Billy Joel, Corgi Mixes, And Revisiting Old Favorites

Plus: American Utopia, Rebecca, and Bad Hair

by Linda Holmes
Welcome! It was the week when Quibi gave up the ghost. It was the week when one of my favorite theater pieces of recent years had its film adaptation bought by Hulu. Let’s get to it.

But First! Before we get into the meat of this week’s newsletter, we should talk about our very big news, which is that on this Monday, October 26, PCHH is entering a whole new era in which we’re going to be with you five days a week. What does this mean for you? Well, the Wednesday and Friday shows will look much like they do now. Every Friday, we’ll still bring you what’s making us happy this week. 

The other three shows will usually be smaller conversations, often two people rather than three or four, and they’ll hopefully help us cover a lot of ground we haven’t had time for in the past. We’ll talk more about books and games and music, we’ll do more news, we’ll do recommendations — whatever we think will be most useful and welcome. 

More shows also means more voices, so look for more new panelists than ever, talking about more things they’re knowledgeable and enthusiastic about. I’m very excited about what’s coming in just the next couple of weeks, and I hope it will quickly become clear why we thought this step was so important and exciting. You don’t have to do anything — the daily show will come in your regular feed, beginning Monday. 

Meanwhile, join us on Facebook Live on Wednesday, October 28th at 1 PM eastern. We’ll answer your questions about the podcast going daily — or whatever else is on your mind. Plus, you’ll get to know our newest host Aisha Harris a little bit better. Go to nprpresents.org to sign up for a reminder. And if you miss it, you’ll be able to watch it at facebook.com/pchh.

Opening Argument: Billy Joel, Corgi Mixes, And Revisiting Old Favorites

There’s a Twitter thread that’s been circulating recently that restates a concept that’s been kicking around the internet for a number of years. Posted by a lot of different people in a lot of different places, it posits that any corgi mix just looks like a corgi disguised as another dog. Here’s a Buzzfeed take on the idea, with photos, although the original-original has been hard to track down. 

At any rate, I’ve been thinking about that thread while listening to the Billy Joel channel on SiriusXM. 

Billy Joel was probably my first favorite musician, at least if you don’t count the Annie original Broadway cast album. His career started right around the time I was born, and if memory serves (which, I mean, who knows?), I discovered his 1980 record «Glass Houses» at my mom’s friend’s house while she was taking care of me one day when I was home from school sick. She worked at home, the friend, so I was allowed to entertain myself. They didn’t have a TV, so I found the records. 

Why him? Well, I have a natural affinity for piano players (sigh), which probably goes back to the fact that we had a piano in our house and my mother played it well — she liked ragtime, in particular. He wrote a lot of stuff that was very feelings-y and earnest, which I liked, and he tended to pack in a lot of words that fit together in ways I thought were interesting. So this became the thing: Linda likes Billy Joel. And that held true through high school and college, and then at some point in my twenties, I did the thing a lot of people did, and I put the music I listened to as a younger person away. It didn’t help that by this time, he’d committed the sin of being as old as … well, almost as old as I am now, and it wasn’t the most graceful entry into middle age of all time, and, not for nothing, this is around the time he stopped putting out new records. And so it goes, you know?
 

While I’ve certainly dipped in and out of that music over the last 20 years or so, I haven’t spent a ton of time with it, so when I found that SiriusXM was doing a Billy Joel channel for a while (they do this quite a bit with different artists; they’ve even done it with him before), did I press the button? I did. This incarnation of the channel is mostly just music plus interviews with him where he chats about the origins of songs. It’s nothing, conceptually, that I hadn’t heard before as a completist teenager, but obviously, a guy who’s 70 years old talks about music in a different way. It’s really weird listening to things you loved and still know all the words to but hardly ever hear anymore. 

Oh, the corgis. Right. 

Somehow, I managed to never realize just how much «The Nylon Curtain» (the 1982 album that produced “Allentown” and “Pressure”) was late-Beatles pastiche. Critics did at the time, obviously; I am the last to know this. But listen to a song like “Laura” from that album and imagine you are 11 years old when you hear it. You probably don’t even know that it’s just as much of a nod to John Lennon as “The Longest Time” is to doo-wop. 

