Half a century into his career, Billy Joel has taken on a game-changing residency at Madison Square Garden. In a wide-ranging interview, Joel talks about why his career endures, and where it's going
Some 20 years since he released his last album of new songs, Billy Joel, who marks his 50th year as a professional entertainer in 2014, is enjoying a career resurgence.Demand for his live performances has never been hotter, with Joel set to play stadiums and arenas coast-to-coast this year. In December, Joel was feted at Kennedy Center Honors, and "Billy Joel: A Matter of Trust—The Bridge To Russia," a documentary on the artist's groundbreaking 1987 trip to the former Soviet Union, debuted on Showtime Jan. 31.
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And then there is Joel's precedent-setting run at Madison Square Garden, with "Billy Joel at The Garden" named a "franchise" at the arena for an open-ended slate of shows that began Jan. 27. The nine shows announced so far are all sold out, as are dates at such venues as Wrigley Field in Chicago, Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., and a three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl, among many others.
Joel spoke with Billboard in a wide-ranging interview that covers everything from the enduring nature of his catalog, to what he's been writing lately, and breaking the Beethoven code.
Billboard: The last time I saw you was in Nashville at Vanderbilt University as part of your Questions & Answers lecture series.
Billy Joel: Oh, yeah, that ended up going all viral. (Joel is referring to Vandy student Michael Pollack being invited to the stage to accompany Joel on "New York State of Mind," a moment that made national news.)
As you said, the kid had some chops, huh?
Yeah, he was good.
I was shocked, first that you invited him to come on up in the first place, and secondly that he could play so well.
Well, that happened to be one of the times where something like that happens. I've been doing these, jeez, for over 30 years now, those Master Classes. People come up, sometimes they're good, sometimes they're not so good.
Your great response, as I recall, was, 'and that's how you get to be a horn player in New York City,' responding to an earlier question.
Oh, yeah, that's right. (laughs).
I'm curious why you would do those engagements, because there are so many arenas and stadiums that would like to take advantage of your visit to a particular market, for presumably a much nicer payday. Why is that important to you?
When I first started I didn't know a lot about the job, so I kinda had to figure it out by wire, ya know? It was hit and miss, I made mistakes, and fortunately I was able to recover from most of 'em. But I promised myself if I ever get to a point where I can help somebody that's trying to learn how to do this, that I would try to do that. I always wanted to try to be a teacher even before I was in the music business. I liked history, and good teachers made an impact on me. It was actually a teacher in my high school that first told me that I should consider being a professional musician. That changed my life, I'd never heard that from an adult. Most people you'd tell "I'm gonna be a musician," they'd say, "you're crazy, you're gonna starve, you're gonna be poor, a drug addict, go to jail, you'll never make it, there's too much competition, it's a terrible business," etc. But my chorus teacher in high school said, "you've got what it takes to be a really good professional musician, you should consider it." That was an epiphany for me. So I thought, well, maybe I can help somebody, too.
You say you made a lot of mistakes. Clearly it worked out, but name one.
The first mistake was signing contracts without a lawyer. (laughs). But I picked a good job, that's for sure.
What would you be doing if you didn't have this job?
Probably something with music. I didn't graduate high school, so I never got a teacher's education, I'm mostly self-read, self-taught. I always loved music, so I would probably either be in a band with another group of people, or an arranger, a producer, a musicologist, a music history guy, something to do with music. Either that, or I would probably be in jail. Or dead.
I've never noticed a tendency toward criminality.
No, but if you're a very unfulfilled person you might have a tendency to turn to crime.
That might be true. I think you're right saying you'd be in a band, because, at least from a live standpoint, and to a certain extent in the studio, you always approached it as a band thing.
I always think of myself as being in a band. I know it's called "Billy Joel," I'm the guy out front singing, I do the writing -- or I did the writing, anyway. But I always feel like when we're on stage it's a band effort, and I was always in bands all through my teenage years. People always think I was just playing in a piano bar, [but] I only did that for about six months. The rest of the time I was playing in bands. One of my fantasies was always wouldn't it be cool if I was just in a blues band playing Hammond B3, with the shades, sitting in the back, and let somebody else be out front making a fool out of themselves?
I'm pretty sure you could pull that off.
Yeah, I sit in once in a while. I've done some recording where I just played organ. That's my favorite axe, actually, when I was a teenager that was my ax, the Hammond B3.
Attila [Joel's short-lived 1970 metal duo] wasn't a blues band.
No, that was more of a black band. Heh. Very dark and very bad. You've listened to that?
Yeah, it was on one of your boxed sets.
