This is not about sports, although these 2 men have spent the better part of 40 years selling out arenas, and the occasional stadium.
I enjoy speculative history, alternate history, counterfactual history, whatever you want to call that. I especially like it when it doesn't hang on Earth-shattering events. (i.e., What if Napoleon conquered Britain, What if the South won the Civil War, What if the Nazis won World War II, etc.) You know: What if Elvis had lived past 1977, or the Beatles hadn't broken up, or if the Dodgers and Giants hadn't moved to California, and so on.
A few years ago, I thought, "Wouldn't it have been cool if Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel had been in the same band? It would have been an American Beatles, a Beatles for the Seventies and Eighties!" I even wrote the story out for an alternate-history message board: Born to Run is still the breakout album, only now, Billy tickles the ivories on he title track, and the album includes "Piano Man" and "Captain Jack." Far freakin' out, man! Some of each man's best albums are combined into one, and they really do compete with the best of the Beatles and Bob Dylan for the ranks of the best albums in rock and roll history.
But, just as Bruce did with the E Street Band after the Born In the U.S.A. tour, he goes out on his own. This leaves us with solo hits like "Brilliant Disguise" for Bruce and "I Go to Extremes" for Billy -- in other words, still pretty good, but nowhere near as good as they could have been together. If you're an Eagles fan (the L.A. band, not the Philadelphia football team -- their breakups have been even messier), imagine Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" and "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" being on the same album as Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On" and "You Belong to the City," and you'll see what I mean.
Then I read a biography of Bruce, and I came to the conclusion that it would never have worked. Like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, these two personalities are both so strong that both would have wanted to be The Guy. The Beatles, as a recording act, lasted 7 years: 1962 to 1969. If this reimagined E Street Band had done the same, that means a combined River/Glass Houses is their Abbey Road, but maybe a merged Darkness On the Edge of Town/52nd Street gets delayed and is their Let It Be. And Nebraska becomes Bruce's Plastic Ono Band, and Born In the U.S.A. his Walls and Bridges; while An Innocent Man becomes Billy's Band On the Run -- although I would have paid good money to hear Christie Brinkley play in Billy's band like Linda McCartney did in Wings!
But yesterday, I saw this article, by Christopher Bonanos for Vulture.com, ranking all 121 songs on Billy's albums and B-sides. (I disagree with a few of the rankings, but not enough to list them out.) And it got me rethinking: What if it could have worked? Seriously. How great would it have been?
William Martin Joel. Born May 9, 1949 in The Bronx, New York. Grew up in Levittown and Hicksville, Long Island. Blue-collar Jewish. Parents split up when he was a kid, and his single mother struggled. Had a mind and a talent bigger and tougher than the suburbs, and he knew it. But it wasn't enough. He was desperate, searching. Music became his lifeline, and, in 1972, his first album was released, Cold Spring Harbor. It showed a couple of flashes of brilliance, but there was no indication that he was going to become a star. But in 1974, Piano Man made him a star.
Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. Born September 23, 1949 -- just 137 days later -- in Long Branch, New Jersey. Grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, 80 miles away by road, but listening to the same radio stations and, essentially, the same music: Hicksville is 30 miles from Midtown Manhattan, Freehold is 50 miles away. Blue-collar Italian. Parents didn't split up, but were no better off financially. Had a mind and a talent as tough as his blue-collar small town, and bigger, and he knew it. But it wasn't enough. He was desperate, searching. Music became his lifeline, and, in 1972, his first album was released, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. It showed a couple of flashes of brilliance, but there was no indication that he was going to become a star. But in 1975, Born to Run made him a star.
They were kindred spirits: One from Jersey, the other from Lawn Giland. Each a street poet of his generation, each a mixture of all the rock and roll, and rhythm and blues, that had been produced in the genre's 1st 20 years. Yet, as far as I know, aside from "We Are the World" -- we just passed the 30th Anniversary of its recording -- they never worked together until a 2008 fundraiser for Barack Obama's 1st Presidential campaign. (Both are cultural and social liberals in spite of the great wealth their music has earned, but Billy has been much more willing to "Shut up and sing.") They don't seem to have ever had a feud, but it seems as though they avoided each other. Damn it, they could have been together. It should have worked!
