In my younger days, Billy Joel was one of those performers whose music you either loved or hated, mostly depending on your tribal affiliations, your musical expectations, and the depth of your musical exposure. Put simply as possible, if you were really only familiar with the cuts that made it to the Top 40 rotation, or were suspicious of anything the sweaty masses liked, or expected your music to defy musical conventions, or any combination of the three, you most likely hated him.
... At least until you lost some of your snobbish pretentiousness, became more familiar with his catalogue, and grew more appreciative of his craftsmanship.
Going to one of his shows would most likely shift you off your base. By the 1980s, Joel was already acknowledged an electric performer who could pump up the audience with his energy and showmanship. Now in his mid-sixties, Joel may not be able to do back-flips off a Steinway, and may be a little more careful about crowd-surfing or climbing the lighting gantries … but he can still rock the house down to the ground, bringing a fan base that now spans two generations jumping and screaming to their feet.
In a sense, then, how you appreciate Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, by Fred Schruers (New York: Crown Archetype, 2014; $29.00), depends on your expectations of biography. If all you’re looking for is a recital of some facts of Joel’s life, his interpretation of those facts from his perspective in 2014, and some relation of his music’s lyrics to various events (particularly his failed romantic and business entanglements), Schruer’s work will suffice. If, however, you expect biography to expose the development of the subject’s character and craft, on that level Billy Joel fails; it’s little more than a hyperextended Rolling Stone article.
Joel’s father, Helmut Julius Joel (the first name would later be Anglicized as “Howard”) was the son of a German Jewish businessman who was cheated of his highly-successful mail-order linen business and forced to flee Nazi Germany with his wife and child, landing in Cuba mere months before the invasion of Poland which kicked off World War II. His mother, Rosalind (Roz) Nyman, came from Jewish parents who had first emigrated to England from Russia and Poland before emigrating to the US to avoid conscription during World War I.
Yes, Joel’s father fought the Second World War, and met his mother at a U.S.O. dance (as alluded to in one of Joel’s few political-commentary tunes, “Allentown”). Schruers either doesn’t know or fails to tell us, though, that European Jews were of necessity polylinguists, needing to know by the demands of their cultural context not only Yiddish and Hebrew but also the primary languages of their Gentile neighbors. Howard, as a scion of wealthy businessmen, was given the best education available in the Weimar Republic and early Nazi years; when his parents finally escaped (just ahead of the Gestapo’s clutches, we’re led to understand), young Helmut was studying music in a Swiss academy. It should have been no surprise, then, that the elder Joel was drafted in 1943 as a translator.
Sixty years ago, the final line of the last paragraph might have ended, “… after all, Howard wasn’t old enough to have gone to medical school.” At the time, jokes about the tendency of Jewish parents, particularly mothers, to push their oldest sons into careers requiring advanced degrees, especially medicine, were a staple of Jewish humor. But the jokes testified to Jewish emphasis on formal education, not only for its own sake or for the love of the Law of Moses, but also as an entry point for advancing social respectability and cultural assimilation. Jewish mothers wanted their sons to become doctors because being a physician was a noble calling, one eminently respected by everyone, and had great potential for gaining wealth.
Becoming an artist or an entertainer … not so much. So we learn that Howard wanted to be a classical musician, but ended up in electrical engineering due to his parents’ refusal to support such a risky and dubious career choice. Schruers speculates that this disappointment, combined with his (unrelated) experiences in the war, contributed to the emotional absence and bitterness which preceded Howard’s eventual desertion of and divorce from Rosalind. With Howard gone, first emotionally and then physically, Billy had to depend for masculine modeling on a collection of stand-ins, primarily his maternal uncle, who influenced his politics (which at one point Schruers describes bluntly as “socialist”), his cultural inclinations, and his early decision to learn how to box. Moreover, as Billy grew older, his mother grew more dependent on him as a source of affection and personal validation, a somewhat smothering burden with which he would have to contend until her death.
Father figures are not father substitutes. The role of the father in psychological and emotional development is only now undergoing a reassessment, having been undervalued and even mischaracterized for many decades. The educated reader might discern from these revelations that Billy was deprived at an early age the primary scripts for a successful marriage and effective fatherhood, and given an inner sense that romantic love is somehow fated to be impermanent. There was no one to give Joel a sense that a college education could have value other than as an unnecessary preparation for the kind of career Joel never wanted. Moreover, while Joel gained a respect for tradition and convention that would allow him to exploit and build upon his rock antecedents — or, if you care to cast it in a negative light, preventing his music from pushing the boundaries — he came to his majority without a positive primary authority figure at the same time his peers were being taught to hold Authority in contempt.
But you have to have some understanding of the subjects to get that much out of the background Schruers gives the reader. Schruers, for his part, never quite gets there himself.
It seemingly never occurs to Schruers, for example, that Howard and Roz’s failed marriage almost predetermined the failure of Billy’s marriages to Christie Brinkley and Katie Lee, and contributed heavily to the epic disaster that was his relationship and marriage to Elizabeth Weber. It also seemingly never occurs to him to examine Billy’s efforts to remain emotionally present in daughter Alexa Ray’s life in the light of Howard’s absence. As a result, Alexa Ray’s role in Schruer’s tale is merely to be his daughter, to be someone Billy loves and cherishes, not to reveal how that love got expressed over time or what impact it had on her own development.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a religious blog if at some point I didn’t discuss Joel’s religiosity, or lack thereof, as expressed in the book. However, such expression is notable only by its almost complete absence; like Alexa Ray, Joel’s Jewish heritage and atheism are asserted but never really realized as story elements. If Billy’s father or grandfathers ever went to shul or to the synagogue, if Billy had ever celebrated Pesach or had a bar mitzvah party, we don’t learn it from Schruers. In fact, if you didn’t know there’s a religion associated with the ethnic group, you won’t learn it from Schruers.
For instance, despite dropping out of high school after his senior year left him shy enough credits to graduate, Joel, whom Schruers describes as an “autodidact”, maintains a personal library well-stocked with literature and historical texts. If you know anything about Jewish culture, you would expect such an intellectual orientation, and that Joel would continue to educate himself as a substitute for the college he never attended — but only if you knew about Jewish culture.
That Joel is an atheist is first mentioned only about two-thirds of the way through the book, and next mentioned only at the end, when Joel is discussing the end of his life. But by the time Joel says, “Hey, I’m an atheist,” the educated reader can’t be surprised by it. Absentee father? Check. No admitted religious education? Check. Leftist ideology? Check. Contempt for/distrust of authority (“Non serviam”)? Check. A body of work that, in large part, reeks of anomic despair, dislocation, cynicism, disappointment, and pessimism? Big fat check. Again, though, Schruers treats these facts as if they’re unrelated, not only to Joel’s atheism but to each other.[*]
Billy Joel, then, is hardly definitive; it doesn’t give you any sense that Schruers really understands the subject. As the protagonist of his story, Joel can be amusing, alienating, self-deprecating, or somewhat pretentious. But Schruers gives us no real reason to care about Joel other than the reason that causes one to read the book; the story is obligatory rather than compelling. Read the book if you need some biographical background … but not if you’re trying to understand why Billy Joel matters to his fans, or to music history.
[*] This is not an argument to the falsehood of atheism; nor is it an attempt to assert that atheists are psychologically defective. I categorically despise such misuse of psychology/psychiatry as lazy, dishonest, and insulting. However, the biological and social factors which influence our mental and emotional development by necessity also influence our religiosity.