As he himself would have admitted, Eddie Money was no one’s idea of a conventional rock star. His stage moves were always a little gawky and spasmodic, his borderline hoarse voice in need of a lozenge or two. Emerging during the punk era though never part of it, he preferred the stadium-friendly shout-along choruses of mainstream rock and adopted the suit-and-tie New Wave look while keeping his hair unfashionably long. He was even an NYPD cop — a career move that, while utterly honorable, didn’t jibe with the traditional, anti-establishment rock & roll handbook.
For decades, we’ve been taught that pop stars, especially rock stars, are supposed to embody a certain type of cool. But the accidental genius of Money, who died Friday of heart valve complications at 70, was that he almost never was. Throughout pretty much his entire career, he was rock’s endearing every-palooka, a clumsy, somewhat overwrought guy who was one of rock’s most relatable acts and, during a 45-year career, stumbled onto some of the most enduring radio hits of his era.
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From the start, Money seemed out of step. His first album arrived in 1977, the same year that gave us the debuts of the Clash and Elvis Costello, yet Money preferred his rock & roll almost proudly, unabashedly generic. This was the dawn of what came to be known as corporate rock, and so many of Money’s early hits, like “Baby Hold On,” “Gimme Some Water” (“cause I shot a man on the Mexican border”?), and especially “Two Tickets to Paradise,” conformed to many of that genre’s trademarks: big, brawny guitars, a certain vacuum-sealed sound, the music-school guitar solo.
But riding over all of it was that husky, immediately recognizable voice. Money threw himself into songs the way he threw himself into stage shows: with a sloppy passion. Rock lyrics don’t get any more generic than those in the frisky “Think I’m in Love” or his first hit “Baby Hold On” — “the future is ours to see/when you hold on to me” — but Money sang them, and other songs, as if he believed fully in every single word and that his life depended on conveying them with as much intensity as he could.
This was also the era of the pillow-soft sound now called Yacht Rock, a fairly loathsome term dripping with ironic appreciation for the likes of Christopher Cross and Rupert Holmes. But again, Money was never quite right for that moment, either. Hardly a suave crooner, he stood in for every person who was all sputtery emotions, bereft of the polished or articulate gene. As seen repeatedly in his videos, he couldn’t quite pull off the glam-sultry look either, even when he was pretending to be a vampire (“Think I’m in Love”).
Five minutes of bleating desperation, “Take Me Home Tonight,” the 1986 hit that put him back on the charts after a dry spell, remains a wondrous record. As always, he sang it as if his world was falling apart and there was nothing he could do about it — a tension only released when Ronnie Spector emerged to pay homage to her Ronettes hit “Be My Baby” in what may have been the first “live sample” in pop, not cribbing from an old record but actually using the original singer to recreate the part.
That song inaugurated what was Money’s golden era. It’s hard to think of any other Seventies rocker who adapted so well to the sound of the following decade, but Money and his various producers and co-songwriters managed to modernize him while never forgetting his big, over-the-top emotions. “I Wanna Go Back” hit the rock-klutz paydirt, as did “We Should Be Sleeping.” There was nothing remotely subtle about any of those songs or their arrangements, but Money made you root for him, especially since so many of his songs amounted to confessions about how much he’d screwed up in one way or another. And while Money’s discography isn’t exactly filled with buried treasures, plenty of deep cuts are worthy revisiting: the punchy “Trinidad” (especially the live, acoustic version on his Unplug It In EP) and “Another Nice Day in L.A.,” co-written with original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch.
Then there’s “Walk on Water,” which may well be his masterpiece. Again, it’s laden with every sonic bell and whistle from the Eighties: the amped-synth arrangement, the chanting “na-na-na-na” chorus, the extremely intrusive drums. But even as it elbows its way into the room or the radio, it’s an undeniably poignant song. When he hits the word “believe” in the chorus (“If I could walk on water/would you … believe in me … my love is so true!”), he sounds so desperate to save another failed relationship that you can’t help but side with him. Pop was growing increasingly mechanized, but Money, in his heartfelt, let-it-hang-out way, raged against the machine.