Billy Joel – ‘She’s Always A Woman To Me.’

The singer/songwriter genre is the most esteemed category of ‘popular’ music. Good and bad in the popular realm, however, is so much a function of fashion; Bruce Springsteen being the most obvious example. After colossal mainstream success during the eighties into near-obscurity after, Bruce’s recent forays into traditional folk music have pointed up his roots, and in many ways, bought him back into relevance. He’s now recognized as a skilled storyteller whose his voice bears the character of his tales; weathered and split, with dust and authenticity gathered in the cracks.

Billy Joel also enjoyed mainstream success, followed by relegation into the daggy ‘easy listening’ category. It has a huge, yet silent constituency, as quiet in their cultural presence as the tapping of the toes of their big, white tennis shoes under their stadium seats. Billy hasn’t quite reached the ‘coming in from the cold’ part of his career however and I wonder, given the way his nice-guy persona remains lodged behind that most unsexy of instruments, the piano, if he ever will.

billy-joel-he-was-happier-than-this-when-he-got-his-radio-station

Part of the problem for Billy Joel is that most of my generation grew up with him playing in the background. I suspect he’s most famous for the song, ‘Piano Man’, which is a strong example of straight-forward, sequential story-telling. In fact, I think this post was prompted when I heard ‘She’s Always a Woman’ under similar circumstances, maybe playing in the background somewhere, at a supermarket or a shopping centre.

The thing about ‘She’s Always a Woman’ that’s so striking is the set-up. It’s not a conventional ballad where a man addresses a woman, or the listener is addressed on the subject of her. It seems like it until the end of the verse, at which point you realize that the narrator is someone entirely separate.

There’s actually three people present. The woman herself, as the subject, the man who loves her (who is the idealized listener), while the narrator is a third man who has loved – and lost – her. It’s actually a song in which one man serenades another, something you forget until the narrator distinguishes himself at the end of each stanza. He’s even there, speaking from the title.

The positive part of loving this capricious, frustrating, mercurial woman is hardly present in the telling.

‘She can kill with a smile she can wound with her eye

She’ll ruin your faith with her casual lies’

‘She’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free

She steals like a thief but she’s always a woman to me.’

 

…Sadistic, thieving and dishonest; hardly an attractive portrait. In fact, it sounds more like an inventory of the barriers and caltrops the whole thing was broken over.

 

‘She’ll bring out the best – and the worst – you can be,

Blame it all on yourself ‘cause she’s always a woman to me.’

 

At the end of the day, however, like all ‘true’ love, the whole thing is hopeless and there’s nothing left afterwards but desire, like a pile of hot ash. But the fact that it persists is miraculous in itself.

And that’s the mark of a remarkable storyteller; someone who can take a common subject and remake it as something new, never to be replicated or replaced.

 

Say what you like; the dude had great hair.

Say what you like; the dude had great hair.

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