Billy Joel Restarts The Fire

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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The trip to Russia has probably your most celebrated onstage freakout, trashing the piano. It’s still a YouTube favorite: “Watch Billy go nuts onstage!”

That’s cool. The funny thing is, I must have trashed that piano a dozen times before I even went to Russia. When the thing didn’t work, I would just try to get the audience’s attention and go, “It’s not working, it’s not working.” Bam! And I’d flip it. I used to have three of those pianos because I would break one every couple of weeks. If you’re just saying something, they don’t think it’s critical, but if you throw the piano, it gets their attention.

The kids in Russia were excited about that. As we were leaving, I saw some kids go, “This was great. What are you going to trash at the next show?” Because an instrument to them was so precious. They thought, “These Americans, they’re so extravagant! They break their instruments.” They loved it. They thought it was part of the show. I just hope people understand why I did it. They were lighting the audience and the audience was freezing. As soon as the lights went on, they were paranoid. They didn’t want to be seen. I went, “Stop lighting the audience.” It was fun. I think that piano is hanging in the Hard Rock Cafe, and it says “Trashed in the USSR.”

At this stage, is there anybody that you look at as a model? Somebody that makes you think, they know how to do this right, grow up gracefully and keep making music the way that I’m interested in doing it?

Well, George Gershwin is a good paradigm for me. He wrote beautiful compositions, he wrote pop music, he wrote Broadway shows, tunes, and he kind of brought blues into the opera house. Leonard Bernstein was a great musician. He’s a good example. I like people who don’t confine themselves to one genre and keep it interesting. They move along. They’re restless. I don’t know if anybody is the blueprint for me at this point, but the names I mentioned would be good ones.

When you look at your contemporaries who still write, record, tour, are still on the treadmill, are you jealous that they’ve still got the fever for it, or do you think “Those poor suckers?”

I admire the fact that they still feel they have something to say. I think I got to a point in my life where I was like, “Okay, I’ve said what I had to say. I’ve shot my mouth off enough, I’ve had great opportunity, shut up already. Go do something else.”

Sting is a restless spirit. He’s a great musician, working in different mediums. I admire that. Guys like Elvis Costello, who try on all these different genres of music. I admire that. I don’t think I’m jealous; I tip my hat to them.

I’ve had kind of a running disagreement with Elton. “Why don’t you put out more albums?” And I’d say, “Why don’t you put out less albums?” Unless I feel I have something really substantial to add, I don’t feel that I have to keep churning it out like cheese. If you have nothing to say, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. That’s a lesson more people in the world need to learn.

This article appears in our May/June 2014 issue. Buy it here or download it here. Or better yet, subscribe

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