Billy Joel’s Got a Good Job and Hits in His Head

OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — “You see that boat out there?” Billy Joel asked, pointing beyond the dock and the helicopter pad in his backyard to Oyster Bay Harbor. “That’s an oyster boat — a dredge. I worked on one of those, when I was 17 or 18. I used to look up at these big houses and say, ‘You rich bastards!’ I remember looking at this house and cursing. Now I own the place.”

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Billy Joel’s Got a Good Job and Hits in His Head
Rob Tannenbaum
, New York Times
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — “You see that boat out there?” Billy Joel asked, pointing beyond the dock and the helicopter pad in his backyard to Oyster Bay Harbor. “That’s an oyster boat — a dredge. I worked on one of those, when I was 17 or 18. I used to look up at these big houses and say, ‘You rich bastards!’ I remember looking at this house and cursing. Now I own the place.”

Early one Friday afternoon, Joel, 69, was smoking a small cigar on one of the front lawns of his 26-acre manor, cleverly dubbed Middle Sea, at the tip of Centre Island, a peninsula on the North Shore of Long Island. The estate was built by a railroad baron, George Bullock, some hundred years ago. Joel bought it in 2002 from a big shot at Goldman Sachs.

“This is Gatsby country,” he said, as three rescue dogs romped around a long table, which sat beneath a trellis. Nearby, a nanny looked after his 9-month-old daughter, Remy Anne, his second child with his fourth wife, Alexis Roderick.

Joel remains one of the most successful artists in the music industry, even though he has not released an album of new pop songs since 1993 and tours on what he calls a “pussycat schedule.” He has had a monthly residency at Madison Square Garden since January 2014; on July 18, two days before our interview, he played his 100th ever show there. Each concert has sold out, which is a level of success the Garden’s other franchises can only envy. “It’s bigger now than it was at the height of my recording career,” Joel said, more puzzled than boastful. On the afternoon of that show, he and his band soundchecked to a nearly empty arena, playing snippets of “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Goldfinger” and a medley of traditional Irish songs to kill the boredom. He spotted his wife and their baby near the front row. “Hi, Remy!” he chirped. “It’s Daddy!” The band ran the two Bruce Springsteen songs it later played with Springsteen, the evening’s special guest. Joel looked over the set list and nixed a few songs, including “I Go to Extremes” (“It’s a real throat-ripper,” he said) and “I’ve Loved These Days” (“They’re not going to know it”).

Even in reruns, Joel remains divisive; nearly every year, someone writes a high-blood-pressure jeremiad, denouncing his music as derivative and mawkish. Both accusations have some truth, but his albums encompass nearly the whole of 20th-century New York music, from Tin Pan Alley to doo-wop and salsa, and Joel sang about alienation — suburban boredom, teenage apathy, the stupidity of the music business, mistrust of the media and fashion trends — well before punk rock elbowed its way in.

Joel grew up in Hicksville, on Long Island, about 20 minutes from his Centre Island palace. His parents met in a Gilbert and Sullivan production, but his father, a brooding man who played Beethoven in his spare time, left the family and moved to Vienna. Joel was raised by a single mother, Rosalind, who adopted her niece after Rosalind’s sister killed herself. “We weren’t poor, but we never had money,” Joel said.

He took the slow road to success; he had been releasing albums for 10 years, first with the Long Island soul group the Hassles, next with the organ-metal duo Attila, then as an unheeded solo artist before finding genuine success in 1977 with “The Stranger.” Next came 15 years of hit singles, Grammys, bad reviews and wives (Joel has a daughter, Alexa Ray, now 32, with his second wife, model Christie Brinkley.) After years of financial stress, Joel now seems unbothered by money matters: “I’ve been very fortunate financially,” he said.

Joel identifies as a smartass: “I rub people the wrong way, with that stupid Long Island chip on my shoulder.” It is his nature to be blunt, unapologetic and self-mocking, especially on the topic of his looks. He had just finished a photo session, gritting his teeth throughout, when he sat down to talk. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Which is worse, having your picture taken or talking about yourself?

A: Taking pictures is painful. I don’t look like a rock star, which I don’t mind.

Q: Did you ever look like a rock star?

A: There was a minute, back in the ‘80s, when I was dating Christie (Brinkley). She styled me. They chopped my hair and spiked it up — I never had good hair — put decent clothes on me. All my life, I said, “Maybe I’ll turn into Cary Grant.” It never happened.

