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40 years later, Billy Joel's 'Allentown' still elicits strong emotions in Lehigh Valley

The cover art for the 1982 Billy Joel single, "Allentown."

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - When Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk walked into his surprise birthday party at City Hall, his staff surprised him with a singalong to a song he hates.

“Allentown” by Billy Joel.

Mayor Tuerk singing "Allentown" at his birthday party

The 1982 hit includes the lyrics, “Well, we’re livin’ here in Allentown/And they’re closin’ all the factories down” – marking the city a symbol of the American rust belt.

“Allentown” was the first single off Joel’s album “The Nylon Curtain.”

After a four-month run on the single’s chart that saw it peak at No. 17, the song left the charts 40 years ago this week.

But even after four decades, it continues to be a source of argument for Allentown and the Lehigh Valley — so much so that one of the mayor’s staff actually stormed out of the party and refused to participate in the song.

Laura Ballek-Cole.jpg
Julian Abraham
Laura Ballek-Cole, who comes from a Bethlehem Steel family and serves as manager of Civic Innovation for Allentown, plays the Billy Joel song "Allentown" on the piano.

People thought he was joking at first, but he appeared legitimately angry about the song choice, and flat-out said, “I won’t participate in this. I hate that song so much.”

Showing the complicated feelings people at City Hall have toward the song, some laughed at the man’s fuss, and others appeared to empathize.

The song is a lament of the more than 30,000 stable jobs at Bethlehem Steel Corp. and other factories in the area that suddenly closed in the late 20th century – and all the lives that never were the same when their stable jobs were taken away.

Some folks in Allentown don’t like the song because they say it’s not accurate. Mayor Tuerk is among them.

Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk.jpg
Julian Abraham
Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk

At the surprise party, after singing along, doing his best to keep the right pitch, he got to the part that says, “And it’s getting very hard to stay…” He couldn’t help but ad-lib a sharp, “No it’s not!”

“It’s so wrong,” Tuerk said of that lyric. “I don’t know how it felt in 1982, but it doesn’t feel like that now. It’s not getting hard to stay, it’s getting hard to – it’s hard to leave.”

The tone of the song is another thing with which Tuerk takes issue. Admittedly not a music expert, he said, “It’s a minor-chord song, but we’re a major-chord city.”

‘Hard to keep a good man down’

There’s no denying there’s still poverty in Allentown.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23.3% of Allentown residents live in the federal definition of poverty.

Even more prevalent are the “cost burdened,” who have to spend more than 30% of their income on rent and housing expenses. People in that situation make up almost a third of the population in the Lehigh Valley, and more than half of those who rent their homes.

Despite that situation, there’s an abundance of people and groups trying to make it better.

High Schools have specialized programs and staff trying to keep kids in school. Nonprofits and churches keep a tally of those living in homeless encampments, and offer them bus passes, water, and new tents.

Soup kitchens welcome anyone with no questions asked, and give their clients hugs when they walk in the doors.

‘Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time’

Joel has said his original idea with “Allentown” was to write a song about Levittown — the planned community for WWII veterans near Joel’s hometown of Hicksville, New York.

As released, “Allentown” includes references to Bethlehem Steel, where someone from nearly every older Lehigh Valley resident’s family worked.

Guillermo Lopez was among those people who came from a Bethlehem Steel family. He said that among himself, his wife and his extended family, his family tree punched about 300 years on the clock for that company.

Lopez said he likes the song.

“Artistically, I think it's a great song,” he said. He said the record’s “mood, the sounds of the steam, of the clanging and machinery, it just puts puts you right back in the steel mill. If you worked here, you know exactly where you are to hear those noises.”

Guillermo Lopez
Julian Abraham
Guillermo Lopez sits in front of the former Bethlehem Steel site, where he spent almost thirty years of his life.

Lopez said the work at Bethlehem Steel was hard on him. He now walks with a cane, and on a few occasions during his 27 years at the company, he said, he came close to being in serious accidents on the job.

On one occasion, two ports on a boiler exploded, and he was trapped in the crossfire with no way to escape the danger zone.

