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.”Posted — Updated
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.
A: Taking pictures is painful. I don’t look like a rock star, which I don’t mind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
A: Yeah, don’t die. It worked for me.
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