The Monday before last, at approximately 10:30 p.m., I fell onto my homely bed couch and stared pensively up at the ceiling. With a tepid dark and stormy in my right hand, and nothing but my internal monologue to keep me company, I took to revisiting my all-time favorite musician, Billy Joel.
It’s a curious phenomenon, the way my musical taste (or at least my musical playlist) has evolved from high school to college. In high school I was ahead of my time, listening to classics over drivel. But in college that playlist has regressed — not just to the mean, but below it, into the land of foppish European DJs and Ke$ha.
Which is the fault of no one but myself. And for what I wanted to get (and thoroughly succeeded in getting) from my college experience, those dulcet anthems were the right amount of vapid. But lately I’ve noticed myself having more mature thoughts, and my musical palate is once again following suit. It’s been real while it lasted, T-Swift…we might not ever be getting back together.
But back to my point. As I re-immersed myself in my iTunes compendium of Joel, I remembered everything I loved about him in the first place. It’s not just his musical brio, but his lyrical bravura that makes him the best of all time. Each song has its own little narrative hidden among the minors, majors and sevenths.
This reacquaintance with my long-lost idol also happened to coincide with my recent taking to short stories. I’ve been trying to read, or at least familiarize myself with, one new selection per day for the past month or so. Which got me thinking: “Hey. Why the hell hasn’t anyone tried to adapt one of these songs into a concise work of literature?”
Well that’s exactly what I’m gonna try to do. I’ve never written a short story – at least not one worth distributing publicly – so I’m probably not the best person for the job. But by right of genesis, the job is mine nonetheless.
Here are 30 Joel classics I think could be adapted into stirring short stories. The first 13 are tentatively ranked by how much potential I see in the story. Starting with “Angry Young Man,” the rest are listed alphabetically.
I’ve also included a link to the song on Youtube, a short pitch of what the story would be, and a few lyrics from each song that help explain my train of thought. A lot of them need more narrative work, but in all 30 that I’ve listed, there’s at least a thread worth pulling story-wise.
Feel free to comment or message me with suggestions on what I missed, or which ones you most preferred from the list:
THE TOP THIRTEEN:
Sleeping With the Television On
Night after night, a beautiful, demure woman goes to a bar searching for the man of her dreams. And night after night, she stands by the bar daring her prince charming to come sweep her away. Weirdly enough, though, only creeps and drunks come up to her and make advances. She shrugs them all off, and becomes a bit of a legend at this local spot — she’s the girl you can’t get.
One fateful night, the man of her dreams walks through the door. He’s handsome in an unthreatening way, and she admires the way he behaves from afar. Unfortunately, just like her, the man is too passive to approach people he’s attracted to in a bar — especially someone he hears is the local “queen of rejection.”
The story ends with the woman walking out of the bar, past the man, hoping that he will say something. Their eyes meet and light up, they smile at each other, but neither one speaks a word. The woman vows to never again return to that bar.
This isn’t easy for me to say Diane
I know you don’t need anybody’s protection
I really wish I was less of a thinking man
And more a fool who’s not afraid of rejection
All night long, all night long
I’ll just be standing here ’cause I know I don’t have the guts to come on
And I’ll be sleeping with the television on
Only the Good Die Young
A chaste, virtuous Catholic girl is seduced by a handsome stranger. He slowly picks away at her virginity – volubly retorting all of her reasons for keeping it – earns her trust, and manages to de-flower her. The next morning she wakes up to find that he’s gone for good — turns out he was a sociopath who gets his sick kicks convincing virgins to sleep with him. In the end, this happens to be a blessing in disguise for our heroine: She could have gone her entire life believing all the bullshit around her (yes, in the end she denounces her faith…sorry religious friends), but instead she’s shrewder and more worldly than she ever would have been without this tribulation.
They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait.
Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t.
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints,
the sinners are much more fun.
Summer, Highland Falls
A young, post-grad couple spends a few weeks at one of their vacation houses in upstate New York. They’ve been together for quite some time, and are deciding whether or not they should take the relationship from serious to VERY serious. By the end of the story, they realize that even though they have doubts, it’s better to commit to someone you really like than it is to hold out for some romantic notion of love. Your ceiling might be lower, but your basement is much, much higher. They decide that they want to move permanently to Highland Falls (a town I actually spent some time in this winter, so I think I might be able to get the setting kind of right).