So, let's imagine, shall we? It's the summer of 1971, and Billy Joel and a drummer named Jon Small have a 2-man band called Attila. They'd reduced a self-titled album the year before. But things aren't going well. It doesn't help that Billy had an affair with Jon's wife -- Elizabeth, who later married Billy. They have a blowup, and Jon walks out on both of them. Meanwhile, Billy goes to keep an Attila gig on the Jersey Shore. Except the club owner has gotten off the phone with Jon, and canceled, and called in a replacement band: The Sundance Blues Band, featuring Bruce Springsteen. Bruce and Billy meet, and hit it off. (This means David Sancious never gets into the band.)
So they form a new band. Billy likes the last name Bruce had used for his band: Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. So he talks Bruce into naming the new band Doctor Zoom. Aside from Sancious, the usual suspects are here, including Steve Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, and, eventually, a change is made in time, and the Big Man joins the band: Clarence Clemons.
And... here... we... go:
1. Summer 1972: Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Bruce songs: Blinded by the Light, Growin' Up, Mary Queen of Arkansas, Does This Bus Stopat 82nd Street?, Lost in the Flood, Spirit in the Night, It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City.
Billy songs: She's Got a Way, Everybody Loves You Now, Why Judy Why.
Both "She's Got a Way" and "Everybody Loves You Now," in their very differing ways, mark Billy as Doctor Zoom's "Paul." This album definitively makes Bruce the band's "John." He dominates, but with an acoustic arrangement agreed upon, and soft horns, "She's Got a Way" becomes the band's first hit during the Fall of '72. Billy's greatest contribution is settling down "Blinded By the Light" a bit, so it sounds less like Bruce's attempt to be the Dylan of the Seventies, throwing in too many syllables in an effort to sound like a genius, and more like a guy who, as Lennon, Dylan and the better Motown songwriters did in '65, sees the big picture. It, and "Everybody Loves You Now," both resonate in an America disillusioned by Watergate as 1973 wears on, and both follow "She's Got a Way" as Top 10 hits. They are on their way.
2. Winter 1974: The E Street Shuffle. Can't very well call an album by this band "Piano Man," can we? And Bruce talks Billy into a shorter album title. In real life, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle was released on September 11, 1973 -- the day of General Pinochet's CIA-aided coup in Chile -- while Piano Man was released on November 9. But if the first album is so successful, its singles might still be on the charts in the Fall, so Columbia Records (both men's label in real life) waits.
Bruce songs: The E Street Shuffle; 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy); Incident on 57th Street; Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).
Billy songs: Travelin' Prayer, You're My Home, the Ballad of Billy the Kid, Captain Jack.
Song written by both: New York City Serenade. (Surely, Billy would be able to provide a little improvement.)
Here is the great irony of these two titans being in the same band: Billy never goes out to Los Angeles, and never plays in that lounge. Thus "Piano Man," his best-known song (but hardly his biggest hit), is never written! Nor is "Say Goodbye to Hollywood." Nor is "Los Angelenos."
Another irony is that, although I've marked Billy out as Doctor Zoom's "Paul McCartney," it's highly unlikely that "Captain Jack" gets written without either John Lennon's "A Day In the Life" or his "Cold Turkey." But with the horns that Bruce's guys would provide taking the place of the synthesizer, it becomes the first song, aside from Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," to get away with including an overt reference to wanking. (Hey, Bruce would later write "Red-Headed Woman," about going down on Patti, so I don't think he would talk Billy out of using the line.)
The general perception: The hipsters love the album, but the wider public thinks that maybe Doctor Zoom has taken a step back, and wonder, "What are Bruce and Billy doing?"
The answer is, "They're just gettin' warmed up."
3. Summer 1975: Streetlife Serenade. Billy talks Bruce into using that title, promising him that "Born to Run" will be the first single.
Bruce songs: Thunder Road, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Backstreets, Born to Run, Jungleland.
Billy songs: Streetlife Serenader, The Entertainer.
Song written by both: The Great Suburban Showdown. In the article I linked to above, author Bonanos ranks it Number 107 out of 121 -- in the bottom 1/8th of Billy's material, saying, "Not-terrible vision of suburban anomie, but the references — crabgrass, sitting around the kitchen — are just too unoriginal. Might’ve been a lot better with a rewrite." Maybe what it needed was a little mixture of Bruce's Monmouth County with Billy's Nassau County, a little Route 9, Route 35, Garden State Parkway and North Jersey Coast Line added to the Northern State Parkway, the Long Island Expressway and the Long Island Rail Road.
