It's Still Rotten Joel to Me

Hall of Fame's recent induction of Billy Joel makes a bad idea seem that much worse

You may be right. I may be crazy for even getting upset about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, like the guy who bolts out of his easy chair to protest the implausibility of a MacGiver episode.

It's a dumb idea to begin with, turning rock 'n' roll into a mausoleum, a Shriner's convention and a tourist trap all at the same time. Rock's defining moments of greatness are purely subjective, based on something as recondite as a jolt of sound, a glint in an eye, an ache in a voice. And no matter how boring or safe rock 'n' roll gets, it's never gonna be baseball, whereby you can look at a batting average or a pitching record and determine greatness. If there is some hidden stats game that determines R&R Hall of Fame eligibility (i.e., most No. 1s, most Top 40 entries), they might as well tally up "most hotel rooms trashed" and "most smack consumed in one sitting," to maintain some sense of inappropriate trad-rock behavior.

Once you accept the basic tenets of this uneasy institution, that rock 'n' roll has (yikes!) standards, you'll find serious lapses of judgment everywhere you look. Currently the Hall of Fame is hosting an exhibit on folk legend Phil Ochs, but it has passed over his name every year since its inception. The Lovin' Spoonful, who wrote "Do You Believe in Magic," arguably the anthem that best defines rock's abstruse mysteries, are continually overlooked. Is it because they're too folk as well?

The Mamas and the Papas are in, and they never rocked harder than "Summer in the City." But then again, John Sebastian never choked on a ham sandwich. This year, Dusty Springfield deservedly got honored, but it's kind of hard to reconcile that she's rock 'n' roll and Dionne Warwick isn't. Or Burt Bacharach.

This year's inductions are especially unnerving when you consider all the names that have been passed over several times already, like Alice Cooper and Iggy and the Stooges, while two inductees, Paul McCartney and Curtis Mayfield, are being let in a second time to honor their solo works. Worse, the people making the induction speeches seem unaware that the award they are giving isn't for the artists' entire body of work. At the end of last month's induction telecast, it was "People Get Ready" and "Let It Be" that got the quagmire all-star jam treatment, not "Superfly" and "Jet." Neil Young, inducting Macca, seemed unaware of any events in Paul's post-Beatle career after the McCartney album, itself recorded while he was technically still a Fab!

Currently there are eight double honorees, with ol' Neil and Eric Clapton coming dangerously close to getting pinned a third time. Slowhand, honored both for his work in Cream and the Yardbirds, will probably be honored for his solo stuff some other unimaginative year. Young, inducted for his solo work and the Buffalo Springfield, was shut out when Crosby, Stills and Nash got in without him. What am I missing? Didn't they do their really good stuff with him? And biggest-grossing tours? Will the Hall of Fame nominate CSN & sometimes Y on another such unimaginative year?

With all the glitter revivals going on over the past year, it's perplexing that Alice, T. Rex, Roxy Music, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, Queen, Aerosmith, Kiss or anything else remotely connected with glitter (with the exception of no-show Bowie) aren't getting honored. This year was the first year many of the above names were eligible for nomination. Sure, T. Rex was a one-hit act in the States, and the Dolls may have sold six records fewer than the Velvet Underground, but can you argue that either wasn't highly influential? Even Gary Glitter and his one football-stadium chant is more influential than the man we're about to hurl brickbats at right now: Mr. Billy Joel.

The Piano Man started his career as a bad Harry Chapin with a tip jar, but with staunch stick-to-itiveness, he steadily amassed a string of 33 Top 40 hits over 25 years. Yet for all that, Joel hasn't been responsible for one discernible musical innovation or trend, unless you count tearing up your bad reviews onstage for cheap applause. About the best thing Rolling Stone's History of Rock and Roll could say about Joel after dismissing the first half of his career as either "poor man's Springsteen" (52nd Street) or disastrous "New Waver-come lately" (Glass Houses) is that he ultimately became a better mimic. Is that what he's being honored for? The Hall of Fame's got a Little Richard. It doesn't need Rich Little!

The real question about Joel is: Better mimic or better friend to Rolling Stone publisher (and Museum co-vice chairman) Jann Wenner? Rolling Stone once used to rip Billy a new semicolon with every new release. Joel must've noticed how being an F.O.J. (Friend of Jann) secured Art Garfunkel respectful reviews for his dull solo albums. What else but Wenner intervention could explain "Uptown Girl" winding up number 95 in Rolling Stone's dubious "100 Greatest Singles of All Time," ahead of whatever Four Seasons single they conveniently forgot?

In his ungracious Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Joel still tried to come off as a defensive rock rebel who's howled with the wild boys of Levittown. Propping up his self-importance, he took this opportunity to take pot shots at the usual rock 'n' roll villains, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and especially Pat Boone, whose 1959 hit "Fools Hall of Fame" seems positively prophetic now. If we're letting Joel in the Hall of Fame for his string of 33 Top 40 hits, Boone racked up 38, and it only took him seven years to do it, not 25!

