Popdose Flashback

Popdose Flashback 1993: Billy Joel, “River Of Dreams”


Dw Dunphy – Think about this. How bad might it be that, for a whole third of your career, your muse for your creations is permanently tied to them. Those who recognize you for what you’ve done will constantly bring this person up to you. You will be reminded every time you have to be involved with the work of that time of her?

Seriously, how bad would that suck?

Chris Holmes – Well I know that every time I mention Dave Coulier to Alanis Morissette she slaps me in the face, so yeah, it probably sucks a lot.

Billy_Joel_-_River_of_DreamsDw – Ouch.

Well, compound that by, oh a hundred, and you get River of Dreams by Billy Joel, the culmination of a period of his life seemingly devoted to Christie Brinkley. She even painted this album’s cover. So as he is up on the stage, delivering songs like “Tell Her About It” and “A Matter Of Trust” as his marriage is coming to an end, even the merchandising is reminding him of her.

This was probably not the best time to be Billy Joel.

River Of Dreams the album debuted in August 1993, and is so far the last full album of new pop music material Joel has released.

Chris – Ah yes, River of Dreams. Wherein a new genre is born: Alterna-Billy. Or maybe we can call it Adult ContempoBilly. Not a bad album, really, as long as you forget that this is the man responsible for 52nd Street.

Dw – It’s probably for the best that he hasn’t released any new albums since 1993. His heart doesn’t seem to be in it and he’s admitted as much. But more importantly, the thought of Billy writing a paean to his last wife (who was barely of drinking age at the time of their wedding) is beyond creepy.

8411149There are only a couple songs on the album I can take at face value: the delightfully creepy “Blond Over Blue,” “Famous Last Words” come to mind. I have uncomfortable past dealings with the title track, and so I can’t listen to it without it bringing up past errors of truly faulty romantic wiring…and I never need to hear “All About Soul” with backing vocals by Jeffrey Porkloin and the Technicolor Hairbrush.

Chris – There’s not one song on here I ever really latched onto, although the first three are far and away the best. I can’t really put my finger on what bothers me about River of Dreams. Billy’s kind of angry, which doesn’t help, but that’s OK. At least he was writing honestly. What really gets me, I think, is the production. Every bit of life was compressed out of this thing, as was the case for a lot of albums at the time.

It’s strange too, because by and large you couldn’t really point to many of his albums and say they sounded dated, so it’s not as if he was reacting against a lot of ’80s excess or something like that. And yet, this sounds like Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily two years before we even got Tigerlily. And for Brinkley’s sake, there are guitar solos on here. That I cannot look past.

Dw – I attribute that to his having worked with Mick (Foreigner) Jones not Mick (The Clash) Jones on the prior Storm Front album. Jones was a guitar guy, after all. When Billy moved on to River of Dreams without him, that process may have stuck around. Can’t say for sure, but I like guitar solos.

For myself, what is really missing is wordplay. At his best, Joel’s lyrics were extremely nimble. On here, it’s a lot of hammering down the usual nails. He’s not having fun with the language. It’s a far cry from The Nylon Curtain when you can tell he was just getting off on all the ways he could make a statement. This is just so plain…not direct. Just plain.

Chris – I could live with the decidedly more prosaic lyrics if the tunes were there. There really aren’t very many hooks to speak of. Shit all over “We Didn’t Start the Fire” all you want, but that’s a strong melody right there. I’d be OK with Billy scat singing every damn song if he had written something half as good as a lesser track from, say, An Innocent Man.

Dw – All true. Even the weakest song on Glass Houses has more mental “stickiness” than the majority of this album.

Getting back to the issue of Billy being confronted vividly by his past relationships through his songs, there is only one other person I can immediately think of that used his medium in such a manner…and a lot of people would still call me a blasphemer for it, but could you imagine if John Lennon had not reconciled with Yoko Ono? He would either have needed to revert to nothing but his Beatles songs, write a heck of a lot of new ones to compensate, or quit.

For Billy Joel, prior to Christie, it was more relationship music so either he started seriously considering the Attila Reunion Tour, write a catalog (probably) seriously bitter songs, or do what he ultimately did.

Dw – But I have a particular antipathy for “River of Dreams” the song. In the summer of 1993 I was 310 pounds and I was in what I thought was love. I had a crush on a girl, who for the sake of protecting identities I will call “Amy,” but my utter ineptitude with social skills that tend to bring the male and female closer together scuttled that…and that I was 310 pounds. That probably messed things up too.

