I Was an Innocent Man, God Help Me
The painful nostalgia for a childhood in which I did not love Billy Joel.
As threatened, I am writing occasional confessional pieces for contributors. This one is about my youthful obsession with Billy Joel and my retrospective nostalgia for a less humiliating adolescence. It’s a painful piece, but sometimes both readers and writers must suffer for art, or lack thereof.
Here’s the beginning; to read the rest, become a contributor!
The first real concert I ever saw was a Billy Joel performance. I went when I was a freshman in college with my roommate and a woman we both had a huge crush on, who eventually ended up dating him to my considerable unhappiness. Joel was probably my favorite musician at that time, and I knew all the words to all the songs, so I was ready to do my part when he pulled back from the mic and gestured to the stadium crowd to fill in the chorus for the encore performance of “Piano Man.” “Sing us a song, you’re the piano man!” we roared with obligatory enthusiastic literalness. “We’re all in the mood for a melody/and you make us feel all right!”
As I warbled off key with the assembled throng and watched Joel looking up at us, I thought how satisfyingly disorienting it must be for him to hear the words he’d written about his future success in the past come raining down on him in the present, a perfect nostalgic sphere of yearning, hope, and retroactive sentiment. The moment felt frozen inside time or outside time, not least because we all knew he orchestrated that very same moment night after night at every concert venue. It was a predictable, predicted, apotheosis of nostalgia—one I still remember some 30 years later. The piano man said, “remember!” and I did, even as time tinkled on like the keys, and I lost the girl and my roommate somewhat later lost the girl and I came to slowly, dimly realize that Billy Joel’s music, which had made me feel all the feelings and nostalgia all the nostalgias, was actively and egregiously terrible.
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