I’m not sure how old I was when I heard Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer” for the first time, but I distinctly remember taking note of the part where he sings that it took him years to write his latest song and that although they were the best years of his life, the song ran too long, so they cut the running time down to three minutes and five seconds. At the time, my instinct was to call BS on the idea that it took the guy “years” to write a three-minute pop song, but I was probably only about ten or eleven years old at the time, so what did I know? Not much, it turns out.
My latest recording, “Never Talk Back,” actually took me almost a quarter of a century to write and record. I probably wrote the earliest version somewhere around 1996, tried recording it a few different ways on my Tascam Porta 03 multitrack cassette recorder and then decided to go to graduate school for English. Though I’d play the song on my acoustic guitar once in a while, it mainly lay dormant in the back of my mind for the next decade or so until I started getting back into playing and recording music again.
But even then, I kept experimenting with different ways of arranging and recording the song — different styles, different keys, different melodies — without ever hitting on a version that I liked. Back when I was recording under the Android Invasion name some time ago, I think I may have put out a jazzy instrumental version of the song called “Hotrod,” but I’d have to look into that. I also played a hip-hop-flavored electronic version in a show with my robot friends at Old Haverford Friends Meeting House a couple of years back. And I tried to record a Burt Bacharach-esque version on Thank You for Holding last year, but it just wasn’t working.
This time around, I tried to keep the song as simple as possible. I started with a basic piano riff (that I eventually dropped) and asked my friend Tim Simmons to play drums along with the piano part that I’d written. Then I added a bass and two guitar parts, and that was pretty much it for the backing track, though I did also edit the song down from something like six-and-a-half minutes to just over four, so props to Billy Joel for calling that aspect of the song-writing process, too.
It took me a little while to get a vocal take that I liked, and I decided to sing the song in a fairly low register so I could avoid having to tweak the track to make it sound like I can hit high notes. Also, I’ve been playing out a little more lately, and I realized that it’s a whole lot easier on my voice to sing like Leonard Cohen than John Lennon or even Tom Petty. Not that I ever sounded like either of them, but you get the picture.
All of this is to say that Billy Joel was not bullshitting me when I was ten or eleven years old — that a song can, in fact, take many years to write, and that sometimes it’s in the best interest of a song to cut it down to three-oh-five (or, in my case, four-oh-one). But I’m still kind of mad at him for writing a song about Bethlehem, PA, and calling it “Allentown.” Now that, my friends, is BS.