How bad was I at this? My first approach to her was to send her a dozen yellow roses, or “friendship roses,” or “still really freaking creepy roses.” But because of my unabated shyness, I sent them anonymously. So, not only did I fail at the grand romantic statement, I did so with nary a hint of self-confidence. Huzzah!

We were co-workers, so that made it worse. But we were somewhat communicative so when this song was added to Muzak (a couple weeks before the album’s release) I made a huge deal out of buying the CD-single for her. She had said in passing she liked the song. Liked. Not, “I’m going to commit all my resources to getting this music because it will define me now and in my future.”

And, as you might expect, this effort went about as well as awkward misreadings tend to go. So when I listen to that song, and just about anything from that album, I am reminded of a most embarrassing time in my life.

What say you about that, Chris?

(No response.)

Dw – Chris?

(No response.)

Dw – Oh no, I’ve said too much. Damn you, Billy Joel. You did it to me again.

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  • Guy Smiley

    “Not a bad album, really, as long as you forget that this is the man responsible for 52nd Street.”

    Take that back, Chris… I’ve been a Billy fan since about the time of 52nd Street, but I think River of Dreams is the best album Billy ever made. At the very least, I’ll put it right there with The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain.

    RoD is, to me, the culmination of everything Billy did in his career. He may not have broken any new ground (and some critics will tell you he never did), but the album is a sort of loose concept record in two ways: One, there’s a story of mid-life crisis/anger and ultimate redemption that weaves its way across the entire album. Two, musically the album touches on pretty much every sound or style Billy ever dabbled in (interesting how people always talk about the “chameleon” Bowie is, but rarely recognize Billy for being a musical chameleon). When he sings “Ain’t that the story of my life” in the song “Famous Last Words” at the album’s end he’s really talking about the whole album.

    It’s a different sounding album for Billy, and I know not everyone liked Danny Kortchmar’s production, but I thought Billy and the band on the album had a tougher, harder sound (on side 1 of the album, the “rock” side of the album). Some of the hardest rock of Joel’s career. I’d love to hear, say, Pearl Jam tackle “No Man’s Land,” and “Great Wall of China” is one of the best Beatles songs the Fabs never wrote (check out Leslie West’s guitar solo). I like angry Billy, and side 1 of the album serves up angry Billy in spades.

    Side 2 is the softer, happier side, but it also showcases Billy’s melodic gifts.”Lullabye” and the awesome, rollicking title track (easily one of Billy’s best songs) were usually played together in concert for several years, and it’s a really great suite. “Two Thousand Years” is one of the most underrated songs Billy ever wrote. Some radio stations started playing it near the end of 1999, and it’s a shame Sony didn’t give it a belated push and put it out as a single with the new millennium.

    And now it’s been 20 years since Billy released his (to date) final rock album of new songs. His divorce from Christie casts a shadow on some of the songs, but it doesn’t diminish them in the slightest. Billy himself became an oldies act since then, his performances were increasingly phoned in, and that’s really a shame, but over the past year he kicked ass at the 12.12.12 Hurricane Sandy benefit (he blew everyone that night… McCartney, Bruce, The Who, everyone), and the songs televised from the New Orleans Jazz Fest were great too. Billy had that old fire again.

    I’d love to see him make a new album — maybe work with some like Rick Rubin or T-Bone Burnette — and have the sort of late renaissance that Dylan, McCartney, Cash, and even Neil Diamond have enjoyed, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Billy Joel has 20 great years of albums as his legacy, and he went out on top with an album that debuted at #1, got great reviews at the time, and should’ve won the Grammy for Album of the Year (Fuck you, “The Bodyguard”!). If he never records again, he went out with a great one.

  • Guy Smiley

    Oh, Christ… I meant to say “he blew everyone AWAY that night…”

    That’s what I get for not proofreading myself. So blow me.

  • http://www.jasonhare.com jasonhare

    Oh god, that made me laugh so hard.

  • SC

    at least you didn’t type Fuck the bodyguard, cos Billy prefers yound women

  • SC

    I really enjoyed reading this post, even though I don’t agree with every opinion stated (I love ‘all about soul’). You didn’t mention the other songs Billy wrote about love and women, and who referred to other women he fell in love with (‘and so it goes’ Elle McP), (‘just the way you are’ which he said he couldn’t stand having to sing after his first divorce). That’s what happens when one writes mostly autobiographical songs, maybe that’s why the emotion comes through so well, because it’s heartfelt. Anyway, he’s a great song writer and he has a very good sense of humour. You made me smile. Cheers

  • SC

    younG women, young indeed