Billy Joel Stephen Holden - Essay

Stephen Holden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Goodnight Saigon," the turning point of Billy Joel's ambitious new album [The Nylon Curtain], may well be remembered as the ultimate pop-music epitaph to the Vietnam War. (p. 71)

While "Goodnight Saigon" is The Nylon Curtain's stunner, there are other songs in which Joel's blue-collar smarts, Broadway theatricality and rock attitude blend perfectly. "Allentown," his portrait of a crumbling Pennsylvania mining city in which the American dream has died hard, could be a scene from The Deer Hunter put to music. Like "Goodnight Saigon," its tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct. And that directness is presumably what the album title refers to. For in one way or another, the songs on this LP are concerned with the tearing away of protective emotional filters to reveal naked truths.

But for every starkly descriptive song like "Goodnight Saigon," there's another that teases with ambiguous images and aural finery. While Billy Joel has long admitted to idolizing Paul McCartney, The Nylon Curtain's mixture of brutal directness and tantalizing ambiguity suggests the late-Sixties John Lennon more than McCartney….

Coming after the frolicsome but forgettable Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain finds Billy Joel on higher artistic ground than ever before. Until this album, Joel's socially acute songs have been set mostly on his own home turf; "Captain Jack," "Piano Man" and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" defined the New York suburban milieu in bold, if occasionally awkward, strokes. On The Nylon Curtain, "Goodnight Saigon" and "Allentown" find Joel tackling subjects farther from home and larger than his own neighborhood, and they bring out the painterly side of him that has always identified with that master of American light, Edward Hopper.

Instead of inspiring Joel's scorn, the way suburbia has done, they've challenged his eye and stirred his compassion. (p. 72)

Stephen Holden, "Billy Joel's Brutally Frank, Aurally Ambitious Pop Masterpiece," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1980; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 380, October 14, 1982, pp. 71-2.