Hi, Billy…Reuben Levy here. After reading the recent interview you gave with David Marchese at Vulture.com I felt it imperative that I reach out to you somehow. As I am neither a celebrity nor a man of any note whatsoever, I figure the only chance I have of reaching you is to float this missive on the churlish waters of the internet and hope that it finds safe passage to your electric shore. So, here goes…Billy, I think you desperately need to get a bit of perspective. For years, you’ve been marinating in your self-doubt and disappointment. You feel you haven’t lived up to your potential, so you’ve cloistered yourself up there in the Hamptons, distracted yourself with young tail and vino…tinkered with your motorcycles and tinkled on your Steinway. Anything you could do to escape what you’ve internalized as your inherent musical shortcomings. Well, let me tell you something, Bucko…you cut the moorings decades too soon. You deprived the world of your immense talents and sliced off your own nose in the process. And why? Because you took the inane blathering of a bunch of clueless nimrods to heart. Enough is enough. It’s high time you snap out of your malaise before it really is too late. If this sounds harsh, please understand it comes from a place of deep admiration and respect. I have been a fan…nay a disciple… of yours since I was a young child. I became a musician because of you.
My world changed because of you.
The first time I heard The Stranger was one of the most seminal moments in my life. I inhaled that album. Your lyrics were so gloriously disaffected and acid-tongued…your music elementally melodic, sophisticated and indelible. It was nothing like I’d ever experienced. I spent long afternoons listening to your songs, while staring at that record sleeve…at your shy, handsome face, slightly aloof but irresistibly enigmatic…and the cast characters you surrounded yourself with. There was Phil in his Yankees jersey, Liberty and his goofy smile, Doug checking out his chianti and Richie in the center, looking like the Tonto to your Lone Ranger. I was with you in that Italian restaurant, my olfactory system assaulted by the manicotti, cigarette smoke and English Leather. I have remained your disciple ever since and studied your body of work as it progressed in painstaking detail.
I know what your music is all about, believe me – and these are my two cents.
Your albums have been unjustly maligned over the years by a murder of pinheaded, trend-chasing, parrot-brained muldoons who had about as much insight into the song writing process as a dented fireplug. You’ve been called a misogynist, a Long Island loud mouth, a schmaltzy balladeer, pastiche pablum and a light-weight. From your responses in the interview, I can tell that you’re still deeply wounded by this ‘criticism’…or in your words – scarred by it. Consider this, however. Through all the ‘critically acclaimed’ artists that have come and gone…all the Arcade Fires, LCD Soundsystems, Elvis Costellos and Radioheads, who is still selling out MSG? Whose music is still beloved and cherished by millions?
Who will be remembered?
You were a commercial songwriter with a keen ear for a hook and a lust in your soul to connect with a large audience – and you did. The hits you took by music critics and hipster dipshits were for that very reason – your broad appeal. In reality, your music was no more misogynistic than Dylan’s – Idiot Wind, Just Like a Woman – or any more pastiche. balladeering or schmaltzy than David Bowie’s – Let’s Dance, Life on Mars…Heroes. Moreover, your track record was a hell of a lot more consistent than the vast majority of your peers…and that for sure includes Mr. Springsteen. For my money, those first ten albums of yours – from Cold Spring Harbor to The Bridge — hold up as one of the greatest runs of anyartist at any time. As for Storm Front, well, it was a chart-topping smash, wasn’t it? Still, you made River of Dreams’ supposed lack of commercial success the reason for your retirement. The truth is, neither of those albums are representative of your talents. Their production was plastic, arrangements stale, and material middling – save the gorgeous And So It Goes and Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel). You were chasing rather than creating. All artists go through this phase…the chase…the panic of irrelevance. But rather than fight through it, you cashed in your chips…took the ball and went home. In the interview, you say, “I never felt like I was as good as I wanted to be. My bar was Beethoven.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but you were never going to be Beethoven…you never could have been. You were, however, one of the strongest musical voices of your generation. Let me tell you, Billy, you’re an incredible player, but you’re definitely not a classical musician or writer. Your brief foray into the genre with Fantasies and Delusions proved that without a doubt. It was a trifling morass, completely devoid of the melodic invention and craft that were the hallmarks of your previous work. You’re a sensitive soul with deep-seated self-esteem issues. You don’t value your true abilities and beat yourself up for not being something you innately aren’t. It’s the Achilles heel of a lot of artists. You could have easily rode out the ‘90s and returned with your most profound work. You mention in the interview, that Rick Rubin wanted to produce a stripped-down, back-to-roots album. You poo-pooed the offer. Why? Sounds like it would have been one hell of a great idea…and I’m sure it would have been a major success and perhaps garnered you all that critical anal tongue bathing you’ve craved all these years.
I hate to say it, Billy, but you’re kind of a shmuck.
Among the litany of sad-sackery you spewed in that interview, you whine about how dead-on the critic Stephen Holden was about Streetlife Serenader, mope-ily agreeing that it was ‘bereft of new ideas’, Are you kidding me? That record is filled with gems like, Los Angelenos…a kick ass rocker that brilliantly evokes the burned out vacuousness of La La land. And what about Souvenir? That was your best classical piece right there…a Chopin-esque tear-jerker that I’m sure old Frederic wouldn’t have minded writing himself. And then there’s Root Beer Rag — a virtuoso performance, played with youthful gusto, precision and feel. Most of all, the album sounds great and holds up to this day. I still listen to it all the time. Was it transitional? Sure. But to say it was ‘bereft of new ideas’ is ludicrous.
I could go on about all your albums…your masterpieces like Nylon Curtain and The Stranger… and your deft explorations into new wave – Glass Houses – and Jazz rock – 52nd Street. They were all brilliant, bursting with well-honed ideas, perfectly executed. There would be no point, however, to praise you. You dismiss your work as merely competent. Nothing will get through to you and it’s truly a shame. You only value the opinion of critics who despise you…not the millions of fans who love you.
I want to say one thing more, from one musician to another. I saw a recent show of yours at MSG and of course I enjoyed the hell out of it. Still, you shouldn’t feel that this residency somehow makes up for the fact that you gave up making records. You know as well as I do, that for a player it’s the easiest thing in the world. You get up there and do what comes naturally. And in your case, you’re pampered, adored and get paid more than King Solomon for your trouble. Yeah, don’t kid yourself – you’re doing the easiest part of the job and long since have given up on the what you were truly meant to do…dare I even say, morally obligated to do.
So, that’s about all I have to say, Billy…but let me end on this note – there’s still time. Please consider writing another album. You still have it in you, despite what you think…I know you do. You owe it to yourself to at least try. I understand that you don’t like doing anything half-way, so just commit yourself to the idea. Get a good producer, not some Mick Jones shlock-meister – maybe Nigel Godrich or the aforementioned Rubin. Put some real strings on it for Godsakes…make it sound warm and analog. You wouldn’t regret it, I’m telling you. It would be the golden bow on a beautiful career, and you might prove something to yourself in the process. It’s never too late to do what you were meant to do…that is until you croak.
Don’t croak, Billy. Do what you were born to do. Give us another record.
With deep love,