As inexplicable as it seems, Boone is at least responsible for several great rock 'n' roll moments: 1) For every joke you can make about his laughably sanitized versions of Little Richard and Fats Domino hits, you'll never hear those two guys ever say a bad word about Boone. He was a courteous fellow, all right, and he opened the door for white audiences to accept future Fats and Little Richard recordings. 2) His last Top 40 hit was "Speedy Gonzales," a novelty hit that Elton John ripped off for "Crocodile Rock" and was sued for. Even with a cartoon Mexican mouse singing into an adjacent mike, "Speedy" and Pat rock harder than anything Billy Joel ever conjured. 3) According to the liner notes in last year's Nuggets boxed set, it was Boone who discovered and signed the Leaves, the band that made a fuzzy masterpiece of "Hey Joe." Yes, we can thank Pat for the psychedelic "Louie Louie," which gave Jimi Hendrix his first hit.

That should be the entrance exam to Hall of Famedom. You've gotta be able to rattle off some credible, indisputable R&R moments. To return to Nuggets for a moment, this four-CD compilation is filled with one-shot garage bands whose whole existence can be distilled to one great rock moment. And with the exception of a white-Afro-wigged Tom and John Fogerty hiding out in the Golliwogs, none of the musicians here will ever see the inside of the Hall of Fame. Yet can anyone name one thing Joel has done that screams out rock 'n' roll better than a Standells single or the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie"? Meditate on these flimsy possibilities:

1. "Captain Jack," a maudlin story ballad that gets heavy FM airplay for being the first rock song to use the dreaded word "masturbate," but it's no "Pictures of Lily." More aptly, it's the male counterpart to Janis Ian's poor-poor-pitiful-me anthem "At Seventeen." Joel's protagonist is even worse off: He's 21 and his mother still makes his bed. Probably shocked his Long Island audience when they heard that line and wondered, "Yeah, so is that a bad thing?"

2. "The Entertainer," the single off his second Columbia album, is the first song to complain that records wind up in the bargain bins because unfeeling record companies cut down never-ending self-pitying story ballads like this one to three minutes and five seconds. It's 1975, Billy's singing about playing in a rock band and he's using woozy Moog sounds even transsexual Wendy "Switched-On-Bach" Carlos stopped using around the same time she stopped using the men's room.

3. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" hardly rocks even with a motorcycle break, but it does contain a fun moment, with Joel simulating a heart attack, complete with "ack-ack-acks." Too bad Queen did it the year before with their more arresting "Sheer Heart Attack." They'll probably never get in the Hall--they're way too silly. Rule of thumb: If you can't imagine Robbie Robertson playing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the all-star jam, it won't happen.

4. On "Big Shot," Joel feigns toughness by slipping into a pinched-nose Brando impersonation, something Tom Petty already did all over his first album. And Joel would soon have to recant this song's disaffection for Halston dresses and getting a good table at Elaine's once he married Christie Brinkley.

5. "You May Be Right" is a laundry list of "crazy" things Joel does, which he believes makes him a rebel (riding a motorcycle in the rain, crashing a party and apologizing the next day, telling dirty jokes and walking through Bed-Stuy alone), but he comes out sounding like a mall rat. Guess that must make Andrew "Dice" Clay the Fonz.

6. Billy "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" Joel changes his leather jacket, puts on a skinny tie and tries to pass himself off as a New Wave advocate. Instead, he keeps tripping himself up by telling us his car is out of style and he's out of touch. That's what people look for in a parent, not a rock star.

7. Joel's serious motorcycle accident (must be all that riding in the rain) wins him some sympathy, but no new-Dylan comparisons. Or Springsteen comparisons. When Bruce wrote about Vietnam, he at least talked to some vets. Judging by "Goodnight Saigon," Joel's grandiose bid for social relevance on The Nylon Curtain, Billy probably rented Apocalypse Now twice to make sure they really did listen to Doors tapes.

8. Billy's awkward dancing on the "Uptown Girl" video may have single-handedly convinced English piano man Joe Jackson to stop making videos. And at this late date, who's to say Christie Brinkley's clumsy variation on the Curly Shuffle didn't cost her some runway work?

9. Joel's mimicry streak reaches its zenith with "Baby Grand," a duet he ca-Joels Ray Charles into joining. With the Genius of Soul on hand, Joel can't help but imitate Brother Ray himself. Sorta like when John Belushi tried to out-Cocker Joe Cocker while the Sheffield shouter was standing next to him. At least Joel doesn't spill Diet Pepsi all over himself.

10. Even at the height of "tribute album fever," no Billy Joel collection ever emerged. Why? Because the only person who'll even stand up and say Joel was a big influence is Garth Brooks, whose next installment of fantasy camp after trying out for the major leagues is appearing onstage with makeup at a Kiss concert. Such is Joel's remote connection to rock. Still, Brooks did jump-start the country music industry, and, for inspiring him, maybe they should put Billy Joel in the Country Hall of Fame. Right next to Barbara Mandrell's smacked-up car.

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