Perhaps it’s the diehard New Yorker in me, but I’m irked whenever someone mocks singer/songwriter Billy Joel. My friend and former Jersey girl Judy McGuire often plays the “Springsteen is superior” card as though Bruce himself didn’t have much love and respect for Joel’s brand of radio-ready pop that was as much about cars and girls as it was about domineering romantic partners, bitter breakups, old neighborhoods and new beginnings in the city of concrete and glass. When I was a freshman at Long Island University, fellow student and future crime writer Jerry Rodriguez (The Devil’s Mambo) and I bonded over film noir, David Goodis novels and continuous spins of 52nd Street, with the femme fatale anthem “Stiletto” (“She cuts you once, she cuts you twice But still you believe / The wound is so fresh you can taste the blood, but you don’t have strength to leave”) being a favorite.
Recently the Safdie Brothers crime flick Uncut Gems used the title track of Joel’s masterwork The Stranger in the film’s trailer, as well as in a key scene in the film that highlighted the singer’s haunting whistling solo that sounds like you’re being followed by some thug down a dark alleyway on them mean streets. The neo-jazz sound of that scene fit as perfectly as Elmer Bernstein’s 1955 theme for The Man With The Golden Arm.
As with many of the ‘70s musicians who came of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was the obvious influence of Phil Spector, Carole King and various Brill Building storytellers in Joel’s music as well as a flare for movie soundtrack dramatics both as a writer and performer. Joel, who was born in the Bronx, also had a love for the city that resonated in his lyrics and rhythms. For many years the sights, sounds and people of New York City was entangled in the texture of Joel’s songs that conjured aural pictures of skylines and subways, mom & pop shops where leather jacket clad youth played pinball and coked-out couples in the back of limos, the roaring madness of Times Square and Studio 54, intimate eateries in Little Italy and the allure of neon lights as teenagers prepared to make their grand escape from their parent’s home to a room of their own.
Though Joel didn’t take listeners to the decadent depths of Lou Reed’s subterranean subjects, his New Yorkers often felt like the street tough characters roaming through the landscape of Hal Ellson’s juvenile delinquent novels, the Sylvester Stallone/Henry Winkler flick The Lords of Flatbush or the Bronx streets of Richard Price’s debut The Wanderers. Bad boys with good hearts who, if they weren’t careful, would become the splitting image of their overweight dads, middle aged men glaring at an endless Yankee game on television.
For me, Billy Joel’s music conjures memories of my biological father Lafayette Dixon and sitting in his Volvo one autumn morning forty-three years ago when I first heard the singer’s voice on the mono-speaker. A handsome light-skin man from South Carolina who came to Harlem in the late-50s hoping to make his fortune in something, mom told me they first met through mutual friends. At the time he was a gold tooth having country boy newly arrived in Harlem. “I told him he’d have to get rid of that gold tooth before I would go out with him,” she told me. “And he did.”
Lafayette had gone to college at A&T in North Carolina, though I have no idea if he graduated. I do recall him telling me once that he taken an art history class and was an admirer of Toulouse-Lautrec. In 1998, when I was 35-years-old, I was in the middle of telling him about a trip I took to Paris when he cut me off to ask if I’d seen Lautrec’s originals while I was there. It shocked me that my boring father related to a decadent artist whose paintings of lewd men, loose women and liquor poured with the intensity of a waterfall at the Moulin Rouge that made him famous.
Lafayette met my mom when she was in her early 20s and living in Harlem’s exquisite Lenox Terrace. To this day mom swears he liked her more for her social connections than actual love. However, her aged photographs of the two of them, pre-me riding in his Caddie convertible or smiling on a Hudson River boat ride, tell a different story. In those pictures Lafayette looked like a Negro version of Jay Gatsby and my mother was the love of his new life on the east coast.
However, Lafayette’s one vice, besides climbing the class/social ladders within the Black bourgeoisie, was women. He had a reputation as a notorious cocksman who cheated on whatever woman (my mom, stepmom) he was supposed to be loyal to. Still, he somehow managed to have just one kid, at least as far as we knew. Throughout my childhood, Lafayette often picked me up on the weekends and brought me to the apartment in the exclusive Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale where he, my step-mom Agnes and my stepbrother Brian lived.
