I’m four or five years old and listening to my mom’s transistor radio on the beach at Makaha. My mom’s wearing a pale turquoise terrycloth jumper and I’ve got on that blue swimsuit I see in so many pictures from that time. I have long, straight-cut bangs and wavy hair down to my little waist. My dad is wearing those blue swim trunks with the white hibiscus pattern that was later immortalized in a painting my mom commissioned years later. He’s fishing down near the rocky shoreline as he is in that painting that hung for decades in the house I grew up in. There aren’t any kids around and I’m still an only child so I’m frantically busying myself, picking up sand crabs, building sand castles, and exploring tidal pools. The sky and the ocean are impossibly pure and clear--shades of blue are all around. The breeze is hot and dry and competing with the sun. The song on the radio is “For the Longest Time “ by Billy Joel. My mom and I sing along.
This is to say that I am a lifelong Billy Joel fan. It was a mainstay on my mom’s preferred radio station and An Innocent Man was one of the few albums-on-cassettes my parents had of contemporary artists and I would steal it and listen to it on my own. I got all overstimulated when Billy Joel showed up on Sesame Street to sing “Just the Way You Are” even though that was never my favorite by him (too preachy). I loved “For the Longest Time” the most when I was a kid, but grew to love “Uptown Girl” as a pre-adolescent because of Christie Brinkley’s appearance in the video. It was also really romantic to me. I wasn’t exactly an uptown girl myself, but was maybe an aspiring one. I thought it was cool that he wrote a song for a celebrity we all knew.
I never really stopped loving and listening. I even liked “We Didn’t Start the Fire” because I was a big nerd in ‘89, but didn’t care for his releases after that. I hated the title track from “River of Dreams” and kind of stopped paying him any mind and it was ok because he had a stout enough back catalog by that time so that I could just wallow in the past and have ever since.
My husband does not like Billy Joel, so it ends up being a thing that I put on on the odd occasion where I’m at home (and not working) alone during the day. The best is if I’m doing some intense cooking or cleaning and get really into it and sing “Don’t Ask Me Why” at the top of my lungs to the cats. I have also been known to belt out “Piano Man” in the shower when home alone, which sometimes moves me to tears. I’m being completely serious.
So you would think this is something that I carry around with me quietly but that isn’t the case because many of my friends are also rabid William Joel fans. Thanks in part to a viral video we discovered through Lou Barlow of Sebadoh’s Facebook page in which Billy Joel flips out during a live performance in the USSR in the 80s. The venue kept turning the lights on the crowd, which prompted Billy Joel to scream into the microphone between lines of song lyrics “STOP LIGHTING THE AUDIENCE,” “STOP IT,” and “LET ME DO MY SHOW FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.” He also hits the stage with a mic stand and literally overturns the piano he’s playing. If you’ve never seen it, it’s on YouTube and findable if you search “Billy Joel goes crazy in concert.” Anyway, this video struck a chord with a number of my Facebook contacts, including our friends in Pittsburgh, members and well-wishers of the Weird Paul Rock Band. We never get tired of talking about this video and they’ve leaned into their Billy Joel fandom, going as far as attending concerts together. I love this and I love them.
I don’t remember the first time I heard “My Life,” but can guarantee that it was from the Miller-Boyett situation comedy Bosom Buddies starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari. Bosom Buddies ran from 1980-1982, a two-season run dwarfed by its post-hoc reputation. This is in part because it starred Tom Hanks in what was not his first role, but pretty darn close. Possibly because of the star power brought by Tom Hanks, it enjoyed a good run on syndication, which is where I would watch it. I think its enduring presence in the minds of television viewers also owes substantial debt to the truly bizarre and shockingly progressive or regressive (I don’t honestly know) premise. Two young bachelors lose their New York City apartment, have difficulty finding a place they can afford, and end up living in a women’s hotel, a thing that I kind of doubt even existed back in 1980. In order to qualify for building residency, they dress as women and have to maintain this ruse as alter-egos Buffy and Hildegard as long as they’re living in the building. So you can imagine that this situation sparks a number of repetitive comedic situations. They strike up friendships with other women living in the building, played by former model Donna Dixon, Telma Hopkins who of course went on to play Aunt Rachel on Family Matters, and others. Of course the Tom Hanks character develops a crush on the Donna Dixon character and etc etc etc 80s sitcom etc. We have the first season on DVD and I’m mildly delighted to see that Season 2 is also available in that format. It isn’t a quality show, but very entertaining and I do recommend you check it out, though I’m sure anyone who’s gotten this far in this post is already quite familiar with the show.
