Song of the Day #323: ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’ – Billy Joel

thebridge1986′s The Bridge was Billy Joel’s last great album and my fifth favorite of his albums (I’ll let you guess the other four). It contains only nine songs but they’re uniformly strong. The one minor exception is the rather maudlin ‘This is the Time,’ which probably wasn’t written for a high school prom but may as well have been.

The album features a few high-profile collaborations, including a wonderful duet with Ray Charles on ‘Baby Grand.’ I remember when I first heard that song I remarked that Joel sounded like Ray Charles on the first verse and was shocked when the actual Ray Charles jumped in on the second.

Steve Winwood sits in on organ for the album’s final track, ‘Getting Closer,’ one of those songs that should be far better known than it is.

But the strongest collaboration on the album, and one of my favorite Billy Joel songs ever, is ‘Code of Silence,’ co-written and performed with Cyndi Lauper. It’s a musically and lyrically powerful song about living with a secret:

And you still have a rage inside you
That you carry with a certain pride
In the only part of the broken heart
That you could ever save

So you can’t talk about it
Because you’re following a code of silence
You’re never gonna to lose the anger
You just deal with it a different way

So you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say

That song would have been an easy choice to feature today, except that another of my all-time favorite Billy Joel songs appears on The Bridge and I like it even better than that one.

I vividly remember the first time I heard ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street.’ It was featured in its entirety in an opening dream sequence of the great show Moonlighting starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. It’s a smart, jazzy big band epic infused with attitude and sex appeal. As it played, I thought it sounded an awful lot like Billy Joel but it was unlike anything I’ve heard from him before. I was right on both counts.

Another of Joel’s great New York songs, ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’ is about a small-time street smart guy with grand ambitions. No doubt it’s about Joel himself, who kicked around New York in his early days trying to hit it big. I remember seeing Houston, Canal, Hester and Grand Streets on a map of New York City on a vacation there once and smiling as this song came a little more to life in my mind.

I’m happy to have found the actual Moonlighting clip to feature here today. It’s an extended version of the song, with an extra instrumental break in the middle, and showcases Cybill Shepherd at her finest (but not till the end). The young Bruce Willis ain’t no slouch, either.

Why can’t I lay low?
Why can’t I say what I mean?
Why don’t I stay home
And get myself into some boring routine?

Why can’t I calm down?
Why is it always a fight?
I can’t get unwound
Why do I throw myself into the night?

I’m on the outside
I don’t fit into the groove
Now I ain’t a bad guy
So tell me what am I trying to prove

Why can’t I cool out?
Why don’t I button my lip?
Why do I lash out?
Why is it I always shoot from the hip?

I cruise from Houston to Canal street
A misfit and a rebel
I see the winos talking to themselves
And I can understand
Why is it every time I go out
I always seem to get in trouble?
I guess I made an impression on somebody
North of Hester and south of Grand

And so in my small way
I’m a big man on Mulberry street
I don’t mean all day
Only at night when I’m light on my feet

What else have I got
That I’d be trying to hide?
Maybe a blind spot
I haven’t seen from the sensitive side

But you know in my own heart
I’m a big man on Mulberry street
I play the whole part
I leave a big tip with every receipt

I’m so romantic
I’m such a passionate man
Sometimes I panic
What if nobody finds out who I am?

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22 thoughts on “Song of the Day #323: ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’ – Billy Joel

  1. Amy says:

    You found the Moonlighting clip!! Glory, Glory! I can’t wait to go watch.

    I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t even mention “A Matter of Trust” as watching that video is one of my early memories from this album as well. Billy Joel on guitar? What?! And that song was a family favorite for sure.

    I had no idea that the Cyndi Lauper was one of your favorite Billy Joel songs, and it certainly is one of mine. That song, both lyrically and musically, is so powerful. I wish there would be more unlikely collaborations like that one, as they often lead to the most interesting music.

    Finally, this song is fabulous. I defy anyone not to get caught up in it (with or without the fine Bruce Willis as further inspiration). The name alone sets the tone. Well… I’ve waited long enough. I have to go watch me some Moonlighting!

  2. Amy says:

    Who the hell was that woman and why was she breaking David Addison’s heart?! I must go back and watch the entire series of Moonlighting immediately. Good thing it’s summer vacation ;-)

  3. Clay says:

    I don’t remember this at all, but apparently she was his ex-wife (not sure if the dancer played the ex-wife, but that’s who she represented).

  4. Clay says:

    And yes, I absolutely remember the ‘Matter of Trust’ video and what a hit it was in our house.

  5. Dana says:

    I agree that this is one of Joel’s best songs and one of the most underrated albums. You also didn’t mention the Police-esque Running on Ice, which I think is kinda cool. I will say, though, that This is The Time is really pretty awful and I so wish it could just be surgically removed from the record.

