The first two music albums that I fell in love with were Billy Joel’s The Stranger and Steely Dan’s Aja. I was 13 years old. Over time I came to like Aja better but initially The Stranger was my favorite. First favorite albums always have a special place in your heart and which is why I was so excited to attend my first Billy Joel concert at the YUM center last week.
The first thing I noticed was Billy Joel looks a lot different today than he did when I was first introduced to him in 1977. He even joked when introducing himself that he was really Billy Joel’s father. A lot of time has passed since The Stranger was released –37 years to be exact. But as I was treated to a generously long lifetime of songs from the legendary Billy Joel I couldn’t help but notice that –at least in my opinion—almost all of Joel’s greatest songs came from The Stranger (1977) or earlier works.
The 37 years that followed had produced some memorable and even exceptional songs but none that rated, again in my opinion, as classics or truly extraordinary pieces of music.
Which made me think to myself that perhaps in music—and other professions—the key is to have a huge creative burst in your late 20s and then you can coast the rest of your life by replaying your greatest hits, so to speak, to sell out crowds. In other words, I asked myself, Was Billy Joel and so many other of our greatest artists their own version of Orson Welles –who stunned the world with his prodigy and prodigiousness in his early career before falling relatively flat during the ensuing decades?
But as I remained entertained and even entranced by Billy Joel I knew something more was at play. Perhaps for some artists they do flame out early and coast for many years after that. But that is not what we were witnessing with Billy Joel. Yes, his greatest music perhaps was written when he was a younger man but we were not watching a man who was past his prime. He had matured from a great song writer to one of the greatest entertainers of our time. Joel may have been at the apex of his creativity in his 20s but now in his 60s Joel was still peaking as a performer and master musician.
So, as we were slowly filing out after the concert, I wondered to myself what this all meant. Perhaps it was that great creativity and breakthrough originality are breathtaking to experience but like all things that take your breath away are hard to sustain. But real passion and dedication that lasts not for months or years –but for decades –and is nurtured while honing your life’s work, may not take your breath away, but does elicit something even greater—an awe and respect as well as a record of sustained excellence that is even rarer and more special than moments of genius.
I learned, I suppose, that the depth of our devotion is more profound than the height of our creativity. In music. And in life. The former can create one of the great albums of a generation. But the latter can establish one of the greatest entertainers of our lifetime. And made me glad that the Billy Joel I finally got to see live wasn’t the brilliant 28 year old at his creative flashpoint, who would have still been very exciting to see, but rather was the 65 year old master of his craft and consummate musical performer, who truly was amazing to behold. And who also taught me an important lesson about life.