Best Song Ever: Sleeping With the Television On

Did Billy Joel want to be Elvis Costello?

Glass Houses

By the end of the 1970s, Joel was riding high off back-to-back blockbuster albums – but was also struggling to find himself as an artist. While singles like “Big Shot” and “Only the Good Die Young” were successes, they were overshadowed by the soft rock smashes that cemented his reputation as a balladeer. (It didn’t help that his biggest hit, “Just the Way You Are,” was also his least favorite; he disliked it so much he had to be talked into including it on The Stranger.)

Joel fancied himself a Springsteen-esque Long Island rocker with working man cred, not an Elton-esque pop star your mom might like, and he set out to play up his rock side. When Glass Houses hit record store shelves in 1980, rock critics scoffed at the album cover’s image of Joel in a leather jacket. The guitar-heavy songs within didn’t win them over much, either; Joel was viewed as trying too hard to be something he’s not.

But Glass Houses is a great album – lively and raucous in spots, unapologetically MOR in others, a little angry, a little playful. Most importantly, it reveals the songwriter stretching his artistic muscles, unwilling to simply repeat past successes. Once you get past the “hey, man, I can be a badass too!” preening of the lead-off track “You May Be Right” (it’s a terrific toe-tapper, but the lyrics haven’t aged well; plus, any song that can be effectively covered by Garth Brooks is in no way hard rock), the record becomes a string of musical left turns: the punk-lite phone sex anthem “Sometimes a Fantasy” leads to the laid back Latin rhythm-by-way-of-folk guitar “Don’t Ask Me Why” leads to the oldies-meets-new wave “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” leads to the frenzied synth-heavy “All for Leyna,” whose lyrics study demented romantic obsession while the keyboards bring to mind the “Psycho” theme. And that’s just side one.

Side two kicks off with two songs that led me to my initial question: is that a pinch of Costello I hear in there? For all his talk on “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” about being uninterested in changing his sound to please fickle fans and label execs, “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” and “Sleeping With the Television On” is very much an attempt to mix his own soft rock sensibilities with the hip sounds of the new wave movement, with terrific success. (When alt-rockers Hussalonia covered Glass Houses in 2006, the songs of side two needed minimal tweaking in the translation to modern rock/power pop; their version of the dryly cynical “Close to the Borderline” sounds as if it could’ve been written today.)

Of course, Joel isn’t attempting to mimic Costello’s voice (as he would Ray Charles and Frankie Valli) or distinctive melodies. Still, you can sorta hear an “Alison” influence throughout “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” – both songs have a lounge act vibe in their verses, and Joel’s lyrics approach relationships with a modern eye, as if to say “Just the Way You Are” is fine for weddings, but “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” is for honest people with complex histories. (The chorus suggests a busy backstory for the song’s lovers: “I want you tonight / Although you hurt me before” and, later, “I said I’m sorry, but she said it was cool / And I don’t want to be alone anymore.”)

The music of “Sleeping With the Television On” – polished to pop perfection by frequent Joel collaborator Phil Ramone – strikes a natural balance between Joel’s songwriting and his new wave muse. There’s an organ solo that’s Costello all the way, and the poppy background vocals and Liberty DeVitto’s catchy beats bring to mind images of skinny ties and early MTV.

It’s the lyrics that turn the song into one of Joel’s career greats. Again we find a grown-up approach to love – and, more to the point, sex. The first two verses tease us a plea to “Diane,” a gal with an impenetrable (ahem) heart. She’s been flirting from afar with Joel’s narrator all night (“Your eyes are saying talk to me, talk to me”), if only to a limit (“But your attitude is ‘don’t waste my time’”). He guesses as to the reasons behind her coldness toward potential suitors (“You’re only standing there ’cause somebody once did somebody wrong”) and, more boldly, attempts to counter her demands for long-term romance (“You say you’re looking for someone solid here / You can’t be bothered with those just for the night boys”) with an appeal for short-term gratification (“Tonight unless you take some kind of chances dear / Tomorrow morning you’ll wake up with the white noise”).

Yes, he’s just trying to score. Joel tells a story here, though, elevating it from a song about getting in someone’s pants to one about the fronts we put up – and the chances we never take – to avoid further heartbreak. Midway through, the lyrics shift to tell the narrator’s own story. At first, it seems like further B.S. meant to win Diane over (“I really wish I was less of a thinking man / And more a fool who’s not afraid of rejection”) in some sort of calcuated “hey, it’s not a come-on if I’m shy, right?” move. As the verses continue, we discover it’s a bit of honest internal dialogue (“Your eyes are saying talk to me, talk to me / But my attitude is ‘boy, don’t waste your time’ … I won’t say a word ’cause it just might be somebody else’s same old line”). Can the narrator convince Diane to hook up without coming across like another nightclub sleaze?

It’s that portrait of two wounded hearts that keeps “Sleeping With the Television On” attractive, truthful, and maybe even a little romantic. While the conclusion is the same as any other pick-up artist tale (we hope, at least; the lyrics do not provide us with Diane’s final answer), there’s enough in the verses to suggest two lonely people needing to get together, maybe for the night, maybe longer. It’s a nice companion to “I Don’t Want to Be Alone,” two complicated love songs with grown-up viewpoints on getting together and getting it on.

(Footnote: Kids, there was once a time when television stations didn’t broadcast 24 hours a day. Ask your grandparents about it. They’ll explain the song’s national anthem/test pattern introduction, too.)

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