Driving home today, I was listening to (and, of course, singing along with :) )Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” on the radio. My first idle thought was to realize that it is in 3/4 time, like a waltz. Most of his songs are 4/4. Not that I have ever made a study of this! It was just one of those weird free associations you may sometimes have.
My second thought, and not for the first time, was to marvel at what an incredible song that was for him practically right out of the gate. “Piano Man” was Joel’s first hit, and it was released in 1973. Forty years later, Joel is still performing in concerts, as he was, for example, this past August when he was caught on camera singing to his ex-wife Christie Brinkley, who was in the front row during a concert in New York.
My third thought was that “Piano Man” was the only song Joel ever needed to secure his place in music history. Yes, he’s had many, many other hit records—songs I really like—but the only one he ever needed was that first masterpiece. It’s just beautiful, perfect. The unforced rhyme of the lyrics, the atmospheric mood, the heartbreaking story, the melody, the singing performance. Perfect.
Then I started thinking about one-hit wonders. Which got me to remembering the really mean things that Terry Teachout, theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, said about playwright Arthur Miller a day or two after he died (in 2005) and then again when reviewing a newly-published Miller biography in 2009. (There is a connection here, if you’ll bear with me :) )
“The bells tolled for Arthur Miller all weekend long—but most of them were made of tin,” sneered Teachout in his obituary/commentary/”tribute.” He went on to label Miller a “pretentious” playwright who “pretended to have big ideas and the ability to express them with a touch of poetry, when in fact he had neither.” The real reason Miller rose to fame, Teachout said, was not his work but the fact that he married Marilyn Monroe and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In the 2009 Commentary review of Christopher Bigsby’s biography of Miller, Teachout expresses bafflement that Miller is regarded as great playwright in Europe, and he takes Bigsby to task for writing such an “unabashedly admiring” book about Miller. Several times Teachout notes that the contemporary acclaim for Miller is completely at odds with his critical reception during his lifetime. And he seems to have undertaken the task of restoring that previously unfavorable regard single-handedly. Among the insults he throws out:
[N]one of the plays he wrote after 1968 was favorably received in this country [and] his American reputation rests almost entirely on Death of a Salesman, All My Sons (1947), and The Crucible (1953), his first three commercial successes and the only Miller plays that continue to be revived with regularity.
[T]he plots of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible are sufficiently involving to conceal many—if not all—of their artistic defects.
[I]n the end it is hard to see Miller as anything other than a second-string tragedian, a sentimentalist who mistook ideas for art and windiness for poetry
For good measure, Teachout also informs us of a “widely reported posthumous revelation that Miller concealed the existence of his fourth child, whom he institutionalized on learning that the infant, who was born in 1966, suffered from Down Syndrome.” And he brings up politics again and again.
Why, then, do so many modern-day critics feel so differently about Miller [than Teachout does—i.e., they like him and think he’s truly great]? The answer, I suspect, is that they are willing to overlook his limitations as a writer because they share his political views—
[To which my reaction is: Huh??? When I formed my favorable opinion of Miller, I knew nothing about his political views]
—and, just as important, his view of what theater should do.
[Which, apparently, is “not unlike attending a taping of a TV show whose audience responds reflexively to the repeated flashing of an “applause” sign.]
[T]he critics of yesteryear, most of whom shared the political views of their contemporary counterparts, were nonetheless capable of setting aside those views and judging his plays not as political statements but as works of art.
I guess I don’t want to get too sidetracked by Teachout-bashing. I usually like his reviews and other writing very much. Something about his dismissal of Miller just really got under my skin, obviously.
And thinking about Billy Joel and “Piano Man” today while I was driving, I recalled the way Teachout disparaged Miller for the fact that his reputation rested largely on those three early plays.
So what? Even if Miller’s reputation rested entirely on only one play, “Death of a Salesman,” that would be more than enough, in my opinion, to mark his legacy as one of the truly great playwrights in history. Just as “Piano Man” is more than enough to secure Joel’s place as a singer/songwriter. Not to mention one heck of a piano player, possibly the very best in popular music.
Both men’s creative output continued long after peaking artistically, if you are disposed to thinking about it negatively.
Again, so what? All the rest (of each man’s respective oeuvre) is gravy.