– Matt Diamond
In 1977, singer-songwriter-car-crasher Billy Joel released The Stranger. Widely considered his breakthrough album, The Stranger contains quite a few memorable hits, such as “Only the Good Die Young,” a song which helps explain why Mr. Joel is still alive at the age of 59. Also found on this album is a seven-and-a-half minute epic entitled “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” In this song, Joel tells the story of a tumultuous and tragic romance, bookended by a frame narrative in which Mr. Joel is talking with an old friend over dinner. Flash forward to 2001: the much-loved Dismemberment Plan releases what will be their final album, Change. On the final track of the album, entitled “Ellen and Ben,” singer Travis Morrison tells the story of a tumultuous and tragic romance, capping it off with a brief aside to the listener, who is ostensibly an old friend.
Already we can see some obvious similarities. Both tracks involve messy love stories set within the context of old friends catching up. But is this just a coincidence, or is Mr. Morrison paying homage to Mr. Joel? Or even worse, is Mr. Morrison deliberately stealing Mr. Joel’s ideas out of a deep-seated contempt for Jewish musicians? Or could it be possible that Mr. Joel is in fact the plagiarist, stealing a time machine in the year 2029 and traveling back to 1976 with a copy of Mr. Morrison’s song? Let’s take a closer look.
Mr. Joel’s song begins:
A bottle of white, a bottle of red
perhaps a bottle of rosé instead
Already we can see Joel getting political. His “white/red” dichotomy is a clear reference to the American Indian Wars, a conflict between Native Americans and the US Government that resulted in the displacement and death of thousands. Mr. Morrison, on the other hand, is strangely silent on the topic. Mr. Joel continues:
we’ll get a table near the street
in our old familiar place
you and I, face to face
Who exactly is Mr. Joel speaking to? Unfortunately, the identity of Joel’s “friend” is never established. We can only assume it is either Christie Brinkley or a hostage.
a bottle of red, a bottle of white
it all depends upon your appetite
I’ll meet you any time you want
in our Italian Restaurant
Again, Mr. Joel brings up the wine, in case we already forgot what the options were. Note that Mr. Joel is bizarrely preoccupied with the wine, presumably because he wants to make sure that the listener gets drunk before he/she realizes they’re out to dinner with Billy Joel.
things are okay with me these days
I got a good job, I got a good office
I got a new wife, got a new life
and the family is fine
oh we lost touch long ago
you lost weight – I did not know
you could ever look so nice after so much time
Mr. Joel sounds very satisfied with his new wife, who is clearly superior to the previous defective one. Joel never quite explains why he lost touch with his “friend,” though one likely reason is that she used to be fat. Joel also expresses surprise that she isn’t uglier.
do you remember those days hanging out at the village green?
engineer boots, leather jackets and tight blue jeans
oh you drop a dime in the box, play a song about New Orleans
cold beer, hot lights, my sweet romantic teenage nights
Again with the politics as Mr. Joel tosses off a random Hurricane Katrina reference. Also strange that Mr. Joel would have knowledge of Katrina back in 1977. This lends weight to our “time machine” hypothesis.
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
Now we get to the love story which forms the core of the song, and also the point at which Mr. Morrison’s song begins. Joel begins by introducing the main characters, a power couple named Brenda and Eddie. Contrast this with the opening of Mr. Morrison’s song:
Ellen and Ben
they met at someone’s house warming party
they didn’t like each other at first
well I was still there
I heard them talking as they found their rain coats
they made a date expecting the worst
when Ellen got home she made a snack
and went up on her rooftop
and didn’t think about Ben at all
she stayed up for hours just watching all the drunk folks find their taxis
’cause all in all it was a good night
Unlike Mr. Joel’s exuberant introduction of the invincible Brenda and Eddie, Mr. Morrison’s Ellen and Ben are pretty nonchalant and don’t even like each other. This is because “Ellen and Ben” is a distinctly 21st century love story, in the sense that nobody likes anybody else and everyone is expecting the worst. This is the psychic damage you get after a decade of Tamagotchis, OJ Simpson, and the Macarena. Mr. Joel continues:
Brenda and Eddie were still going steady in the summer of ‘75
when they decided the marriage would be at the end of July
everyone said they were crazy
“Brenda you know that you’re much too lazy
and Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life.”
oh, but there we were wavin’ Brenda and Eddie goodbye.
