Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Women Were Management: 2,600 Words on Billy Joel's She's Always a Woman

In 1977, I was a boy. I was in a department store in Flemington, New Jersey. Though we lived in Pennsylvania, my family did a lot of shopping in New Jersey. If I remember correctly, it all had to with the sales tax.

I don't remember the name of the department store. It was a part of one of those regional east coast variety store chains, the pre-Internet, pre-call waiting, pre-VCR equivalent of Target or Wal-Mart but with one-ninth the square footage. Back in those days, it was okay for parents to leave their young children alone in malls or large stores for a couple of hours while Mom and older sister shopped for transitional clothes and Dad priced the shovels and stared lovingly at the riding mowers. (More likely, Dad was back in PA, blasting some Wolfman Jack and frying up some extra jumbo falafel balls).

Anyway, I was trolling the music department of this since-shuttered store (now part of a giant outlet mall complex). I was carefully considering the ways in which I would spend my allowance if anyone had ever bothered giving me an allowance. No weekly pay for me... I'd get three bucks here and a nickel there and a quarter tomorrow. Not enough for everything I wanted, which in 1977, consisted of lots of Warren Zevon, Bob Seger, Styx, Steely Dan, and Steve Miller Band.  

Yeah, that says "Styx" up there. Let a boy be a boy.

Whoever was clerking this part of the store that day (i.e., making sure the rural route trash from PA and the gangly Catholic hoods from NJ didn't shoplift the 8-tracks) was a Billy Joel fan. Because he or she played Joel's then-new album The Stranger at least three times in its entirety while I was there - dutifully switching from Side 1 to Side 2 (between Scenes from an Italian Restaurant and Vienna) without too much extra silence.

I was transfixed. I didn't want to leave. Sure, a couple of times I had to leave the record area to head to the front of the store where I had my hourly check-in with my Mom and sister. (And no... of course my father wasn't there. Those weekend afternoons when the Swede took us half-breeds to the mall or to the doomed variety stores - those were the times of his life, the few hours of solitude that made his 90-hour work week worth it.) Anyway, at the hourly check-in, my Scandi-accented mother would indicate that no, she and the sister were not done with their "chopping" yet. I never knew what those two did in those endless aisles given over to girls. All I knew was that I wanted no part of it - just give me the records and the books and a couple of racks of "husky" clothes for boys and I was good. A few bucks for an Icee or a Julius or a slice would be nice too.

And on that day, The Stranger took my love of music to another level. Those songs - that freeform exotica about real-life Italians in the actual boroughs of New York City, and a few strays out in Long Island or back in Jersey - those songs were the shit. Yeah, you can pretend that y'all were swooning over the Sex Pistols in some grimy corner of the American urban-industrial sphere but I know the truth. You were really lamenting disco's decline by listening to William Joel, taking occasional breaks for Stephen Bishop and Sir Boz Scaggs. You weren't lamenting the long-ago deaths of Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin. No, you were crying - real liquid tears - for Harry Chapin and Jim Croce (his eyes were so sad).

Either that or you weren't born yet.

I was familiar with the single Just the Way You Are. Also, WPST in Trenton - 98-point-something on the FM - had been rocking a couple of the deep cuts - Movin' Out and Only the Good Die Young. But in that unnamed department store in just-south-of-central west Jersey there were three songs that stunned my kid ears: the title track The Stranger, the epic Scenes From an Italian Restaurant (so sophisticated), and She's Always A Woman.

I was in what you might call the pre-pubescent years of my life. Women, to me, weren't yet mysterious elusive creatures who didn't love me. No, by virtue of having a family consisting of an ever-present mother, a moody brooding brat of an older sister, and a father who worked from 9 to 9, women were the people I was always surrounded by and constantly reporting to. Women were management.

On She's Always..., Mr. Joel created a picture very different from the pop stars of his day. This was a time when E.L.O. was calling women "evil" and the Eagles were labeling them "witchy"..... a time when Cliff Richard's "devil woman" had to change her "evil ways" per the orders of Carlos Santana. Here was this guy who hadn't done much of note in his career delivering a lilting deliberate tale of woman-as-woman.... woman-as-person-skillful-in-the-ways-of-human-interaction...woman-as-manipulator. In those songs by those other artists, I didn't recognize those evil devil witches. But when Billy Joel sang of the sly lady trickster, similar to the ones who manipulated me to eat my vegetables and not wet the bed, the ones who double-spoke as they sent me to corners of classrooms or stole my beloved red transistor radio - I knew exactly what he was singing about.

