Billy Joel: The Life & Times Of An Angry Young Man (continued)
part twoThe Glass Houses tour, Billy's fourth extensive and extended tour in as many years, played throughout Israel and Europe during the early days of the spring of 1980, and played throughout the United States until late into the summer. In June he played another five sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in New York.
On the occasion of those shows, New York Times rock critic Robert Palmer saw fit to take some pot shots at Billy: "He has won a huge following by making emptiness seem substantial and Holiday Inn lounge schlock sound special . . . Yes, Mr. Joel has written some memorable pop melodies. Yes he's an energetic, flamboyant performer. But no, this listener can't stand him . . . He's the sort of popular artist who makes elitism seem not just defensible but necessary."
Around the same time, Billy and Elizabeth were turned down for an apartment in New York's venerable Dakota, the fortress on the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street where former Beatle guitarist John Lennon had lived and in front of which he would be gunned down by a deranged fan later that year. Other celebrities living there at the time included Roberta Flack, Lauren Bacall, and Gilda Radner.
"I was turned down for an apartment at the Dakota because I was an admitted drug user," Billy said, amazed. "In an interview I did a long time ago, I admitted I once smoked a joint before going onstage. That came up in the meeting with the Dakota board—these bankers and lawyers. We're looked at as undesirables—addicted to drugs and sex orgies. In truth, we happen to be duller than those bankers."
The board admitted this was part of the reason, along with the problem of "groupies," like the fans of John Lennon who hung out outside the apartment's gate, and "a growing feeling that there are already enough celebrities and not enough families in the building."
Billy was so upset by both the Palmer article and the piece in the Times about the Dakota board that he ripped up both onstage during the Garden shows.
However, Billy and his team realized that articles like these were symptomatic of a larger issue—how Billy was perceived. He had become a superstar in a similar way that his Long Island elder Rodney Dangerfield had—with no respect. For Rodney, however, it was part of the act. For Billy it was a problem.
As he and Columbia could afford the best, they took this problem to the most successful spinmeister in the music business at the time, Howard Bloom.
"I was an expert at taking people who had a deep, fundamental, profound validity that the press was missing," Bloom explains, "discovering that validity in every way I could, and demonstrating that validity to the press."
Through his company, the Howard Bloom Organization, he had successfully launched or transformed the careers of artists ranging from funk phenomenon Prince to blue-eyed-soul stars Daryl Hall and John Oates to heartland rocker John Mellencamp—in the latter case, a transformation that included a name change from the stage name John Cougar to his real last name.
Bloom had already had professional contact with Billy Joel, albeit indirectly. Shortly after Billy had dissociated himself from Artie Ripp, Bloom had become the head of publicity at Gulf & Western's music division. The press Billy had garnered for Cold Spring Harbor was in the files he had inherited.
"Ten years after I had worked at Gulf & Western, Billy came to me, with the following problem: First the press had loved him, then there had been a huge gap," Bloom explains. "Then he came up unexpectedly in the press and became a major hit-maker. The press doesn't like it if you become a major hit-maker without them. Their ego investment is no longer in building you; their ego investment is now tearing you down. So the press was tearing Billy down.
"The archetypal article was one in the Los Angeles Times by Robert Hilburn. It was a full, two-page spread with two face-to-face reviews. Basically it was saying that this is why I love, and you should love, this artist on the right-hand page, and on the other page was this is why you should hate this artist. Now, the artist you were supposed to love was Bob Seger. The artist you were supposed to hate was Billy Joel.
"I had to tell Billy's story at length to people. I had to take them to lunch and spend three hours talking to them, and so did Elaine Schock. In fact, the first person I had to convert was Elaine. Elaine was my publicist on the case, and Elaine was part of the press clique—publicists felt that they couldn't be good publicists if they couldn't be part of that clique. What they didn't realize was that they took on the same viewpoints as that clique, and they hated certain of their clients—Elaine hated Billy Joel. She didn't want to work with him. She hated him because she was supposed to. She was supposed to hate what Robert Hilburn hated. It took me three months to convert Elaine to Billy Joel."
"I thought I was so cool," Schock says almost sheepishly. "I mean, Billy Joel! So, Howard had to turn me into a convert, because I had been on 'the other side' ... He was able to change my mind completely. And once I was converted, I stayed."
In the early part of pleading Billy's case to influential writers, Bloom and Schock appealed to one thing they knew writers had in common, a very basic thing. Writers tended to be literary. Writers understood what separated good writing from bad writing. Most music critics, rather than coming from a music background, more often came from a literary background.
"As writers, one of the first things they look at are lyrics," says Bloom. "They judge artists, to a large extent, by the lyrics. Well, Billy Joel is one of the finest lyric writers of the twentieth century. In reality, though I love Bob Seger, and there's no reason ever to put Bob Seger down, if you compared the lyrics of Bob Seger to the lyrics of Billy Joel, it took only two and a half minutes to see that Bob Seger is an ordinary lyricist and that Billy Joel is an extraordinary lyricist. So I showed Elaine, literally, how to take one page of Billy Joel lyrics and one page of Bob Seger lyrics, lay them down next to each other, and let a person who has gone to college as an English major take a look at them. There's no contest, even though you have to spend three to four hours explaining, even though you might have to do that explaining for two years straight.
"Well, once Elaine got it, she went to Bob Hilburn. Elaine had come from California with [Rolling Stone editor] Jim Henke, so she knew Bob and the California clique. I knew the New York clique. Between us, we turned them around.
"Now, when I explained to Billy what I wanted to do at the very beginning, he glowed. He loved it."
Schock, as it turned out, would become a far more intricate (and intimate) part of Billy Joel's organization than even she realized. "I met my first husband, Jeff, at a meeting at Howard's, and as we were going over the plan, I thought Jeff was writing down what our publicity plan was. He was actually drawing my legs. I looked back and it was like, 'What!?' That was my first encounter with Jeff and the Billy Joel management team at that point, which included Jeff, Rick London, and Frank Weber."
Schock, however, was unavailable at the time, and in fact living with Henke. This gave her a major edge in reaching rock tastemakers. "Timothy White [author and frequent Rolling Stone contributor at the time] had already written this story 'The Angry Young Man,'" she recalls. "Billy hated that story. He was like, 'Everybody hates me, blah, blah, blah.' I said, 'It's because they don't know you.' We made a plan. My best friends were Rolling Stone editors, journalists, et cetera. I was living with the music editor of Rolling Stone at the time, so I knew all the critics. Billy so completely changed my mind that I knew all I had to do was bring him around to all the influential critics. I did that, and he was so charming and smart and so good that he changed their minds, including Timothy White's. I mean, Timothy White became a good buddy of his."
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