How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness or euphoria
Leave a Tender Moment Alone
A woman falls for a guy, who impresses her more and more on each subsequent date. As they get toward the 10th date, however, she realizes that trend has yet to stop. He follows a movie date with a nice dinner out; a nice dinner out with a weekend in Vermont; a weekend in Vermont with a week in Maui; etc. Eventually it’s too much to keep up with, so she tries to convince him to slow down and leave things be. But with this particular guy, that’s easier said than done.
Even though I’m in love
Sometimes I get so afraid
I’ll say something so wrong
Just to have something to say
I know the moment isn’t right
To tell the girl a comical line
To keep the conversation light
I guess I’m just frightened out of my mind
Think Jerry Maguire meets The Soloist. A music exec has himself an existential crisis, realizing just how unfulfilling it is to sign talentless teeny bopper after talentless teeny bopper. Wandering the streets drunk one night, he hears the beautiful crooning of a street performer singing for tips. The moment those notes reach his ears, he has an Anton Ego-type flashback to why he loved music so much to begin with. He then tries to turn his newfound afflatus into a star.
Never sang on stages
Needs no orchestration
Melody comes easy
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies and the king and the queen of the prom. But things haven’t gone so well after high school. Eddie’s once-promising baseball career hit a roadblock in the minor leagues, where the couple barely scrapes by and lives in a local retirement home — the only place they can afford. With their relationship tested, and the 10-year high school reunion coming up, how will Brenda and Eddie survive?
Brenda and Eddie were still going steady in the summer of ’75
When they decided the marriage would be at the end of July
Everyone said they were crazy
“Brenda you know that you’re much too lazy
and Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life.”
Oh, but there we were wavin’ Brenda and Eddie goodbye.
I Don’t Want To Be Alone
Starts just like the song. A man meets an old lover at the Plaza Hotel after she called and asked to meet him there. They rekindle the flame and go back to her place, where – after having sex – she casually mentions that she’s engaged. The man freaks out, finding out that her fiancee has been abroad doing business for two months and she just needed some company. They get into a long talk about loneliness, at which point the man walks out and leaves. Before he closes the door behind him though, he pauses, thinks, and walks back inside.
Fade to black, roll credits, play the chorus of the song. Boom.
But I’m avoiding all the hard cold facts
That I’ve got to face
So ask me just one question
When this magic night is through
Could it have been just anyone
Or did it have to be you
A Matter of Trust
After countless relationships with Scumbag X and Cheater Y, a woman finally finds herself a nice, devoted boyfriend. Because of her tarnished past, however, she can’t find it within her to trust him. She’s hyper-paranoid, snoops on everything he does, and refuses to fully open up. At the end of the story, it becomes too much for the boyfriend (who throughout the piece never actually does anything wrong) to handle, and he walks out on her. It’s a sad story with a sad ending, but an important theme. Relationships can’t go anywhere without complete trust.
This time you’ve got nothing to lose
You can take it, you can leave it, whatever you choose
I won’t hold back anything
And I’ll walk away a fool or a king
Everybody Loves You Now
An aspiring actor becomes famous for playing a “character” on a reality TV program. Once the show is over, however, he’s forced to live his entire life as this character – whom he just so happens to despise – lest he reveal himself as a fraud. If you will: Imagine if “The Situation” was actually a normal guy, but at this point, he’s invested himself so much in being “The Situation” that there’s no way for him to stop. This would be a critique of television culture (along the lines of Being There), along with an exploration of artificial self-worth.
You can walk away from your mistakes
You can turn your back on what you do
Just a little smile is all it takes
Yeah, you can have your cake and eat it too
Loneliness will get to you somehow
But everybody loves you now
A woman meets a world-famous musician after one of his shows, then starts a weekend-long fling with him while he’s in town. She tries to understand him, and help him cope with what she considers sex addiction. He shoos off her claims as merely “living life,” outlining a number of pretty convincing justifications for what he does. The writing here would be important, as the narrative probably wouldn’t be that action-packed.
I am the entertainer,
Been all around the world.
I’ve played all kinds of palaces,
And laid all kinds of girls.
I can’t remember faces,
I don’t remember names.
Ah, but what the hell,
You know it’s just as well.
‘Cause after a while
And a thousand miles,
It all becomes the same.
A successful, mid-20s businessman sets out to visit his old buddy from college, who works a menial job in retail. He’s the only one of their old group who hasn’t made it in the real world. There’s a reason, though: James has a slight learning disability. Our narrator is the only one who sees the genius in him, something employers are too dense to acknowledge. Not quite sure where the narrative goes yet, but I like the premise.
Do you like your life?
Can you find release?
And will you ever change?
When will you write your masterpiece?
Do what’s good for you
Or you’re not good for anybody.