Already we can see trouble on the horizon for young Brenda and Eddie. They’re rushing into marriage against their advice of their friends, who realize that Brenda is a spoiled bitch and Eddie doesn’t know how to hold down a job. Contrast this with Morrison’s couple:
Soco in bed, a sunny Sunday watching John McLaughlin
and having sex again and again
I’d stopped by cause Ellen had my copy of Nebraska
they never even put on their clothes
I hung for a while but every time I tried to ask them something
they started making out all again
I thought it was rude
I couldn’t tell you why
There’s also trouble on the horizon for Morrison’s couple, but it’s more subtle. While most couples go through a “puppy love” phase, Ellen and Ben are going into sexual overdrive; this is clearly the beginning stages of an obsessive relationship. Note that marriage isn’t even on the table here, because by 2001, homosexuals have already ruined it for the rest of us.
Back to Mr. Joel:
well they got an apartment with deep pile carpets
and a couple of paintings from Sears
a big waterbed that they bought with the bread
they had saved for a couple of years
but they started to fight when the money got tight
and they just didn’t count on the tears
yeah, rock ‘n roll!
Here, we can see the arc of the relationship peaking and beginning to decline. It looks like Brenda and Eddie’s friends were right all along. But then again, was it really marriage that ruined their relationship, or was it the deep pile carpets? Also, Mr. Joel thinks that marital problems are totally rock and roll, which might explain why he’s currently on wife #3.
As for Mr. Morrison’s couple:
Ellen and Ben
they may as well have run off to Havana
they simply disappeared for a year
they’d show up at shows
but less and less and saying hi to no one
and why they even came wasn’t clear
they got a new place
but neither of their names were in the phonebook
so no one really knew where they were
I thought it was cheap
but I couldn’t tell you why
Like Brenda and Eddie, Ellen and Ben decide to move in with each other. Yet, instead of weakening, their obsessive relationship crystallizes and intensifies. Note Mr. Morrison’s sly reference to Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown running off to Havana in the acclaimed musical Guys and Dolls. Also note my discomfort with admitting that I noticed this reference.
At this point, Mr. Morrison digresses:
when I was ten
I had this book of modern fighter planes
with F-15s and MiGs
that and a bowl of Breyer’s Mint Chip was life at its apex
the chewing of pens
the Ocean City girls on the boardwalk singing
oh oh oh oh oh oh
yeah yeah yeah
Here we have a clear example of what is known in Lyric Overanalysis circles as the “Catcher in the Rye” card. Mr. Morrison is drawing a sharp contrast between the corrupting sexuality of Ellen/Ben and the simple innocence of childhood. As someone who was supposed to read The Catcher in the Rye for 11th grade English but never actually got around to it, I can say with pretty much absolute certainty that this is the entire message of the book.
Back to Billy Joel:
well, they lived for a while in a very nice style
but it’s always the same in the end
they got a divorce as a matter of course
and they parted the closest of friends
then the king and the queen went back to the green
but you could never go back there again
Brenda and Eddie had had it already by the summer of ‘75
from the high to the low to the end of the show
for the rest of their lives
they couldn’t go back to the greasers
the best they could do was pick up their pieces
we always knew they would both find a way to get by
oh and that’s all I heard about Brenda and Eddie
can’t tell you more ’cause I’ve told you already
and here we are wavin’ Brenda and Eddie goodbye
And so the saga of Brenda and Eddie draws to a close. Mr. Joel wraps up the story pretty neatly, yet one detail remains suspicious: the timeline of the marriage appears to extend from late July 1975 to “the summer of ’75.” Now, one might assume this is just an honest mistake. Perhaps Mr. Joel forgot that he said “summer of ‘75” twice. However, I’m sure he had to listen to this song countless times while working on it at the studio; there’s just no way he was unaware of the dates that he sang. Another possibility is that Brenda and Eddie’s marriage was painfully short, lasting for about a month at most. This may seem like a reasonable explanation, but let’s take another look at the lyrics. Joel sings that they “lived for a while in a very nice style.” Could “a while” really be just a few weeks? It sounds like Brenda and Eddie gave this thing at least a few months before giving up.
