Notes on The Billy Joel Songbook

On a recent visit to Denmark, I got to thinking about 3D printers. This was, of course, because of Billy Joel, one of my musical heroes. How so? We will return to Scandinavia shortly, I promise, so bear with me.

A Little Thought Experiment

Imagine a sci-fi machine that can scan and repro­duce three-dimen­sional objects in every detail—let’s call it the Mimic-O-Matic. You put in a paper cup, you get a paper cup. You pop in a handful of coffee beans, it makes another handful for you. 

So far, so good.

Now crank it up a notch and imagine that you scan Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Mimic-O-Matic repro­duces it down to the mole­c­ular level. Now you’ve got two paint­ings on the table that are, in every mean­ingful way, utterly indis­tin­guish­able from each other.

Two iden­tical “Girls with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) [source]

Let’s leave the room for a minute to make a cup of coffee, using the beans and the paper cup we created earlier. By the time we get back, we find that the cat has walked across the table and knocked both versions of Girl with a Pearl Earringdown onto the floor. The paint­ings are unharmed, but we soon realize that we’ve run into a slight problem: we cannot tell them apart.

What to do? Which painting do we return to the Mauritshuis museum? 

If an orig­inal is truly iden­tical to its copy, do they even have a mimetic rela­tion­ship anymore? Are they just reci­p­rocal copies of one another? Is authen­ticity lost in the process; is it dupli­cated?

I do not have the answers to these onto­log­ical art puzzles, but they did ring through my mind as I made my first-ever visit to… a tribute band concert.

All Hail the Original!

Tribute bands are a funny thing. These performers play other people’s music, often trying to approx­i­mate the look and sound of the orig­inal artist. They cover the entire spec­trum from consum­mate artistry to inept fanboy amateurism, from faithful repro­duc­tion to fanciful reimag­ining, from slavish copy­cat­ting to outright parody.

It’s a bit of a sport among tribute bands to come up with clever punny names that refer­ence their inspi­ra­tion. Just consider this little sampling:

  • Fan Halen (Van Halen)
  • Pink Fraud (Pink Floyd)
  • Fake That (Take That)
  • Oasish (Oasis)
  • The Rolling Clones (The Rolling Stones)
  • Björn Again (ABBA)

My own little pilgrimage to Denmark led me to the city of Ringsted, at a 40-minute train ride from Copenhagen, where singer-pianist Elio Pace and his ensemble kicked off their nation­wide tour of The Billy Joel Songbook

Not a “proper” tribute band cum funny name then, but more of a tribute concert. And what a concert it was!

The Best-Laid Plans…

There is one little detail of this story that I’ve not mentioned yet. The entire enter­prise was a belated birthday gift from my wife, who wanted to take me to a concert by Billy Joel. And she had initially thought that the tickets she bought back in June were to an actual Billy Joel concert. Imagine her surprise and dismay when we soon discov­ered, as we prepared our trip, that this was “just” The Billy Joel Songbook, cour­tesy some guy called Elio Pace.

As the gift’s recip­ient, in all honesty, I didn’t care—it was the thought that counted and a romantic weekend away in Denmark sounded wonderful. Besides, I did a little digging online and quickly discov­ered that this tribute perfor­mance was rated very highly. So it was all good; as far as I was concerned, nothing had gone awry.

A Vermeer Is No Concert

In fact, as an added bonus, the whole expe­ri­ence got me thinking about the Mimic-O-Matic. (Full disclo­sure: I only came up with that name while writing this piece.)

In our little thought exper­i­ment, I could put a painting in the machine and create a perfect repro­duc­tion. A painting, drawing or sculp­ture is, after all, an object. And objects can be made, remade and copied. Even by the artist: Edvard Munch made several versions of his iconic image The Scream between 1893 and 1910.

Six Screams, all by Edvard Munch (1963–1944) [source]

But as an art form, live music is very different from the visual arts, and even from music record­ings. A classic album like Billy Joel’s Piano Man will always be a classic; it is frozen in time. And Vermeer’s famous tronie from 1665 will always be the one and only orig­inal Girl with a Pearl Earring. Any other rendering is a repro­duc­tion, a copy, or (worst of all) a fraud.

A musical perfor­mance, however, follows a different rule­book: it is by defi­n­i­tion a repro­duc­tion. 

For clas­sical music, the “orig­inal” consists of notes on paper, as conceived by the composer. There simply is no incep­tive perfor­mance that counts as an author­i­ta­tive template akin to a pop artist’s orig­inal release or a phys­ical piece of art. The same goes for folk songs, which were written down only after centuries of oral trans­mis­sion.

Even when a musical artist performs their own work on stage, they can be said to be creating a copy of an orig­inal. Not like our Vermeer from the Mimic-O-Matic, but like a pianist playing sheet music. Billy Joel performing Piano Man in 2019 is not the same as Billy Joel performing Piano Man in 1973. His rendering can certainly claim to be more “authentic” than little Danny Finkelmeyer playing the same song at the middle-school jamboree—but it is a repro­duc­tion nonethe­less.

Flipping the Script

The ques­tion of authen­ticity is prob­lem­atic in itself: wherein does that vaunted mix of genuine­ness and legit­i­macy lie? Being the real deal only qual­i­fies as a stamp of approval if certain quality stan­dards are met. 

I remember concert reviews from the latter half of Whitney Houston’s career, when her drug prob­lems were starting to become apparent. They told of disas­trous perfor­mances where the cele­brated singer was inco­herent and sang off key. At the time, there were surely other singers who could “do” Whitney Houston better than Whitney Houston herself. In such cases, which version is the most authentic?

My sense is that what the audi­ence looks for in a profes­sional show—be it from the orig­inal artist or from a tribute performer—is a respectful recre­ation of what­ever gives the music its essen­tial quality. Perhaps the stage is its own kind of Mimic-O-Matic: one that doesn’t create objects, but expe­ri­ences.

In this light, the objec­tive of our trip to Denmark was not to see Billy Joel, but to expe­ri­ence Billy Joel-ness. And we did, in spades.

Elio Pace and band

Elio Pace proved to be, first and fore­most, a fan like the rest of us. His spir­ited, high-octane show took the creative spark from Billy Joel’s oeuvre and trans­formed it into a feast of musical delights. As far as I was concerned, the orig­inal was in the room—even if he wasn’t.

As we walked back to the train station, in the dark of night and with a Danish November breeze nipping at our faces, my wife and I didn’t mind the cold. We hummed Just The Way You Are to ourselves and real­ized that we had spent the evening in the pres­ence of a “tribute” that was an orig­inal in its own right. 

• • •

Top image credit: Elio Pace and band in concert [source: author] 

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