I am a 53-year-old happily married father of three beautiful girls. My usual gig is teaching constitutional law, and normally I write in this space about such mundane matters as abortion, affirmative action, and free speech. Today, I have a different subject: What happened to Billy Joel?
Most baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s have an artist who affected their lives in important and emotional ways. In my circle of friends, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Elton John were often the favorites. For me, and so many others who hailed from Long Island, it was the Piano Man.
Most of the superstars of rock and pop from that era are still writing songs and performing live. Not so Billy Joel. Although he occasionally turns up at historic events like the 25th Anniversary of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (where his duets with Springsteen to close the show were electrifying), or the tearing down of Shea Stadium, and sometimes he conducts question and answer sessions with college students and others, Billy Joel has not written new lyrics since 1993.
Why am I writing about this? It may sound silly and adolescent to admit but Billy Joel's music has been a comfort for me since high school. I miss looking forward to his new albums. I know his politics and personal life may be controversial and/or out of balance, but he has a keen eye for life's subtleties and an amazing ability to transparently express his emotions in song.
As a hormonally charged teenager, these lyrics from "Summer Highland Falls" kept me just a bit steadier when my emotions were running from red hot to ice cold (amazingly, Billy wrote those words when he was in his twenties).
"Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity A reason coexists with our insanity. And so we choose between reality and madness. It's either sadness or euphoria"
During my last days in college, after my best friend and I had been accepted at law school, we listened to another song which helped freeze those carefree days in our minds forever (we are still best friends):
"We're going wrong, we're gaining weight. We're sleeping long and far too late. And so it's time to change our ways. But I've loved these days."
Throughout my life, and my relationships with women, the words of Billy Joel's songs seemed to reflect much of what I was experiencing. The first woman I had a serious relationship with, who I dated for four years spanning college and law school, was a terrible choice for a companion, but could be described in part by two songs from "The Stranger."
"Where's the fire, what's the hurry about? You'd better cool it off before you burn it out. You've got so much to do and only so many hours in a day."
"She can kill with a smile. She can wound with her eyes. She can ruin your faith with her casual lies. And she only reveals what she wants you to see... "
A few years later I married a different woman. Our relationship ended in divorce (with good faith on both sides). As that era of my life was coming to a close and the torment almost indescribable, I often listened to the words of "And So It Goes," perhaps the saddest song ever written about the final days of love:
"In every heart there is a room, a sanctuary safe and strong, to heal the wounds from lovers past, until a new one comes along... So I would choose to be with you. That's if the choice were mine to make. But you can make decisions too. And you can have this heart to break. And so it goes, and so it goes. And you're the only one who knows."
Years later I met my current wife Lynne. By that time, Billy had stopped writing new lyrics but early in our relationship, Lynne and I flew from Atlanta to Boston to see him in concert (the only time I ever traveled to see him). His voice was amazing that night and the concert is a treasured and shared memory for both of us. In what I can only assume were happier times for him, Billy wrote these words which capture the essence of my love for my wife:
"She's got a smile that heals me. I don't know why it is. But I have to laugh when she reveals me. She's got a way about her. I don't know what it is. But I know that I can't live without her... "
At my wedding to Lynne, I danced with my eldest daughter Jessy to a Billy Joel song that I am sure fathers all across the country have come to love. Another memory that I will treasure forever, and words I hope Jessy remembers now that she is in college and often far away:
"Goodnight my angel, now it's time to dream. And dream how wonderful your life will be... Someday we'll all be gone. But lullabies go on and on. They never die. That's how you and I will be."
Billy Joel's songs and concerts have played an important role in my own spiritual journey. I don't know why he stopped writing but the silence saddens me. In my own job, my proudest moments are when students from my past write me to relay their success and thank me for giving them valuable guidance. I know Billy Joel doesn't need to hear that from me, and I am sure he'll never see this, but I thought I would try to communicate it anyway. His departure from songwriting and performing pains me and writing this has helped. It is almost too sad to believe that the "Angry Young Man," has written his "last words." I hope he comes back soon.
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