Lyric Analysis: Billy Joel's 'I Go To Extremes'

Billy Joel
‘I Go To Extremes’

Call me a joker, call me a fool

You’re a joker, Billy Joel!  You’re a fool.

Right at this moment I'm totally cool

Billy Joel: “Whatevs, man.  I’m totally cool.”

Clear as a crystal, sharp as a knife
I feel like I'm in the prime of my life

I’m not sure if you caught that but he referenced a knife and then used ‘prime’ directly after it.  He wrote this while hungry.  He was absolutely craving a steak.  But also, the song was released on his 1989 'Storm Front' album and since Billy was born in 1949 he actually kind of was in the prime of his life.  Truth in art.

Sometimes it feels like I'm going too fast
I don't know how long this feeling will last

This isn’t really about Billy Joel, is it?  On a grander scope, this is about life.  About humanity.  Sometimes it feels like we’re all going too fast.  We have no idea how long this feeling will last, either.  Maybe for the rest of time.

Maybe it's only tonight

Then again, it could be temporary.

Darling I don't know why I go to extremes
Too high or too low there ain't no in-betweens

Some people have said this song is about a manic-depressive.  Billy himself said it was an apology to then-wife Christie Brinkley for his erratic behavior.  The thing about art is it’s in the eye of the beholder.  I’m the one beholding (or listening, whatever) and I say it’s about fame.  He doesn’t know why sometimes he’s at the top of the charts and sometimes he just can’t sell a single to save his life.  There’s no in-between.  You know?

And if I stand or I fall
It's all or nothing at all
Darling I don't know why I go to extremes

Selling out an arena or barely making $5 in tips at a piano bar.  It’s all or nothing at all.  People love Billy!  People hate Billy!  Why does his fame go to extremes?

Sometimes I'm tired, sometimes I'm shot

I’m assuming this doesn’t mean literally shot.  “I’m... I’m shot.”  (Little GalaxyQuest quote for you there.)  He means just completely bagged.  Or perhaps mentally shot down.  He’s at the bottom of his game.

Sometimes I don't know how much more I've got

As it turns out, Billy would go on to release two more studio albums, three live albums, and continue touring up until this very day.  So I holler back through the sands of time to 1989 Billy and say “dude, you’ve got a lot left, no worries”.

Maybe I'm headed over the hill
Maybe I've set myself up for the kill

This sounds like a James Bond title, no?  “Set Up For The Kill”.  Theme by Shirley Bassey.

Tell me how much do you think you can take
Until the heart in you is starting to break?
Sometimes it feels like it will

.... break.  But ‘break’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘kill’ or ‘hill’.  So, poetic license and all that.

Darling I don't know why I go to extremes
Too high or too low there ain't no in-betweens
You can be sure when I'm gone
I won't be out there too long

Spoken like a man who routinely just hops in his car and drives.  He’s gone, you have no idea where.  He has no idea where.  He’s just driving, man.  But he swears he won’t be gone long.

Darling I don't know why I go to extremes

Because he’s full of passion!  Because life is for the living!  Because existing solely in the median of life is viciously dull!  Because he has all the feelings!  

Out of the darkness, into the light
Leaving the scene of the crime

If I have learned one thing from CSI it’s that blood will fluoresce when sprayed with luminol and viewed with an ALS.  But if I have learned one other thing from CSI it’s that you never leave the scene of a crime because a) you always leave evidence behind that the CSIs can use to track you down, and b) Jim Brass is always 100% more pissed off if he has to hunt you down to interrogate you instead of just being able to talk to you at the scene.  Even if you commit the crime in the darkness and then flee into daylight, graveyard shift will find you.  They will just use overtime hours to do so.  

Either I'm wrong or I'm perfectly right every time

It is never right to flee the scene!  It’s always wrong, always.

Sometimes I lie awake, night after night

Insomnia: A Biography.  Music by Billy Joel.

Coming apart at the seams
Eager to please, ready to fight
Why do I go to extremes?

Contrary to popular (or Billy’s) belief, being eager to please and ready to fight are not opposites.  Just like love and hate are not opposites but actually very similar passions, people eager to please are quite often also ready to fight in order to attain that approval.  The opposite extreme to being eager to please would be to adopt an attitude of complete indifference.  Meh.  Apathy.  

Darling I don't know why I go to extremes
Too high or too low there ain't no in-betweens

I didn’t mention before how much I enjoy his made-up word here.  “In-between” is a word but “in-betweens” is not.  It’s clearly functioning as a noun and taking the place of acceptable phrases like “... ain’t no intermediates” or “... ain’t no middle ground” or whatever.  But “in-betweens” just has that extra-special je ne sais quoi about it which completely justifies both its creation and use in this instance.

And if I stand or I fall
It's all or nothing at all
Darling I don't know why I go to extremes
No I don't know why I go to extremes

Sometimes in concert Billy would change things up and sing “I don’t know why I go for ice cream”.

Too high or too low there ain't no in-betweens
You can be sure when I'm gone
I won't be out there too long

If this song is about fame, he’s telling you he’s not going anywhere for long.  You can turn off the radio but you can’t silence him.  He’ll be heard.  He’ll stick around.  And indeed he has.  
Billy Joel, ladies and gentleman!

Darling I don't know why I go to extremes

 

- Corinne Simpson