Nice Guy Eddie: Eddie Money's Eternally Likeable Hits Told the Story of the Album Rock Era

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Eddie Money photographed in the 1980s.

Eddie Money, who died Friday (Sept. 13) at age 70, couldn't be called anybody's idea of a conventional rock & roll star. His face was fleshy, his eyes heavy-lidded, he didn't move with grace. He looked and sounded like what he was: a former cop who decided to risk it all on his rock & roll dreams.

Leaving behind his home in New York, he headed out to the west coast, laying down roots in Berkeley, California and swapping his birth name from Edward Joseph Mahoney to Eddie Money. California may have been where he broke into the music business, but Money never could shake his New York roots.

His persona deftly synthesized Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar rock & roll crusader and Billy Joel's pugnacious pop showman, two artists who just happened to be labelmates of Money's on Columbia Records. Where Springsteen and Joel were auteurs, Eddie Money never attempted to be anything other than a working musician, happy to play for crowds that were happy to see him.

Over the decades, Money never lost that audience. Year after year, he'd draw sizable crowds across the United States -- in Detroit, he was an institution, kicking off the summer concert season at DTE Energy Music Theatre (formerly Pine Knob) -- and he cultivated a cottage industry around his personality that eventually led him to reality TV. This enduring success was all built on a handful of hits, no more than ten Top 40 singles and album rock standards that arrived between 1978 and 1988. Money's hot streak began at the peak of album rock radio and continued through the glory days of MTV, which meant that his biggest singles arrived when there was an ecosystem to turn songs meant to capitalize on current trends into modern standards.

Looking back at the records Eddie Money made at his peak, it's striking to realize that this album-oriented rocker rarely made cohesive albums. This patchiness was recognized by record buyers at the time, as they seemed to alternate between embracing his LPs and shying away from them. His self-titled debut was a Platinum hit right out of the gate in 1978, thanks to the sleek "Baby Hold On" and his signature tune "Two Tickets to Paradise," which went no further than No. 22  on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its release. Money could barely crack the top 40 with 1979's Life for the Taking, an underperformance that continued with 1980's Playing For Keeps. 

But he bounced back in 1982 with No Control. Benefiting from a tight production from Tom Dowd that elliptically grappled with new wave, No Control was Money's best album and featured two of his biggest singles: the No. 1 Mainstream Rock Songs hit "Think I'm In Love" and "Shakin'," which stalled at 63 on the Hot 100. Money's manager Bill Graham was convinced its underperformance on the chart was due to the singer sneaking the line "her tits were shakin'" into the lyric -- a contention that was likely correct, yet Money's juvenile humor (or, as Graham called it, his "sophomoric fucking bullshit") was intrinsic to the singer's appeal. With his dirty jokes, rubbery mug and sentimental streak, he seemed like the mook next door who made good. 

Like a lot of his peers, Eddie Money cleaned up his act during the thick of the Reagan years -- and in doing so, he wound up with his biggest hit: "Take Me Home Tonight," a pulsing anthem whose nostalgia was tempered by modern synths and a stellar cameo by Ronnie Spector. "Take Me Home Tonight" had a sepia-tinged cousin on 1986's Can't Hold Back with "I Wanna Go Back," whose wailing saxophone underscored Money's debt to Bruce Springsteen. But its brightly lit, sharply contoured production meant that it didn't sound like the E Street Band: it was clean and crisp, the epitome of mid-'80s mainstream pop. "I Wanna Go Back" also became Money's first song to appear on the Adult Contemporary Songs chart, and while 1988's "Walk On Water" didn't place on AC, it did become his last top 10 Hot 100 hit, starting to bring his period as a hitmaker to a close.  

Label troubles kept Eddie Money sidelined through the 1990s. He parted ways with Columbia, and wandered through the indie wilderness before resurfacing on the classic-rock specialty label CMC International in 1999 with Ready Eddie. By that point, Money was essentially an oldies act, drawing upon those '70s and '80s hits, the hits that brought him fame and sustained his stardom. 

A deep dive into Money's catalog may not dredge up a lot of lost classics -- though "Gimme Some Water," his outlaws-on-the-run saga from Life For the Taking, is pretty good, and he has a nice facility with rockers with an R&B underpinning -- but his core songbook is so strong, it doesn't matter that his albums weren't deep. When heard on a collection, his big hits cohere into a mini-history of the album rock era. "Baby Hold On" and "Two Tickets To Paradise" are gleaming, polished artifacts of days of high-end professional studios, "Shakin'" and "Think I'm In Love" are nervy, stylish reckonings with new wave, and "Take Me Home Tonight" and "I Wanna Go Back" savvily ride the wave of big MTV. Each sounds distinctly of their time, but they're united by Money's irrepressible spirit. 

Listening to Eddie Money, either on record or in concert, it was difficult to deny the enthusiasm that he brought to his performances. During his salad days and time on the classic rock oldies circuit, Money seemed to truly relish that he got the chance to be a rock star, and his fans could sense that gratitude. That open heart didn't exist only on the stage, either. After Money's death, the cult power pop hero Paul Collins posted on Facebook that Money was a big booster of Collins's the Beat: "you told me how we New Yorkers had to stick together here in California, how you were gonna watch out for me, and later on how you told everyone you knew how much you loved my songs until the day you got me signed to CBS and to Bill Graham and you got Burce Botnick to produce us, all in one shot, you did that all for me, you never asked for one thing." 

Maybe that generosity wasn't widely known while Eddie Money was alive -- but it certainly was at the heart of his best music, and is an essential part of his legacy. 

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