They say write what you know. Ordinarily that’s good advice…unless what you write becomes hugely famous and popular, and the content is about moments of heartbreak and distress in your life. Here are five musicians, or rather three and one double-dipper, who were kicked in the butt by love, and made it part of their work.
Billy Joel – Don’t feel too badly for the Piano Man; at least not yet. He met his first wife Elizabeth via Jon Small, drummer for the bands Joel was with in the late ’60s into the early ’70s, The Hassles and Attila. Complicatedly, the future Mrs. Joel was Small’s wife at the time, and part of the dissolution of the Small marriage was because of Billy and Mrs. Small’s habit of bumping into each other. This passionate union fueled some of the soon-to-be-solo Joel’s earliest hits, some of which were on the Cold Spring Harbor album which were unregarded until the massive success of the Piano Man album. “She’s Always A Woman,” “She Has A Way,” “Just The Way You Are,” and on. But the marriage was complicated when Elizabeth became his manager, and through further issues with Family Records owner Artie Ripp (which, in interviews, Joel has expressed was the perfect name for the man), financial problems exacerbated things. The couple divorced in 1982, yet some of his most well known hits are about Elizabeth and inspired by her. That sounds like a pretty bad deal for an artist, to have remnants of old relationships constantly request for in concert. As we know, it can always get worse, but we have a few steps to go before we get there.
George Harrison – The ’60s were a trip, man. Free love, you know? And George Harrison went along with it, to an extent. His wife Pattie was sexy and glamorous, and had an admirer. Up until that point he was considered one of the best guitar players in the world, but he had yet to hit the stratosphere with a signature tune. He helped George with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and George reciprocated with “Badge.” That’s just how the times were, you know. Sharing is caring. When Eric Clapton presented the song “Layla” to Pattie Harrison, and told her it was his love song to her, she certainly couldn’t have expected it would become one of Clapton’s signature songs, if not his most singular effort. So Pattie went off with Eric and George went to pieces. He would hit the drugs hard, producing the album Dark Horse and several concert appearances where he was audibly and visibly in a crisis and cocaine-burnt state. “Layla,” as recorded by the supergroup Derek and the Dominoes went on to practically codify classic rock. Both Harrison and Clapton would move on to new relationships and would remain friends, but it seems like an impossible state of being to suddenly have this song become such a staple of ’70s rock, played right alongside your best-known efforts with The Beatles, and it is a call for someone else to get it going with your wife.
That doesn’t mention George’s affair with Ringo Starr’s wife, does it? Or Pattie’s affair with Ron Wood? Oh, the Sixties.
Taylor Swift – It’s impossible to have an article like this and not mention Tay-tay. Her seemingly endless cycle of exes becoming fodder for her musical vengeance fits this criterion almost perfectly, except for one crucial difference. Since her songs almost always circle back into pick-myself-up, brush-myself-off girl empowerment anthems, it is difficult to imagine her being the slightest bit fazed by having to sing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” from the album Red, with the kind of weight and remorse as Billy Joel would be saddled with on “Just The Way You Are.” Difficult to picture her getting bent out of shape if Harry Styles or John Mayer put out a love song that, essentially, was a shot across the bow of the Love Boat, implying that “I could never have loved you as much as I love who I’m with now.” On the contrary, there seems to be almost a giddy masochism to her motivation, like she can’t wait to be offended just to have something to sing about. 1989, the far-and-away best-selling album of 2014, does nothing to reverse this belief and rather enjoys rolling around in it. The question is, in ten years when she really does find her one and only, and if this trend persists, will this vast collection of “break up and go to hell” type songs be a blessing or a curse?
Marvin Gaye – Just about everything involved with Robin Thicke is sleazy. I cannot muster an ounce of sympathy for him or his misguided “take me back” opus called Paula, after his soon-to-be-ex-wife Paula Patton. Even in that, he’s a sleaze because Marvin Gaye did it better. Marvin’s divorce from Anna Gordy Gaye prompted the writing and recording of Here, My Dear, at first a breakup record, later on a recognition of love being over, and finally a resolution to get on with life. The genesis of the album stemmed mainly from financial need. Gaye was not a thrifty man and his tastes, from the exotic to the illicit, prompted financial and marital disarray. The arrangement for Here, My Dear was that Anna got paid off the earned income of Marvin’s next project. Initially he was going to sleepwalk his way through the album, put it out there, and let fate do what it would. But it was never really Marvin’s way to do anything tentatively. In the end the record became a venting, a meditation, and much more than a fulfillment of a contract between former lovers. Few will pin Here, My Dear next to What’s Going On, or Let’s Get It On, or Sexual Healing. The cover, depicting Gaye as a piece of Greek statuary, is ridiculous. And yet, the whole has been reassessed by modern critics as something thoroughly daring and better than it ever needed to be. That’s something no one will ever say of Robin Thicke’s Paula…that putz.
Billy Joel (Again) – As bad as things were with Elizabeth, they were worse with Christie Brinkley, supermodel. That’s because, except for gossip and hearsay, not much was known of the dissolution of The Joels Mach One. Yet with Brinkley, Billy was aligning with one of, if not the singular, supermodel of all time. And it wasn’t a veiled romance either. Brinkley was a known inspiration for songs, appeared in his music videos, and even painted the cover of Joel’s final studio album of pop tunes, River of Dreams. She is the mother of Joel’s beloved daughter Alexa Ray. And it would seem that Joel and Brinkley are still fairly good friends, even though both have gone on to new marriages and tribulations. But just as it was with Elizabeth, some of Billy’s biggest hits are paeans to love that is no longer there, and virtually everyone knows at least the veneer of the backstory. That’s a real burden. Most of us get to keep our private lives private, and our private correspondence off the stage. When Billy Joel goes on stage at Madison Square Garden, a major part of his repertoire is intrinsically dredging up his past loves. The audience would feel cheated if he didn’t.
Tellingly, his third and rather brief marriage to Katie Lee produced no songs.
…Around the four minute mark, actually.