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According to the Piano Man: Four Musical Vignettes

A life surmised through the music of Billy Joel.

By Emma CPublished 9 months ago Updated 9 months ago 14 min read
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"Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)"

Goodnight, my angel, time to close your eyes

And save these questions for another day

I think I know what you've been asking me,

I think you know what I've been trying to say.

I promised I would never leave you

And you should always know

Wherever you may go, no matter where you are

I never will be far away.

My mom is right on time when she picks me up from my playdate at Aubrey’s house. She looks like her usual self: clean, polished, with her hair done and make-up on. Giggling, I run upstairs to hide in some closet while she talks to Aubrey’s mom. Crouched in the darkness and balancing on a pile of Audrey's shoes, I snicker again. My mom will have to come looking for me if she wants to take me home. There are so many fun things in Aubrey’s house that I'll miss when I leave. She has those big plastic cars that you can sit in and drive in circles on a driveway. She also has a mini kitchen in her room with dozens of little wooden foods and utensils to pretend with. We’d been playing with them the entire playdate, only stopping for a snack break with sticky popsicles and Kool-Aid.

After a couple minutes of hiding, I hear my mom call for me. I was getting bored anyways so crawl out of the closet and head down. I stand next to her as she and Aubrey’s mom exchange goodbyes. I wave an enthusiastic goodbye to Aubrey as well.

“Say thank you,” my mom whispers.

“Thank you!” I shout and then we head out into the intense July sun. Nebraska weather can be brutal this time of year.

I notice we have to walk a bit because my mom has parked all the way down the street. An odd choice since Aubrey’s driveway is completely empty.

“Did you have fun?” My mom asks, smiling. She gives one of my pigtails a gentle tug to tighten it.

“Yeah,” I say, grabbing her hand and starting to skip, “I love playdates!” We arrive at our car: a white van with only three doors, one for the driver, one for shotgun, and one for the rest of the seats. There’s a patch of rust as big as me on the third door.

“We should have Aubrey over at our house!” I say, “I can show her my barbies—and my cats!”

She stiffens for a second. “Probably not, sweetie.”

“Why?”

She grimaces and tightens my other pigtail. “It’s kind of a long drive. It’s harder to have playdates when you live out in the country.”

She lets me buckle myself into my car seat as she starts up the van with a grinding sputter. Soon we’ll be back at our trailer home and I make a plan to check the mouse traps in our cupboards. Maybe later my siblings and I will catch toads or make “weed salad” with random plants around our house. I smile to myself. Playdate or not, it’s going to be a good day.

~

“Lullabye” alternatively entitled “Goodnight, My Angel” is essentially a song about a parent’s love. It was one of Billy Joel’s simpler songs, primarily featuring his voice, his piano, and some strings thrown in occasionally. The melody is soft and tender without any loud parts to break the tone. When I listen to it, I think of a parent's love that eclipses the darkness of the outside world.

There were a lot of reasons I could have had a rough childhood. For a year my parents, my three siblings, and I were all crammed into a small trailer home outside of town and were about as poor as the dirt it was sitting on. Yet I only have fond memories of those times: my mom making matching dresses for me and my sister, playing outside for long golden hours on end, watching one of the barn cats give birth on our kitchen floor. Looking back I realize my parents were a shield from the harsher realities of life. They gave me the freedom to have a happy childhood apart from their financial struggles and grown-up problems. A freedom that I didn't realize I had. Sometimes I take that part of my childhood for granted.

When I listen to "Lullabye," I don't.

"Vienna"

Slow down, you crazy child

You're so ambitious for a juvenile

But then if you're so smart tell me

Why are you still so afraid?

Where's the fire, what's the hurry about?

You better cool it off before you burn it out

You've got so much to do and only

So many hours in a day.

Tears well up in my eyes as I look down at my recently returned calculus exam. I am sitting in the class right now surrounded by other students who are likewise looking over their grades and I don't want them to see me cry. I press my thumb into the corner of each eye and the tears drain down it - a strategy I had figured out to avoid smudging mascara or making my eyes red. I take a long breath to steady myself, quiet and slow so that no one notices. Calmly, I turn my test over, as if not seeing the grade will make me feel better. Then I rub my nose. It’s not runny which means that my face looks completely normal—no one will be able to tell. I clasp my hands over my flipped exam and look up.