Q: Do you still sing your songs in their original key or do you lower them?
A: Some of them we drop a whole step, some we drop a half step and some are still in the original keys. When I get to a point where I got to go more than a whole step down, it’s probably time to hang it up. I find myself onstage thinking: This is a young man’s job. What am I doing?
I saw Bruce before I went onstage the other night and I said, “Bruce, those songs are (expletive) high.” He goes, “I know, man.”
Q: You two had some career parallels and were on the same record label. Are you friends?
A: Yeah. Bruce and I go back to the early ‘70s, when we played the same clubs. I’m a bridge-and-tunnel guy, like Bruce is. He’s got a show on Broadway and I’m doing the Garden. It’s ironic. We’re all George M. Cohans now. Q: As someone who’s loved your music for years, may I say, I’d be OK if I never heard “Piano Man” again as long as I live.

A: I’m with you! I don’t think it’s that good a song. It’s a story song, like “Taxi” with Harry Chapin, more of a folk song than a pop tune. It’s in 6/8 time, which is a waltz, about these losers in a bar. But people love it. (Shrugs) There’s a lot of my songs I could never hear again and live quite happily.

Q: Your shows always have a big selection from “Glass Houses,” a new-wave-influenced album, which among your fans has a cult following of its own. Were you going to CBGB in those days?

A: I wasn’t going to CBGB. I knew the media went (expletive) over the Sex Pistols. I knew about punk and new wave, and I said: “Wait a minute. I know this stuff.” It went back to an era way before that, with ? and the Mysterians, the Seeds, the Kingsmen. We used to play those songs when I was in high school, in our band. The piano I was playing on “Glass Houses” wasn’t even acoustic — it was an electric (Yamaha) CP-80, which is fuzzy and nasty-sounding. That was a fun album. When it came out, it got crucified. Critics hated it: “He’s trying to ride the punk train and he’s not a punk.”

When an album is fun to make, it’s usually good. Like “An Innocent Man” — I wrote and recorded the whole thing maybe in six weeks. Bang. I was having a romance with a supermodel and writing songs about that. The album before that, “The Nylon Curtain,” which I’m very proud of, took a year to make. I wanted to make my masterpiece, sonically, and I feel like I almost died making that album.

Q: This summer is the 25th anniversary of your last pop album, “River of Dreams.” Did you dislike it?

A: In the early ‘90s, I started listening to the Beethoven symphonies and I said: “I haven’t done (expletive). This is great.” I was, let’s see, 44 years old. It was time to do something else. I wasn’t going to make albums just because the record company had a contract on me.

Q: A contract “on” you? Like the Mafia?
A: That’s how I see it! They own the recordings, so I’m writing for them. I saw it happening with Elton (John), other big-name artists. The last album didn’t sell as much, got to put out another album, and they end up diluting their legacy by putting out albums that are no longer good. With “River of Dreams,” I took myself out with a No. 1 album.
Q: But when you’re a songwriter, melodies don’t just stop coming into your head.

A: No.

Q: So when you wake up in the morning with a melody in your head, what do you do?

A: I write. I continue to write the music. I develop it, I do expositions, variations. But I haven’t recorded it. I haven’t even notated it. It’s all here (taps his head).

Q: So you don’t care if anyone else ever hears it?

A: I’ve had more fame than I deserve. I thought I was going to make a living and it turned out I got a hundred shows at Madison Square Garden, Kennedy (Center) Honors, the Gershwin (Prize), da da da. It’s pretty cool, but I’m not Beethoven.

Q: Not releasing new albums might work to your advantage. When you go to see Elton John or the Rolling Stones, there’s always a section where they play a few new songs, and ...
A: And nobody wants to hear the new album. You’re right. I tell that to the audience sometimes: “We’re going to do your favorite songs. I’m not going to play anything new.” “Yay!” But then I get accused of pandering. “He only gives them what they want to hear.” Well, they paid a (expletive) of money to see me, they should get what they want. That’s my job: I’m an entertainer. Q: Last year, you mentioned that you were trying to write songs with Pink. Did you finish any songs?

A: She’s been after me for years. And she’s a good artist, so I said, “OK, come to my house.” I showed her some musical ideas I’d written. I think she was intimidated, because she did an interview after that and she said, “I tried to write with Billy Joel and I think my stuff sucks.” (“The problem is he’s too good for me. I clammed up,” Pink told The Los Angeles Times.) I gave her a tape of music and she took it home, but I’m still waiting for her to send me something.

Q: Should we declare publicly that you’re open to collaborations?

