Billy and the Darkness
When I was growing up my family had one ironclad rule when it came to listening to music in cars: Never talk when a good song is on the radio. As the drivers, my mother and father had final say on what constituted a “good song,” but I learned to recognize the artists that made the cut.
- The Beatles are playing – shut your mouth. Don’t think about talking. In fact, don’t even think.
- A Bob Seger song is playing – Zip it back there. Nothing you can say is more important than hearing Night Moves
- It was okay to talk if Journey, Kansas or REO Speedwagon was on.
In case my brother, sister or I didn’t recognize the song, my mother or father could quiet us down by giving our family’s sign for “Shut up until this song is over,” which was a hand raised in the air while they glared at us in the rearview mirror. Breaking the no-talking rule made for an uncomfortable car ride spent one more misstep away from turning that car around and not going to the park, pizza place or wherever it is we were going.
On a Saturday night in the fall of 1981, my mother was driving and a song came on the radio and my mother’s hand went up. This was officially a good song. The musical intro gave way to the lyrics:
“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday…”
I listened to the song as my mother’s Pontiac Tempest moved down Wellwood Avenue, the main road in Lindenhurst, New York, the Long Island town where we had lived until just a few months earlier.
Lindenhurst was the only place I’d ever lived, and I assumed it was where we would live forever. Most of my family and all of my friends lived there, and it was my only point of reference in the world, but I wasn’t going to be living there any longer. A few months earlier I was called down to my school’s office for early dismissal from my first grade class. That day, my mother was waiting for me at the office, and she led me down the hall and through the doors where my father’s car was waiting, but he wasn’t in it.
When my mother started driving I knew that she was traveling in the opposite direction of where we lived. When we got on the Southern State Parkway I asked where my brother and sister were. I was told not to ask questions. I didn’t know where we were going and I wasn’t sure why I was being told to be quiet – there wasn’t even a good song on – but I did what I was told. We didn’t go home that night.
In the time since my mother picked me up from school she had gotten her own car, a job and an apartment – not bad for a 24 year-old woman with three kids ages seven and under.
We slowly rolled past the shops I hadn’t been to since the spring, and then we got on the same Parkway we had taken that afternoon and headed east to Bay Shore, the town where we’d moved to. My father had stayed behind in Lindenhurst. My mother had just picked us up from our Saturday visit with him.
When the song ended, it was okay to talk. My mom turned the radio down in anticipation of my question.
“Was that Billy Joel?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Did you notice what time it was when it started?”
“Ummm…no?” I said.
“It was nine o’clock, just like in the song,”
I thought that was a pretty cool trick for our local radio station to be playing that song at that exact time on a Saturday. As my younger brother and sister slept in the back seat, I leaned forward and kept talking so I could get it all in before the next good song came on.
“Is that one of dad’s songs?” I asked.
My dad used to play Billy Joel records when we still lived with him. He didn’t play much music when we visited him on the weekends.
My mom told me to sit back and put my seatbelt on, and then answered my question. “Sometimes he would listen to that one,” she said. “It’s a famous song. A lot of people listen to it.”
“Because it’s a good song, and Billy Joel is from here,” she said.
I knew that Billy Joel was from Long Island. I’d known he was “one of us” since I was old enough to know he existed. My concept of “one of us” was a little iffy at that age, but I assumed it meant he was a friend of ours.
When we arrived home that night, we all made our way down into the basement where we lived, and as I prepared for bed I continued to ask questions.
“How come I haven’t met Billy Joel?” I asked.
“I don’t think he lives here anymore,” my mother replied.
“Where does he live, then?”
“He probably lives in Manhattan, or maybe in Hollywood or something,” she explained.
I took this information in. There was no Internet – I couldn’t just look up where Billy Joel lived – so my mom’s guess was the only information I had to go on. For some reason the idea bothered me. I don’t think I was bothered by the fact that Billy Joel was (I assumed) wealthy, while I was living in a basement apartment for the second time in my short life; I was bothered because I felt like he had left. How could he be “one of us” and also be gone? To be fair to Billy I felt the same way about my dad.