The cover, with Billy leaning on Bruce leaning on Clarence, becomes an all-time classic. And, in this case, you can judge an album by its cover. Billy once again keeps Bruce from getting out of control --there's absolutely no reason why "Jungleland" has to be 9 and a half minutes; 6 would have been plenty -- and anybody who listens to "The Entertainer" knows it sounds much better live, and Bruce's sensibilities make it the studio song that it could have been. Billy's piano makes "Thunder Road" "go to 11," and "Born to Run" really is what Bruce's most ardent fans think it is: The greatest rock and roll recording ever made.
Now we get into a bit of a gray area. Bruce released just 1 album over the next 5 years, due to legal entanglements. I had to look up when he wrote the better songs on his next 2 albums, and didn't find much, so I'm left to guess. In contrast, Billy did some of his best work in 1976, '77 and '78, leading up to Glass Houses in '80.
One good thing, though: If Billy is in Bruce's band, neither Artie Ripp nor his brother-in-law Frank Weber is his manager, so he doesn't get screwed out of millions of dollars. And, with this last album doing so well, maybe Bruce isn't tied up in legal issues, either.
4. Winter 1977: Turnstiles. In real life, Billy's Turnstiles was released on May 19, 1976, but if the combined Born to Run/Streetlife Serenade is such a big album in Summer 1975, they're likely still touring for it in Summer 1976, so there's no way the next album is released before 1977.
Bruce songs: Something In the Night, Candy's Room, Racing In the Street.
Billy songs: Summer, Highland Falls; All You Wanna Do Is Dance; New York State of Mind; James; Angry Young Man; I've Loved These Days; Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway).
This is easily the most Joelian Doctor Zoom album yet. No, "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" never gets written. But after a long 1975-76 tour to support the last album, Billy believes both that it's good to be home ("New York State of Mind") and that New York has gotten worse in his absence, and the future isn't looking too bright ("Miami 2017"). And, for once, it's Bruce who has to get Billy to shorten a song: "Angry Young Man" didn't need that "Prelude" making it 5:17... so... wait for it... so they cut down to 3:05!
About "Miami 2017": It was over 40 years in the future when Billy actually recorded it, but it's now only 2 years away -- and doesn't appear likely to happen. Although we all shuddered the first time we heard the words, "I saw the Empire State laid low" after the World Trade Center was destroyed. And Mexico does seem to have been taken over by organized crime (but their own, not the American Mafia). And don't tell me Bruce wouldn't have let this song on the album: Of all the stanzas Bruce Springsteen never wrote, is there a stanza more Springsteenian than...
They burned the churches up in Harlem
like in that Spanish Civil War.
The flames were everywhere
but no one really cared:
It always burned up there before.
Go ahead: Imagine those words in Bruce's voice. I can also, easily, imagine Bruce singing, "Before the Mafia took over Mexico."
5. Spring 1978: The Stranger. In real life, Billy's breakout album -- his Born to Run, if you will -- was released on September 29, 1977, but the success of Doctor Zoom thus far moves it up a little. To take anything off it, even to replace it with a great Bruce song, seems almost sacrilegious. How do you improve it? This is how:
Billy songs: The Stranger, Just the Way You Are, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, Vienna, Only the Good Die Young, She's Always a Woman.
Bruce songs: Badlands, Adam Raised a Cain, The Promised Land, Prove It All Night.
Song written by both: Movin' Out (Anthony's Song).
With 11 songs, including the 3-in-1 "Scenes," this is the longest Doctor Zoom album. Bruce, born and raised Catholic, raises no objections to "Only the Good Die Young": There's (pardon the choice of words) no way in Hell that he denies a song about teenage lust, if the lyrics are good enough. (Spoiler alert: Article author Bonanos ranks that song 2nd among all of Billy's songs, behind only "Scenes.")
Bruce sings the "Do you remember those days hangin' out at the village green?" part of "Scenes," and the bridge to the "Brender and Eddie section": "Well, they got an apartment... " This makes it, truly, Doctor Zoom's "A Day In the Life." It's the Summer Anthem of 1978, but, before that, in the Spring, with Bruce-influence soft horns added, "Just the Way You Are" becomes Doctor Zoom's 1st Number 1 hit. Bruce also fills out the incomplete 3rd verse on "Antny's Song," but insists the "heart attack-ack-ack" lines be left in -- in fact, he sings the 2nd half of each verse: "Is that all you get for your money?"