“When it exploded, and all this fire and steam and flame came out. And I couldn't go anywhere,” he said. “Because everywhere I turned, I remember it singed on my eyebrows off. My nose hairs were gone. I remember, my skin was like tender and puffy.”

Lopez, like everyone else at Bethlehem Steel, was laid off when the mill closed down and went bankrupt. He said he’s thankful for the job, but now spends some of his time spreading the word about the unfair treatment he and other racial groups faced at the mill.

“I will say this, that I'll speak from my father and my perspective, and that, for many of the Puerto Ricans that came here, that was big money,” he said. “And then when you found out what other people were making, you went, ‘Huh? what's up with this?’”

Lopez was not the only one who had criticisms of the race relations at Bethlehem Steel. A 1973 article from the New York Times described unfair assignments that favored white employees, and were hard on workers of color, and the issue even made its way to to the courts throughout the years.

Joel’s early days in the Lehigh Valley

Before he achieved worldwide fame, Joel spent time playing gigs in the Lehigh Valley.

In November 1973, almost a decade before he released “Allentown,” Joel played at the Roxy Theatre in Northampton — performing two shows in the same night.

On the microphone, he expressed how amazed he was that so many people showed up.

It was Joel’s first headline show. At that time, the Roxy only had 585 seats.

Los Angeles-based music producer Denny Somach produced the show – he’s from the Lehigh Valley. Since he was working for a small radio station, WSAN, at the time, he drove Billy Joel to the show. Somach remembers the reaction Joel had to the unexpected fanfare on the way in.

“On the way into the theater, we walked into the lobby, there was a sign that said ‘The Roxy theater welcomes the Piano Man, Billy Joel’ with his picture and underneath it, ‘plus Henry Gross,’” Somach said. “And he looks at the sign and he goes, ‘I can't believe this. No one's ever given me a sign. This is amazing.’

“I said, ‘Billy, they're gonna love you.’”

Billy Joel plays at the Roxy Theatre in Northampton, PA.
This tape was missing since 1973, until it was found in 2018 by music producer Denny Somach, who originally recorded it.

Somach made an audio tape of the performances – then lost it – then recovered it in 2018. Somach said he had a feeling Joel was going to be famous one day, so started rolling his tape recorder in the crowd.

On the tapes, Joel expresses how surprised he is to see so many people in the audience – especially people who know some of his songs.

On the tape, he says, “How much is this Northampton? I’d like to buy it.”

‘We’re not giving up or moving out — we’re going to try’

Joel’s 2014 biography “Billy Joel,” which was written with his cooperation, gives an account of an incident that he said led to his writing “Allentown.”

“I remember that when I was starting getting big, there was no large venue in Allentown, and some kid came up to me after [a show there] and said, ‘You’re never coming back here,’” Joel recounts in the book.

“I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because anybody who gets big never comes back here.’

“I was really touched by that, and at the same time it stirred up a bit of guilt. I thought, ‘Goddamn it, I’m not going to let that happen.’ Yet it did happen. He was right: There was no venue big enough to play in Allentown,” he said in the book.

The book tells how that incident spurred Joel to change the song about Levittown he was writing to “Allentown.”

“I was trying to tell a story that young fan and people across the Lehigh Valley could relate to: They thought they knew how their lives would go, and it just didn’t work out that way.”

Joel, when asked about the criticisms from the people of Allentown, issued the following statement to LehighValleyNews.com:

“I’m very grateful to the Lehigh Valley area audiences for supporting our concerts during our early years of touring,” Joel said. “The 'Allentown' song lyrics were intended to be a tribute to the indomitable spirit of the people there.”

That echoes what he said when asked about the song during a 1982 television interview.

“I was talking about America,” he said then. “I wasn’t talking about Allentown the town, I was talking about it as a symbol of the American city. And a lot of people my age are wondering, ‘Gee, my old man had a job, you know, in this particular place, isn’t it my birthright to get the same job? This is America after all.’ Well I’m finding’ out it’s not so.”

In a newspaper interview shortly after, Joel summarized it by saying of the song: “It’s saying, ‘We’re not giving up or moving out – we’re going to try.’”