Song of the Day #326: ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” – Billy Joel

stormfrontI singled out Streetlife Serenade as one of Joel’s weakest albums, but I’d have to give the dubious title of his worst record to 1989’s Storm Front. Released more than three years after The Bridge, Storm Front had none of that album’s musical or thematic complexity and, though it fared much better in the marketplace, it was a big step backward.

Opening track ‘That’s Not Her Style’ is an awkward defense of then-wife Christie Brinkley’s reputation (“The papers say… she chartered a Lear when she heard her career was in danger and gave the pilot somethin’ extra for a perfect ride… but that’s not her style”). Every time I hear it (especially in light of how things turned out for the couple) I can’t help but thinking the piano man doth protest too much.

‘I Go to Extremes’ and ‘Shameless’ were big hits (the former for Joel, the latter for Garth Brooks) but I find them depressingly generic. ‘Storm Front,’ ‘State of Grace’ and ‘When in Rome’ are forgettable — certainly nowhere close to the standards of Joel’s strongest work. And the album’s biggest hit, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ was a boon to high school history teachers but just plain weird to the rest of us. JFK, blown away… what else do you have to say, indeed?

That leaves the three songs on Storm Front that I do like. ‘Leningrad’ is a touching ballad inspired by a man Joel met on his trip to Moscow. It could be corny but it works. Joel compares his own childhood as a “Cold War kid” in New York to Viktor’s in a Soviet state then recounts how years later they met when Viktor (now a circus clown) made Joel’s daughter laugh (“We never knew what friends we had until we came to Leningrad”).

The album’s closer, ‘And So it Goes,’ is a lovely piano ballad about a fractured relationship.

So I would choose to be with you
That’s if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break

As lovely as the song is, I felt Joel cheapened it a bit years later when he revealed that it was written for Elle Macpherson, whom he dated when she was 19 and he was in his 30s. That confession seemed like a game of “Guess who I banged?!” and the song is better than that.

By far my favorite track on Storm Front is today’s selection, ‘The Downeaster Alexa.’ Sung from the perspective of a hard-luck fisherman, it features a great sound (love that accordion!) and one of Joel’s most passionate deliveries. It also name-drops Montauk, making it the first song of 326 featured on Meet Me In Montauk to boast that distinction.

[Note: Check out the cool Lost video I found to highlight this song… it’s so weird to see these Season One clips after finishing Season Five]

Well I’m on the Downeaster “Alexa”
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound
I have charted a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound

We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner’s Bay
Like all the locals here I’ve had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone

So I could own my Downeaster “Alexa”
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can’t fall asleep

I’ve got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I’ve got people back on land who count on me

So if you see my Downeaster “Alexa”
And if you work with the rod and the reel
Tell my wife I am trawling Atlantis
And I still have my hands on the wheel

Now I drive my Downeaster “Alexa”
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they tell me I can’t sell no stripers
And there’s no luck in swordfishing here.

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can’t make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain’t no island left for islanders like me

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #326: ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” – Billy Joel

  1. Amy says:

    You definitely highlighted my three favorite songs, though I had never heard the Elle reveal, so thanks a lot for ruining that gorgeous song for me! It’s been a long time since I’ve heard any of those lesser songs, but I remember finding something redeemable about “State of Grace.”

    But I’d have to agree with you that “generic” is the most appropriate label when it comes to the majority of these songs, Thinking of what Dana said yesterday, about what labor Joel considered creating his songs, I guess these were delivered forcefully by forceps, perhaps pried out prematurely?

    I’m glad you didn’t dismiss “Leningrad” as too corny, as I’ve always found that song touching in its simplicity. Maybe albums were just too much for Joel. Maybe he shold have only released the three songs you feature as the best of the album. The iTunes revolution has changed a lot, but has it yet given the artist an opportuntiy to release a song at a time. That way when Billy Joel writes a “Downeaster Alexa,” a song clearly worthy of his name and of release, he could get it to his audience without having to pump out another 9 or 10 songs to complete the album? He could release an A, B, and C! side. What do you think? πŸ˜‰

    Off to watch Lost and listen to that great accordion.

  2. Amy says:

    😦 😦 😦

    poor Michael.

    and I’ll never hear the line “I work my fingers to the bone” the same way again (as none of those Long Island fisherman look anything like my James Ford Sawyer)

    Is that a German fan video? What are the subtitles in the scene between Jin and his father?

    Finally, I was laughing at the start of the video, thinking the song was not at all appropriate for these scenes, but it totally had me at the end πŸ™‚ I guess great song + great show will do that.

  3. Dana says:

    Okay, first of all, let’s not dismiss And So It Goes just because it was written about a supermodel! It is still a wonderful song–and it is significant to note that it was written in 1983, back when Joel was really on top of his game from a songwriting perspective. He couldn’t put the song on Innocent Man, which he was working on at the time, because it didn’t fit the theme. It’s too bad, however, that he didn’t just throw it onto a new release of Nylon Curtain, as it would have done well on that album. Anyway, on Stormfront, it just serves as a painful reminder of the songs Joel used to write.

    Stormfront is, indeed, disappointing. As I bemoaned earlier, it is the first album since Turnstiles in which Joel didn’t have Phil Ramone as producer. Maybe Ramone heard the songs and said thanks, but no thanks. However, I think the truth is that Joel was hoping to move into an edgier less MOR direction. Well, er…mission accomplished, I guess. The album was mega-successful, particularly with new younger fans, but it left me longing for the old (younger) Joel.

    I’m okay with Leningrad, though I do think it is a bit cheezy, and I do like today’s SOTD an awful lot. Hell, in a certain mood, I can even get into That’s Not Her Style. But Shamelss, State of Grace, I Go To Ectremes and We Didn’t Start the Fire do nothing for me. I somehow think the title track could have been made better if Ramone had gotten hold of it, but maybe not. And When In Rome is downright awful.

    Thankfully, Joel did not end his career with this album and went on to the much improved River of Dreams, which, while still not amongst the best of his albums, fares so much better.

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