This leaves us with only one plausible explanation: Brenda and Eddie were in possession of a time traveling device, which they used to travel back in time and divorce each other before they could even get married in the first place. But who could have possibly provided them with a time machine? What friend of theirs had the means and the motivation to acquire such a device?
I think we all know the answer.
Meanwhile, Mr. Morrison wraps things up as well:
Ellen and Ben
I heard they broke up loudly at a wedding
and never saw each other again
it seems kinda weird
they made each other feel like they could die but
they couldn’t stay the slightest of friends
So Ellen and Ben meet a similar fate, but with one key difference: while Mr. Joel sings that Brenda and Eddie “parted the closest of friends,” Mr. Morrison makes it clear that Ellen and Ben “couldn’t stay the slightest of friends.” Why is this? Let’s take a look at an unnecessary chart:
|Brenda and Eddie||Ellen and Ben|
|Deep Pile Carpets?||YES||NO|
|A Couple of Paintings from Sears?||YES||NO|
|Making Out While Naked In Front of Travis Morrison?||NO||YES|
As you can see, Brenda and Eddie’s marriage, while misguided, still resulted in some very nice purchases. Meanwhile, Ellen and Ben are assholes.
Mr. Joel ends the song back where it started:
a bottle of red, a bottle of white
whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight
I’ll meet you any time you want
in our Italian Restaurant
Not much to unpack here. It looks like whoever Mr. Joel is talking to is still awake, which is a good sign.
Mr. Morrison closes it out:
well I’m doing fine
I’m staying busy hanging with my nephew
and trying to keep my eyes on the prize
you know how it goes
and so do I
so call me when you can now
you know how I love a surprise
This is the only time Morrison directly addresses the listener, who is likely an old friend. Like Mr. Joel, he makes it clear that he’s doing okay, though Mr. Morrison doesn’t have a new wife, so I suppose there’s room for improvement. Note that both Morrison and the listener know “how it goes.”
1) Mr. Morrison dislikes Native Americans
2) Everyone in the 21st century is miserable
3) Billy Joel has a time machine
So, what’d you think of the article?
Yeah, I think it was pretty good too. I might’ve been a little too hard on Billy Joel, though.
Yeah I know he married a 23-year-old, but-
What? No, the age of consent is definitely at least-
Okay, now you’re just being a bitch.
Of course I’m kidding, you know I don’t actually think you’re-
Yeah but that time I was drunk and I didn’t realize your dad was there.
Oh come on, don’t do this again.
What do I mean? Like that time I forgot to pick up milk at the supermarket and you exploded at me like I-
Yes, it was milk. I distinctly remember.
You know sometimes I feel like I can’t make a SINGLE mistake around you or else I’m a huge failure who’s incapable of taking care of himself without a wet nurse. Is that what you like, infantilizing me? Is that what gets you off?
Okay, that was below the belt. Below. The belt.
Oh, right, so now it’s my fault that I work late hours and on the weekends you always have a headache?
Projection? Oh, fuck off. You think having to go to a therapist means that you can talk like one?
You know what, yes, I would love to sleep on the couch tonight. I would fucking love to sleep on the couch.
V. LET’S END WITH SOME HAPPY THOUGHTS
1) ice cream
4) prenuptial agreements