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
How was the concept of the Garden franchise presented to you, and what did you like about it?
I hadn't really done a tour since 2010, I was still working with Elton, and the last gig we did was in March of 2010 in Albany. I was in a horrendous amount of pain, I had hip dysplasia in both hips, I could hardly walk. I just had to get off the road. Finally, I got it diagnosed correctly, something I've had all my life that had been misdiagnosed for years and years. So I had the surgery, which takes quite a bit of time to get over. They gave me the option of doing one hip at a time, agony for three months, then again when you do the other one. I said, "just hit me, get it over with." So it took half a year to recover from, learn to walk, do a lot of therapy, get back to being mobile again. I thought I needed a little time off to recover, so didn't go back to work for three years. I played Jazzfest in New Orleans in 2012, a one-off in Australia at some bizarre festival in Sydney, I didn't really start thinking about working again until I played at the 12-12-12 concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief at the Garden. Everybody's there, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, the Who, Paul McCartney, a who's who of classic rock and roll. We went on toward the end of the show and did about four or five songs, walked off, we didn't think we were anything special. But after that, people just kept saying, "you guys stole the show!" Wha? I've played Garden before, I thought a lot better than that, but then we got a whole lot of inquiries about gigging again. The Garden contacted my agent Dennis Arfa and said we'd like to do a series of shows with Billy Joel at the Garden. They didn't refer to it as a franchise at first, it was a residency. I heard that and thought, "hmm, that's kinda cool. People talk about a residency in Las Vegas or Branson, Mo., but then you gotta live there. I started thinking, "my gig's at the Garden, all I gotta do is commute." I guess they looked at the ticket demand once it was announced and thought, "wait a minute, this guy can keep playing here for the rest of his natural life." I thought, "I'm gonna be 65 next year, am I gonna be able to do this?" But once a month isn't bad. At the press conference at the Garden to announce this I didn't fully realize what it was until they unrolled this logo which says "Billy Joel at the Garden." It's got it's own logo, next to the Knicks, the Rangers, the Liberty women's basketball team, and Billy Joel At The Garden, and all of a sudden it hit me, holy crap, that's a franchise. Of course, we are doing other gigs, because I gotta feed the elephant, ya know?
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How are you approaching the set lists?
At first I thought maybe I can feature a different album every night. The problem is that takes up a whole lot of time in a show doing an entire album. And, as much as I'd like to do a whole album, there's strong points and there's weak points in doing that. What if we just feature songs from albums that we haven't done for a long time, because people seem to want to hear a lot of the deep cuts. We get kind of a mix with our audience, at a couple gigs we've played at this point, there's people that come that just want to hear the hits, and then there's people that just want to hear the deep cuts, so we've gotta mix it up all the time. I don't think we'll ever do the same show twice. We'll keep rotating a lot of the obscure album tracks, and the ones that seem to resonate most with the audience we might do more often. I'm gonna keep trying out obscurities we haven't done for years and years, because I actually like those ones better than the hits.
I understand you've been throwing in some pretty deep cuts on your shows this year, so for long time fans that's probably pretty cool.
We're enjoying it. Every time I take out a song we haven't done in a while, after the song is over we look at each other and go, "that was pretty good." We want to have fun, too. There's a balance you've got to strike between a certain amount of songs people are familiar with, but also some songs they may not be familiar with, and it takes the performance to make it work.
You really seem to connect on a different level with the audiences in New York.
That's really where I started. When I was starting out, I was playing in Greenwich Village at all those little folk clubs, the Bitter End, the Gaslight, Top of the Gate, all those clubs back in the late '60s, early '70s where a lot of artists cut their teeth: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. That's where I kind of made my bones, and I always was able to go back to New York and play in different venues, I must have played every venue there is in Manhattan and the New York area. Yeah, I guess there's a definite bond between me and other people in the area.
I've seen the shows, even the cops are singing along.
Yeah, they know all the lyrics. They pull up next to me in a police car and start singing out the window.
