Since September 2010, this blog has recorded the journey of this middle-aged man as I attempt to listen to all the music in my CD collection. CDs revisited in their entirety from start to finish - no skipping tracks, no shuffle. CDs only - no vinyl, no tapes, no downloads. And just as CD technology (and the album format itself) becomes obsolete. I'm no music critic, just a music junkie with too much time on my hands.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Billy Joel - My Lives (2005)

In which Columbia attempts (and fails) to clear the vaults of Joel recordings and, in the process, manages to cram 75 minutes of worthwhile material into a 4¾ hour box set.  A 6 disc set: 4 CDs (demos, outtakes, B-sides, soundtrack cuts, live recordings, and album cuts), a DVD (concert footage from the River of Dreams Tour), and a "UMixIt" CD-ROM (whatever that is - I guess we'll find out).  Also included is a 60 page booklet that I'd describe as mediocre at best.  As you can tell, I'm disappointed with this set.

In my opinion, more attention should have been paid to the years 1976-86, Joel's commercial peak.  I have several recordings on vinyl that don't appear in this set but could have: Joel's 1977 live promo Souvenir and the 12" Jellybean Benitez remix of Tell Her About It.

Peak on the US Billboard Top 200 chart: #171

19 tracks, 67 minutes

The first five tracks come from Joel's groups prior to his becoming a solo artist in 1971.  The first two, with his group The Lost Souls, are pleasantly derivative of The Beatles.  The next two were recorded with The Hassles and aren't as good as they unsuccessfully attempt to merge disparate Long Island and Memphis sounds.  The last of these tracks, with the organ and drums duo Attila is just bad (even Joel himself has called the Attila album "psychedelic bullshit").

The rest of the disc includes 8 previously unreleased demos, 1 previously unreleased alternate version, and 5 album tracks from Cold Spring Harbor, The Stranger, 52nd Street, and Glass Houses.  I won't comment on the album tracks other than to wonder why they would include album tracks on a box set such as this - this set is for hardcore fans such as myself who already own all the albums.  The best explanation would be "shameless record company money grab" and since that's totally believable, we'll go with that. 

Of the demos, I enjoy Only A Man and Cross To Bear.  There's also a fun pseudo-reggae version of Only The Good Die Young that's my favorite cut on this disc.  But most demos don't bear repeated listens and these are no exceptions.  If you're asking "if that's what you think about demos, Mark, why did you buy this box set?"  It's a valid question and I'll just chalk it up to being a Billy Joel fan. 

18 tracks, 75 minutes

The best of the set, this disc includes 5 previously unreleased demos, 6 album tracks, 3 B-sides, a contribution to a children's album, an alleged 12" remix, a previously unreleased alternate take (really just another demo), and a previously unreleased live version of Captain Jack from '81.

I can't complain about the inclusion of She's Right On Time from The Nylon Curtain because that's one of my favorite Joel tracks.  The best of the three B-sides is Elvis Presley Blvd, the flip-side to Allentown.  Nobody Knows But Me, from the Sesame Street album In Harmony 2, is good as well.

Two of the demos are worth a listen: the looser, more rockin' version of Christie Lee and the beautiful, bare bones demo of And So It Goes.  Track 12, the version of Keeping The Faith (from the album An Innocent Man) is listed as a 12" Dance Remix, but the Interwebs call foul and claim that the running time of 4:53 is not the 5:27 of the actual 12" single.  While it's a fun remix with crunchy drums and additional synth horns, I'd hardly call it a dance single.

That's not the only misprint in the liner notes, however.  The final cut on this disc, a predictable cover of The Times They Are A-Changin' from the 1987 Kohuept live album, gives writing credit to Joel instead of Dylan.

17 tracks, 71 minutes

11 of the 17 tracks on this disc weren't written by Joel.  I usually enjoy innovative and creative covers but Joel's covers are typically straight ahead.  Most come from soundtracks:
  • Honeymoon in Vegas (All Shook Up & Heartbreak Hotel)
  • A League Of Their Own (In A Sentimental Mood)
  • Oliver & Company (Why Should I Worry)
  • Runaway Bride (Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day)?)
or other compilation albums:
  • Simply Mad About The Mouse (When You Wish Upon A Star)
  • Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (Light As A Breeze, To Make You Feel My Love & Hey Girl)
But compiling tracks from other various albums is what box sets are all about.  There's also a scattering of demos, live versions, and a B-Side.  After many years of chart success, Joel had become a one-off soundtrack guy that toured his greatest hits and that's fine (in his defense, he had a lot of personal and legal issues at the time that demanded his attention). So while they're not the best, I'm grateful that all these tracks are in one place otherwise I might never have heard them.

13 tracks, 74 minutes

Nothing much to hear here, move along.  While the liner notes claim these tracks are from the year 2000 forward, they are not.  There are seven average live cuts on this disc, including some recorded in 1980, 1982, and 1994.  There's also a cover of Don't Worry Baby from an All Star Tribute To Brian Wilson (2001) as well as Joel's contribution to the 9/11 telethon benefit, New York State Of Mind (the best track on this CD).  The latter half of the disc is a sampling of Joel's attempt at "serious" music which comes off as Rachmaninoff-inspired neo-Romantic piano noodling.  Tacked on the end is a promotional interview for Joel's 1980 album, Glass Houses, which is horrid.


I'm not much for concert videos, so today is the first time I've watched this DVD.  Taken from the River of Dreams tour, this is a 1994 concert from Frankfurt that was originally broadcast in the US on the Disney Channel.  Joel looks disinterested throughout and seems to be simply going through the motions, but any time I get to watch a singer-songwriter perform his own music, I can get something out of it.  Plus, I get a kick out of hearing a German audience singing Piano Man in English. Don't tell my wife, but my favorite part of the video is the footage of sexy multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero.


 I inserted the bonus "UMixIt" CD-ROM in anticipation of remixing one of the four Joel tracks provided (Keeping The Faith, Movin' Out, Big Shot, and Only The Good Die Young). The disc installed a program called "Cakewalk Media Mixer" but then when I tried opening the files for my promised "interactive studio experience," the licensing for the songs had apparently expired. I wasn't particularly surprised since the software is almost ten years old and the website URL given ( is currently unused and parked at GoDaddy.  No upgrades were immediately available to me and, to be perfectly honest, I didn't look too hard.

Apparently, this promotional bonus disc was available if the box set was purchased at Best Buy, but I can't confirm that. If your box set didn't include it, don't lose any sleep over it.

Personal Memory Associated with this box set:  None.  Glad I bought it used instead of paying full retail.

Previously revisited for the blog:

1 comment:

  1. Was halfway kind of expecting all sunshine and rainbows from you, a known fan, on this one but it looks like it's gonna be a bumpy ride.