When asked in January this year why he had not recorded a pop album since 1993, Billy Joel replied: ‘I thought I’d had my say. I just said, you know, OK shut up now.’ Twelve albums was a ‘nice round number’, he told TV chat show host Stephen Colbert, who then pointed out that Elton John had suggested he release more. To which the American artist quipped: ‘Yeah, well I told him he should put out less albums.’ Touché.
Of songwriting itself, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993: ‘It’s agony. It’s hell. I get cranky and moody. I get in this strange state. I even dream a lot of the music. I wake up and recall bits and pieces of stuff. That triggers other ideas. I slowly put it all together. It’s like pulling teeth.’
It is difficult to argue with his reasons for leaving the studio behind, and his rich contribution to music is beyond question. And yet there is a lingering sense of ‘what if?’ Despite regular sold-out shows across the United States and more distant ports, it’s tempting to wonder what an artist approaching 70 might now say about the world in which we live: the wisdom of an ageing poet is always more than welcome.
For now, though, we have the fruits of those two decades in the studio between 1971 and 1993. So what brings us to this one particular gem? It is not in Joel’s own top five so why, from among the dozens of entries in his glittering catalogue, choose this song? Well, with your indulgence, we are here to conduct a restoration project, to remove the layers of grime and limescale accumulated through lamentable exposure to the karaoke canon and overwrought renditions on talent shows. We are here to rescue beauty.
Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) was the third single from the 1993 album River Of Dreams. It had been intended as a prelude to the album’s title track, cast in the style of a Gregorian chant. Joel had written an English lyric describing a man who had lost his faith, and the words were translated into Latin. In the studio, however, he decided instead on a new lyric reflecting the relationship with his daughter, Alexa Ray, who was then aged seven.
Joel told the story during a 2001 masterclass at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘She goes: “Daddy, what happens when you die.” And I told her what I really believed. And what I really believe is, what happens when you die is you go into other people’s hearts, you never really go away. The people that you knew, you go into the rest of their lives.’ At the time he and Christie Brinkley were separating. ‘So this was like a double-pronged thing, like: “Daddy, are you gonna leave me?” And I said: “I’ll never leave you, I will never leave you, I’ll never go away, I will never, never ever leave you.” So it was a tough answer in both respects.’
From that heavy answer came a ballad of sustained grace: a simple, gentle, melodic pulse married to words of devastating sincerity:
Goodnight my angel, time to close your eyes And save these questions for another day I think I know what you've been asking me, I think you know what I've been trying to say I promised I would never leave you, Then you should always know Wherever you may go, no matter where you are, I never will be far away
The mood stays on the bright side of elegy and leans towards comfort, a balm for familial wounds, solace in dark times. We each find a way to deal with loss; some cope better than others. Hum a happy tune, whistle on a walk, let go, hold tight, cry. Do angels walk among us? Who can really say? But a funny thing happened at London Victoria, and it’s not impossible to believe my late father is here and occasionally would like a word.
Which brings us, somehow, to Terence Stamp. In the 2013 film Song For Marion, the veteran actor delivers a moving portrayal of an elderly widower who joins the local choir after his music-loving wife dies. Yes, the film is sentimental, but still nothing can quite prepare the viewer for Stamp’s performance of Lullabye, taking the song to another dimension: a man grieving for the lifelong love he has lost all too soon.
Someday we'll all be gone But lullabies go on and on They never die, That's how you and I will be
Rare is the song that manages to age like a bottle of fine wine. This is a memorable vintage. As for Joel’s own top five from the cellar, he lists the following: 1) Scenes From An Italian Restaurant; 2) She’s Right On Time; 3) You May Be Right; 4) And So It Goes; 5) Vienna.
Each entry is a touchstone in modern music. There may not be another album but he remains a supreme artist. Consider the accolades: Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, 1992; Johnny Mercer Award, 2001; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1999; the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, 2014; in 2014, the ASCAP Centennial Award, presented just once each century. In 2013, he received the 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honor; in 2004, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He holds multiple honorary doctorates and his portrait hangs in Steinway Hall, Manhattan, among those of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Franz Liszt and Arthur Rubinstein.
He has sold more than 150 million records and received 23 Grammy nominations, winning six awards including Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1978 for Just The Way You Are. And in his spare time he builds motorcycles for fellow rock stars. It is always worth revisiting Billy Joel to savour once again his gift. The man’s a master. Long may he play.