…how much of a sap I am for Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Hearing it tends to make me physically helpless for its duration plus at least a few minutes more, and emotionally helpless for anything from a half-hour to the next day. And the effect is not wearing off. So I’m starting to wonder about this song and its power over me.
Two old friends, long out-of-touch, sitting down to dinner and remembering “sweet romantic teenage nights… hanging out at the village green” and we’re rolling our eyes, right? Right. But still. There’s something about the way Joel completely inhabits the point of view of a guy who is starting to notice his age, who thinks he’s been working hard on his career and second marriage, and is seeing in this moment that it doesn’t mean to him what he thought it did. He dismisses ten or fifteen years of life with
I got a good job, I got a good office
I got a new wife, got a new life
And the family is fine…
The friends fade into a memory…
Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies
And the king and the queen of the prom
Riding around with the car top down and the radio on
Nobody looked any finer
Or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner
We never knew we could want more than that out of life
Surely Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive…
Of course, they wouldn’t. “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie,” the middle section and beating heart of “Scenes…” is what I love most in it. Brenda and Eddie are human after all, divorcing when “the money got tight.” Maybe our singer feels better knowing that nobody’s life is turning out perfect, or even as they expected to.
“Scenes…” is a meditation on change – big life changes – and the struggles of broken people as they try to navigate them. The key for me is at the end of “The Ballad…”
Then the king and the queen went back to the green,
But you could never go back there again
It’s a bittersweet moment of clarity that home, if we’re ever going to feel it again, lies ahead of us. Never behind.
And really, it’s only with that insight that the possibility of home reappears. Attachment to a past that “you could never go back” to actively prevents the realization of home. All of a sudden, I find myself in very Buddhist territory. (This is also how I read Genesis 3:22-24.)
That’s the truth that draws me back to the story of Brenda and Eddie over and over. -h