Billy Joel Restarts The Fire

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Photos by Myrna Suarez

“I notice that when I wake up in the morning, I’m singing something or humming something,” says Billy Joel. “I have something going on in my head – some music, some kind of theme – just about every day.”

Though he hasn’t released an album of pop material since River Of Dreams in 1993, Joel has never stopped making music. Seated in the den of his Long Island home, surrounded by souvenirs (from his six Grammy awards to a baseball signed by Reggie Jackson) from a career that has seen him sell more than 150 million records worldwide, he explains that he is regularly writing instrumental motifs, tunes, and sketches; he’s just not worrying about when or how to record any of it, much less what this music might be called.

New product or not,  Billy Joel’s visibility never seems to slow down. His Greatest Hits Volume 1&2 collection is the third best-selling album in the United States. Already a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, last year he received the nation’s most prestigious prize for an artist, the Kennedy Center Honors. In March, he and Jimmy Fallon sang doo-wop together on the Tonight Show and blew up the Internet, and in May, he will release A Matter Of Trust: The Bridge To Russia, a 2-CD, 2-DVD set chronicling his 1987 tour of the Soviet Union.

This activity comes amidst an unprecedented “residency” at Madison Square Garden, in which Joel is headlining at the arena once a month through all of 2014 (with more shows to follow, he claims). He’s also doing more out-of-town touring because, he says, he needs to “feed the elephant.” For this round of concerts, he’s digging deeper into his catalogue and playing a range of songs much broader than the set he performed during many years of touring the world alongside Elton John.

“That show never changed,” he says. “Elton was the senior partner, and I’d say ‘Why don’t we try something different? Let’s change it up.’ [In an Elton John accent] ‘Nah, nah, nah. It’s not broken, don’t fix it. Leave it alone. It’s working fine.’ OK, you’re the senior partner, fine. But after 16 years, it was time to do something different or I’m going to go crazy.”

Visiting Billy Joel, 64, at his North Shore estate immediately turns into a crash course on his storied history. He gestures across the water, pointing out Cold Spring Harbor – the community which gave its name to his 1971 debut album. He is talkative and candid, but what he seems most excited about is the new music he’s writing, whether or not it ever sees the light of day.

“I used to listen to classical music when I was a little boy, and I kind of went away from it,” he says. “I compare it to being seduced by a girl with torn fishnets and mascara, who smokes cigarettes and dragged me away for a good 30 years. Then I rediscovered the girl next door, which was classical music.

“My favorite composer is Beethoven, because he would change his mood in the middle of a piece. He’d be going along, and it’d be nice, and then all of a sudden there’d be the sturm und drang, drama and tragedy. It was exciting. I always subscribed to that kind of writing. Wherever your mood takes you, that’s what you should be writing.”

Do you still identify yourself as a songwriter first?

Well, that’s a big part of my life. If I had to find my phylum, I’m originally a piano player, and then a songwriter-slash-composer, and then a singer way down the road. I’ve been continuing to write music, just not songs – although some of the music I’ve written could become songs. Some of it could be symphonic, some of it could be a movie soundtrack. It could go any direction.

I guess I found that particular genre started to become confining. It has to be a certain amount of time, it has to be rhyming. It doesn’t have to be, but traditionally that’s the way it works. One day I sat down and started writing a piece of music, based on a lyric phrase, but the music started to become more expressive than what lyrics would have done. And I said, “Why am I writing lyrics when there’s music here that conveys what I’m trying to say emotionally?”

Behind The Song: Billy Joel, “Only The Good Die Young”

Do you think about what you might do with any of this music? Why not let some of it loose?

I really stopped doing that a while ago. I stopped with “Well, this will be a song, this will be for a movie, this will be an instrumental piece.” I just write the music because that’s what happens naturally. Maybe at another time in my life I’ll sit down and shake this all out and categorize it. But the important thing to me is that I’m still creating music. To what end, I actually don’t know.

Some of this stuff is almost like hymns. When I was about 11 or 12 we went to church, and I loved singing the hymns, I thought a lot of them were pretty well written. That’s probably the closest to song form that these pieces I’m writing are now. But I don’t think much of it is recognizable as pop tunes.

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When you were still writing pop songs, did that process come easily to you?

Once in a while you’d come across a song that was Promethean. It just sprang out of nowhere and got written in 15 minutes like it dropped from the sky. “New York State of Mind” was like that – got written in fifteen minutes, half an hour. “And So It Goes” was one of those. Some of the better stuff I wrote came very, very quickly. Ones that I had to labor on, I can hear the nuts and bolts.

Let’s put it this way: I love having written. I hate writing. Once you’ve got it done, it’s shiny and new. But then I go through a post-partum depression after that. “Oh, I have to do this again.” I go through this kind of Cro-Magnon state in my cave, and I would mutter and kick things and probably drank more than I should have, just to get the Dutch courage to do it. I didn’t enjoy the process, but I enjoyed the finished product.

Sometimes when I would have writer’s block, I would have to do it with smoke and mirrors, play tricks on myself. I rented a studio downtown in Manhattan, and it was the entire top floor of the Puck Building, which was ridiculous. It was like 10,000 square feet, and there I am in the corner set up with my little keyboards, and some speakers and amps. I’d get stuck, and I’d walk out into the street and bring my spiral notebook with me. I’d go into a restaurant for lunch, put the notebook down, sit at the table, and do like Art Carney used to do in The Honeymooners (shakes out his arms). “OK, I’m going to write something.” And the other people in the restaurant would look over and go, “That’s Billy Joel, he’s writing something, he’s working on a song.” The waiters would look out of the kitchen, “Oh, he’s writing a song.” And I would kind of pick up on their confidence in my songwriting capacities, “Yes, that’s right, I’m writing a song!” It was sort of like fooling myself and being in the mood to be receptive to ideas. And I would actually get stuff written like that. “That’s right, that’s who I am. I’m a songwriter. I can do this.”

Several of your songs can really be considered modern standards – “New York State of Mind,” “Just The Way You Are.” Can you tell as it’s happening that a song like one of those is going to be something special?

I can’t necessarily tell that it’s going to be a hit record, but I can pretty much tell that it’s going to have some life to it. Like “New York State Of Mind,” I recognized right away that that could be a standard. “Just The Way You Are,” yeah, I felt that. I don’t know if it was something different about them or if it was just something that was substantial. I liked something about everything I wrote – well, there’s a few of them that were turkeys. I could pick them out now and make them go away if I could, but I can’t. But the ones that have lasted, that have resonated, I think I did know once they were written, “This has got some heft to it. This will have a life.” I didn’t know that “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” was going to resonate the way that it did. That was actually a combination of a number of different songs that just got smushed together, like side two of Abbey Road.

“And So It Goes,” “She’s Always A Woman,” “The Downeaster Alexa” – I always wanted to write a folk song, and I’m particularly proud of that one because it’s a real folk song, about real people. When that was done, I said, “That’s good. That one’s a good one.” “Allentown” has had a long life. Didn’t know what that was gonna be about for a long time. It originally started out as “Levittown,” and then I realized there was nothing to write about. [Singing] “Living here in Levittown, and there’s really nothing going down.” So I said, “I’ll put that away, and one of these days I’ll know what the hell that’s about.” Then I read about the steel industry. I actually played a lot in the Lehigh Valley and those areas and saw what was going on. I said, “That’s it. ‘Allentown.’” Sort of like “Jimmytown,” “Bobbytown,” it’s a real American name. To me, that’s where the real America really begins.

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