A: No! I’ll get people sending me (expletive) up the yin yang. I’ve talked to Tim Rice and Stephen Sondheim about lyrics and those are people I’d consider working with. Some of the stuff I like from the ‘60s, like Cream or Procol Harum, had way-out lyrics. “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels on the floor.” It doesn’t mean (expletive), but it sounds great. I like the Beatles’ crazy stuff, when they were smoking a lot of pot.

Q: What about starting a band?

A: Sting and Don Henley and I always joke around: “Just for the (expletive) of it, let’s put together one of those supergroups that explode after, like, a year.” I think it could be fun to join a band. I enjoyed it when I was a teenager. And I’d consider writing songs in that kind of milieu.

I get asked a lot, “Why’d you stop?” I set a very high bar for myself and I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be and it was frustrating. So I’d get drunk, just to make myself forget about my frustration, and my personal life went to hell. I’d been divorced a couple of times already and I said, “Enough of this mishegas.”

Q: Are there songs where you got over the bar you set?
A: There are songs where I got to the bar. “Vienna” is one of those songs. “And So It Goes,” “Great Wall of China,” “She’s Right on Time.” But did I get over the bar? No.
Q; You recently described your time at the Betty Ford Clinic in 2005 as one of the most important times in your life. Why was it important?

A: That was the only time I actually went to rehab. I tried, a couple years before that, to go to this place in Connecticut, Silver Hill, but the media found out and there were reporters all over this campus. I was there for two days, nobody could get anything done, so I left. The next time, I went to Betty Ford in the desert. Felt like I was in Alcatraz or something. For 30 days, you can’t have a drink. I had an epiphany: I don’t have to drink like I was drinking. But I’m not an AA guy, not a 12-step guy.

Q: Some problem drinkers stop drinking but are then able to drink moderately. But in AA, that’s not allowed. Is that why you don’t like it?

A: Yeah, I have a problem with the absolutism of that. “I’m an alcoholic, I’ll never be cured.” I said, “Wait a minute, there’s something called willpower.” I don’t buy into the higher-power thing. The closest thing I have to religion is music. I worship at the altar of Beethoven.

Q: Does depression run in your family?
A: Yeah. And I worry about seeing it sometimes in my children. I don’t think I suffer from depression. I get down, I get the blues, but I can’t feel sorry for myself. I have an incredible life. What’s to be depressed about? Q: As a student of history, is there anything in American life that compares politically to the Trump presidency?

A: I get worried that we’re in the Weimar Republic stage, when Hitler got to rise. I don’t want to overreach, because I know Republicans will make hay with that. But there’s a lot of neo-Nazism going on.

Q: Your grandfather started one of Germany’s most successful textile businesses before the Nazis expropriated it and he fled the country. Your father fought in World War II. Neo-Nazism is a personal issue for you, yes?

A: My father’s family left Germany in ’38, after Kristallnacht, but they couldn’t get into the United States. There was a quota on European Jews and if you couldn’t get in here you were shipped back, then you were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz — which is what happened to my father’s family. They were all (killed in Auschwitz), except for my father and his parents. So this anti-immigrant stuff strikes a very dark tone with me.

People feel disenfranchised. They feel like they’re losing their power base or their importance in American culture. America is becoming browner. Well, that’s how the world is. But I’m a libtard. (Laughs) What do I know?

Q: You have two young daughters. Did you have any misgivings about being an older dad?

A: Yeah. I know there’s a finite amount of time I have left to be with them. But because of the nature of what I do, I may get to spend more time with my children than most people do. I spent most of my life traveling like Willy Loman. I’m a homebody now. When they start school full-time, somebody’s got to drive them there. I didn’t have a dad — he wasn’t around. Being a father is very important to me. I want to make sure I leave my imprint with them.

Q: At the Garden, they raised a banner to commemorate your 100th show. What are the odds we’ll see one for your 200th?

A: Don’t bet the farm. I’m still exhausted from the other night, which didn’t used to happen. I don’t think I’ll have the physical wherewithal to do it five years from now. And if I can’t do it as well as I want to, I’ll take myself out of the lineup. I love the game too much to not play it well.

Q: So if you want to see the show, see it soon.

You can say that, but I’m not going to. I mean, these guys who do farewell tours — it’s funny, the farewell tour goes on for 10 years. The Who has had, what, like 20 farewell tours? I keep getting asked, “What’s the secret of your longevity?” I say, “I haven’t died.”

Q: That’s good advice: Stay alive.

A: Yeah, don’t die. It worked for me.

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