Today while standing at the bus stop, I listened to Billy Joel's song, "She's right on time" from his 1982 album, The Nylon Curtain. I didn't quite understand its message when I was a teenager, but I sure understand it now. The song is about a control freak who nearly lost his love and has now been given a chance for redemption, presuming he can relax a bit.
Initially the song sets up the protagonist's tendency for excessive planning. It's holiday season, and he's talking to himself, walking himself through preparations for her return. Turn on the Christmas lights, start the choral music, put wood on the fire: "That should make the atmosphere complete."
The chorus establishes the ironic tone of the song: "She's just in time for me/She's right on time/She's right where she should be..." One imagines that his compulsion toward order led to her leaving in the first place.
Thereafter he reflects back on his life. He is perpetually tense, always erring (he calls his mistakes 'sins'). But now he's changed, and "She don't have to take it anymore." He's begun the effort to dislocate himself from his stress-inducers ("I've torn out all my telephones"), anything to get her to return. Perhaps he will lose something by losing his edge, but he no longer cares: "I may be going nowhere/But I don't mind if she's there."
Thinking further about his relationship, he considers the simplicity of his current life alone. He has order; things work pretty much as he arranges. Left to his own devices, "I can always make believe/That there's nothing wrong." An intimate relationship, the "complicated world" as he puts it, can be frustrating. Certainly her less-than organized ways annoyed him ("I had to wait forever"). But she was always there when he needed her, "Greeting me with footsteps in the street." Her cluttered love is worth more than all the solitary organization he can muster.
I depart the song with some trepidation for its protagonist, and for me. Naturally I relate to this character, always seeking order, always seeking control. And I know that Jenny tolerates my excesses out of love. Like Billy Joel's alter-ego, I am trying to value a richer notion of being "right on time" beyond an ability to keep a schedule. After all, our ability to be present for those we love (and not just during a season of giving) is far more important than our ability to manage temporal schedules.
That said, I am drawn to the song's conclusion, Billy Joel's continued reverie of order. Even as she's almost home, even as he's sure that he's learned his lesson, the song ends with his recitation: Turn up the music. Put more wood on the fire. He still yearns to "make the atmosphere complete." I know that compulsion, despite my efforts to curb its influence. Like the song's protagonist, I'm still learning.
Check out the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2bPu6dW5H4. The director played this one up for easy yucks, and Billy Joel was never that subtle. But you can at least hear the song.