Backstage With Billy Joel: The Billboard Cover Story Interview (Exclusive)

Myrna Suarez

Billie Joel performs at Madison Square Garden on January 27, 2014

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.

Billy Joel Wows In Madison Square Garden 'Franchise' Debut

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

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.

Billy Joel Wows In Madison Square Garden 'Franchise' Debut

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.