On a rain-washed summer afternoon in Oxford, England, Billy Joel walks into a room lined with wood paneling and leather-bound books to meet some student fans. Bald and stocky, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a chewy New York growl, Joel calls to mind a veteran boxing promoter with the patter of a Catskills comedian. One admirer, posing for a photograph, tells him that she has been influenced by him. “Me too,” he replies, deadpan. “My whole life I’ve been influenced by me.”
Eight days from now, Joel will play to a very different crowd: nearly 58,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. But today, he’s about to take questions from 450 students in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union, at the storied university where the list of former presidents includes three British prime ministers. Joel brings an earthier energy to the room: He tells stories, plays the occasional song to illustrate a point and cracks self-deprecating jokes, like a stand-up comic doing a routine based on the career of Billy Joel.
What makes a great cover of one of Joel’s songs? “The fact that I get paid for it.” How has the music industry changed since his recording heyday? “The fact that it’s gone.” Why won’t he write “We Didn’t Start the Fire” Part 2? “Because I don’t like Part 1 that much. And I’d have to write about Trump.” Even when a young woman on the balcony passes out, he doesn’t miss a beat. “This is a first,” he says. “I’ve never made a girl faint before.”