(Note: Before I go on, let me address my off-handed "hadn't done much of note in his career" remark. Yes, it's true. Before The Stranger, Billy Joel's career could generously be described as checkered. He was best known for the preposterous Piano Man (really Billy? The guy in the Navy had to be called Davy?) and a truly bizarre epic called Captain Jack about a masturbating cross-dressing nose-picking hippie with a tape deck whose masturbation, cross-dressing, nose-picking, and hippie-ing caused his father to drown in the family pool in one of the most ill-timed lyrical transitions ever recorded.)

So here was The Stranger, with its fetish-y cover (that's an awful small bed for a man and a mask... are those boxing gloves in the dark corner?) and its nine damn-near-perfect songs. Or should I say seven damn-near-perfect songs and those last two slight disappointments in which Billy half-assedly tries his hand at fake jazz and fake gospel (Get it Right the First Time and Everybody Has a Dream, respectively). But seven out of nine ain't bad. The seventh song, the one that brings us here today, the one that I looked forward to every time I heard the record in sequence, starting with that day in Flemington, had a profound effect on me. 

She's Always a Woman was the song that likely pushed me toward an adolescence and adulthood of appreciating the pointed sentiment of highly personal songwriting, as opposed to the more distant, more obtuse stuff that others liked. In other words, She's Always a Woman made me love the lyrical specificity of The Hold Steady and led me to be completely puzzled by the adoration of the merely serviceable Radiohead.

(Note: I could just as easily present a completely opposite version of the just-mentioned theory and use as proof of its veracity my distrust of the populist Arcade Fire and my complete adoration of those fiery Friedberger siblings. But that's another theory for another mid-week epic post.)

But what else did She's Always a Woman do? Was this song also responsible for my own clumsy, fraught-with-misdirection relationships with women and the resulting missteps, missteps that include - if you check my archives - overly detailed but historically inaccurate recollections of past relationships (and non-relationships)? Yes, some of those recollections - the more humorous ones, especially - have backfired. And this swarthy-uncle-going-through-a-break-up of a song is partially to blame.

Let's take a step back and look at the lyrics carefully. The lilting melody and soft vocals of Woman suggested a sweet sugary classic, to be played at weddings for generations. And that's exactly what happened - it was played at weddings by people who didn't listen very carefully:

“She can ruin your faith with her casual lies”
“She can ask for the truth but she'll never believe you”
"She steals like a thief"
"She never gives in; she just changes her mind"
"She'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding"
I wrote about this song once before and I was a little harsh on it, calling its lyrics spiteful and hateful. Billy was going for something more subtle, which to him was like learning to fly. Women are crafty, he wants us to know. Women will argue with you, change their minds.... deceive you and derive joy from it. But oh they will always be women. Or at least she will. Yes, I must conclude, this song may have contributed negatively to my between-gender issues of trust, issues that as of April 2009 have been resolved or at least rendered unworthy of attention.

Actually all of my thoughts here make this song more difficult to grasp, its end and means less obvious. You see, this whole post was inspired by news about a 90-second television commercial for a British company that sells.... I have no idea what they sell but it's something - anyhow, this British company utilizes the lovely ballad to stirring (and apparently viral) effect: 

The little girl at the beginning will be a woman soon.... no she is a woman.  Daddy walks her down the aisle. Rings are exchanged. The groom's ring is understated and responsible. The bride's ring is sharp, shiny, steely and can break balls barriers. Happily they live, ever after. Suddenly the girl/woman is old but she's so well-dressed, the seeming spawn of Candace Bergen and Gena Rowlands. We see the full existence of a woman in a minute and a half, with key life transitions coinciding with lyrical imagery ("hides like a child" with image of child's birthday, etc.) Meanwhile, entire swaths of "it's complicated" relationship fodder are ignored.

In other words, what the hell is this song doing in this commercial? Why doesn't anyone notice that maybe the mocking / deceitful / immature nature of unloving brides, as interpreted by petulant / entitled / unlovable men is NOT what should be highlighted during the dance portion of the wedding reception?

The following decade delivered more widely cited examples of misinterpreted songs. But at least the stalker in The Police's Every Breath You Take could reasonably be perceived by some as dangerous and/or alluringly sexy. At least the manipulator in R.E.M.'s The One I Love is honest about his "simple props" and goes out of his way to seem enigmatic by including exactly one word ("Fire!") in the chorus. In other words, you want to know more about those guys. The narrator in She's Always a Woman? You want him to shut up. He would not do so until 1993.