You did your first show at the Garden in 1978, has your rider changed since then?
Not much. We have a pretty simple rider. Throw some cold cuts in there, a couple sodas, a few beers, and some popcorn, and I think that's about it for me. I've been to Elton's dressing room, I know he's got one hell of a rider, it's like the grandeur that was Rome when you go to his dressing room. He says my dressing room looks like the back of a deli. But what do I need? I don't need that much. You can't eat before you go on stage, you gotta go on hungry. Another thing I get asked is "do you have a ritual, what do you do before you go on stage?" I walk from the dressing room to the stage, that's the ritual. "What do you do to get psyched up?" Who's gotta get psyched up? You walk up to the stage, the lights go up and the crowd [screams], then you get psyched up. It really hasn't changed that much. Honestly, I think I was a hell of a lot better when I was younger, but we must have something going on. In some ways, I like my voice better now, it's kind of thickened out, and I'm more of a baritone than a tenor these days. I'm singing a lot of the songs pretty much in the same key. I lowered a couple, but those songs are up there, and I kinda like being a baritone now.
I heard you say about when you started, "in an era of incompetence, if you're competent, you're extraordinary." But, really, a lot of those bands, including yours, were very good performers, they toured hard, and that's why so many of them have careers today.
That's true, there is a craft to it. There's an athleticism to it. There's also learning how to do it right. I think craft has kinda been given short shrift for a couple of years. If you knew your craft, you were [considered] too studied, there was something clinical about it, or it wasn't spontaneous or real, or it wasn't authentic, which I always thought was bullshit. If you're gonna do something, do it really well, do it 100%, really try to do it the best you can and I think that's what happened with a lot of what they call classic rock acts. They just did it and did it and did it and learned how to really do it as best as it can be done.
I believe sometimes when an act blows up and is touring at the arena level before honing that craft you talk about, it shows.
That's true. There are all kinds of gimmicks and technical stuff you can use to correct what you don't do right, but if you rely on things and then they don't work, what are you gonna do? You're screwed. Sometimes people don't even sing, they're taped. Sometimes there's a lot of special effects on stage, what happens if that particular set of lighting doesn't work, or there's a problem with the PA system? You've got to know how to keep the show going. People pay a lot of money to go see shows now, they don't wanna know about your technical problems, or if you're not feeling good, they don't wanna know we have a glitch. It's their night, you better do something to earn that money.
The industry is now led by the live business in many ways, which is the reverse of when you started, when records ruled the day.
Think about it, before there was any recording at all, before the technology was even invented, you had performances, that was the state of the art. You had people going on a Broadway stage, or doing classical music, or virtuoso musicians going up on a stage and playing their thing, and people always went for that, they always liked it. Recording made it possible to put lightning in a bottle, but people were still wanting to see the real deal. And I think that's what separates the men from the boys: when you go out on stage, you've got to be able to do it. You can't fake that.
In history of humankind, recorded music is just a blip on the radar screen.
That's it, it's just a tiny part of that history.
That would seem to play in favor of a guy like you who can do it live. You're clearly not dependent on putting out new albums or being on the radio to go out there and make a good living.
Touring was always something we relied on. You can have hit records, but you're not going to stay at the top always. People have ups and downs, you can look at it on a graph, but if you're good live, you can keep doing it. You can make a nice living out of it, a career out of it.
What is the measure of success now for you?
It still goes back to the mutual respect other musicians have. The people I work with, the guys in the band thinking you did a good job, being proud of each other, and getting a kick out of each other. The same with my roadies, the people who set up the equipment, set up the lights, do the sound, the staging. They're real proud to be working with us, they'd probably tell anybody they'd rather work with us than any other band. The "esprit de corps" is there, we're kinda like a military unit. We go in and we do the job, and afterwards you're proud of the job you did. That's real success to me, when you've enjoyed what you did. Look, the money's great, I've had other jobs and this pays better than any other job I've ever had. But I think it's more about the respect and the pride that comes with having done a good job, and the audience walking out of there really happy with what they heard, making a lot of noise. I've always said about 50% of what happens at a concert has to do with the audience. If you play for a dead audience you're gonna stink. If we play for a great crowd we're much better. You want 'em to make noise. It's kinda like sex, if they don't make noise, you ain't doin' it right.
