Song Siblings: Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days” & Joseph Arthur’s “I Miss The Zoo”

I love to analyze music, especially comparing similarities in songs. Whether it’s the arrangement, sound of a particular instrument, or thematic elements; I think it’s a useful exercise as a musician.

This is the initial installment of what I intend to be a continuing series where I examine resemblances in songs.

For this entry, I’ll be discussing Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days” in conjunction with Joseph Arthur’s “I Miss The Zoo.”

There are plenty of songs about becoming clean and sober that celebrate the moment as a great achievement. Often many recovery songs look back and lament poor decisions and time wasted; they share missed opportunities and apologize to those they’ve hurt. “I’ve Loved These Days” and “I Miss The Zoo” don’t contain any of these characteristics.

Instead, these two songs share a sadness and nostalgia for the wild and reckless times lived in the face of experiencing sobriety, while still maintaining a recognition that temperance is the right choice for themselves.

The approaches these artists take to this personal predicament, missing a bygone era of immoderate drinking and drug use, are quite contrary. Arthur’s song is slow, dreamy, and poetic. Joel’s is far more melodic and tactile, filled with concrete images to Arthur’s ephemeral figures. Arthur narrates from a single character’s perspective, a solitary experience that is made all the more subjective by hazy recollections under the influence of narcotics. On the other hand, Joel’s song is presumably from the point-of-view of a couple, though the “we” does not specify how many are involved in the revelry. There is also a clarity that is missing from Arthur’s articulation, suggesting the characters in Joel’s tale are far more conscious about the path of their lives. They concede this following a raucous evening but choose to continue in this manner for “a few more nights,” despite knowing they must give up this lifestyle in the near future. The protagonist of “I Miss The Zoo” doesn’t achieve this awareness until becoming clean and looking back, trying to decipher motivations and passions of an earlier life through phantasmagoric description.

This is a distinctive difference in these two tracks, the narrator of Joel’s song still living an unrestrained existence while the chronicler of Arthur’s tale is sober and has already changed. The narrator of “I’ve Loved These Days” may in fact never change. Even with the acknowledgement that the time has come to give up a potentially destructive lifestyle, there’s time to “toast” and continue for at least a “few more times,” inferring that the life that lies ahead might not ever allow for satisfaction.

Arthur’s protagonist seems to know this and have accepted it. The narrator clearly expresses awe in “the euphoria of dying and being born all at once,” though they also must admit it’s all “while wearing a hat that reads ‘dunce.'”

Earlier I described “I’ve Loved These Days” as tactile. Joel decorates the song with “silken robes,” “lamps,” “a string of pearls,” “a foreign car,” and “satin sheets,” all elements of a rich and luxurious life. Presumably these characters are spending their time in fancy restaurants and in an elegant residence. Aside from the extravagant spending, the character indulges in wine and “fine” cocaine are the drugs of choice.

Arthur places the song in a different space, a city of “half-dead sewers” and “brick walls,” reflecting on the downward and dead end direction this lifestyle leads. The main character of “I Miss The Zoo” seems as though he’ll partake in whatever he can get his hands upon to alter his mind. There is “white snow,” presumably referring to meth as the cocaine is identified as “yellow.” There are “syringes,” “plumes of smoke,” and “glasses full of spirits.” These all lead to a “prison without bars,” reflecting on the coexisting entrapment and liberation that comes with addiction.

Much of Arthur’s song alludes to Rene Descartes’ mind-body dualism in the experience of being high. The feeling of the body is distinct from the high the mind reaches. The body feels the “burn of avalanches,” knives that incise on the torso, and bones exposed as the mind journeys away and magical transformations take place. This is described a variety of different ways in the song as the narrator turns into “a psychic pretzel flying kites, chewed on by a Zulu heading with toads to Mars” or is carried away by “spiders surrounding my bed and lifting me as if an effigy.”

Joel’s song takes a more simplistic light/dark and internal/external approach to the whole affair. The characters try to keep the party going with glow of lamps and chandeliers, buoyed by the enjoyment of material goods. The protagonist admits “we hide our hearts from harder times” and “drown” or “soothe” emotions by making purchases, drinking, and drug use. The battle is a personal one of fulfillment and self-satisfaction. In order to combat dealing with this reality, they also sleep “long” and “far too late.”

It’s far cry from Arthur’s protagonist that finds comfort in sleep because they “miss waking in the arms of strangers like puppies just born in the pound to a dead mother with eyes sealed shut.” An indication there are much more complex psychological factors at work in addiction. That line hints at a sexual element to the lifestyle.

There’s also family dynamics at play in “I Miss The Zoo.” Arthur mentions a “gutted inner child” and a “criminal family.”

Lastly, compounding these themes in Arthur’s song, is drug use as driving an obsessive artistic pursuit in music: “Whipping a thin plastic string to cut the ears of others as I sing / I miss van Gogh’s revenge, I miss his nightly binge.”