6. Summer 1979: Darkness On the Edge of Town.
Bruce songs; Something in the Night, Streets of Fire, Darkness On the Edge of Town.
Billy songs: Big Shot, Honesty, My Life, Stiletto, Rosalinda's Eyes, Until the Night, 52nd Street.
A bit of a comedown after the last 3 albums (the nasty, "Idiot Wind" period Dylan-like "Big Shot" aside), this album would rather fit the "malaise" (a word President Jimmy Carter never used) the nation seemed to be in as the Scary yet Silly Seventies came to a close. The Bruce songs I include her seem to fit better with Billy's 52nd Street songs than with his Stranger songs.
7. Fall 1980: Glass Houses. Instead of Billy getting ready to throw a rock at a glass house, the album cover shows the entire band behind the panes of the glass house, with Billy and Bruce standing behind the shattered center pane.
Bruce songs: The Ties That Bind, Sherry Darling, Independence Day, The River, Hungry Heart, Cadillac Ranch, Wreck On the Highway.
Billy songs: You May Be Right, It's Still Rock and Roll to Me, I Don't Want to Be Alone.
No punches pulled here, by either man. Bruce reasserts himself with some of the songs that went on The River that we know. While I like "Don't Ask Me Why," it just doesn't fit on this combined effort. But can you imagine Billy and Bruce trading lines on "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" (real Billy's 1st Number 1 hit, this band's 2nd) and "Cadillac Ranch"? I sure can.
8. Fall 1982: The Nylon Curtain.
Bruce songs: Nebraska, Atlantic City, Mansion On the Hill, Johnny 99, Highway Patrolman, Reason to Believe.
Billy songs: Allentown, Laura, Pressure, Goodnight Saigon.
Billy was in a bad motorcycle wreck while recording the Nylon Curtain that we know. On the alternate history message board I mentioned, I played the "reverse counterfactual," in which you start from the prospect of living in the alternate world, and ask, for example, "What if the Nazis hadn't won World War II?" I asked, "What if Billy Joel hadn't been killed in that motorcycle wreck in 1982?" Would his albums, so loved in the wake of his death at age 33, be as well regarded today? (The responders pretty much agreed: Yes, but not nearly as much.) And what would he have done if he'd lived? (They also tended to agree: On his last album, he was trying too hard to out-Bruce Bruce Springsteen, and he probably would've recorded the kind of things that Bruce did on Tunnel of Love and thereafter -- which does, in fact, reflect The Bridge, if not An Innocent Man.)
But, yes, Billy did seem to be trying to copy Bruce, especially Darkness On the Edge of Town and The River, tapping into an effect that most people have forgotten since Ronald Reagan has died and become an icon: For the first 3 years of his Presidency, he was really, really hurting this country with his policies, and the promise of rescuing America from the Carter "malaise" had backfired tremendously. When Billy sang, "Every child had a pretty good shot to get at least as far as their old man got" (a very Bruce-ish line), he was singing about the devastation to the American manufacturing sector of the Seventies and the early Eighties, which Reagan not only didn't reverse, but made much, much worse, his rich man's tax cut sending unemployment from the 7 percent he inherited from Carter to 11 percent by early 1983. In fact, he didn't get it below the rate he inherited from ol' Jimmy until mid-1986! But, like Carter in 1980, Reagan got defined by the last year of his 1st term, when things turned around.
With the sound effects of "Allentown" and "Goodnight Saigon," and the synthesizer of "Pressure," it's hard to imagine The Nylon Curtain mixing well with the stark (weather) Nebraska; the albums were released within a week of each other in September 1982.
But how much better would "Allentown" and "Goodnight Saigon" have been if Bruce had sung, or co-sung, them? Of course, he didn't serve in Vietnam, either -- he flunked his draft physical, while Billy was never drafted -- and the closest he came to being in a steel mill was playing in a band named Steel Mill. But, "But I won't be getting up today-ay-ay-ay... " is another "Bruce line" that Billy wrote. And "Atlantic City" is one of the few Bruce songs that would sound better if Billy sang it, instead of the other way around.
