464. Billy Joel’s ‘An Innocent Man’ (Written By Chris Bosman)

Hey y’all: Here’s another guest post. Chris Bosman is about one of the nicest guys on Twitter; we met when we wrote at Prefix in 2009, and since then he’s bounced around various websites (Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound) before pioneering #NiceTwitterMonday and becoming a card carrying member of #dadtwitter. He’s also working on a secret project that I’m helping with that I can’t wait to announce.

When I offered him up the list of albums to write about, he jumped right on the Billy Joel. Below he talks about Billy Joel’s relative coolness as it relates to An Innocent Man

It sounds ridiculous to suggest that considering why you have a vinyl copy of a Billy Joel record on your shelf is to consider exactly what your relationship is with the concept of “cool.” But it’s true. Joel has never been cool, even when he was the Piano Man. Joel released that cabaret bar mission statement in the final throes of the Vietnam War after years of protest (and protest music) and it went to number one mostly because of parents. If you were cool in the 1970s you were listening to Blondie or the Who or Stevie Wonder or wearing leather jackets or making fun of disco. Billy Joel was wedding music. Billy Joel is wedding music. Billy Joel will always be wedding music. 

Joel always has been well aware of his relationship with cool, and even though he donned a leather jacket and made a self-consciously “harder” record in 1980’s Glass Houses, he still couldn’t fully commit to the idea of being cool. That record’s biggest single “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” lashed out at the generation’s purveyors of that standing, featuring Joel answering his own intentionally out-of-touch questions with a double-tracked snide affectation while also drawing himself parallel with the new wave sounds lauded by the people he was mocking.

The coolest Billy Joel ever was was a brief period in 1983 when he, newly divorced and one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, suddenly found himself dating supermodels like Elle MacPherson and Christie Brinkley. The social politics of the 80s being what they were, being seen with beautiful women had a tendency to up quickly your cool quotient. Ironically, though, this newfound cool acceptance didn’t find Joel seeking to double down on his Glass Houses rebellion. Instead, Joel concoted and released maybe the most willfully uncool album of his career, An Innocent Man.

The concept of An Innocent Man is that it’s Joel revisiting the radio pop sounds of the late 50s and early 60s, the music he grew up on. On the heels of the self-seriousness and Beatles-homage of The Nylon Curtain, , it was a conscious step away from Joel being a “voice of the generation” type and a step toward Joel being a new-school pop standard bearer, the type whose songs would dominate karaoke bars and bar mitzvahs from here to eternity. Basically, it took Joel becoming cool to realize that cool wasn’t actually cool.

Listening to An Innocent Man is kinetic from the onset, opening with a tumbling snare that bursts into a groovy horn attack and Joel rolling easily into a charming vocal performance on “Easy Money”. When Joel opens the second verse of that gambling man manifesto with the line “You don’t have to try too hard,” it’s almost as if he’s singing to himself and the freedom he’s allowing himself fills “Easy Money,” and the rest of An Innocent Man with a laid back potency.

Like on the title track’s chorus, where the titular line “I am an innocent man” take the path of a prizefighter’s uppercut, teasing the midrange for only an instant before arcing upward, bashing into the listener’s chin after the quiet, Temptations-esque bassline-driven verses lulls them into quiet contemplation. And the emphasis that arrangement gives— “I am an innocent man”— is so powerful you’d almost believe that supermodels being willing to spend time with him didn’t play a factor into his earlier divorce.

An Innocent Man's two best-known moments are the doo-wop a capella homage of “The Longest Time” and the Four Seasons bite “Uptown Girl,” and it's not difficult to see why. Joel has consistently had a talent for delivering vocal melodies with an immediate earworm quality, and “Uptown Girl” and “Longest Time” are two of his bests, with every verse strong enough to hold up their respective songs on their own, then sliding into a pre-chorus catchier than most actual choruses, and then really hammering it home with the choruses.

And it’s interesting to note, that both of those tracks actually open (and close) with their catchiest bits, grabbing your attention by the throat, demanding it, never relinquishing it until the song is over. It’s a deft, almost hidden little thing that gets ignored with how ingrained those songs are in your subconscious that only reveals itself when you’re turning the vinyl over and over until you’ve confused which is the A and the B side.

That consistent listenability is lowkey An Innocent Man's strength. Its core concept— a traversal through pre-Beatles rock/pop— inherently prevents the record from beating any particular style into the ground over its length. And with Joel refusing to take himself seriously for the first time in years makes a playthrough of An Innocent Man deceptively breezy, seeming even shorter than its 40-minute runtime.

