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Not Fade Away: Famous Last Words: Billy Joel’s ‘River Of Dreams’

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Billy Joel‘s 1993 swan song, The River Of Dreams.

From the Who to Jay-Z, from Phish to Ozzy Osbourne, popular music’s history is rife with giants who claimed to wave goodbye and take their last bows… only to make their comeback, or stage a reunion, short years after their supposed final encore.

And then there are those who kept coming back for more encores, when perhaps an earlier departure would have made more sense.

So credit Billy Joel for doing neither of those, while never making a grand statement that he would later have to contradict. His 1993 album River Of Dreams ended with “Famous Last Words,” where he sang, “These are the last words I have to say/that’s why it took so long to write.”

He never actually said that he would never make another album, but in interviews he indicated that he felt as if he had written everything he had to write. At the same time, he never used the “This is my last tour” angle to goose ticket sales (nor did he need to).  But he knew that (a) his best days as a songwriter were likely behind him, (b) fans would always show up to his concerts to hear his classics – and he realized that his ‘70s and ‘80s material was what they really wanted to hear and (c) he didn’t want to keep putting out records just for the sake of keeping product in the marketplace.

“Stack the chairs on the tabletops,” he sang on “Famous Last Words.”  “Hang the sheets on the chandeliers.” The imagery signified an end of an era, and a wistful sadness permeated the song. “I can still taste the wedding cake, and it’s sweet after all these years.” That may have been a reference to his own marriage to Christie Brinkley (who designed the album cover) – which was also winding to a close. 

But it wasn’t all negativity.  “All About Soul,” which saw him team up with boy-band of the moment Color Me Badd, “All About Soul.” The easy highlight of the album was the title track, which combined Paul Simon-styled Afropop, gospel and Joel’s rocking piano playing.  Not a bad final single, if you had to pick one.

Still, the album wasn’t as focused as prior efforts: many of the Joel’s usual sidemen took a backseat to studio musicians like Danny Kortchmar (who co-produced), drummer Zack Alford, bassist T.M. Stevens and (for some reason) former Mountain guitarist Leslie West. It seemed as if Joel offered the album as proof that he didn’t have much left to say. 

The album had some other bright spots (including opener “No Man’s Land”), but it really didn’t hold up to his earlier classics.  Unlike many of his peers (and idols), he knew it really was time to bow out.  He’s released a few new songs since then: he covered Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” (before Dylan even released his own version) and Carole King’s “Hey Girl” for his 1997 Greatest Hits Volume III, for instance.  But new songs have been rare: he did write “Christmas In Fallujah” for up-and-coming singer Cass Dillon in 2007 (and sang backing vocals on Dillon’s recording).  In 2001, he released his classical effort, Fantasies & Delusions.  And that’s pretty much been it.  Which could be disappointing to some fans looking for new material.  But really, do you want to hear new Billy Joel songs, if Billy himself doesn’t have it in him to write them? He said it best in “Famous Last Words.”

“These are the last words I have to say.  That’s why it took so long to write.”  It’s a (all too?) rare goodbye written by a pop star on his own terms. 

Brian Ives, Radio.com 

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