9. Spring 1984: Born In the U.S.A. I'm keeping Bruce's title, but instead of the iconic Annie Liebowitz photo that some people misinterpreted as Bruce pissing on an American flag -- "The picture of my ass just looked better than the picture of my face," he said" -- I'm using the cover of An Innocent Man, only instead of just Billy, the whole band is on the stoop, with a flag added, one so old that it looks faded even in a black-and-white photo.
Bruce songs: Born in the U.S.A., Darlington County, Downbound Train, I'm Goin' Down, Glory Days. These were songs Bruce had written before Nebraska.
Billy songs: An Innocent Man, The Longest Time, Tell Her About It, Uptown Girl, Keeping the Faith.
I really don't like breaking up An Innocent Man: As a Billy fan and an oldies freak, it's perhaps my favorite album of all time. He not only reflects his newfound happiness with Christie Brinkley, he pays tribute to everyone from Dion ("Tell Her About It") and the Four Seasons ("Uptown Girl") to Little Richard ("Christie Lee") and James Brown ("Easy Money"). But I had to drop some songs. I also dropped another song Bruce had written between The River and Nebraska that ended up on Born in the U.S.A.: "Working On the Highway."
Of all the pairs albums these 2 guys released at, more or less, the same time, these 2 probably go together the least well. (AIM was released on August 8, 1983, and BITUSA on June 4, 1984, so they weren't even all that close together.) Indeed, instead of AIM, BITUSA would have worked much better combined with The Nylon Curtain. Maybe this was a case of Bruce inspiring Billy, in turn inspiring Bruce. After all, supposedly, the Beatles' Rubber Soul inspired Brian Wilson to make the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, which inspired McCartney to make Sgt. Pepper.
However, I don't think Bruce and his real-life E Streeters would have had any trouble backing Billy vocally on "The Longest Time." "Tell Her About It" might have sounded better in Bruce's voice than in Billy: "She's a trusting soul, she's put her trust in youuuu... " Or maybe Billy keeps it for himself, as, perhaps, his message to Bruce, who had recently met his own supermodel/actress, Julianne Phillips. Yes, he's still "a man who's made mistakes," but now he truly does know "the difference that it makes." That song (which did), "Uptown Girl" (which got stalled behind Michael Jackson and The Police), and "No Surrender" (an incredible song that Billy's piano playing could actually improve) all hit Number 1 giving them 5 chart-toppers. Diddle diddle dip, doo wah.
And when Reagan misinterprets this collection of songs -- written while the American people were still very much looking forward to dumping him on his right-wing ass in November 1984 -- as being "pro-America," both Bruce and Billy would have had something to say about it. No, it won't turn a single State from Reagan to Walter Mondale, but I can imagine, on tour during the Iran-Contra scandal, Billy finishing the shows by saying, "Remember how I told you in '84, 'Don't take any shit from anyone'? Ya shoulda listened to me!" And maybe, in hindsight, Reagan wouldn't look as good as conservative now make him out to have been. Remember: He wasn't a great President, he just played one on TV.
10. Summer 1986: The Bridge.
Bruce songs: Working On the Highway, Cover Me, I'm On Fire, No Surrender, Dancing In the Dark.
Billy songs: A Matter of Trust, Code of Silence, Big Man On Mulberry Street.
Song written by both: My Hometown. No, their hometowns weren't the same, but the similarities were enough to smooth this one out.
While the Bridge we know -- even more than 52nd Street -- has been derided as Billy's "jazz album," I think it is seriously underrated. I particularly love "Code of Silence," which he wrote with Cyndi Lauper, which would have worked very well sung by only one or the other; here, it's by both, and it's fantastic. (That's one of the songs article author Bonanos and I disagree on.)
But his other duets don't make it onto this album. "Getting Closer," which he did with Steve Winwood, isn't bad, but it's a clunker by the standards of his 1977-83 work. While Bruce also admired Ray Charles, it's hard to imagine "Baby Grand" as having any musicians other than Billy and Ray on it. Maybe Billy still writes it, but instead it becomes a song for some movie, as "Modern Woman" did for Ruthless People. That song also doesn't make it on here, as the sound just doesn't mesh well with the Bruce songs and the other Billy songs. "Bobby Jean" is the only BITUSA song I have discarded entirely. It's not that I don't like it, it's just that, like "Modern Woman," it doesn't seem to fit in either Innocent Man or The Bridge.
