The title track "Streetlife Serenader" is an elegiac ode to street corner singers and buskers. They "hold no grand illusions" about what they do but still seek to inspire. The piano introduction and interludes in the song are reminiscent of classical music, like Claude Debussy or other romantic composers.
"Streetlife Serenade" is a beautiful song, but the lyrics are somewhat underdeveloped and impressionistic. Billy uses metaphorical labels such as "child of Eisenhower" and "midnight masquerader" to convey the persona of a street singer, but it seems a bit too vague and impressionistic. Perhaps this was intentional, but something seems missing as if this were a fragment of a larger piece rather than a fully developed song.
When played live in concert, however, the song is much more powerful and moving. It became a concert favorite during the early 1970s. Billy recorded a live version of the song on 1981's Songs In The Attic which was more vibrant than the studio version. Apparently, according to Billy Joel audiophiles, this live version is from rehearsals with audience noise added.
Words and Music by Billy Joel
Never sang on stages
Needs no orchestration
Melody comes easy
Shopping center hero
Child of Eisenhower
New world celebrator
Have such understanding
How the words are spoken
How to make emotions
Have no obligations
Hold no grand illusions
Need no stimulation
Workin' hard for wages
Need no vast arrangements
To do their harmonizing
Billy Joel in early 70s. Photo by Don Hunstein, Columbia Records.
Billy rarely performs Streetlife Serenader in concert these days, but many fans think it is one of the better songs from early in his career. Billy's longtime sound man and friend, Brian Ruggles, has said that Streetlife Serenader is his favorite Billy Joel song (I believe he said this in an interview in Root Beer Rag, Billy's now defunct fan newsletter).
The Lost Souls, one of the first bands Billy was in.
(Recorded July 1980, St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, MN Streetlife Serenade)
Celebration of the unsung a cappela street corner choirs. Musically one of the most emotionally satisfying compositions I've ever attempted. It was fun being a French expressionist. I gave Debussy a good beating. He won.
(From Songs In Attic liner notes)
"Streetlife Serenader" from Songs In The Attic (1981).
Studio version from the 1974 album, Streetlife Serenade.