While Joel may have artistically stronger records than An Innocent Man, or records with more natch recognizable hits, An Innocent Man is a record you’ll never get tired of putting on the record player. You can drift into it, letting it seemingly drift into the background until you’ve inadvertently learned all the words. It’s powerful not because it’s impressive but because it’s satisfying, a reflection of Joel’s satisfaction with his own trip coming to terms with not being cool. He’s not. And that he accepts it on An Innocent Man is pretty damn cool.

Chris Bosman is on Twitter. Follow him at @racecarbrown

463. George Jones’ ‘George Jones Sings Hank Williams’

I still haven’t really listened to Hank Williams, because I’m holding out to find a vinyl copy of an old Hank album, so this is about as close as I’ve come to really getting into it with the father of modern country songwriting. George has one of the saddest singing instruments I’ve ever heard, so the ballads on here are especially effective. But I’m still holding out to hear Hank sing these songs before I commit fully to them. 

462. George Jones’ ‘16 Greatest Hits’

This is basically the best anecdote I’ve ever read about an artist ever. George Jones is a legend. I present it without comment:

Once, when I had been drunk for several days, Shirley decided she would make it physically impossible for me to buy liquor. I lived about eight miles from Beaumont and the nearest liquor store. She knew I wouldn’t walk that far to get booze, so she hid the keys to every car we owned and left.
But she forgot about the lawn mower. I can vaguely remember my anger at not being able to find keys to anything that moved and looking longingly out a window at a light that shone over our property. There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat; a key glistening in the ignition.

I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.

461. Elton John’s ‘Honky Chateau’

Listen, I’m not going to front: I bought this record because at the time A and I were just casually dating and she mentioned that this was one of her favorite albums and I bought it thinking “All right, I can prove to her I’m thinking about her when I’m on vacation and this will give us something easy to talk about during some of the silences we have together that I am worried are manifesting as something other than just polite joined silence and maybe we can listen to this together and think about how “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” is the most jocular song about depression ever recorded and how “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” sounds like a test run for “Tiny Dancer.” 

But now A is my girlfriend and I know the silence isn’t so bad, and we haven’t even listened to this together, and I’m realizing that every good song on here is already on the Elton John greatest hits album I have. So idk, I guess this record makes me think of the halcyon days of seven weeks ago when I thought buying this specific record to impress a specific woman might work. 

460. Waylon Jennings’ ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’

On February 3, 1959, Waylon Jennings was due to fly on a chartered plane to Moorhead, Minnesota, along with his boss, Buddy Holly. He had joined Holly’s band late in 1958, and Holly was helping him become a solo artist, financing Jennings’ first records. Holly was touring with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in early ‘59, and they were playing 24 cities in three weeks by bus. Everyone started catching the flu, and Holly got sick of barnstorming by bus. So he chartered a plane. Jennings had a seat on said plane. Right before take off, he gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, because he had a cold, and Waylon was a standup dude who helped out people like that.

You know what happened next, right? The plane crashed, the music died, and Don McLean made a pie.

I had forgotten that Waylon was the famed near-miss of the Day the Music Died, and when I remembered that while listening to this record, it’s hard not to think about that brush with death, and its effect on Waylon’s life. Can you imagine what that must have been like? To know you could have been dead if you were less polite? That the Big Bopper would have lived longer. There’s almost no way it didn’t turn Waylon into the Devil May Care guy he became. Why not get loaded, smoke pot, and record Outlaw country? You almost died. There’s no more time for bullshit, and Waylon didn’t waste his time on any his whole career. It’s something I think I want to aspire to. Not giving a single fuck ever, like Waylon Jennings. 

459. Waylon Jennings’ ‘Ramblin’ Man’

I didn’t aim at anything except good music”—Waylon Jennings

"You know? I feel bad for new artists"—Waylon Jennings

"Cuz I was never pretty anyway and never cared anything about that."—Waylon Jennings

"I may be crazy, but it keeps me from going insane."—Waylon Jennings

"I never have any problem getting enthusiastic with a good song and a good band."—Waylon Jennings

“Garth Brooks did for country music what pantyhose did for finger fucking.”—Waylon Jennings, with the greatest ether on another performer ever. Rappers take note on this, holy shit. 

458. INXS’ ‘Kick’

1. I have this memory that I am not sure is real or if I’ve manufactured it at some point along my life. I am about two-years-old, and I am sitting at my kiddie table in the kitchen of our old house in Marshfield, and I am looking up at my mom, who is pregnant with my sister Hannah, and we are talking about what we are going to do tomorrow, and in the background “Need You Tonight” is playing on the radio. I’ve had this memory every time I’ve listened to INXS since, so it feels real, but I also realize that it’s insane to have memories of being two and hearing a pop song. But it feels so real. I’ve been listening to INXS since I’ve had memories.

2. 

