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Friday, November 26, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An Ode To Billy Joel -- `River Of Dreams' Tour Is Turning Point For Once-Angry Pop Star

Concert preview

An Evening with Billy Joel, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Seattle Center Coliseum; $28.50; 628-088. ------------------------------------------------------------------- The angry young men usually don't last.

They tend to run their fury headfirst into oncoming disaster, the sharp, dulling end of needles, or the bottom of bottles and bankruptcy. If they last long enough to become angry old men, their vitality has turned to bitterness, their bitterness to bile.

Somehow Billy Joel, who came out of the '60s 'burbs of New York as angry as the next kid, has managed to survive that, both as a man and an artist. Although his sagas of outlaws have often been tempered with Marlboro Man melodies (the early "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" for instance), he's railed for and against as many causes and conditions as any of his contemporaries. And he's done so with songs that - like it or not - have become etched into the consciousness of late 20th century America. And the world.

Joel decided he wanted to become a musician after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show in the mid-'60s. He was in his first band, the Echoes, by age 14. He played in bands at night and worked straight gigs - his parents were divorced - during the day. He never graduated from high school.

By the time he was 21, he had his first record contract and his first agonies with bad management. At one point, he attempted suicide by drinking shoe polish and landed up in an observation ward. Those experiences eventually surfaced in the 1985 song "You're Only Human (Second Wind)." Trying to get out of a bad contract, he moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles, playing as Billy Martin in local saloons and drinking a fair amount of scotch. Needless to say, his first hit single, "Piano Man," came from that period.

Songs of pain

A great many of Joel's songs have been about love, certainly the career-making "Just The Way You Are" was, along with romance staples like "She's Always A Woman," "She's Got A Way" and "Tell Her About It." But the great majority of Joel's work has addressed the painful side of living in this world, be it acute anxiety ("Pressure"), the loss of the innocence and the American dream ("Say Good Bye To Hollywood" and "Allentown") or war ("Goodnight Saigon"). That he has tackled these subjects is what defines him as an artist, but it's sometimes his styles - ranging from rock to a Phil Specter-ish wall of sound - that have brought out his detractors. Joel is often derided as being a "songwriter," and not in a complimentary way.

Joel has been ambivalent about his critics. He always seemed more bothered by the string of ex-managers he was involved in legal battles with - including his ex-wife and ex-brother-in-law - than in criticism of the work. Joel has continued to record and tour almost nonstop for 20 years.

No more disillusionment

But it's his new recording, "River of Dreams," in which Joel seems to have resolved many of his demons and his anger. He's admitted he had become an angry, disillusioned, bitter person who had lost faith in everything because "I had lost faith in myself, my ability to form any discerning judgment about what the hell was going on around me." He says he wrote the new album for himself, rather than the record company, and that he wrote the songs as a participant, not an observer, as he has in the past.

"No Man's Land" is about the developers that have gotten too close to his back yard, and a bulldozing complaint at that. "The Great Wall of China" could fall on Joel's former business partners, for all he cares (although he has dropped the latest $60 million suit without explanation). "All About Soul" is for his wife, Christie Brinkley, and "Lullaby," he tries to explain mortality to his daughter.

Joel might be slick, but he's also succinct and he can still be a little savage - he still runs all over the stage, just not as fast. But what he seems to have found is some measure of peace, peace without stagnation, which makes "River of Dreams" one of his best works, but not his last.

"These are the last words I have to say," he sings in "Famous Last Words." "That's why this took so long to write. There will be other words some other day, but that's the story of my life."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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