One of the five or so people who regularly read this thing lamented to me the other day that I hardly ever write lists anymore. This particular fellow was once the recipient of my pre-psahb “funny e-mails” that often included lists with titles like “Top 12 Spices” and “Worst 11 Decisions in U.S. History.” Back in 2003, he recommended that I publish these lists in a new invention called a weblog, or “blog” for short. I sneered and said “I’m no diary writer.” Well, you know what happened.
However, to this person’s surprise, my blog entries rarely take the form of lists or of my other e-mail-based specialty, the “celebrity poem” (which immortalized mortals like John Oates and Chazz Palminteri (sp?)). One time I proposed the idea of “List Fridays.” I think that idea lasted two weeks. Usually I write little “slice-of-life” pieces or bizarre basketball-centered manifestoes. Lists have pretty much disappeared, like the notion that Larry Bird was somehow a Top Ten Basketball Player of All Time (he wasn’t; he isn’t).
So, to appease Michael Brian (or is it Liam?) Gainor, here’s a list:
Top 6 Reasons Billy Joel is Better than Neil Young, Written in a Conversational Style That Refers to Both Boomer-era Singers Exclusively by Their First Names
6. Levity. Sure, Billy took himself too seriously. Half of Nylon Curtain and all of The Bridge are proof of that. But did Billy ever release album after album of “thematically experimental” works meant to annoy his record company? No, Billy only did that once (the instrumental album). Did Billy ever sandwich one of his albums with pretentious “bookends” like Hey Hey My My and My My Hey Hey? Oh wait, I forgot about The Stranger. Did Billy ever produce an “experimental” “docu-drama” like Greendale (which is actually pretty good)? No. Billy gets the bad reputation of being the defensive overly serious angry young man but compared to Neil dude was Peewee Herman.
5. Self-acceptance. Billy accepted (and trumpeted) his suburban (Long Island) roots, never pretending he was from “the city” (I’m talking to you Sinatra!). Billy also pretended he was Italian and not Jewish for only the first 35 years of this career. Neil, on the other hand, still pretends he’s not Canadian, overly embracing Americana and going so far as to emphatically support both sides of the Civil War (Southern Man for the Union and American Stars and Bars for the Rebels) at different stages of his career.
4. Signature album: The Stranger vs. Tonight’s the Night. The Stranger was a godsend, a touchstone, the most important album of my childhood/adolescence. I know every lyric of every song and sung many of the songs with my childhood friend Patrick in his basement (I handled vocals; Patrick played drums; there was nobody else, just the two of us – we were the White Stripes before there were White Stripes). Full of insightful lyrics, expertly sung, with sweet melodies, The Stranger is a flawless album that holds up even today, consistent from start to finish with no filler. Tonight’s the Night? I’ve never listened to it.
3. Seminal album: An Innocent Man vs. Rust Never Sleeps. An Innocent Man got me through my difficult relationship with Maria Bissinger. Rust Never Sleeps destroyed me emotionally.
2. Post-career peak live performance: Neil at Lollapalooza, 1990-something vs. Billy at the St. Paul Civic Center, 1985. Neil was all bloated fuzz and sloganeering. Billy jumped around on his piano and played to the crowd. Neil sang half of Harvest Moon (his best album), electrifying the songs beyond recognition. Billy favored his “rock and roll” songs, trying to epitomize street cool. Neil succeeded. Billy failed. However, Billy’s songs were still better so he wins this one. And my date for Billy’s show (Annie – where’ve you been? I’m Googleable! Sorry I didn’t renew my car insurance policy through you back in ’97 but I found a better rate elsewhere) was better than my date for Neil’s (I don’t remember your name).
1. We Didn’t Start the Fire. I’m not kidding. I love this song. Sure, it’s a song anyone could have written – child, man, woman, elder, mentally challenged, etc. But in its amateurish listish fervor is a heart beating. It’s the heart of America, of the world, of the universe. It’s a heart of mercy, of movement and love and tenderness, of anger and pop culture and Long Island parkways and New Jersey four-lanes. Of Highway 61 and Wilshire Boulevard. It’s may be Billy’s last great song (at least so far, I can feel the comeback coming back) and he throws it all out there for everyone to see, to grasp, to taste, to love, to hold on to tightly. It’s the bible and the phone book wrapped up in one, yo. Again, it’s a song anyone could have written. But Billy wrote it. Neil didn’t.