Chicago is Frank Sinatra’s kind of town; if Liza Minnelli can make it in New York, N.Y., she can make it anywhere; Tony Bennett left his you-know-what in San Francisco. And Billy Joel’s musical muse is Allentown. Allentown?
This previously neglected industrial city of 103,000 in eastern Pennsylvania is usually noted as the home of Alpo, the birthplace of Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, and the 1777 hiding place of the Liberty Bell. But that was before Billy Joel wrote the song Allentown, his pop paean to the nation’s—and Allen-town’s—unemployed. To an uptempo beat on his hit album The Nylon Curtain, Joel sings: We’re all living here in Allentown/And they’re closing all the factories down./Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time/Filling out forms, standing in line…/Well, I’m living here in Allentown/And it’s hard to keep a good man down./But I won’t be getting up today/And it’s very hard to stay.
It’s more a bitter than a sweet municipal melody. Nonetheless, the locals love it for putting them on the musical map. They love Billy Joel, too. In fact, 6,440 fans gave him a standing ovation when he stalked onstage last week at neighboring Bethlehem’s Lehigh University (Allentown didn’t have a hall large enough for the show); they brought the house down when he opened the show singing Allentown’s name; they stood cheering for five minutes when he made Allentown his third and final encore. At the end of it all, Joel offered his definitive comment on the notoriety Allentown has been getting—in great measure because of his song. “Don’t,” he barked, “take any shit from anybody.”
Before the show Joel reluctantly accepted honorary Allentown citizenship and the key to the city from Mayor Joseph Daddona. “I just wrote a song,” he demurs. “I’m not Thomas Edison. Let’s not blow it all out of proportion.”
Joel says his song isn’t a putdown of Allentown. “Allentown is a metaphor for America,” he explains. “It sounds like Jimmytown, Bobbyburgh, Anytown. It just sounds real American. It’s a symbol of a town that’s having financial difficulties.” In fact, Allentown’s problems are not much worse than the rest of the country’s. Unemployment in the surrounding Lehigh Valley is 11.6 percent, only a bit above the national rate. Mack Trucks of Allentown extended its holiday shutdown, and nearby Bethlehem Steel has announced further cutbacks. But Allentown is proud. It has twice been named by the National Municipal League an All-America City, arid it has a slogan: “Allentown has it all.”
So why isn’t the city enraged? “Allentown is a gritty song about a gritty city,” asserted Mayor Daddona. “Sure, we have some unemployment and some unfulfilled dreams, but who doesn’t? We are a city of strong, hardworking people who face their problems.” Besides, he adds, “It’s an upbeat melody.” Even the Chamber of Commerce president, George South-worth, calls it “a plus for us.” And John Toggart, vice-president of the United Steelworkers of America local (which during the holiday week had only 100 of its 3,400 members working), said the song “brought to the attention of the more secure people here—the ones with jobs—that we’re suffering.”
Only Allentown’s Morning Call deplores the ditty. “We would advise Mr. Joel to skip the Lehigh Valley on this tour,” it editorialized. Judging from Joel’s lyrics, it said, “Allentonians either can’t afford the price of a ticket to a Billy Joel concert [$12.50] or are so depressed that they have taken to their beds.”
Joel went out of his way, over the protests of his road crew, to cram this show into a 30-city tour. “The people here provided me with a living,” he says gracefully, “places like this, where I made my bread and butter when I started touring in 1971.” He told his audience: “It’s good to be back.”
Besides, Joel concedes, people who live in funny towns shouldn’t throw stones. “I came from a town called Hicksville,” the Long Islander admitted on a local radio show, “and the people in New York City used to laugh. ‘You’re from Hicksville—ha, ha.’ Actually, the area of Hicksville I lived in was called Levittown. Believe it or not, I tried to write the song Levittown before I tried to write Allentown, but it didn’t sing as well.”