It was? Oh my God, they'll put out anything these days. I keep seeing these compilations, I don't authorize these things. It's all Sony, or these little indie labels that find twigs and stems somewhere. As far as I'm concerned, the last album I put out was the piano pieces, "Fantasies & Delusions" (in 2001), but they keep putting stuff out. "The Greatest," "The Best," "The Essential," "The Ultimate," "We Really Mean It This Time," c'mon, people think I'm doing it. I ain't doin' it.
I believe the last one was the Valentine collection.
Oh, that was my big night there: "Billy Joel Loooove Songs."
A lot of people probably got laid to that album.
Well, I hope so. I hope some good came out of it (laughs).
It wasn't Attila obviously, but when did your career start to feel real to you, "I'm getting traction, this is gonna work."
I started just concentrating on songwriting when I was abut 20; I'd been in rock bands six or seven years, kinda got that out of my system, I said, "ok, you ain't gonna be a rock star, you don't look like a rock star, it probably ain't gonna happen. So what you should do is write songs and maybe other people will do your songs." I just felt like I had something to write, and the advice I got from the music business people that I knew was, "ok, now you should probably make an album of your songs." Get a record deal, make an album. This just happened to coincide with the era of the singer/songwriter. You had James Taylor, Jackson Browne, JD Souther, Joni Mitchell, singer/songwriters. So I got a record deal—a terrible record deal—made a record, and then the advice I got was, "now you should go out on the road and perform and support the album." There I was still 20 years old, so I went out on tours, didn't get paid nothin', but played, and it kinda turned into this "Billy Joel pop star/rock star guy," which to this day is still kinda funny to me, because that's not at all what I set out to do. I'm not gonna disown it, it's the best job I ever had, but it ended up happening kind of randomly.
So the way through the door was the songwriting, and you had the piano chops.
Yeah, and I put together a band, they were pretty good, we'd go out on the road and get pretty good response. We played these little clubs, record conventions, colleges, and all of a sudden it started becoming an act. You get on stage and open up for enough hard rock bands doing your little folkie songs, people start yelling at you to get off the stage, you start developing a little stage presence. We opened up for the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers, J. Geils Band, full-tilt boogie bands. We knew we had to come up with some more dynamic material, and it just developed. After a while, we started getting thrown off the bill because we started doing better than the headliners.
You had to be cool to know about Billy Joel at that point.
Well, there was that moment I was actually cool. It didn't last too long, but everybody got that moment. All of a sudden, "he's the hot lick." It doesn't last, but we had fun doing it. We just got better and better and better, the band got better, we became headliners, and all of a sudden boom, there it was. I remember we were opening up for the Doobie Brothers in 1977, "The Stranger" had come out, but it wasn't an instant hit, it took a while to get some traction. "Just the Way You Are" was starting to become a hit, and we almost didn't play it because the Doobie Brothers had a boogie crowd, nobody's gonna pay attention anyway. But we did the song, and the place went insane, "that's the guy who does that song!" We all looked at each other, "what the hell is that about?" then we realized we were starting to get some airplay. From then on it was up and up and up.
What are you most confident in musically?
I'm a piano player. I never thought of myself as a singer, at all. I was always trying to sound like somebody else. I don't like my own voice, I like Ray Charles, Robert Plant, I like Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, people that have an edge in their voice. I happened to sing in tune, I hope, but I always thought of myself as the piano player in the band. That, I suppose, I'm confident about, and I guess my songwriting developed as I went along and I got a certain amount of confidence in that. The songs are like my kids, I'm proud of all of them for one reason or another.
You've been quoted as saying you wanted to write songs that transcended their time. I would think them being featured on "Glee" would be an example of that.
Those songs are out there now making their own money, they don't need dad any more. Which I kinda like, it's like, "alright kids, get outta the house, make a living, don't depend on Dad." The other night at the Kennedy Center I saw a completely different group of people doing my stuff, I never really imagined my stuff being done by such a variety of different artists. I'm proud of my kids, they're not living in the basement any more.
Attila songs may still be in the basement.
I don't think you'll be seeing any of them. They're probably living in a crack house.
You mentioned Kennedy Center Honors, what was that like for you?
That was a really moving experience. You just sat there and one thing after another is happening. The State Department gives you the award, you meet the President and First Lady, they're saying all these nice, effusive words about you. People come up shaking your hand, I didn't have to do nothin'. I didn't have to do a speech, I just sat there. There's Tony Bennett talking about me. It's funny, I go to places and people say, "you were great at the Kennedy Center Honors," and I say "but I didn't do anything. I just sat there." So it was an easy job.
ON THE NEXT PAGE: Talking MSG Residency, Deep Cuts and What He's Been Writing These Days