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The song is Joel’s fictionalized version of the story of Billy the Kid. In an interview from 1975, Joel admitted, “Basically [the song] was an experiment with an impressionist type of lyric. It was historically totally inaccurate as a story.” ;Examples of these inaccuracies include when Joel sings that Billy the Kid was “from a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia ” and that “he robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma.” But the real Billy the Kid never robbed a bank and although his birthplace is uncertain, no account suggests that he was from West Virginia. The song also says that Billy the Kid was captured and hanged, with many people attending the hanging while in reality, he was shot and killed by Pat Garrett.Background In the last verse of the song, the lyrics switch from Billy the Kid to a “Billy” from Oyster Bay, Long Island. The writer Ken Bielen has interpreted the “Billy” in the final verse as being a portrait of Billy Joel himself since Joel was from Oyster Bay. However, in the liner notes to his album Songs in the Attic Joel claims that the “Billy” in the final verse is not himself but rather a bartender who worked in Oyster Bay, by the name of Billy Nastri.Influences According to one of Joel’s unofficial biographers, Hank Bordowitz, the instrumentation of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” has details reminiscent of the composers Aaron Copland and Ennio Morricone.
Copland himself wrote the music for a ballet titled Billy The Kid.Live versions In 1981, Joel’s song was released in a live version on the album Songs in the Attic. The live version was used as the B-side to the live single of ” She’s Got a Way.” Another live version of the song was released on Live at Shea Stadium: The Concert in 2011.Critical reception Critical response to the song has been mixed. In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, Paul Evans called “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” one of the “ambitious story songs” on Piano Man and Dennis Hunt of The Los Angeles Times agreed that the song showed Joel’s “knack for story songs.” But other critics have dismissed the song. For example, The New York Times critic Laura Sinagra called the song a “bombastic throwaway” and Tom Phalen of The Seattle Times was also critical of the song, arguing that Joel’s “outlaw” character doesn’t match Joel’s light, catchy “Marlboro Man melodies.” ;Pop culture reference The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is featured during the Family Guy episode ” Dial Meg for Murder “.
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