The Bridge works well with the other half of BITUSA, songs that Bruce wrote after Nebraska, like "Cover Me" and "I'm On Fire," songs that sound more like his work to come than the "Dang, it's hard to be a workin'-class dude" stuff he'd written from 1972 to 1982, which could just as easily have been written by Woody Guthrie in 1932. These songs sound like someone who's found Julianne -- but not yet, as Tunnel of Love would, like someone who demands of his woman, "So, tell me what I see when I look in your eyes."
With the E Streeters backing Billy -- again tapping into Bruce's songwriting milieu with, "I won't hold back anything, and I'll walk away a fool or a king" -- "A Matter of Trust" becomes Doctor Zoom's 6th Number 1 hit, which Billy considers a big F.U. to the critics.
11. Summer 1988: Tunnel of Love.
Bruce songs: Tougher Than the Rest, Spare Parts, Tunnel of Love, Brilliant Disguise, One Step Up.
Billy songs: The Downeaster "Alexa," Leningrad, State of Grace, When In Rome, And So It Goes.
You'll notice that this has some of Storm Front on it, but not "We Didn't Start the Fire"; Billy hadn't written it yet. I'm imagining that Doctor Zoom had been the first major Western band to be allowed to tour the Soviet Union, just as Billy had gone there in 1987; hence "Leningrad" gets written anyway.
By early 1987, Bruce was breaking up with both the E Street Band and Julianne. Does Billy being in the band keep Doctor Zoom together? Possibly: Maybe he tells Bruce, "Throw yourself into your work. Do what you do best."
The Tunnel of Love we know was originally viewed as a bit of a disappointment after BITUSA, but how could anything Bruce released after that be anything other than a massive anticlimax? With over a quarter of a century of hindsight, it is considerably better regarded in the mid-2010s than it was in the late 1980s.
With the possible exception of "No Surrender," "Brilliant Disguise" is my favorite Bruce song. Of course, with the band still together, the video would have been different: It wouldn't just be Bruce playing his guitar, all alone in the kitchen, as the camera, filming in black and white, gets closer and closer to his angsty face. This video proves what I've been saying for some time now: Freehold and Sayreville are separated by much more than just 15 miles of Route 9. If Bruce looked like Jon Bon Jovi, he'd have been nearly as big as Elvis; if Bon Jovi looked like Bruce, we'd have never heard of him. Or, as Ray Charles put it in a commercial for Pioneer laserdisc players (a precursor to DVDs, but the discs were the size of albums), "If the music don't sound good, who cares what the picture looks like?"
12. Fall 1989: Storm Front.
Bruce songs: Human Touch, 57 Channels (And Nothin' On), Gloria's Eyes, All or Nothin' at All, I Wish I Were Blind.
Billy songs: That's Not Her Style, We Didn't Start the Fire, I Go to Extremes, Shameless, Storm Front.
Essentially, this is the better half of the album Bruce wanted to release as Human Touch in 1990 but didn't until releasing it along with Lucky Town in 1992, and Side A of the Storm Front we know. Both men turned 40 in 1989, and you can tell that they are now middle-aged.
Early that year, a teenager told Billy, "You were lucky: You grew up in the Fifties, nothing happened in the Fifties." Billy flipped out, and reminded the kind of the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Freedom Fighters. Pairing that with his impending 40th, he wrote "We Didn't Start the Fire." Lots of people, including some big Billy fans, hate that song. (Bonanos calls it Billy's worst, except for "The Mexican Connection," the instrumental that closes Streetlife Serenade.) I love it, and think there's only 2 things wrong with it: Having to rush through the last 20 years, 1969 to 1989 -- my entire life to that point -- and that atrocious, out-of-temporal-synchronization video. (Why was a never-aging Billy in their kitchen from 1949 to 1989, anyway? Was he a friend of the family?) Anyway, being almost the exact same age as Billy, I don't see Bruce stopping him from recording it. Indeed, the line, "Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac" would have sounded better if sung by Bruce. But Bruce would not have been an improvement imitating, and then invoking, Buddy Holly. Anyway, it was Billy's 3rd and last Number 1 hit -- and, here, becomes Doctor Zoom's 7th and last chart-topper.
