Billy Joel's Dilemma: Easy Listening Piano Man or Resilient Rocker

Billy Joel isn't your average rocker. And that's not simply because he has accumulated more hits than any dozen other rock folk combined. While he boasts many of the same qualities that typify your average rock star - a penchant for drinking too much, his habit of wrecking expensive cars, and his attraction to hot women he can't hold onto - he doesn't exactly present the image that most people associate with the flash and glam of a superstar. He's pudgy, balding, and looks a lot like your Uncle Fred. Just ask those who have seen him frequenting South Beach. Charisma? Not really. Even though he puts on one hell of a concert, his look suggests that of the average performer at the local Holiday Inn.

We're just being honest here, folks. After all, in rock 'n' roll, image is everything.

Admittedly, few musicians have reaped as much acclaim as Mr. Joel has over the past forty years. Although he hasn't produced any new music recently - much less, any songs that have returned him to the charts - his back catalogue is one of the most prolific in popular music. Like his pal Elton John, an artist whose image has always defied the norm, Joel proved that piano could be used as a dynamic lead instrument, one from which indelible hit songs flow. And while he's procured some pap in the form of unabashed MOR standards and easy listening schmaltz - we'll cite "Piano Man," "Just the Way You Are," "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," and, good God, "Uptown Girl" as examples - he deserves due credit for some vibrant songs as well. There's "We Didn't Start the Fire," "Los Angelinos," Allentown," and "Miami 2017." Although most of the aforementioned tunes aren't included among his greatest hits, they do help establish his street cred in ways the more cloying aspects of his music disavow.

At one point in Joel's career, he seemed sensitive to the fact that he could become typecast as merely an easy-listening balladeer. Indeed, the album Glass Houses seemed a deliberate attempt to counter that impression. Coming belatedly after the punk revolution had already turned the music biz upside down, Joel affirmed his admiration with a set list that included "You May Be Right" and the rather obvious "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," songs in which he tried his hand at guitar and posing as a young punk willing to defy the establishment. The title of the album itself alluded to that desire, and its cover showed him clad in a black leather jacket, taking aim at his own reflection. Yet, it also offered the impression that perhaps he was trying too hard, and for all the protest he proffered, he still knew that his bread and butter came from a product that was strictly PG.

On the other hand, when Joel didn't seem to have any objective in mind, he managed to produce some of his best material, as the aforementioned "We Didn't Start the Fire" and the bulk of 1993's River of Dreams album can attest. Likewise, a listen to any of his live albums or a ticket to one of his concerts will affirm the fact that the man can indeed rock relentlessly, in part thanks to the great band he has in tow.

And if any further evidence is needed, there's the music made early in his career: the rare recordings he made with his first band, the Hassles, and the piano-drums duo Attila. While Joel himself doesn't hold those efforts in high regard, they do offer evidence that he was once a rough and tumble character whose mindset wasn't always focused on the charts.

Billy Joel with Tom Odell. 8 p.m. on January 7 and 11 at BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, Sunrise. Tickets cost $39.50 to $119.50 plus fees. Call 954-835-7000, or visit

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Lee Zimmerman