3. It’s really unfortunate that INXS have been sort of written out of the “this band was one of the best of the ’80s” canon, and part of that is probably because Michael Hutchence killed himself in 1997, and in the years since, his band did dumb stuff like have a reality show where they chose a new singer. But you listen to Kick, and it’s clearly one of the best albums of the ’80s, and it gets forgotten because it’s not part of hair metal and it wasn’t made by Prince, Duran Duran, Talking Heads or Michael Jackson. This thing knocked me out when I listened to it for this. It’s flawless, and there are like six singles here. It felt like uncovering a lost classic, eventhough it was a mega hit when it came out. 

4. My mom told me last night that she owned a cassette tape of Kick, and that memory I have might be true. She said I used to sit at the table when she made things in the kitchen, and we’d listen to tapes. So maybe that is true? But then again, she said, “I don’t know you’re memory is either really strong or you make stuff up. Who knows?”   

457. Merle Haggard’s ‘The Best of Merle Haggard’

6 facts about Merle Haggard:

  1. His first job was digging ditches. Literally.
  2. Most of his early hits were wild conservative; he was country music your grandpa could love.
  3. He was pardoned by Ronald Reagan, pretty much for the above reason.
  4. He started smoking marijuana at 41, which, lol.
  5. He bought out his own record contract in order to release an anti-flag burning song once. He’s that kind of cowboy.
  6. He and I share a birthday. 

456. The J. Geils Band’s ‘Freeze Frame’

It’s a weeknight, and A and I are settling into our routine of laying in bed and reading like an old domesticated couple even though we’ve only been dating for a few weeks, and she says the thing every music geek wants to hear from the girl he’s dating because we’re all shallow and want to be acknowledged: “Put on a record.” So, I go out into my living room and look at the stack of vinyl I brought home from vacation, and instead of, you know, playing something that might facilitate…more than laying in bed and reading…I pick up Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band because it’s the next record up alphabetically for me to listen to.

I realize my mistake as soon as I lay back down; this is basically a record by a bar band and A was expecting me to play something semi-romantic or at least not an album that includes an ode to a girl in Playboy. She kind of raises her eyebrows, and goes, “Why did you play this?” and I say, “Because it was up next alphabetically and I’m an idiot.” She laughs and goes back to her book.

It’s probably time for me to admit that I have a problem.  

455. The Doobie Brothers’ ‘Minute By Minute’

1. Here’s a story I’ve been told roughly 49 times since I was old enough to know that the Doobie Brothers totally ruled and also that my parents loved them. So I guess since I was about 4-years-old:

In 1982, my parents, who had been married for three years at the time, went to a Doobie Brothers concert at Alpine Valley in Milwaukee with my aunt Kathy, her now-ex-husband Brian, and my uncle Karl. This was an important tour, because it was the Doobie Brothers’ farewell tour and my parents were 27 and still without kids and could be wild irresponsible. They rode into Alpine in the back of Brian’s pickup, and they ended up sitting way up the incline hill at Alpine, to the point where Michael McDonald and the boys were “like ants performing somewhere in the distance.” It was the best concert my parents had ever seen, and I could only hope to see a concert that good when I got older.

As I got older and started going to concerts, this story got another element: it was one of the last times my parents could remember smoking pot. They sat on blankets, and my uncle Karl, the plug, had an ample supply, and there were many joints going around and my parents got prodigiously stoned at a Doobies concert. I was consequently unsure whether to believe the “best concert ever” platitudes.

2. About 5 years ago, I was visiting my parents at home, and we were driving somewhere and “What A Fool Believes” came on the radio. All three of us sing every word—I would bet my parents and I agree more on how rad “What a Fool Believes” is more than anything other than that my sister is crazy—and then I brought up the “you guys got wild stoned at a Doobie Brothers concert, how cliché is that,” thing. And to the surprise of my mom and I, my dad doesn’t get it.

“What? Why would smoking pot at the Doobie Brothers be cliché?”

 “Dad, because of their name.”

 “What? Brothers smoke pot?”

 “Dad. Doobie means weed.”

 “What? It does? No it doesn’t! I’ve never called it a doobie. We called it weed. Who calls it a doobie?”

 “Wayne, a lot of people,” my mom said.

“No way. I have never heard that.”

 “Dad. How is that possible? You smoked weed till almost right before I was born. Didn’t you know any of the names for it?”

 “Sure, we called it weed.”

It was in that moment that I realized my dad was cool enough to be a hippie and smoke pot for 10 years, but was so clueless he never learned alternative names for it. My dad literally never knew that Doobie Brothers was a weed reference, and he listened to the band for 30 years. Dads are incredible. Go talk to your dad about things, he will make you laugh.

3. This isn’t the one my parents saw, but it took place 3 years earlier, so whatevz. There are days when I can’t be convinced this isn’t the best song of all time.