Driving up the New Jersey Turnpike tonight, after the sun had gone down but before it was really dark — in other words, prime nostalgia time — I was listening to Billy Joel on Rdio. I’m not talking about “River of Dreams” Joel, about which the less said the better (although if that’s your thing, you know, good for you) — I’m talking about the early stuff, like draw a line right through the middle of “Uptown Girl” (or maybe right after it if you’re feeling generous) and consider everything before. The two peaks of this period were, of course, The Stranger and 52nd Street.
I should confess at this point that I’m not a particularly rabid Billy Joel fan, but unlike many other wealthy and popular singer-songwriters, the man is both a genuine musician and a very gifted entertainer, and those two albums are probably two of my lifetime favorites, as listenable and interesting now as they were 30 years ago.
So, I was listening to this stuff, you know, “My Life” and “Only the Good Die Young” and “Rosalinda’s Eyes” and so forth, and a wave washed over me of nostalgia for something I never actually experienced (I’m sure the Germans have a word for that) — namely, the New York City of the 1970s and early 1980s. I mean post-Simon and Garfunkel (who essentially marked the very tail end of the falling-away of an old New York, a city of homburgs and Checker Cabs) and pre-Wall Street (which is a convenient marker of the rise of a new New York, the New York of super-rich douchebags and, as all my native New Yorker friends never tire of repeating and repeating and repeating, “mallification”).
It just happens that that period exactly coincides with my growing-up years (I entered kindergarten in 1970 and graduated from college in 1987), a period during which I had almost no experience of New York City. (I visited for 36 hours in 1982, at age 17; found it disturbing and chaotic and unsafe and definitely unappealing; and didn’t return for years, except once or twice briefly during college.)
New York in the 1970s and 1980s is an experience I entirely missed, and I regret it. By all accounts it was a heady time, and not Masters-of-the-Universe headiness, but the headiness of “everything might change, if we want it to, and we do, don’t we? So let’s try something.” You know, post-Watergate, post-”Drop Dead,” but pre-Helmsley. Not everyone experienced life this way, of course, but enough people did that the memory of it is still in the cultural air here. And elsewhere, too — the post-Watergate malaise/hopefulness was national — but everything tends to be muted in Los Angeles where I grew up, people are parochial and on average tend not to give much of a shit about things that happen in the outside world.
Early Billy Joel stands for (and, in snippets, captures and reflects back) that New York City in its moment of transition, which I wasn’t mature enough to get excited about when I encountered the very tail end of it in 1982. By the time I spent significant time in New York — in 1995 and 1996 — everything was ruined.
Don’t get me wrong, the city is still a lovely, powerful, vibrant, and diverse place, of course, and in countless ways is better now than it used to be — I happen to hold the bourgeois and out-of-fashion opinion that a city in which you are not likely to be murdered or slashed or larcenized is a better place than one in which you are, even if that comes with a side of Starbucks. I’m very glad I get to have the experience of living and working here, and helping to effect the next round of accretive change. But people who lived here before about 1990 have a sense of wonder about what they lived through — oh my God, we all did this and this and *this*, I can hardly believe it now, and we all did it *together* — that people who lived here afterwards don’t really have. I missed out on that New York, and it’s never coming back.