Glass Houses, Billy Joel’s all-out attempt at a rock & roll album, is just about as convincing and exciting as Linda Ronstadt’s recent Mad Love, though the latter sounds a lot more game and likable than the former ever will. Ronstadt may never understand what songwriters like Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon are talking about, but at least she knows who they are and that they represent something both honorable and artistic. She’s not a complete de adbeat. Joel, on the other hand, always comes off like a particularly obnoxious frat boy who’s hoisted a few too many while trying to put the make on an airline stewardess. His profundity is singles-bar deep. As Danny Fields, Steve Forbert’s and lggy Pop’s manager, said long ago about a Pointer Sisters LP: “I thought we invented rock & roll to get away from crap like this.” At any rate, since Mad Love and Glass Houses — MOR-pop-rock by superstars — will surely sell millions of copies, perhaps a new music-biz trophy is in order. Let’s award Billy Joel a polyester record and hope he’ll go away.
Two rock-critic friends of mine, both part-time Joel admirers, actually like Glass Houses “because there’s nothing overtly stupid on it” (meaning there certainly was on 52nd Street, The Stranger, et al.). Some defense. Yet, in a way, I suppose they’re right: unless you consider the entire album one bland and endless bad joke — as I do — there aren’t any real howlers. Just fake this and fake that. Listen to Billy Joel take on the Rolling Stones, muffing a Mick Jagger inflection at the end of the third line in every verse of “You May Be Right,” while the band dutifully cranks out what it considers raunch. Depressing, huh? Then there’s fake Paul Simon (“Don’t Ask Me Why”), fake Beatles circa their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band period (“All for Leyna,” especially the choruses) and a godawful sort of Eagles-go-punk state of the union message called “Close to the Borderline,” in which Joel reaches the heady conclusion that “Life is tough.”
What’s most annoying about Joel is his holier-than-thou sneakiness, his insistence to have it both ways. In “You May Be Right,” the singer strikes one of the silliest tough-guy poses ever (“I’ve been stranded in the combat zone/I walked through Bedford Stuy alone/Even rode my motorcycle in the rain”), in general behaves like a perfect asshole, blames his girl for his actions when she points out that he’s nuts, and then sums up everything with the logic of an egomaniac:
You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for …
You may be wrong for all I know
But you may be right.
I guess what Joel’s trying to do here is picture himself as a lovable loony, a teddy bear with a zip gun, but this brand of madness is snug enough — and smug enough — to make someone like Art Garfunkel look like Iggy Pop.
In concert and throughout Glass Houses, Joel sings in a voice that’s pushy and bossy and whiny at the same time, like a rush-hour bus driver bawling out his hapless, weary passengers. If ever an artist has misunderstood the freewheeling challenge of rock & roll, it’s Billy Joel. Onstage, he’s a lounge lizard, whipping himself into an artificial frenzy to put across some kind of warped notion of what he imagines, say, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young or the Clash stand for. Leather jackets, mad-dog delirium, heavy breathing, pure speed — that’s probably Joel’s idea of how to get down and rock. On record, he cools it a little, hedges his bets, throws in a rotten ballad or two (“Here I am again/In this smoky place/With my brandy eyes”). But it’s obvious that this Long Islander regards rock & roll as a braggart’s game in which thé blowzy, blustering good guy — i.e., himself — can lord it over everybody else and crow to his heart’s content without taking any responsibility for his actions. Real kid stuff. The spoiled-brat special.
Billy Joel loves to play the bully. He’s always laying down terms, drawing lines in the dirt that he dares you to cross. Especially if you’re a woman. “What’s the matter with the clothes I’m wearing? … What’s the matter with the car I’m driving?” he keeps asking in “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” the LP’s two-pronged philosophical bummer. On one level, the song depicts a battle of the sexes; on another, it’s about rock & roll. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” is structured as a give-and-take dialogue in which the woman talks back in a futile attempt to get the man to shape up. The singer resists, of course, and tries to paint his female friend as a flighty harpy. In Joel’s eyes, his reluctance makes him a no-bullshit hero, yet this grandstand play for independence is just another way to put down what he can’t be part of and to give himself a pat on the back while he’s doing it.
If that sounds like a contortionist’s trick, so does the whole album. Glass Houses was apparently intended to be loose, raucous and less “well made” than its slick predecessors, but it comes out sounding twisted and confused. In “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Billy Joel’s so screwed up that he sees himself championing good old rock & roll against what he considers the newfangled fads. “It’s the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways/It’s still rock and roll to me” is his method of kissing off all the upstarts who perceive that Joel is a lot less than the big-city brawler he pretends to be and a lot closer to being the cocktail-lounge piano man he supposedly left behind years ago.
Maybe Joel just ought to ‘fess up, forget about being a rock & roller and settle down in the middle of the road. His piano playing’s lively, his band is dogged and his kind of music — as the sales figures prove — makes plenty of people happy. Billy Joel writes smooth and cunning melodies, and what many of his defenders say is true: his material’s catchy. But then, so’s the flu.