    Bridge would be Joel’s last collaberation with Phil Ramone, and I deeply mourn that loss. While Stormfront and River of Dreams had some worthy songs on them, I frequently wish while hearing those albums that they could have been done with Ramone. That man just knows how to bring out the best in Joel. Maybe someday soon they will get back together and blow us away with a new album. Hope srpings eternal.

  6. Dana says:

    Oh, and by the way, I LOVE the Moonlighting clip–who had better chemistry on TV than Willis and Shepherd?

  7. Amy says:

    I must defend This is the Time. Now I know it’s corny and sappy and worthy of proms, but what’s wrong with that? Corny can be good. Sappy has its place. Proms are wonderful events that you remember forever, perhaps with a shake of your head and a roll of your eyes, but isn’t that the point?

    Once again, I find it very easy to defend a person capable of writing a “Big Man on Mulberry Street” and a “This is the Time.” If shmaltz was all he was capable of producing, then I would dismiss him as an artist (though I might sing along just the same). But when he’s the same writer who writes “Vienna,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Code of Silence,” “Stiletto,” and so on, then I take that song for what it is. A sweet departure. So stop being so cynical and give in to the corn, for…
    “these are the days to hold on to/ Cause we won’t although we’ll want to”

  8. Dana says:

    There is no defense for that song. Under your arguement, you should like All My Life [LISTEN NOW], the most recent song released by Joel. At least that song is going for a particular style.

    This is the TIme is simple musically and lyrically in a bad way–it should never have been recorded.

  9. Amy says:

    simple does not equal bad. and “All My Life” is an atrocity because
    a) he hadn’t recorded a song in 15 or so years
    b) he was writing it for his teenage bride

    “This is the Time” and “Temptation” were inspired by the birth of his daughter. A father can be permitted to write such tender ballads when he’s moved by the arrival of his baby girl. A husband may not be permitted to write such a sappy piece of treacle when he’s moved by the arrival of a peer of his daughter who has decided to make his wife!!!

  10. Dana says:

    I’m not sure This is The Time was written for his duaghter–so I can’t give him a pass there. And stop beating up on the guy for finding his true love, even if she was 2 years old when the Bridge was released:)

  11. Amy says:

    I’m not beating up on him for finding her, just for writing a song with lyrics like “All my life I’ve searched this whole world through/ Try as I might to find someone like you.”

    That’s kind of gross. Considering he apparently just needed to stop searching and wait for her to come of age. Maybe he imprinted on her when her mother was pregnant? (I’ll say no more, lest I risk playing spoiler for some fair readers)

    Anyway, ick

  12. Dana says:

    Oh, lighten up…. I think someone who has had two failed marriages, and is now happy can write that song. Look how long Benjamin Button had to wait for his wife to grow up while he grew young:)

  13. Clay says:

    Hey, the guy is a super-rich music legend whose kids are grown… I have absolutely no problem with him shacking up with a hot 25-year-old. He’s earned it! Do you expect him to marry Susan Boyle? :-)

    Now, I don’t believe for a second that she’s some sort of soul mate, or the lyrics to that new song are anything but cornball crap. But I’m not crazy about the song because it’s boring… not because it was written for a chippie.

    And I don’t like ‘This is the Time’ because it’s corny, no matter who it was written for.

  14. Amy says:

    Do you like any corny songs? Hmmmmmmmm…..

  15. Clay says:

    Probably. But I don’t like this one! :-)

  16. Kerrie Rueda says:

    Love the imprinting comment, Amy. Nothing spoiled – I’m well past that… :)
    And since you’re defending This is the Time, I’ll jump in and say that when I WAS in high school, this was one of my favorite songs from The Bridge. Looking back, I understand the criticism, but I loved it back in the day. :)

  17. Amy says:

    Kerrie just sent me the following article from People magazine
    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20285826,00.html

    The headline? “Billy Joel and His Wife Split”

    So maybe he’s got a bit more searching to do? :(

  18. Clay says:

    Apparently he left her for a 16-year-old.

  19. Amy says:

    I’m just hoping this might be the impetus to get a new album out of him!

  20. Amy says:

    Or did she leave him for a 70 year old?

  21. Geoff says:

    OMG!
    Let’s get back to the video.
    As a sax player, a big Billy Joel fan, I also remember Moonlighting and I am eternally grateful to Quentin Tarantino for resurrecting Bruce Willis’ career, that video is a real treat.
    One question though … is that version of the song available on CD? I have Billy Joels CDs but haven’t bothered with any compilations … is it on one of them?
    Thanks again for a great link.

  22. Clay says:

    I don’t believe so. Surprisingly this song doesn’t appear (in any form) on any of the several greatest hits compilations and anthologies Joel has released.

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