13. Spring 1993: River of Dreams.
Bruce songs: Better Days, Lucky Town, If I Should Fall Behind, Leap of Faith, Souls of the Departed, My Beautiful Reward.
Billy songs: All About Soul, Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel), The River of Dreams, Famous Last Words.
Since Billy, in this alternate history, was never managed by his one-time brother-in-law, Frank Weber, he didn't lose millions due to Frank's embezzlement, and so "A Minor Variation" and "The Great Wall of China" don't get written.
This is it. It's been almost 22 years since the River of Dreams we know was released, and Billy has never released another album. (In contrast, Bruce keeps crankin' new songs out.) Not long after it came out, Christie left Billy. You'd think something as traumatic as being left by one of the most famously beautiful women in the world for another man (whom she later left for another man, and ended up paying dearly for it both times) would have resulted in some Blood On the Tracks-era Dylan-type "You bitch, I told you so, you got what you deserved" stuff. No: If ever Billy has written a song trashing Christie, he has kept it to himself. Which is probably why, although divorced over 20 years now, they're still friendly. (Having a child to think of may also have helped, and Alexa now has her own music career, wisely going a different route from her father, to lessen the obvious comparisons.)
Anyway, back to 1993: Despite Bruce having now made it official with Patti Scialfa, with Billy splitting from Christie, maybe this is also where Doctor Zoom splits up. Bruce goes solo, releases The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, The Rising in 2002, Devils & Dust in 2005, Magic in 2007, Working On a Dream in 2009, Wrecking Ball 2012 and High Hopes in 2014. And they reunite for their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 (their 1st year of eligibility), the Concert For New York City in 2001, the Super Bowl halftime show in 2009 (which Bruce did with the E Street Band), and, the one major show they both did, the 12-12-12 Concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief.
To suggest that Billy does solo material from 1993 onward, or new material with Bruce for Doctor Zoom, begs the question, "What would it be?" We have very few clues. I suppose I could cull together songs that appeared on his real-life albums that I didn't include here -- including "Don't Ask Me Why," a guilty pleasure of mine that wouldn't have fit on anything that Bruce has ever released.
Other than that? In 1997, he included 3 unreleased tracks on his Greatest Hits Volume III. In 2001, he released Fantasies and Delusions, but that's a classical album, all instrumentals. In 2007, he released the single "All My Life," in which Bonanos says Billy has, "No more chip on his shoulder, secure in his talent, out Tony Bennett-ing Tony Bennett. A keeper." Translation: The man's still got. Begging the question, "So why doesn't he show it more often?" Because, other than that, he's only released compilations, including live albums.
The man is not opposed to standards, or standard-like songs. He could have released solo albums in 1995 and 1997 -- and while it wouldn't have made nearly as much sense for the tour to be called "The Piano Men" (since this Billy wouldn't have written "Piano Man"), he could, theoretically, still have gone on his tours with Elton John. With Johnny Cash having made a part-retro, part-hard-rock comeback in the 1990s, and Frank Sinatra's last recordings making "Duets" albums respectable, Billy could have gone back to his roots, including actually writing and recording "Baby Grand" with Ray Charles, 10 or 12 years after he actually did.
What we actually have from both Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band from 1972 to 2014, and from the Billy Joel Band from 1972 to 1993, is immense. So even if it couldn't have worked with them together, they have given us a treasure trove of great rock and roll and heartfelt ballads. Maybe they weren't the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of America, but there's nothing wrong with them being updates of, respectively, Woody Guthrie and Duke Ellington. And it does those 2 men no disservice to make the comparison.
The Freehold Boss and the Hicksville Firestarter may now be old enough to collect Social Security and Medicare -- and rich enough to need neither -- but they're still out there, giving people more reason to come out to places like Madison Square Garden than the Knicks do.
If only they could go on one tour together before one of them dies. Billy's gone on tour with Elton. Bruce went on tour with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour for Amnesty International. Neither seems to care about giving up a share of the spotlight. Why not try it together?
Well, as the saying goes, Sometimes a great idea should stay an idea. We don't know that it would work. But there's so much to suggest that it would.
At any rate, separately, they each made a promise they swore they'd always remember: No retreat, baby, no surrender. Separately, they are still keeping the faith.