On Billy Joel and Thomas Pynchon: It Was Always Christie Lee

My dad is in the basement, our first house, a bi-level he built with Linda in the 70s.  I’m four, he still has the Pinto, in the summer everything about it burns, the buckles and the pleather and the smell of gasoline.  We live a few blocks from the playground and the pool, there are still no big trees on our street, June scorches the sidewalks, the heat dizzies me in waves.  Violets struggle up through cracks in the alley, I bring them water, as much as I can carry, eight ounces at a time in the Burger King Jedi glass.

He calls me inside.  We stay cool watching Scooby, he pulls the old mattress out between the sofa and TV so I can jump and box.  When the cartoons are over, we listen to An Innocent Man.  The Nylon Curtain has come and gone, it’s reminded the world about our town.  Some people are still pissed about “Allentown,” not really at Billy Joel, but about how he was right and how nothing changes. This is ‘83, ‘84. “Christie Lee”’s my favorite track.

In 2019 I’m 39.  It’s been three major financial crises since Dad willed a living together for us.  The market is up, that’s supposed to mean something, the pandemic is still months away.  I start reading The Crying of Lot 49, I’m not hung up on numbers but it’s been sitting there for years and I’m through Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway (again), and I know for a fact Lawrence is going to kill poor Ricardo so I never do finish St. Mawr.  SiriusXM has just brought back the Billy Joel Channel and Billy Joel is at the piano telling stories about how he writes his songs.  He gets to “Christie Lee” and says “There’s a lot of clever stuff in there.  Yeah, I’m pretty proud of that one.”  The thing you might not know about Billy Joel unless you listen to the Billy Joel Channel is that the guy is fucking smart.  He didn’t finish high school so I think he must be one hell of a reader.  And so he’s on satellite radio, talking about the throwback album he made 36 years ago on vinyl and magnetic tape, an ode to doo-wop and Brill Building wax, and I’m thinking about how I was convinced every song on the album was about my parents, that this LP on the stereo from Sears that may has well have been the computers inside KITT had told me everything I would ever need to know about love, and I’m thinking about this song, “Christie Lee”, about a guy (“always Joe to me”) snorting lines of bullshit and the girl who loved his sax, a symbol for the ways we delude ourselves in art, relationships, life, the ironies and impossiblities of real communication. 

It’s just a coincidence that I’m reading Lot 49 at the same time, that it’s about these same things,  that it wonders if language is futile, if storytelling is meaningless, if we can ever really know what the hell we’re saying or if anyone is hearing us. Is revelation muted in the world of “ones and zeros, twinned” or is the dampened horn (the central image of the book) a stand-in for another kind of expression?  Had Pynchon foreseen the world we live in now?  Was he warning us about the eventual, inevitable, impotence (the muted horn) of mass media?  Is that why there is more photographic evidence of Bigfoot than of him?  Was Billy Joel doing the same thing?  To a song, the Innocent Man LP is an earnest recreation of the sounds his generation grew up with; it never plays as send-up or mean-spirited pastiche.  In place of parody and gestalt there’s vitality and warmth.  It earns its “love letter to an era” claim.  And why shouldn’t a project like this be warm and vital?  In the 60s in places like Oyster Bay and Allentown, the middle class was growing and progress (whatever it means)  must have seemed inevitable to a generation of white kids bound, almost by default, to do better than their parents.  It was in this context that The Crying of Lot 49 is set and was released, but where Pynchon’s mop-topped American band of brats with British accents (The Paranoids, no less) abandon authenticity, An Innocent Man is sincere, even when it’s clever. 

Certainly, “Christie Lee” is about sex.  Certainly, the saxophone isn’t just a saxophone, even when it is.  Either way, as the song rolls on, Joe’s horns are inevitably muted.  The entrendres break down.  Suddenly, the stoic steady hand who “left the customers alone” finds himself pining for a woman (objectified as “a nice piece of music”) who only wants him for one kind of utility or another (“he blew a solo like a blind man/she really dug his saxophone”).  