The Night is Still Young
A group of immature 30-somethings makes a vow: They’re gonna pack up, spend a weekend in Atlantic City, live as hedonistically as possible, and when they return, they’ll finally start acting like adults. It’s kind of like American Pie in reverse. In the end, our hero would decide that – unlike his buddies – he’s not ready to grow up yet. The theme would be similar to that of Sleepwalk With Me (perhaps my favorite movie of 2012): If you aren’t ready to grow up and commit to somebody, don’t freakin’ do it. You’d be doing both parties a disservice by pretending you are.
I`m young enough to still see the passionate boy that I used to be
But I`m old enough to say I got a good look at the other side
I know we got to work real hard, maybe even for the rest of our lives
But right now I just want to take what I can get tonight
And So It Goes
A young, shy boy has a crush on an older girl — either a Senior in his high school or one of his teachers. The girl is exceedingly nice to him, but obviously doesn’t feel the love he feels. When the girl is forced to leave town (either to attend college or go teach at another school), the boy tries to find a way to express himself to her. But in the end he bites his tongue and lets her go.
But if my silence made you leave
Then that would be my worst mistake
So I will share this room with you
And you can have this heart to break
BEST OF THE REST:
Angry Young Man
The story of a politically active college kid — the kind of guy who comments on reddit and considers himself some sort of convoluted martyr. He says he’d rather be broke and poor doing things he actually cares about than “sell out” and get some sort of corporate job. But those creeds were a lot more appealing when he had four years of college ahead of him, not sitting in the rearview mirror. A character study about someone who might not be ready for the future he once promoted.
There’s a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans
He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl,
He’s always at home with his back to the wall.
And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost,
He struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross-
And he likes to be known as the angry young man.
A man wakes up hungover and has to piece together what he did the night before. He learns through a Hangover-type investigation that he let his pride get the best of him, got into a bar fight, and was subsequently dumped by his girlfriend. He spends the rest of the piece trying to get her back, but she’s sick of his insecure escapism.
But now you just don’t remember
All the things you said
And you’re not sure that you want to know
I’ll give you one hint, honey
You sure did put on a show
The nihilistic story of college kids who piss away their parents’ money drinking, doing drugs, etc. rather than taking advantage of their education. A lot of narrative work still needs to be done, but Captain Jack would, obviously, be their drug dealer.
And if you can’t understand why your world is so dead,
Why you’ve got to keep in style, and feed your head.
Well you’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed,
And that’s too long.
An up-and-coming football star falls in love with a girl after a game and they have a great relationship. She becomes a rock in his life — the stabilizing force that gets him through the ups and downs of his career. When that career hits an ultimate down, however, and he suffers a career-ending injury, Christie dumps him and moves on the next rising star.
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
A woman suspects her husband of having an affar and follows him after work. He leads her to a casino where, based on his interactions with people, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s a regular player. She confronts him and finds out that he’s a gambling addict who’s been betting significant portions of the family’s nest-egg for years and years. He’s then left to convince her that he knows what he’s doing.
Easy money, you say I fool myself, but better me than being a fool for someone else
I got a hot slot machine of a system ready to go…
Easy money, I got a one-track mind and a good reputation laying on the line
I’ll either come back a bum or a king, baby I don’t know
A talented (I’m not sure in what yet) but naive guy is targeted by fat cats who want to make a profit off of him. His talent is so immense that it works, but throughout the story, those around him keep screwing him out of money. The theme is an utterly sad one: No matter how good you are at everything else in your life, one single flaw (in this case, naivete), if tragic enough, is capable of undoing your whole existence.
I went searching for the truth
But in my innocence I found
All the con men and their acrobats
Who stomped me in the ground
If I count up their percentages
I know they’re getting rich
But they haven’t taken everything
Those paybacks are a bitch
If I Only Had the Words
Two gay men have been plutonic best friends for years, both steadfastly proclaiming that they are not attracted to the other. One of the men, however, begins to fall for the other. He doesn’t know how to broach the topic, and in the end decides not to tell him at risk of destroying the friendship.
If I only had the words to tell you
If you only had the time to understand
But I only have these arms to hold you
And it’s all that you can ask of any man.
Goodnight My Angel
All I’ve really got here is the image of a woman eulogizing her father. As the story goes: Billy Joel’s daughter asked what will happen to her when he dies, so he wrote this song in response. The narrative needs tons of work, but I like the device of telling this story through flashback at the father’s funeral.
Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on…
They never die
That’s how you
Sick of being below-average in the fast-paced city of New York, a man decides to pack up and move to a midwest city like Topeka. He’d rather be the smartest guy in podunk than someone who can’t get ahead in metropolis. Or so he thinks…
Anthony works in the grocery store
Savin’ his pennies for someday
Mama Leone left a note on the door,
“Sonny, move out to the country.”
Workin’ too hard can give you
A heart attackackackackackack
You oughta know by now
A much more-carefully written Maid in Manhattan story. An older white man who teaches English to immigrants falls in love with one of his lower class latina students. Both families obviously disapprove of their romance for countless reasons, but in the end, love conquers all. Right? RIGHT?!
Senorita don’t be lonely, I will soon be there
Oh Havana I’ve been searching for you everywhere
I’ve got a chance to make it
It’s time for me to take it
I’ll return before the fire dies
In Rosalinda’s eyes
Stop in Nevada
The song concerns a woman who runs away from her husband – leaving nothing but a note – and claims that it was in both of their best interests. I would be writing the prequel, from the husband’s point of view, outlining the disintegration of their marriage. The first time you read it, the twist where the woman runs away should come as a surprise — it is, after all, from the husband’s point of view. But if you re-read the story, it should all make sense. Like the character, you will realize all the signs that you’ve been missing.
*This seems like a task for a much more talented writer than I, but if I give it enough time, hopefully I could make it come out decent.
And though she finds it hard to leave him
She knows it would be worse to stay
He wouldn’t understand the reasons
That make a woman run away
A story about repressing one’s true nature for the sake of conformity. I’m thinking maybe I try to tackle the “Bronie” sensation that’s sweeping the nation (or at least the parts of it populated by creepy old men). I don’t understand where those guys are coming from, but I imagine that’ll be the point of my piece. It doesn’t matter if some 21-year-old kid in California doesn’t understand who you really are. Be yourself anyway.
You may never understand
How the stranger is inspired
But he isn’t always evil
And he is not always wrong
Though you drown in good intentions
You will never quench the fire
You’ll give in to your desire
When the stranger comes along.
The Downeaster Alexa
Not necessarily about a fisherman (although it could be), this would the story of a man who spends every waking moment working in order to make ends meet for his family. So much so, that by story’s end, his family will have completely lost touch with him. The moral would be that working hard is good, and so is making ends meet, but at the end of the day – even if it means less financial stability – you must spend time with your loved ones…not for them.
I’ve got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I’ve got people back on land who count on me
Tomorrow is Today / You’re Only Human
Two songs, two wildly different takes on depression. As the story goes, “Tomorrow is Today” was written when Billy Joel was legitimately suicidal. “You’re Only Human” was written years later, as a PSA against suicide, for the child of one of Joel’s friends (who was having suicidal thoughts). These two stories would be written in a back-to-back collection — one with a sad ending, and one with a happy ending. The latter would be the story of what happened to our hero had the former not ended in quite the same way.
I’ve been livin’ for the moment
But I just can’t have my way
And I’m afraid to go to sleep
‘Cause tomorrow is today
I survived all those long lonely days
When it seemed I did not have a friend
Cause all I needed was a little faith
So I could catch my breath and face the world again
Written from the point of view of a stalker, recounted as he follows a beautiful girl around New York City for days on end. In his mind, he justifies why it’s okay for him to be doing what he’s doing, so long as he poses no threat to her in any way, shape or form.
*Needs some a lot of narrative work, but I really like the character.
Turn around, turn around
And I will sing for you a song
I don’t know where you been
But you’ve been gone too long
A man who’s always dreamed of being a magnate — not just wealthy, but wealthy, respected and even a little famous. He earns himself a wildly stable fortune, a family that loves him, etc. but can’t find a way to enjoy it because it’s not enough. His wife tells him to retire early and enjoy what he has, but his manic with his need to make more. Eventually, his greedy ambition forces him to make a few bad investments and end up almost broke. But within the world of the story, that actually turns out to be the best thing for him.
Slow down you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight (tonight)
Too bad but it’s the life you lead
You’re so ahead of yourself
That you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you’re wrong
You know you can’t always see when you’re right (you’re right)
From a narrative perspective, this would closely mirror my favorite short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. A man spends every night of his life, alone, drinking beer at a bar named “Zanzibar.” The story is told from the point of view of a stranger who notices this, then starts doing the same just to watch him. At first, if you knew nothing about this man, you might consider him a drunkard or a creep. But there’s something hauntingly beautiful – almost as hauntingly beautiful as the song’s melody – to having such a ballast in one’s life.
Me, I’m just another face at Zanzibar
But the waitress always serves a secret smile
She’s waiting out in Shantytown
She’s gonna pull the curtains down for me, for me