The message of “I Miss The Zoo” is less definitive than “I’ve Loved These Days.” Joel’s song is a cautionary tale, intimating that one needs to find inner peace; it is all too easily turn attention outward and lose focus.

Arthur’s tune sums up a conflict between an experience that is simultaneously freeing while being unmanageable, dangerous, and idiotic. Given the outcome, I believe we can be assured that Arthur’s protagonist has weighed these options and chosen sobriety, but does not feel anger or resentment for their previous life and exposes the surrealistic wonder of it. It was a dream that was at times both nightmarish and emancipating.

Perhaps what more appropriately links these songs is a moral relativist perspective on drug use. Many other songs accept the equation drugs = bad, sobriety = good; drug use is admonished and being clean is lauded. “I’ve Loved These Days” and “I Miss The Zoo” don’t align their songs with those beliefs and force their listeners out of accepting them as well by immersing us in the narrator’s worlds.

Full lyrics:

“I’ve Loved These Days” by Billy Joel

“Now we take our time, so nonchalant
And spend our nights so bon vivant
We dress our days in silken robes
The money comes
The money goes
We know it’s all a passing phase

We light our lamps for atmosphere
And hang our hopes on chandeliers
We’re going wrong, we’re gaining weight
We’re sleeping long and far too late
And so it’s time to change our ways
But I’ve loved these days

Now as we indulge in things refined
We hide our hearts from harder times
A string of pearls, a foreign car
Oh we can only go so far
On caviar and cabernet

We drown our doubts in dry champagne
And soothe our souls with fine cocaine
I don’t know why I even care
We’ll get so high and get nowhere
We’ll have to change our jaded ways
But I’ve loved these days

So before we end and then begin
We’ll drink a toast to how it’s been
A few more hours to be complete
A few more nights on satin sheets
A few more times that I can say
I’ve loved these days.”

 

“I Miss The Zoo” by Joseph Arthur

“I miss the drunk, I miss the fiend
I miss the simplicity of addiction and the scene
I miss wandering aimlessly in half dead sewers
With rats for eyes chewing on forgiveness and the will to apologize
I miss the return of no return as I burn in avalanches of white snow and yellow cocaine
I miss talking to brick walls while following the grain
And human dolls as I plagiarize myself like a dummy
Stuffed with counterfeit money for Cairo and black honey
I miss illusions begging to be chased
Even as they disappear into me erased
Until there is no one or nothing but the chase
And a powdery ghost with no face or faith
And the woman of my dream disappearing without grace

I Miss The Zoo
I Miss The Zoo
I Miss The Zoo

I miss evolving into a cloud of blue marijuana
Blown from the lips of hookers and pimps
As they smack each other down in alleys for the dammed but mighty
With no one but the weak around and the beautiful unsightly
I miss numb Neanderthals marching in rows of living dead
From my wisdom teeth to Spain and back again in my head
I miss salvation in syringes and angels of mercy
In blooms of smoke numbing rain which drinks when thirsty
I miss glasses full of spirits who without tongues speak to me of Napoleon’s wild nights
I miss staying up for days and becoming a psychic pretzel flying kites
Chewed on by a Zulu heading with toads to Mars
A mysterious prison and one without bars

I Miss The Zoo
I Miss The Zoo
I Miss The Zoo

I miss waking in the arms of strangers like puppies
Just born in the pound to a dead mother with eyes sealed shut
Looking for a tit to suck and other dangers
When only the night before laughter was the only pursuit
Even as knives carved up our backs and demons sat like Buddhas eating fruit
Meditating on hate forever in our minds
I miss exposing my bones and the need that rewinds
Even my burning home, even my gutted inner child
Even my dead grandfather beneath the ground that’s wild
Even my criminal family, even my weedwacker thoughts
Whipping a thin plastic string to cut the ears of others as I sing
I miss van Gogh’s revenge, I miss his nightly binge
I miss spiders surrounding my bed and lifting me as if an effigy
Or a Dead King or a prophet of doom
A Jesus for the apocalypse wearing dirt like perfume
Or a mother for Satan or a ghost for all the children of abuse
And taking me into the fire watching me burn like a goose
As they sing in spider voices
There goes creation, there goes the moon
There goes the butterfly wanting a cocoon
I miss being a bloom and a goon
Waking up too soon, in the afternoon
A doctor of regret
Hanging onto guitar strings in tune
And hanging by a belt wrapped around some pipe to nowhere and felt
My lips too wrapped around what appears to be stained glass
As religious figures dress like rocks with class
Burn into gas to the center of my brain
The euphoria of dying and being born all at once
While wearing a hat that reads ‘dunce’

I Miss The Zoo
I Miss The Zoo
I Miss The Zoo.”

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