When my dad used to play Billy Joel it most often meant Glass Houses, but in the weeks right after he and my mom split up, he mixed it up by playing a mix tape he made that included songs from the Piano Man album. On a Thursday afternoon, only a few weeks after my parents separated, I was dropped off at the house where I used to live with both of my parents. It was actually the house where my dad had grown up with his parents, and they still lived there too.
My mother and father lived there when I was born. After I arrived we stayed in the back bedroom and later, after my brother and sister were born, we moved into basement, which my father had converted into an apartment. My father remained in that same basement apartment after my mother left. There was no official visitation or custody agreement yet. My visit was a trial run to see how spending time with my father would go; if it went well my brother and sister would be joining me next time. Things got off to a rough start.
“Hey, so what is your mother up to?” He asked.
I pretended I hadn’t heard him because I just wanted to watch baseball and eat pizza but after he repeated himself I had to answer. I hesitated as long as possible before saying:
“Umm, I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You see her all the time right? What, is she not around?
“No, she’s there, she’s just working and watching us.”
My answer wasn’t good enough because he kept asking me things.
“Is she saying anything about me?”
“I guess, sometimes.”
My dad walked over to the kitchen counter and came back with something in his hand and said:
“Can you do your dad a favor?”
“Tell your mom I’m not going to drink anymore.”
He showed me the pamphlet. He said that he had gone to a meeting and met some people who were going to help all of us. He put his beer down and started to read from a list of questions.
Drinking problems and divorce was deep grown up stuff and I was just hoping that the conversation would end so we could move on to other things. I had been excited to see my father and to spend the night back at my old house, I was looking forward to the watching baseball and then staying up late to watch reruns of Star Trek before going to bed but instead I was just sitting on the couch and nodding my head when I thought it would help.
After we had something to eat my dad put the Mets game on but instead of sitting with me to watch the game, he went outside to his truck and came back with a can of paint and a brush.
“I just have to take care of something.” He said, as he put on some music on.
As I tried to pay attention to the game, my father began to paint over the window on the door that faced the neighbor’s house. That window was the primary source of natural light in the apartment but my father wanted to shut out the rest of the world. In between coats of window paint, my father turned the music up, making it impossible for me to hear the TV. He was listening to Billy Joel; I recognized the opening to “Piano Man.”
From where I was sitting I could see the TV to one side of the apartment and my father on the other as he continued the sad work of hiding himself from the world. He was still only in his mid-20’s but my father must have felt as if his life was over before he really had a chance to get started. It was an ugly and uncomfortable scene that wasn’t helped at all when the song “Captain Jack” began to play. I watched my father as he painted his own windows over and listened to him singing along to Billy Joel’s sad song of a life being wasted.
Finally, when the painting was done and the music was turned off, my father joined me on the couch for the rest of the Mets game. The only thing more hopeless than my father that night might have been the early 80’s Mets. We sat in silence for a while. My father and the Mets were going nowhere and I wished that I could go someplace far away.
It should have been bedtime as soon as the game ended but my father had another idea.
“The Odd Couple is in in 45 minutes. You don’t have to go to bed.”
Normally I would never pass this up, but today was different.
“I think I’m tired.”
I went to the bedroom that I used to share with my brother and sister. Our toys, clothes and beds were all gone. I put myself into the fold-out bed that had been placed there for me and from the darkness of my old bedroom listened to my father move around the house. He changed the channel on the TV, lit a cigarette and opened a beer. The pamphlets he showed me earlier that night sat unread on the kitchen table and the changes he was talking about making in his life would have to wait until at least the next day. At some point I drifted off to sleep, leaving my dad to sit in his own darkness.
Will Stegemann lives in Los Angeles with his wife and dog. He writes a lot, sometimes about musicians. This is an excerpt from his upcoming book A Year of Billy Joel. He can be found on all of the usual internet places.
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