My calculus teacher makes her way to the front of the class again. She writes letters on the board: F, D, C, B, and A.

“Two of you got a 60 percent or below,” she declares, writing a number 2 below the F. She moves onto the D’s and C’s and B’s.

“Seven of you got a 90 percent or above, good job!” She continues. I feel my cheeks burn as she scribbles a number 7 underneath her A. “And one of you got an A+, a 100 percent as a matter of fact!”

“It’s probably Emma,” says one of my classmates. I feel my cheeks get hotter. I know he’s just trying to compliment me but that knowledge doesn't seem to help the shame I feel.

I force a smile, shrug, and say “Nope, wasn’t me.” My calculus teacher, her smile infuriatingly secretive, proceeds to move on to the next lesson. I keep taking slow breaths to calm myself down.

One might think that my reaction to the grade was because I failed the test. Another might think it’s because I got a C when I was trying to shoot for A’s and B’s. Still another may believe maybe I got a solid B but it's in danger of tanking my 4.0.

They would all be wrong. My real grade is a 95.

~

Perfectionism, Obsession, Fixation. These were all things that tyrannized my life throughout most of high school. I craved being the best and wanted to be valedictorian of my class. My strategy? Get an A+ in every class. Surely no one would be able to compete with that. It was consuming. It was crippling.

Yet its origins were fairly innocent. When I was in middle school, my dad had told me he wouldn't be able to pay for a college education. If I wanted one I would have to get a good scholarship or pay for it myself. I was homeschooled at the time and took the challenge in stride. I would wake up at 6:00 am and plow through my grammar book while devouring peanut butter toast and drinking black tea. I would practice my violin for two hours a day. When my pre-algebra homework surpassed my mom's memory, I combed through the dense textbook myself and taught myself the foil method, distribution, and substitution. I was voracious reader too, which is how I spent most of my afternoons. I was relentless in my goals to be smart enough for a scholarship.

Yet what my parents had thought of as "grit" and "determination" in my middle school academic pursuits turned into something different when I reached high school. My dad got a job teaching at a private school so I was able to go for free. It turned out to be very difficult for me. Now under the scrutiny of eight different teachers, I felt like every assignment, exam, and project was a direct reflection of my intelligence. The only way to prove myself was to perform on each and every one.

It made me miserable. I would often stay up late just because I hated the thought of waking up in the morning. When I did wake up, I was choked with dread at the thought of going to school. I freaked out whenever I didn't get a grade high enough to preserve an A+ and freaked out even more if I ever scored in the low nineties. I percieved all of my teachers as my enemies and never asked any of them for help. When group projects came up, I would do almost all the work. I didn't trust anyone else to do it. My senior year I was almost chronically ill, first with pneumonia, followed by strep, followed by a cold, and so on. When I finally did become valedictorian and get a full-ride scholarship to a university, I felt relieved rather than victorious. The nightmare was finally over.

"Vienna" is a song that almost seems written specifically towards high school Emma. It's structured as an admonishment from Billy Joel to an ambitious youth who is trying to do so many things so fast. He encourages this youth to slow down and realize "Vienna waits for you," a metaphor that signifies enjoying life as you get older. Billy Joel never expected this song to be popular, but today it is one his more well-known songs. Given the rise of "gifted children" and increasingly stuffed schedules of students, it's no wonder this song still strikes a chord today.

I'm older now and have long surpassed obsession with grades, though I still struggle with feeling like every thing I do is for a performance rating. When it gets really bad, I play "Vienna" and Billy Joel always seems to have the right words to say.

"And So It Goes"

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

And so it goes, and so it goes

And you're the only one who knows

"It feels like we wasted our time," I say.

We're sitting in his parked car, He and I. People are walking outside so close it feels like they can see us. But the sun has just set and the red glow of late dusk is all that remains. To any passersby, we are just two silhouettes, sitting side by side.

We had not watched the sunset together. The car is facing east.

"I know it's not true," I continue, sniffling, "I just wish it had all meant something." I've given up trying stop my tears. They pave red, angry tracks of skin as they flow.