Still, Joel's is by far the best song of the three. This is the great elusive mystery of the Billy Joel Dilemma: How can someone who makes so many glaring mistakes in his professional and personal life be so damn listenable? Personal relationship mistakes, business partnership mistakes, driving mishaps, The Bridge, letting Christie B.design an album cover, and generally the ever-noticeable error of being the very thing you lyrically mock.

I once successfully/scientifically argued for Billy Joel's superiority over Neil Young (pantomimes pulling orange out of the air to compare to apple). There also exists an unpublished draft of a very similar comparison of Joel to Jack White (though that race is closer). But I can't do one-to-one comparisons of everyone in music. That would take too long. But in the interest of information freedom, let me throw you a few bones: Animal Collective > Grizzly Bear; Girls > Wavvves; Wilco > Whiskeytown (not even close); MGMT > Dirty Projectors; (Flying Lotus + Madlib) = (J. Dilla + Moodymann); Xiu Xiu > The XX.

In my struggle to finish this piece, I keep coming back to a fictional image of an unshaven haggard Billy Joel holed up in his Long Island estate trying too hard... rolling the sleeves of his flannel shirt up, not recognizing that while one middle wrist button is buttoned, the other was not... Billy then slamming his fist on the irregular wood of his way-too-big dining room table, whining to the comely maid who gave him (pre-Christie Brinkley) sexual comfort "I wanna write a Vietnam song! Waaaa! Why can't I write a Vietnam song?!" He then writes the best Vietnam song ever, topping Crosby, Stills, Nash, Mitchell, Dylan's hair, and yes, even Springsteen; he sends them all back to the spare drawing board they keep in their metaphorical wood shed. 
(Note: The maid's comfort-giving is pure speculation.)

(Note: The table wood was irregular because of the warping effect from the coastal Atlantic air.)
And that's the beauty of the Billy Joel legacy: All those mistakes never stopped him from trying hard... trying too hard. He knew - he had to know - that the narrator of She's Always A Woman was a dick. And maybe his insistence at having his side of the argument heard on record won out over self-awareness. But the truth is he's never really cared about self-awareness. Or he was just blissfully un-self-aware. For a period of five albums, starting with The Stranger and continuing through 52nd Street, Glass Houses, Nylon Curtain, and An Innocent Man, he let himself make mistakes and his mistakes became practice and practice became genius. 

So yeah if some British surface-skimmer wants to give him some cash for a lovely song that he wrote out of spite, let him take the money even if they use someone else's vocals on it. Billy will put it to good use. I'm sure his auto insurance premiums are super-high.

Finally, I've been (self-) accused of writing in variations of a point/counterpoint style. For example, I may start by stating a rule, then provide an exception to that rule, followed by a reason the exception doesn't apply here, followed by a justification for ignoring that reason. Thus, I will end this ridiculously long piece by admitting that there may be a devilish legitimacy to the use of Billy Joel's song in weddings and in that TV commercial. In the last verse, Joel sings:
She'll bring out the best and the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself 'cause she's always a woman to me
Here, Billy is making a case for personal responsibility: If you are at your worst or your best, you are the one that should be blamed or praised. I realize that he says "She'll bring out" these qualities, making it seem like he's passing the blame. But he censors himself immediately and assigns responsibility squarely where it belongs (the self). He then repeats the song's title phrase. 

Yeah, that final verse is a big piece of fluffy fluffiness and you can't help but think that Billy Joel got to some real self-awareness by accident. But then you remember: his mistakes became practice and practice became genius. She's Always a Woman is kind of like a micro-version of his career: throwing it all out there, baring emotions and biases, hitting a few good points, missing a few others, projecting his weaknesses onto others, admitting his weakness for projection, and melodies so perfect you remember exactly where you were when you first heard that song in 1977.

1 comment:

Ali said...

I have another unrelated memory of Mr. Joel, in a radio interview I heard long ago. He was mocking an entirely different interviewer who had asked him if his early album Turnstiles was named for the fact that Joel was known for TURNing (changing) his STYLE(sound)? In his recollection, Joel tears into the notion of the over-analytical reviewer searching for too much meaning. Which is about as pot / kettle / black as you can get. So yeah he's a bit of an asshole. But sometimes he uses his assholeness to good effect, like in his hilarious and politically stirring February 2008 speech at J.C. Mellencamp's Hall of Fame ceremony, a speech I knew nothing about until today: http://www.vh1classic.com/view/playlist/1584167/219164/Rock_and_Roll_Hall_of_Fame_2008_Induction_Speeches/Billy_Joel_Inducts_John_Mellencamp/index.jhtml