There's a pretty chill vibe backstage at your show.
These guys are all road dogs, all veterans, they've been doing it for years and years, they've worked for everybody. There' a good spirit on this tour, and good morale is really important. We never sell front rows, we hold those tickets at just about every concert. For years, the scalpers got the tickets and would scalp the front row for ridiculous amounts of money. Our tickets are cheap, under $100, some in the $80s, the highest is about $150. I'd look down and see rich people sitting there, I call 'em "gold chainers." Sitting there puffing on a cigar, "entertain me, piano man." They don't stand up, make noise, sit there with their bouffant haired girlfriend lookin' like a big shot. I kinda got sick of that, who the hell are these people, where are the real fans? It turns out the real fans were always in the back of the room in the worst seats. We now hold those tickets, and I send my road crew out to the back of the room when the audience comes in and they get people from the worst seats and bring 'em in to the front rows. This way you've got people in the front row that are really happy to be there, real fans. We've tried to figure out how to beat the scalpers for years and years, hold off selling until the last minute, the wristband thing, limiting the amount of tickets people can get. You can't fight that secondary market. There used to be anti-scalping laws and they let them lapse from the books. My theory is there's a lot of tax revenue in those secondary ticket markets, these guys selling tickets for $500 to $1,000 gotta pay tax on it, and a lot more goes to government than there would be based on my ticket prices. So why should they enforce the scalping laws. We don't want to play to big shots, I want to play to younger people, people who can only afford a low ticket price. They make the best audience, they make the most noise, they're the most enthusiastic. It's just hard to get to them any more. I tell the audience every night, "I hope you didn't pay more than face value on that ticket, because we ain't worth more than that, and you ain't gonna get any more than that."
I imagine you get tired of being asked about when you'll release new music. Are you writing?
I never stopped writing music, I just stopped writing songs. I've been writing music continually ever since the last album of original tunes, "River Of Dreams" in '93. I had the album of piano pieces in 2001 ("Fantasies & Delusions), and since then I've been writing instrumental music. Thematic music. Some of them could become songs, some could become movie scores, some could be symphonic pieces, some of them could be piano pieces, it's all over the place. It's just pure music, and I never stopped writing it. I've written a bunch of stuff that no one's ever heard, and I don't know if they ever will. I'm just doing it for my own edification.
You played such a piece at Vanderbilt, which you compared to the graduation music.
Yeah, like the Edward Elgar piece, "Pomp & Circumstance." I've got a new appreciation for those kinds of composers. Some of the stuff I'm writing is almost like hymns, some of my first singing and choral experiences were in church, the Church of Christ in Hicksville. My first love is singing harmony, not lead. That's what I loved about the Beatles, their harmonies were so good and just the right sound. I guess I've kinda gone back to that kind of writing.
The type of pieces you suggest evoke a feeling and don't even really need lyrics.
That's how I feel about classical music, I kind of know what the composer was feeling when I hear the music. I call it "breaking the Beethoven code." He's my favorite composer, and whenever I listen to Beethoven music I go "uh-huh, I know what he was feeling like, what he was trying to convey here." It's a more abstract kind of music, but I get it, and that's what I'm more interested in these days. There's a lot of that stuff in the songs I wrote anyway, even before the words. I always wrote the music first, and the music gave me the mood and the lyrics were pretty much put in to give you a map, where that mood came from and where it's going. But my first love was really the music itself, and I guess I've gone back to that.
It has to feel good when you play the opening notes to a song and the audience goes wild. You're part of their lives.
And they're part of mine. They know all the words. Sometimes I just listen to them and shut my mouth. It's fun.