Later they moved to Westchester, a beautiful house in Larchmont where they were the only Black folks in the neighborhood. Unlike most of my friend’s fathers who took them to Yankee games, cowboy movie double features or to the pool hall to shoot a few games, Lafayette never did any of those things. Always dressed in a sharp business suit, he wasn’t the throw a baseball kind of dad, though he did once take me to Rye Playland where he fretted over the expense and, though surrounded by flashing lights and amusement rides, had a joyless expression that expressed his thoughts that the entire excursion was frivolous.
I’m sure either my mom or Agnes suggested the outing. As a shy boy, I always felt a strange divide between us. It was as though we were on opposite teams and simply tolerated one another because we had no choice. Although I resembled Lafayette, was no doubt his blood, there was no bond or connection during those early years. Neither of us knew what to say, so I said little and he usually just grilled me on multiplication tables, reading skills and history, throwing pop quizzes at me that just made me more nervous.
Lafayette…was simultaneously stern and indifferent, and caused me, a sci-fi monster movie loving comic book geek who was easily intimidated, endless anxiety with his endless tests.
Granted, even according to my mother I was a weird kid who read too much and had a pessimistic world view, but, to her credit, at least she tried to understand me. Lafayette, on the other hand, was simultaneously stern and indifferent, and caused me, a sci-fi monster movie loving comic book geek who was easily intimidated, endless anxiety with his endless tests. One Sunday morning I can recall him ordering me to read aloud from the New York Times. Though I could read rather well, the heat of the spotlight made me stumble over the words as though they were giant logs lying in the middle of his tastefully decorated living room with its floor to ceiling bookcases built into the wall.
Although I don’t want to portray Lafayette as villain drawn by Jack Kirby, he wanted me to be a serious Black boy who read and studied hard “as the Jewish kids” and dreamed about the stock market. Instead I read funny books, as he called them, watched The Twilight Zone and fantasized about one day writing strange short stories. During one of the few bonding efforts on his part, I remember him telling me that, when he was my age, he too read “funny books,” as he insisted on calling my comics. He then expanded on the story by proclaiming the comics were still in his mother’s attic in South Carolina and the next time he went south he bring them back for me.
As a twelve year old who subscribed to Comic Buyer’s Guide and purchased the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, I imagined a “lost” treasure chest full of collectable golden age comics bearing cover art by Bill Everett, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster and C.C. Beck. For months I daydreamed about owning these mint condition (in my mind, the books were always perfect) “funny books” that were worth a lot more than Lafayette even knew. Of course, the comics never materialized and simply became another unfulfilled promise that I’d talk about decades later with a Greenwich Village therapist who helped guide me through one of our periods of estrangements that were always my doing.
In typical male fashion, we never discussed these estrangements, though, decades later, mom often acted as intermediary as she encouraged me to call him. “I talked to him for a long time last night, and he knows he could’ve done better when you were a kid, but you can’t stay mad forever.” Born under the astrology sign of Cancer, staying mad forever was an easy thing. Later, I’d be sitting in the shrink’s tidy office recounting how Lafayette often disappointed me and I noticed that I was fixated on one major disappointment that occurred in 1977, the year I was finally graduating from St. Catherine of Genoa.
The plan between mom and Lafayette was for me to be shipped to Larchmont to attend high school. Mom believed that I needed to “go live with your father,” as though that would be the step toward manhood that I needed. Having gone to Larchmont for years of weekend visits, I already had a few friends in the neighborhood, and the move would have been a welcome adjustment. Going from the rowdy streets of Harlem to the literal white-picket fences of suburbia was a change I was looking forward too.
However, one morning as I was getting dressed for school, the telephone rang. Mom answered, and from the next room I overhead a short, but terse exchange between her and whoever was on the other line. After slamming down the receiver, she came into my bedroom. Standing in the doorway, he face teetered between anger and compassion as she tried to find the right words. “That was your father,” she sighed. “He claims that there are some complications and you won’t be able to go to school up there.” I was stunned, though not surprised, but that didn’t stop me from being mad that Lafayette had disappointed me once again.