The connection to “My Life” is that the song plays over the opening credits which I’ve seen described as long “even by 80s standards” and I can only assume that this is by design, to give “My Life” the featured positioning it deserves. The version that appears in the opening credits of Bosom Buddies does not include Billy Joel’s vocal performance due to licensing issues. These pesky licensing issues impact my enjoyment of the series on DVD even more so because in “My Life’s” place is some other stupid song. I can’t immediately think of a theme song that impacts my enjoyment of a show more than this one. It’s just not the same show without it.
Since “My Life” was released the year before I was born, I don’t have firsthand experience with it as something you may regularly stumble upon. Before digital music, it was a rare jewel I knew well but didn’t always have access to. I remember the first time I saw the music video was WELL into the 21st century and was a revelation. It is so gritty, drab and early-80s New York, I want to crawl into it. It begins outdoors during the daytime someplace in New York and features a leather-motocrycle-jacketed Billy sporting a *great deal* of hair. As he’s walking with his buddies, a saxophone player joins them as they enter what looks like a subway station because the stairs seem situated in the middle of a sidewalk, but it’s actually an entrance to a nonspecific underground establishment which is so ugly, I can hardly stand it. It’s got wood paneling and red carpeting, but my favorite is between two elevator doors there’s one of those half-egg shaped metal ashtrays. Oh, I can almost smell it! As the gang turns the corner, it turns out that it’s a cluttered recording studio, so dark and shadowy, even though the camera lingers and several of these randos’ faces, you can only really see Billy Joel’s. So this group of people is all sitting in front of the mixing board but then it cuts to a band playing in said studio. You might think that this is some cheeky sleight of hand where Billy is watching himself play, but it’s just clumsy direction. They just came in to record “My Life” in earth’s ugliest recording studio. That’s it.
One thing I like about this song is the unabashedly disco-inspired bass line. The rest of the song isn’t disco-evocative at all, just that bassline. I think this is something that non-disco artists did around the turn of that decade to stay relevant in what they feared was probably a musical revolution, which I guess in retrospect it was. But these are some of my favorite songs of the late 70s (see also “DJ” by David Bowie and “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, which is I guess fundamentally a borderline-disco *song*, but my point stands). The piano riff is another favorite feature of mine. It’s like--convincing. Dut-dut-duuuuuuut-dut-dut-dut-duh-duh-duh (followed by that bassline). Oh, it’s genius, they belong together.
Billy’s vocal performance is as always great but I think the standout on this track is the backing vocals, a feature of songs I think generally stands out to me as a backing vocalist. In researching this post, I learned that the backups are performed by members of Chicago, including Peter Cetera, so I guess I like it in spite of that. I do think that Billy’s vocal performance is aided by the song’s structure and the transitions between verses and choruses. Each of the verses ends on a sustained note that’s so pleasing, it is as close to butter of anything that immediately comes to mind (see: “now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.Aaaaaaaaaa,” “go ahead with your own life leave me alooooooooooooone”). It’s got authority to it, but it’s rich and smooth at the same time. I love it. It’s my favorite part.
Lyrically, idk, it’s typical boomer independence-asserting drivel, but I did find out that there’s a school of thought that the “old friend” referenced in verse one is RICHARD LEWIS, a comedian I do not care for. I am however charmed at the idea that Billy may have twice pulled that shit where he wrote a song about a celebrity and I’m here for it. The meat of the lyrical content is the latter half of the chorus: “I still belong, don’t get me wrong. You can speak your mind, but not on my time.” Hahahaha, ok, Boomer! There’s NO TIME for disagreements! He’s too busy wearing a motorcycle jacket.
My very favorite intersection of personal-story and “My Life” occurred on a no-account afternoon. I had a doctor’s appointment in Foggy Bottom and decided to walk home to Van Ness because it was a beautiful afternoon and I had the time and wanted the exercise. As I was walking on Connecticut near DuPont metro, a lone elderly busker stood on the sidewalk with a microphone connected to a small amplifier. Out of the amp blared the karaoke track to “My Life,” as he incompetently limped along, mumbling the vocals. It was one of the worst busker performances I’ve ever seen and it was like the entire universe was designed just so that I would walk by at that moment to carry it around with me forever.