Song of the Day #321: ‘Laura’ – Billy Joel

nyloncurtainThe Nylon Curtain is one of Billy Joel’s most ambitious albums, and one of his best. Two years after the major success of the expectation-defying Glass Houses, Joel changed things up again, paying more attention than ever to the production values of his work and crafting an homage to his childhood heroes The Beatles.

Nylon Curtain was a bit of a slump, sales-wise, selling “only” 2 million copies in the U.S. One of the real surprises for me in researching these songs for the Billy Joel theme is exactly how commercially successful he remained throughout his career. With the exception of the ill-fated Cold Spring Harbor, every single one of Joel’s albums has gone platinum. Of the eleven post-Harbor albums, all but two have gone at least four times platinum. Artists today would kill for that sort of consistency. (It’s weird to talk about Joel’s recording career in the past tense, but it’s been 16 years since he last put out an album!)

The Nylon Curtain opened with the smash hit ‘Allentown’ (a wonderful song) and also featured the excellent, trippy ‘Pressure.’ My favorite song on the album is ‘Scandinavian Skies,’ a psychedelic account of a tour that somehow feels more like an effective war song than the over-reaching ‘Goodnight Saigon.’

My other favorite is today’s track, ‘Laura,’ which owes so much to late Beatles that Lennon and McCartney should get a songwriting credit. I love the way Joel drags out the words in the choruses (at least I think those are the choruses, though the lyrics change each time… I’m referring to lines such as “Living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be”).

The song explores a messed-up masochistic relationship with a woman who abuses the narrator because it’s the only way she knows how to connect. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, splendidly sketching out the turmoil of loving somebody who doesn’t know how to love back. For me the key line is the final one, “How do you hang up on someone who needs you that bad?”

Laura calls me in the middle of the night
Passes on her painful information
Then these careless fingers
They get caught in her vice
Til they’re bleeding on my coffee table

Living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be
I’m on her side, why does she push her poison on me?

Laura has a very hard time
All her life has been one long disaster
Then she tells me she suddenly believes
She’s seen a very good sign
She’ll be taking some aggressive action

I fight her wars while she’s slamming her doors in my face
Failure to break was the only mistake that she made

Here I am feeling like a fucking fool
Do I react the way exactly she intends me to?
Everytime I think I’m off the hook
She makes me lose my cool
I’m her machine, and she can punch all the keys
She can push any button I was programmed through

Laura calls me when she needs a good fix
All her questions will get sympathetic answers
I should be so immunized to all of her tricks
She’s surviving on her second chances

Sometimes I feel like this godfather deal is all wrong
How can she hold an umbilical cord for so long?

I’ve done everything I can
What else am I supposed to do
I’m her machine, and she can punch all the keys
She can push any button I was programmed through

Laura loves me even if I don’t care
That’s my problem, that’s her sacred absolution
If she had to, she would put herself in my chair
Even though I faced electrocution

She always says I’m the best friend that she’s ever had
How do you hang up on someone who needs you that bad?

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6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #321: ‘Laura’ – Billy Joel

  1. Amy says:

    While I appreciate many of the songs (today’s included) on this album , I can’t say that I love many of them. This is the album of Joel’s I’ve always admired but least often actually want to play. There is an intensity to the songs that I like in small doses. Often his performance of “Goodnight Saigon” or “Allentown” (likely my favorite on the album) are always concert highlights. I wonder if this means I’m less of a fan of the Beatles than I think I am, or that I just am less of a fan of the Beatles + Billy Joel.

  2. Dana says:

    Nylon Curtain was the first album of new music by Joel to come out after I had became a huge, make that obsessed, fan. As I recall, the first albums of his I owned were The Piano Man and the Stranger, but I likely got them around 1980, after 52nd Street and Glass Houses were already released. So I obsessively gobbled up those 2 albums and went back to get Cold Spring Harbor, Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles as well. Played them all over and over and over again.

    Then Joel released Songs in the Attic around 1982, which you have understandably not featured because it contained no new songs, an album I played…and played…and played until I knew exactly where every skip and scratch was on the record. (there was a particularly annoying one during Miami 2017)

    And so, when Curtain came out, the 4 years from the new music of Glass Houses felt like an ETERNITY for me! (the years go by MUCH slower when you are young:)) Before I could even buy the album, I watched the “world premiere” of the new video “Pressure” on MTV. I was in shock. What the hell was my man doing? Why was he sitting in an electric chair? What was up with all those synthesizer sounds? Where was the piano? Where was the saxaphone? I was freaking out, and a bit scared to play the rest of the album, which I bought at Vibrations Record store for the “nice price” of $9.99. What if my love for Joel must come to an end because the man has jumped off the deep end?

    I remember coming home with the record and putting it on the family stereo system (yes the one with the reel to reel built in). My dad, who really liked Joel’s older stuff like Just the Way You Are, readily dismissed the album as garbage after hearing barely a few notes of Allentown. But I was digging it–and pleasantly relieved that at least the opening track had piano. Then came Laura—softer sound … check …. piano …. check …. but then, oh my God…no he did-int! Joel did not just say “fucking fool!” He was cursing right there on my family’s stereo system and I was responsible because I was playing it. Well, enough of that…I stopped playing the record for the family, and listened to the rest on my “state of the art” Radio Shack stereo in my room.

    Hearing Pressure on the record, without seeing Joel’s crazy ass face while writhing in the electric chair, seemed far more pallatable. And then came the rest of the album–pure genius in my opinion. Goodnight Saigon–wow–really cool. Flip to side 2, and you get She’s Right on TIme–probably one of my favorite songs on the album (and not intense at all, Amy!). A Room of Our Own–okay, maybe a bit intense, but so damn fun! Surprises…poignant given his recent motorcycle crash (little did we know it would be the first crash of many!). Then came Scandanavian Skies…pure nirvana…followed by the beautiful Where’s the Orchestra, with its closing notes harkening back to Allentown, and making me want to do nothing more than flip that record over to hear that song and the album again. What an album…what an experience…life was good!

    A week or so later, Joel graced the cover of Rolling Stone–the same magazine that had relentlessly trashed Glass Houses. Apparently, all was forgiven. They liked the new album! His music cred (and mine) was restored!

    All these years later, it’s hard for me not to continue to reflexively say that Nylon Curtain is my favorite album, but the truth is it may no longer be. That honor may well now go to the iconic Stranger. But the intense feelings surrounding the release of the Nylon Curtain were something I had never experienced before or since and, for that reason, along with the fact that the album truly does contain great, mature songs, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

    Thanks for going down memory lane with me:)

  3. Amy says:

    :) I loved going down memory lane with you. Though it’s difficult for me to believe anyone batted an eyelash in your house when profanity started spewing from the phonograph ;-)

  4. Dana says:

    they probably didn’t bat an eyelash. I was the prudish nerdie kid sensitive to profanity at the time:)

  5. Clay says:

    Great story… thanks for telling it! I paid special attention to this album because you gushed about it. I don’t know if we even owned it before that (Amy being such a Beatles hater, apparently). And it’s always been one of my favorites, too.

  6. pegclifton says:

    Thanks for sharing your memory Dana, enjoyed it!

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