"Maybe it's like you said," he says slowly. "Maybe we were just supposed to cross paths, learn what we can from each other, and then go our separate ways. But it wasn't a waste, never a waste."

This is where he would take my hand if we were dating. But we're not - not anymore. The lack of that one small, reassuring gesture is painful, a bloodless wound.

"I'll miss you," I murmur. I'm too cowardly to look him in the eye. Instead, I look out the windshield. The red in the sky is fading fast, soon it will all be black. It's a fitting way to end things - in a morbidly romantic sense.

"I'll miss you too," he says softly. Then he drives me a little further up the lot to where I parked my car.

"Don't wait up for me," he says as I get out, "Find someone who makes you happy." It's a beautiful, heroic thing to say. It makes me miss him even more.

"Thank you." I want to hug him. I should hug him. But I don't. I leave his car and he drives away. I get in my car and bawl all the way home.

Later, I tell one of my friends that "it was a good break-up."

She grimaces as she looks at me. "Sometimes those are the worst ones."

~

Even before my break-up I knew "And So It Goes" was the ultimate break-up song. It's unapolegitcally raw and simplistic, one of his few songs to feature just his voice and his piano and nothing else. Its first verse talks about the "room in every heart" intended to heal past wounds. Later the songs speaks about sharing that "room" with another, knowing full well it will end with another broken heart, yet offered freely with no regrets.

Henry always told me I was stubborn. I always responded that he was stubborn too. We could argue about things for hours, he and I, sometimes with light-hearted repartee, sometimes with heated, ugly spats. We could also talk for hours about unimportant things. Long conversations about comic book superheroes, Christopher Nolan movies, and science fiction. It was the best chemistry, but it simply wasn't enough.

Just as he was so stubborn about DC being better than Marvel, and I was so stubborn about The Prestige being the best Christopher Nolan movie, we both were stubbon about how we thought our futures should be. Slowly, we began to realize that no matter how much we loved each other and no matter how much we enjoyed each other's company, a life together would be miserable. Our hopes and dreams were just too different.

Although it's taken me awhile, I'm at least starting to understand what "And So It Goes" means. I'm beginning to appreciate the memories with him as what they are: memories in time and space. They're special and deserve a place in my past even if I sometimes wish they weren't there at all.

The pain is special too, in its own way.

"Summer, Highland Falls"

Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity

Our reason coexists with our insanity

Though we choose between reality and madness

Its either sadness or euphoria.

I'm driving home after performing in a symphony concert. It was a good one: lots of rollicking tunes and a standing ovation from the crowd. It's a balmy night in early May so I roll my car windows down. I don't need to worry about it messing up my hair anymore.

Traffic is light as I make my through downtown. I've always found it a magical thing to drive here at night. Everything is illuminated by streetlights, traffic lights, and even twinkling office lights from skyscraper windows like it's all some big, uncoordinated Christmas tree. I'm the only one on the street right now, and I feel exhilarated. Free. It seems so odd that I can feel so happy on such a night when I still have sorrows to deal with the next morning. Is that just how life works.

My Billy Joel playlist is blasting extra loud to be heard through all the rushing air and "Summer, Highland Falls" comes on. In a lot of ways it seems to be the quintessential "life" song, pulling no punches in highlighting its many ludicrous inconsistencies. In fact, the very first line is "They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I ever known" a truth that takes on new meaning for me as zip through the downtown streets.

~

In the end, life has certainly never made a lot of sense for me. There have been times when I expected something I've worked for and then never got it. There were times when I did absolutely nothing and a golden opportunity still dropped into my lap. There were times when I've done everything right and it still ended in crushing failure and there were times when I screwed everything up but still achieved smashing success. While we can depend on things like gravity and electromagnetism, there seems to be no scientific law that applies to life itself.

Yet the music of Billy Joel has helped me see that although life may not be always beautiful, it still is good. And if there's one thing you can depend on, it's that there will always be a little good mixed with the bad, even if it means there's a little bad with the good.

Or as the Piano Man says, it's either sadness or euphoria.

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About the Creator

Emma C

Emma is an aspiring creative who deeply loves art of all kinds. She is a hopeless movie geek and book nerd who spends her free time buried in novels and practicing her violin. She hopes to use her writing to inspire her fellow humans.

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