I think that Billy Joel is one of the greatest songwriters in modern American pop music. Joel stands along with Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Brown, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, and Bruce Springsteen. Of course your list may vary.
My favorite Billy Joel song? Summer Highland Falls, from his Turnstiles album released in 1976.
At Joel’s 2008 Shea Stadium concert he introduced the song as being, “for all the manic-depressives out here tonight.” Why? Because according to Joel, he wrote the music “to reflect the highs and lows of manic depression.” As he put it, the reference is not just in the lyrics but also the rising and falling arpeggios that make up the melody.
According to Songfacts: “The song has a musical piano theme: the left hand plays the depression part, going slowly up and down, while the right hand is the manic part, playing a bouncy bit.”
The song opens with a line that could be a simple distillation of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
“They say that these are not the best of times, they’re the only times I’ll ever know.”
While Joel may have written this song to describe a particular medical condition, I think it’s also a perfect description of the times we’re living in. What’s more, the more I listen to the words, the more I see the similarities.
“Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity. Our reason coexists with our insanity.”
Think about the news these days. Regardless of which end of the seesaw you’re sitting on, there’s a good chance you believe you are thinking reasonably and the people who disagree with you are insane.
Pick a side:
Global warming is real. Global warming is a hoax.
Masks are required for public safety. Masks are an infringement on your rights.
Racism is systemic. Racism is an excuse.
Whatever you believe, you believe it with all your heart and no one is going to change your mind. This phenomenon was neatly summed up in the 1945 periodical Advertising & Selling, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Or, as Billy Joel put it, “So we’ll argue and we’ll compromise, and realize that nothing’s ever changed.”
Thomas Friedman discussed this idea in August ninth’s New York Times, “If you believe that climate change is real, it must be because someone paid you off with a research grant. If you believe the president committed an impeachable offense trying to enlist the president of Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden, it’s only because you want power for your party.”
Billy Joel explained it in 1976:
“For all our mutual experience, our separate conclusions are the same.”
Friedman again, “…there is no center, there are only sides; there’s no truth, there are only versions; there are no facts, there’s only a contest of will.”
Yes or no? Good or bad? Black or white? Up or down? Right or wrong? Democrat or Republican? Bi-Polar disease or today’s global reality?
Go listen to Summer Highland Falls again or for the first time.
You’ll see that just as Joel summed up almost 50 years ago:
“Though we choose between reality and madness, it’s either sadness or euphoria.”