It took Billy Joel most of the 70s to finally get his footing on the pop charts. But once he was there he wouldn’t go right into and through the 80s. He had a minor hit with Piano Man in 1974 and then couldn’t really follow it up with anything bigger. Billy was a dreamer and started to drift more into the prog rock style of songwriter, writing great songs but nothing with enough pop appeal. All of that changed with The Stranger album, which was slicker in production and performance, resulting in 4 Top hits, including the standard, Just The Way You Are. (And of course, the 7 minute classic, Scenes From An Italian Restaurant).
So he was a setup to build on his big breakthrough in 1978, which is when he released 52nd Street. Billy acted like he was a rocker, wore leather jackets, acted tougher than his short stature, but he was a jazz man at heart. The album cover is Joel looking brooding on a dirty Manhattan street corner….holding a trumpet. Trying to be a punk while naming your album after a street in NY where many famous jazz clubs were located probably didn’t win over many young rebels. But it netted him a whole lot of pop fans, especially with his first single, My Life.
Billy had a great schtick – the angry young man behind the tinkling ivories. Here he was slamming those chords down on an electric piano backed with an acoustic guitar telling someone to fuck off while heading up the adult contemporary charts. Maybe it wasn’t a schtick. Maybe he really wanted to rock and couldn’t escape who is truly was and the anger was a large chip on his shoulder which grew each time he tried to prove it. Regardless he picked up the mantle that Elton John dropped while pursuing too many drugs and exhaustion, and started to churn out hit after hit.
But whenever I hear that back & forth octave bass part, I can only think of one thing – Bosom Buddies. BB was a TV show starring Tom Hanks & Peter Scolari who dressed up like women to get a cheap apartment for rent. Pretty much like a cross-dressing version of Laverne & Shirley. Didn’t matter to me cause I thought it was hilarious, esp Tom Hanks. Yeah he used to be very funny. They used My Life as the theme song to this show, which is pretty funny considering that the song is about telling people to mind your own business and here the premise of the show is two guys deceiving a building full of women. Which brings me to the lyrics….
There has always been talk of who the ‘old friend’ is in the first verse:
Got a call from an old friend we’d used to be real close
Said he couldn’t go on the American way
Closed the shop, sold the house, bought a ticket to the west coast
Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.
The rumor is that it was comedian Richard Lewis, but there is no proof that Billy even knew him. I always thought it might have been Jerry Seinfeld, who grew up on Long Island just like Joel and moved out to L.A. in the 70s to get a start in stand-up comedy. As I listen to the song now, I wonder if Billy was talking about himself. He was a struggling musician in New York and decided to pack it up and move to Los Angeles. He was out there for a number of years, admittedly miserable, and moved back where he began to have success. Could it be that Billy was under advice of many people, managers, agents, record company folks to move out there against his better judgment and now that he proved he would be more successful and fruitful in his environment, he was telling those folks that he doesn’t care anymore what they say, that this was his [my] life? Either way the song is worth it for just this one line:
You can speak your mind, but not on my time.