To keep me out of going to the scary public high school, Mom talked to Father Bob at St. Catherine’s, where I was also an altar boy at the church, and he pulled strings to get me into Rice High School on Lenox Avenue. That October, a month after I started classes at Rice, I spent a weekend at Lafayette’s house. Swaying from habit, instead of dropping me home on Sunday night he drove me to school on Monday morning.
Minutes after getting on the Tribrough Bridge that crossed over the Harlem River, we were stuck in traffic. Coolly, Lafayette leaned over and pressed in the cigarette lighter and turned on the radio to WNBC. After lighting the True blue, Lafayette puffed the cigarette as pop singles by Andy Gibb, ABBA and Hall & Oates played between news and traffic reports. Cigarette smoke stung my eyes and, on the other side of the closed window, car horns beeped.
Suddenly, as though I was in a Technicolor musical, lounge lizard piano tinkling floated from the car’s mono speaker. Seconds later, a cool, but melancholy voice was heard and, by the time the singer got to the line, “I’m in a New York state of mind,” I was already living inside that beautiful ode to the city, my city. From that first line, the song embraced me like an old friend as the singer name checked the Hudson River, Chinatown and Riverside Drive, all locations I knew intimately, places where I had played (Riverside), fished (the Hudson) and eaten dinner (Chinatown).
The song had flash and dramatics, as though the writer had been listening to 1957 West Side Story soundtrack before entering the studio. Much to my surprise, Lafayette sang along, something I’d never seen or heard before. “I’m just taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line ‘Cause I’m in a, I’m in a…New York state of mind.” He harmonized until the song faded, and I was surprised how good his singing voice sounded. Although I had heard stories from mom about Lafayette’s once playful ways, from trying to croon like Arthur Prysock to playing air-guitar in the mirror as B.B. King records blared, but I’d never seen it.
Before that morning, I couldn’t match those joyful music stories with the serious man I knew.
Before that morning, I couldn’t match those joyful music stories with the serious man I knew. Thinking about it years later, I’ve often wondered what was in the air that autumn morning that loosened him up enough to belt out those few lines. Did he do it to try and cheer me up or to apologize for the high school incident? To this day, I have no idea. When “New York State of Mind” was finally over, I smiled as some of my resentment towards Lafayette slipped away.
“That was Billy Joel,” the morning jock announced, and I scribbled the name in a composition notebook. Later that week I went to Disc-O-Mat and bought both Turnstiles and The Stranger, which had just come out the month before; both albums soon became part of soundtrack of my budding teenage life that embraced punk and pop equally. Joel’s New York-centric songs became part of my personal creative Big Apple canon that included the films of Sidney Lumet and Gordon Parks, the music of Miles Davis and Leonard Bernstein, the art of Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol, the writings of Chester Himes and Truman Capote.
For the next three years Joel’s music guided me through strange transitions that included an abrupt move to Baltimore when I was 15 and my first heartbreak a year later when the repeated playing of the lovely ballad “Just the Way You Are” and “Just Like a Woman” soothed me. Through bouts of home sickness I’d sit for hours in front of the stereo blasting “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Big Shot” and “Sleeping with the Television On.” During that miserable time, Joel’s music kept me connected to the city I missed so much. Even when the fog of that grief lifted, Joel’s records remained on my playlist.
In 1981, before graduating high school, I decided to return to New York to attend college in Brooklyn. Lafayette volunteered to pick me up from the Baltimore house and drive me back to Harlem. Hours later, as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel, traffic was jammed. In the distance, across the Hudson, I could see the city as the in its gleaming skyscraper glory, the open arms of the Empire State Building welcomed me back and “New York State of Mind” played in my head. As I began to hum, Lafayette turned to me and said, “I suppose you missed the city.” I looked at him and chuckled. “You can’t even imagine,” I replied.