Josh Duchan grew up in Westport. But, he says, “as the son of 2 New Yorkers, Billy Joel was the soundtrack of my childhood.”
Records filled the Duchans’ High Point Road home. Cassettes played on the radio, as Josh was shuttled between activities.
Duchan took piano lessons. He discovered that rather than looking at every note, he could read guitar chords and “fake it.” He bought scores to Billy Joel songs, and learned to play and sing along.
Duchan was a talented musician at Long Lots Elementary and Coleytown Middle Schools. He played Will Parker in Staples Players’ “Oklahoma!”, then wrote the score and conducted the pit for their production of “The Tempest.”
Staples teacher Alice Lipson cultivated Duchan’s love for choral music. Her theory classes showed him “the amazing ways music really works.”
Private instructor Bill Hall shaped Duchan’s tenor voice. Billy Joel is a tenor too. If you think Duchan was a fan of the singer/songwriter then — read on for today.
Duchan graduated from Staples in 1997. After majoring in music at the University of Pennsylvania, he earned a master’s and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan. He loved studying the intersection of music and culture. Mozart fascinated him; so did Native American and South African music.
But when his first major paper was assigned, Duchan nervously pitched the idea of … Billy Joel.
His master’s thesis was not on Billy Joel. But, Duchan notes, “I used him for just about every example of musical meaning.”
His doctoral dissertation was about a cappella groups. His research led to Duchan’s first book, “Powerful Voices: The Musical and Social World of Collegiate A Cappella.”
Now he’s written a second. If you can’t guess the subject, I guess that’s just the way you are.
The idea for “Billy Joel: America’s Piano Man” began in 2013, when Duchan gave a presentation on you-know-who at a meeting of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Two attendees were editors of a book series on 20th century musicians.
Four years later, “Billy Joel” has just been published. If you think it’s worth reading: You may be right.
Duchan says, “Billy Joel was not just the soundtrack of my childhood. He was the soundtrack to many people’s lives.”
The singer/songwriter’s music offers “a window into what people cared, thought and worried about” from the 1970s through the ’90s, Duchan says.
On the surface, for example, “Allentown” is about a struggling city. But it represents major changes in American manufacturing, and difficult decisions about staying in your hometown, or leaving. Duchan puts that song — and many others — in the context of how it was written, and why it appealed.
The book is not a biography (several have already been written). Instead, Duchan examines a selection of songs — some mega-hits, many not — in a series of themed chapters. Songs about places, for example, cover Joel’s well-known home (“New York State of Mind”), as well as Los Angeles (where he once lived) and the familiar concept of suburbia.
Other chapters cover topics like relationships and history (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”).
“Billy Joel” is also not a book filled with technical music jargon. Duchan aims for a general readership.
The book’s subject loves the project. Duchan — who has seen Joel in concert a few times — scheduled an hour phone interview in September. The more insightful Duchan’s questions became, the more enthusiastic Joel got. He had not had many opportunities to think — and speak — so introspectively about his music.
Duchan had to hang up to teach a class — his day job is professor of music history, ethnomusicology and pop culture at Wayne State University in Detroit — but they agreed to meet in person.
Duchan wanted it to be in a place with a piano. A month later, he flew to Joel’s home near Oyster Bay.
Their scheduled hour interview turned into 4 hours (including lunch in his kitchen). Joel played classical music as well as his own songs, explaining melodies and chords along the way.
Joel then added a coda: A great blurb for the back cover.
Library Journal gave it a very positive review (“must-read analysis”).
Now Duchan is planning his next project: the same sort of how/why deep dive into creativity, with another popular composer. His sights are set on James Taylor.
But right now, Josh Duchan is enjoying his Billy Joel moment.
And so it goes.