Monday, January 31, 2011


"Response songs" are songs that respond to others' hits. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" is a response, for example, to Neil Young's "Southern Man" (read the lyrics to both-- Young's first-- and see). The response, interestingly, was a much bigger hit.

Liz Phair's CD Exile in Guyville is a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main Street. There are even band who give themselves response names, like The Celibate Rifles... a response to The Sex Pistols.

So my theory is that Billy Joel's "Honesty" is a response to Paul Simon's "Tenderness." Consider:

Simon writes, in a song released in 1975:
"You say you care for me
But there's no tenderness
Beneath your honesty"

Billy Joel, in a 1978 song, seems to respond:
"If you search for tenderness [emphasis mine]
it isn't hard to find...
Honesty [emphasis mine] is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you."

Even if Joel did not have Simon's song in mind, it is very interesting to compare the two. Simon wants honesty, yes, but doesn't want it bluntly. Joel, meanwhile, asks his listener to spare the "tenderness" and just give it to him straight.

Interestingly, Simon wrote about a Boxer-- while, before his musical career-- Joel was a boxer. I'm not a psychologist, but I think if you can take a shot to the face, you're the kind of person who prefers directness.

Joel goes so far as to associate pulling one's verbal punches with dishonesty: "I don't want some pretty face to tell me pretty lies." But Simon pre-empts this argument-- that "tenderness" is somehow inherently dishonest-- with the line: "You don't have to lie to me/ Just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty."

Another point Simon makes is that arguing is not necessarily, well, necessary. "Right and wrong/ Never helped us get along," he states, explaining that you can "agree to disagree," as the sayings go, and even "disagree without being disagreeable." What if both are right?

There is an old Jewish joke: A rabbi is acting as marriage counselor and agrees to see a couple, but one at a time. The wife carries on about the husband, and the rabbi nods, over and over: "You're right! Of course, you're right." In his session, the rabbi tells the husband: "Yes, you're right. What can I say-- you're right!" After they leave, the rabbi's assistant, who heard it all, asks: "Not to be rude, Rabbi, but how can they both be right?" To which the rabbi responds: "You know what-- you're right!"

Simon adds, in his song: "You say you care for me/ But there's no tenderness." The listener is not very caring in the way she (or he) shows caring.

Simon also does something that Joel does not, which is hold forth an olive branch: "You and me could make amends/ I'm not worried." In this, one wonders if "Tenderness" is not, perhaps, itself a response to The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," which doesn't get at the way the discussion happens, just asks that it might to begin with.

"Honesty/ It's such a waste of energy," concludes Simon. If he is supposed to change because of the criticism being leveled at him, well, a barrage is not going to do anything but make him buttress his defensive fortress. He is trying to help the other person help him; "If you say it nicely, I will be much more receptive and likely to alter the behavior of mine you find problematic."

Aesop's fables includes the one in which the Wind and Sun wager as to which could make a traveler remove his coat more quickly. The Wind's attempts to blow off the coat only result in the man pulling his coat tighter. The Sun's warming rays, however, soon coax the man to remove the coat himself.

In other words, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So try some honey, Honey.

Musical Note: This song features wordless, doo-wop backup vocals by the gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds. If they sound familiar, it is because in the last track of this album, they show up again on "Love Me Like a Rock."

On his last line, Simon briefly leaves off the smooth vocal style that he has carried throughout the song to soar into a gospel mode, a nod to the group's preferred style.

Next Song: Take Me to the Mardi Gras


  1. Ha. I see I'm not the only one who's been noticing how this complements "Honesty."

    I think both songs are right.


  2. I agree completely that Billy Joel's "Honesty" is an answer song to Paul Simon's "Tenderness." I've felt that way since shortly after hearing "Honesty" for the first time back in the late 1970s. But you, as far as I know, are the first writer to put it into print. Bravo! By the way, an interesting additional parallel between the two songs is that Joel's "Honesty" was produced by Phil Ramone, who also co-produced "There Goes Rhymin' Simon," the album on which "Tenderness" appears. -- Wayne Studer (a longtime fan of both Paul Simon and Billy Joel)

  3. Anon and Wayne-- Thanks for backing me up on this. And Wayne, thanks for the note about the shared producers. Those guys need documentaries about them like "The Wrecking Crew" and "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" (about backing bands) and "20 Feet from Stardom (about back-up singers).