There’s a lot of clever stuff in there. Yeah, I’m pretty proud of that one.

Maybe Joe wants a relationship and Christie Lee is only interested in sex.  Maybe Joe only wants sex and Christie Lee just wants to hear him play an alto sax.  It’s probably both, and that’s probably why it works.  When you start a song saying “let me tell you a story/about a woman and a man/maybe you will find familiar/maybe you won’t understand” you’re excusing yourself just enough. Have fun with the impossibilities of communication. Joe and Christie didn’t, but someone should. 

Oh the man took a calculated gamble/Yes the man had the power to perform

But Christie Lee was more than he knew how to handle/She didn’t need him as a man/All she wanted was the horn.   

Christie Lee, Christie Lee.  Christie Lee Hudson.  Christie Lee Brinkley.  Christie Lee Joel. 

It’s not Billy Joel’s (or Thomas Pynchon’s) fault that I’m obsessed with the synchronicity of the muted postal horns in Lot 49 and the sad-sack sax man’s pawned-off axe in “Christie Lee.”  Like Lot’s Oedipa, I’m seeing these symbols all over the place.  Like her, I’m parsing out the meaning of someone else’s story, amassing its symbols to myself, annexing Joel’s song about a would-be Duke Silver outclassed by Jerry Gergich’s wife, laughing my ass off at how pleased the Piano Man is with himself.  And he should be. 

I’m 39 reading Pynchon. I’m four years old in the basement.  I’m 17 at the prom and we’re dancing to “These are the Times to Remember,” because we’re all white middle-class, because we were born right after Glass Houses, because in fourth grade we all memorized “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” because we are who we are because our parents were who they were, because we’re at a Holiday Inn in Allentown, because we all love Billy Joel. 

We graduate. We go to college or war.  We chase our Joes and Christie Lees.  We blow our little horns.  We give blood on 9/11.  We invade Iraq.  Our friends die for bumper sticker politics, our siblings and our cousins die ten years later trying to dry out.  Joe sells the sax and lives to drink.  We repeat our parents’ lives, we take deadlier drugs, we string out on Netflix, never mind the gap between productivity and wages.  Our horns are dull and warped and muted.

I read a Saunders quote the day I finished Lot.  “To write a decent story is such a huge and unlikely accomplishment that we shouldn’t care how long it takes. How much time would you be willing to spend to create something that lasts forever?”

Christie Lee’s a great story, George.  But what constitutes forever? There are probably hundreds of thousands of decent stories, a million better-than-just-decent songs no one will ever hear. Are they immortal? There are tens of thousands of good stories that will never grace the pages of a print journal or a beautifully crafted electronic magazine. Tens of thousands of brilliant poems shuffle off to the same fate. Great ones, too. Kafka died with no reason to assume the apotheosis of his work. Billy Joel’s satellite channel isn’t even permanent.  If we’re being honest, that’s a crime. 

Maybe it’s no wonder he stopped making albums after River of Dreams.  He says he felt he’d said his piece.  He’d done what he set out to do.  He muted his artistic horn on his own terms, and that’s way more badass than the fucking Pearl Jam station. 

It’s the end of 2020.  300,000 horns are muted.  Parallel universes are sponsored by the same big companies one channel apart, ones and zeroes twinned in sweet high definition. 

Pynchon has this line toward the end of Lot: “The illustrations were woodcuts, executed with that crude haste to see the finished product that marks the amateur.”

You might think Christie Lee is crude, but there’s no crude haste about it. Joe was a professional silenced by a broken heart/libido; my father sold the Pinto, the violets in the alley are long gone.  My little sister broke the Jedi glass. “Christie Lee” goes on and on, outliving Boomers and their heroes, Boomers and their marriages, Boomers and their children, even. A lot of clever stuff. 

Chris Cocca’s work has been published at Hobart, Brevity, Perhappened, Rejection Letters, Schuylkill Valley Journal and elsewhere.  He lives in Pennsylvania, patiently awaiting Belsnickel.

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