Thursday, December 29, 2005

Duke of Earl

So like pretty much every other white piano-playing kid with rock and roll aspirations growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s, I once idolized Billy Joel. Once I had digested everything the Beatles had ever recorded, there was a period (roughly the end of high school through the beginning of my first attempt at college) when I thought he was the shit. I even went to a few of his concerts, thanks mostly to my friend Jeff. For a while Mr. Joel was my number one role model, even though I never saw myself as a singer-songwriter per se.

Tempus fugit, and all that. Saw Mr. Joel on Conan O'Brien a few weeks back. How depressing! Sure, he was older, fatter, balder. But that stuff wasn't an issue for me... pretty much inevitable, you know. However: sad, sad, sad was a story he told about how bored he gets playing all of his hits--playing them to death, to the point where he literally zones out during a performance. (Incidentally, I distinctly remember him relating the similar story to Rolling Stone back in the late 80s--which makes the whole thing even more depressing.)

Cut to commercial. Cut back, and Mr. Joel launches into two relatively obscure gems from his catalogue: "Vienna" and "Everybody Loves You Now." Nice to pull those out and remind us of how consummate his songwriting skills once were. But the performances... good god, pretty much verbatim from the original recordings. Same arrangements, same solos, very little leeway, aside from a few vocal modifications. You would think, being Billy Joel and all, that he could get away with taking a few liberties. Risk losing a few miserable fans who couldn't handle anything new or unusual. But no. Let's continue to live in the past.

No wonder the man is an alcoholic.

One of my favorite lines from a Billy Joel song: "Thought I was the Duke of Earl / When I made it with a red-head girl / in a Cheverolet" (from "Keepin' the Faith"). I recently discovered the "real" Duke of Earl--Gene Chandler, who recorded the tune Joel references in 1962. What a perfect piece of music. The beauty of a Sam Cooke melody, but with a hell of a lot less innocence. Out-swaggers most modern rap tunes, and even features a small two-horn sax "section" (very rare for Doo-Wop).

As I walk through this world
Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl
And you are my girl
And no one can hurt you, oh, no

And when I hold you you'll be my duchess
Duchess of Earl
We'll walk through my dukedom
And a paradise we will share

"Duke of Earl" is sort of naive, lustful, and full of dumb male bravado all at once. Just the sort of thing to prompt artistic risk-taking. I wish Mr. Joel would go back and listen to it again.


Llij said...

My pal Joe Trainor just gave me a CD of old Billy Joel demos and they are AMAZING. It's basically Billy sketching out songs from The Stranger and 52nd Street with the band. Most of the songs don't have lyrics, so he's just "na na na"-ing or making up silly words like "You just fucked that up you big ass, but hey that's OK, so did I, oh yeah!" and "God bless the Brooklyn Dodgers," etc.

It is f-ing fascinating listening to his brain work.

And holy crap, Doug Stegmeyer was a great bass player. Just hearing him F around during the solo in "Stiletto" is unreal.

I'll burn you a copy and send it off if you'll email me your address-- you will love it.

I heard about Billy's performance on Conan from my brother, and he had the same summary you did. I'm sad I missed it because I will always love the man (AFAIK he taught me to sing), but I'm also relieved I missed it because it's quite pleasant here in my cloud of ignorant oblivion. ;-)

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

My god, I'll pay you for a copy of that!!!!! Please email me at