Old music: Billy Joel – Souvenir

The New Yorker's seasonal hymn reflects on how trinkets can transport us to times past

Some songs call you back year after year, to pause and ponder. For me it's Billy Joel's Souvenir, the penultimate track from 1974's Streetlife Serenade, which carries a punch in its pilgrimage to the past.
He opens channelling Chopin, but the former amateur boxer then lands his lyrical jabs: "A picture postcard, a folded stub, a programme of the play." Merely a paper trail of course, but paper, like songs, can sweep us back to other times, to where we were, who we were, and faces seen now only in photographs. So it stings when told our mementos are at the mercy of time, let alone that it's the price of growing older. As a seasonal hymn it's not everyone's cup of cheer then, cutting this rueful tone. But there's a healing clarity too, and as the year turns I visit this short song to savour its deepening resonance. Joel was a young man when he wrote this, during a period when he was mining a rich seam of balladry. It's tempting to wonder what he writes now, in his 60s. But there must be a chapter for him in the Great American Songbook. And even if he records nothing more, we can still applaud his craft: how a bittersweet song written in youth should age like fine wine. Happy new year.


Russell Cunningham

The GuardianTramp

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