The more I listened to these songs that I had loved, the more it made sense to me: Billy Joel songs are corgi mixes. They’re all Billy Joel songs, even though they’re often wearing other genres’ disguises. Usually, they’re disguises that come from his love of great piano parts, it seems to me: that’s why there are bluegrass and gospel and blues influences, but they’re all still, in some way recognizable to my various brain wrinkles, Billy Joel songs. 

It made me think of, weirdly, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I think of his stuff as distinctively his, but also often transparently crossed with specific other things. “The Room Where It Happens” is extremely LMM, but it also feels like an old song, like a song that’s always existed. It feels like an extant kind of song, in a new form. It’s a corgi mix. Quentin Tarantino makes corgi mixes, too: they’re him, but they’re versions of genres he admires, and they echo things he loves in a way that’s often really specific. 

And maybe that’s what I like so much about the interviews that are sprinkled through this channel; maybe it’s why I like them now, as I approach 50 myself. Billy Joel, for all his flaws and weirdnesses and grouchy grousing about what kind of musician he wanted people to think he was, is extremely transparent about influences. Sure, yes, when he’s asked to talk about a song, he sometimes talks about the story behind it. (He’s a real Occam’s Razor kind of songwriter, by the way; if he wrote a song called “Tom’s Donut” or something, it would probably mean he knew someone named Tom and Tom had a donut.) But just as often, he defaults to talking about what he loved that he was trying to emulate — or what, upon reflection, he now realizes he was trying to emulate. I’ve always shrugged a little at the song “Leave A Tender Moment Alone,” for instance, but when he introduced it, he noodled at the piano a little with it, and then he said he supposed it was kinda Burt Bacharach. And I suddenly thought: Of course it’s Burt Bacharach. It doesn’t make me like it, but it makes me get it more. 

What I took away from listening to a lot of this guy talking, in a way less guarded and less defensive than I remember when I used to check out interviews with him when I was young, was that he is the sum of all the things he’s ever been really into. He is this collection of enthusiasms that he explores and incorporates, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, and having been out of the my-new-record game for more than 25 years now (guuuuuulp), he’s charmingly (really!) candid about the things he wrote that were preachy or corny or hopelessly naive. 

This all has something to do with aging, I know — his, but also mine. We all deserve to visit, or to revisit, the things that shaped us. We deserve to invite our former favorite songs over for a drink and see what happened to them. I learned to play versions of some of his songs on the piano myself at one point; they’re in there somewhere, in muscle memory. I have been shocked by how many album cuts I didn’t even like that much I can still sing along with. (I worry about the future of album cuts; a discussion for another day.) It’s all in there; it’s all scattered among the enthusiasms of which I, myself, am a collection.

The channel is available through November 5


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We Recommend:

Tom Lehrer is a writer of comedy songs who’s now 92 years old. I listened to him a lot as a kid — almost as much as Billy Joel! He made the fascinating decision this week to release his sheet music and lyrics into the public domain early. It’s something songwriters don’t often do.

I rewatched 30 Rock this week on Peacock. I discovered that I liked parts of it a lot more unambiguously now that it’s not a phenomenon, which I’m not sure how to explain. It’s certainly already dated (yikes) and contains many errors in judgment (yikes), but it’s also got a feel for where mockery of rich blustery New York guys was going. 

Have you watched Britain’s Best Home Cook on Hulu? If you miss the gentleness of old-school Great British Bake-Off, it’s the show you’re looking for, and not just because it includes the delightful Mary Berry. 

Our friends at NPR Politics put together a special called Voting In America. What could be more important? Nothing, that’s what. 

What We Did This Week:

Elle Lorraine plays a woman whose hair has a mind of its own in Justin Simien's new horror-comedy.
Tobin Yellan/Hulu
On our Wednesday show, Glen talked to Chris Klimek and Soraya McDonald about the HBO film American Utopia, which brings together David Byrne and Spike Lee. 

On our Friday show, all four PCHH permanent hosts — me, Aisha, Glen and Stephen — got together to talk about the new Netflix adaptation of Rebecca. Glen also wrote about it for NPR.

Aisha wrote about the film Bad Hair, Justin Simien’s follow-up to Dear White People. (Stay tuned for an episode about it next week as well.) 

What’s Making Us Happy

Every week on the show, we talk about some other things out in the world that have been giving us joy lately. Here they are:

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