Does anyone write epic seven-minute pop narratives of suburban angst like Billy Joel? Perhaps I have a soft spot for Joel because, like him, I was a Long Island kid with big dreams of the creative life. But it’s also a bit more than that. One of the most contested of contemporary singer-songwriters, Joel’s prolific 30 year run of Top 40-meets-Tin Pan alley throwback-meets-classic rock records has nonetheless produced some of the sturdiest and most popular songs pop radio has seen. Sure, he’s ripped off The Beatles to no end, from harmonic structures to phrasing (then again, who hasn’t, though Joel seems to have been criticized for it more than anyone). Sure he’s descended into some obvious moon-June rhyme schemes that don’t always hit the ear all that elegantly. Yes, there were moments where we wore his pop star insecurities like a defense shield against the rough-and-tumble rock hierarchy that sometimes treated him like just a suburban commuter to the serious big-city world rock-stardom. But for all his critics, he’s lasted longer than most and the fans understand. And they understand very well that it’s because of records like this one: “Captain Jack”—from Joel’s Piano Man album—is a finely etched portrait of suburban malaise, a true-feeling investigation into the complicated rhythms of post-war American masculinity. But it’s also just a terrifically rendered song, almost short story-like, drenched in melodrama and sadness. Set against a typical melodic Joel piano line, with a tension-filled chorus backed by some nice high-stakes guitar work, the lyrics recount some fraught moments in the life of a druggy fallen middle-class kid trying to find his way, blending Joel’s gift for conversational detail (“Your sister’s gone out, she on a date/You just sit at home and masturbate/Your phone is gonna ring soon, but you just can’t wait/For that call…”) with his epic sense of narrative structure. By the time the crashing organs are punctuating the final choruses, bathing Joel’s growling vocals in grand emotion, you can feel Joel reaching out to connect with the listener the way the kid in the song needs to connect with his dealer, for the hopeful headiness of that next high. “Captain Jack” will, indeed, make you high tonight, or anytime you hear it.
Listen to it here: