer/songwriter? 


Only A Man ", Siegfried Line ", New Mexico ", (the baby of Worse Comes To Worst "), and Cross To Bear " continue with the country-esque, bluesy/saloon style he was putting out with his first two albums.  The alternate version of Only the Good Die Young " is a reminder to thank Liberty DeVitto, Joel`s longtime drummer, who convinced Billy to change it from this reggae-based song into the classic rock/pop staple it has become. 

Where that song outlives its transformed version, others, like Miami 2017 ", another prophecy song, are a reason to celebrate the necessity of second drafts.  The early version does not work; his voice is too innocent compared to the gritty rock edge his vocals do live in concert.  Even the self-produced album of Turnstiles, bearing a canned ring, had a better listening quality than this demo track.  These Rhinestone Days " grew into I`ve Loved These Days " with a better title, but basically the same lyrics.  Everybody Has a Dream " is a beautifully underplayed and ignored song appearing on the 1977 monster album, The Stranger.  Until The Night " and Zanzibar " flow through with the jazz influence, found throughout 52nd Street.


The second c.d. takes us through the 1980`s.  Live from Huntington, Long Island, Captain Jack " begins disc two.  The End of the World " is a funny, catchy, and upbeat little ditty that was to transform into Elvis Presley Blvd. ", the B-side to Allentown ".  Nobody Knows But Me " is a little heard song that is a pleasure for anyone of any age.  Not your average, simple children`s song, this tune about an imaginary friend, bares soul and evokes a Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis early rockabilly sound.  


"The Prime of Your Life " is what would become The Longest Time ".  An incomplete demo heard here makes the fan glad he did not scrap it altogether.  It is one of the standout tracks on An Innocent Man album, and if listening closely, you can hear elements of Don`t Ask Me Why ".  She`s Right On Time " has the 80`s synthesized sound, as does Easy Money ", a fun and unfortunately forgotten tune with a little ˜funky town` melody thrown in, (whether intentional or not, it works).  Modern Woman " part of the soundtrack to Ruthless People " also has the synthesized 80`s sound.  Christie Lee ", as well as And So It Goes " are quite good and little was done to permit them on their respective albums.  The live Beatles cover, I`ll Cry Instead " is the B-side to Innocent Man ".  Keeping The Faith " the 12 ", dance remix does not differ much, nor does the bitter jab at mis-management within Getting Closer ".  The B-side to We Didn`t Start the Fire " is the loud blues inspired House of Blue Light ".  Dylan`s cover of The Times They Are A-Changin` " from an appearance during the cold war in the former U.S.S.R. was completely appropriate.


The 1990`s encompasses disc three.  I Go to Extremes ", the live version from L.A., still does not have the assault on the eardrums that actually hearing it live does, but the piano skills do come to life.  Shout " from 1990`s Yankee Stadium performances, are in top form and you can just imagine the energy bursting from the historic baseball field.  All Shook Up " and Heartbreak Hotel " featured on the Honeymoon in Vegas soundtrack showcases Billy`s ample Elvis impersonation, while In a Sentimental Mood ", from A League of Their Own soundtrack, shows Billy in a mellower mood.  One can easily imagine Joel taking the Rod Stewart road and having great success covering the romantic standards of long ago.


  Motorcycle Song " starts with a lizard-lounge feel, until you realize in delight that it is the alter ego of All About Soul ".  It seems tailor-made for Long Islanders who can recognize places such as Sunrise Highway, and know the feeling of driving around the picturesque but oftentimes dull Long Island.  ( When I get west of Lake Success, I turn around and say goodbye, to Jericho Road, I`ve already been everyplace I`m going ¦ ").  The B-side to All About Soul " is the bluesy rock You Picked a Real Bad Time ".  The incomplete demo of The River of Dreams " lacks the full gospel tone the song proudly boasts, but you can hear Lullaby, (Goodnight My Angel) " within it.  A Hard Day`s Night " from the River Of Dreams tour rivals the Beatles` original.  Why Should I Worry " from Oliver & Company, where he voiced the lead character of Dodger, and Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day)? " from Runaway Bride, are more songs from movie soundtracks.  Another Dylan cover includes Highway 61 Revisited ", a never released demo.


Moving into the millennium on the fourth audio disc is a song from 2000 Years the Millennium Concert, Movin` Out, (Anthony`s Song) ".  A duet with Face-To-Face partner Elton John, You May Be Right ", follows, as does a performance of Don`t Worry Baby ", from An All Star Tribute to Brian Wilson.  Goodnight Saigon (Vietnam Veterans Version) " from a live 1982 stint at Nassau Coliseum is as gut wrenching as New York State of Mind " from America:  A Tribute to Heroes.  His classical pieces, the direction he has delved into lately, are also included.  A hidden, extra track of hilarious dialogue regarding the promotion of Glass Houses will leave you laughing for hours. 


The fifth disc is a DVD, live from 1994, the River Of Dreams Tour.  From the onset of the DVD, the casual viewer right away can tell that this was not filmed in the United States; in fact, it was done in Frankfurt, Germany.  The energy was dwindling as the performance wore on, the excitement was not entirely present, and oftentimes Billy looked bored and disinterested.  Reasons for this could be due to it being a random show in the middle of a long tour, or perhaps a deficit of the powerful hometown advantage.  Though he has definitely done better, the music and vocals sounded great.  A poignant moment was brought about with Goodnight Saigon ", where veterans stood onstage helping with the chorus; And we would all go down together ¦ "  Ending the show is the everlasting Piano Man ", where the crowd, as international as it was, serenaded Joel with his own lyrics. 

Also plaguing this live DVD is the poor directing.  There were too many off-shots; close-ups of dripping sweat, lingering too long on certain shots, and weird audience flashes.  Joel regained some liveliness during Big Shot ", where he pranced around the stage and interacted a bit with the audience.  His piano playing was excellent, completely living up to the apparent self-proclaimed moniker Piano Man ", though the infamous song was not written about him at all.  Filmed at a time when Billy was young and in strong shape, his vocals were strong as always, but the lack of enthusiasm was definitely noticeable.  One has to wonder why the company chose to include this particular appearance from the River Of Dreams tour, when there were better concert performances and arenas to choose from Madison Square Garden or Nassau Coliseum, both in NY, being the obvious top two choices.  Nonetheless, if the Europeans sensed Joel`s performance was not up to par, they hid it well.  This DVD, besides featuring legendary talent, proves that his fans are worldwide and he is one of the few universal forces left in the music world.


Any long time fan, avid collector, or music enthusiast will undoubtedly love My Lives.  Not only packed with quality entertainment, this latest release brings forth new material that most fans have not heard.  Though not the same as hearing an entirely new tune, the demos, unreleased songs and half-finished melodies, are definite hidden treasures.  This 5 disc set offers a small snippet of Joel`s working progress, leaving the fan to wonder, (or leaving them certain) that there must be more to uncover, more to learn, more to listen to and enjoy.  My Lives provides the listener with an insider`s look at the making of Billy Joel`s catalogue of music and the soundtrack of our lives.