Billy Joel: The Life & Times Of An Angry Young Man (continued)

part four

Made His Move on Christie Lee

After a relatively short tour that culminated with a New Year's Eve performance at Madison Square Garden, Billy found himself back home. Only now the home was empty.

"I just have to get used to being on my own," he said. "I'm dating people, but I don't expect bachelorhood to change my life-style that much. I'm not Errol Flynn; I live quietly and mostly hang out with old friends. I'd make a bad playboy."

On the other hand, if he made a bad playboy, you couldn't tell it by the women he had started dating. His long-stunted rock and roll libido began to exhibit its full bloom in the wake of his divorce. It was the era of the rock star and the supermodel, of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Elvis Costello and Bebe Beull, Axl Rose and Stephanie Seymour, and on and on. Billy joined this fray with gusto. "One of the first relationships I had after I became unmarried was with Elle MacPherson when she first came to America . . . We used to go for walks and I had to lift up my arm to hold her hand..."

He decided to take a vacation, and seeing as it was the middle of winter in New York, he booked a cruise to the Caribbean, where he could get some sun, relax, and perhaps plan his next move. As the old Yiddish saying goes, man plans, God laughs. Before he even set foot on the boat, he met supermodel Christie Brinkley.

Brinkley was dealing with some heartache of her own. Her longtime flame, Oliver Chandon, of the Moet et Chandon Chandons, had recently been killed in a car-racing accident. Like Billy, she took the cruise to get away and get some relaxation and perspective. They met at the airport as they waited for the plane that would take them to the ship's port of debarkation.

"I saw her getting on a plane to go to this island in the Caribbean," Billy recalls. "I said, 'That's Christie Brinkley!' I recognized her immediately and tried to get her to recognize me."

This act of "trying to get her to recognize" him demonstrated a quantum leap from the Billy Joel who once claimed he had only two friends in high school. Billy Joel approaching a supermodel showed that, despite protestations to the contrary, he was beginning to be comfortable with at least the perks of being a superstar. While he couldn't go to Yankee Stadium anymore, he could realistically approach a famous and beautiful woman without a surety of being shot down.

It turned out that she was on the same plane as Billy because she was going on the same cruise as Billy. Billy discovered this when he ran into her again several days later. This time—shades of Virginia Callaghan—she did notice him because he was doing the thing that made him most notable, making music.

"I started playing a piano in a lounge," he recalled. "There were these three women who started watching me. It turned out to be Elle MacPherson, Whitney Houston, and Christie . . . Whitney was this annoying sixteen-year-old model who kept telling me 'Let me sing' and I kept telling her to shut up."

Eventually, on that cruise he hooked up in the aforementioned relationship with MacPherson. However, that evening when he finished, he and Brinkley started talking. Billy was smitten. Christie, still on the mend from a tragedy, was not ready to enter into anything.

"We were friends first," Billy says. "I was nuts about her, but it took her a while to reciprocate."

"[Billy was] a strong support for me," Christie adds. "It's his heart and soul, you know, that made me want to marry him."

Billy was overjoyed. When they started dating seriously, several months after the cruise, he and Christie would check into hotels as Rocky and Sandy Beach. In the blush of the new relationship, Billy started working on his next album. He called his publicist and adviser Howard Bloom and invited him to brunch to talk about it.

"I met him at the apartment," Bloom recalls, the apartment being Billy's pied-à-terre in one of the hotels on New York City's tony Central Park South. "We were going to go down to Rumplemayer's. He had this black-and-white marble student notebook. He said, 'The most amazing thing happened to me last night. I have to tell you about it over breakfast.' This was the tale:

"'In Long Island, when I was growing up, I always thought of girls as "broads." You had nothing to talk about, you had nothing in common with them. You just told them anything you thought they wanted to hear in order to score. Girls were there to score. Girls were there basically as trophies, so you could go back to the boys hanging out, the whole idea was that it wasn't sleeping with the girl that mattered, it was coming back and saying, "Hey, I scored. I got that girl last night." But you never talked to them. They were a different species. It's just like they were living on a different planet.' Billy was explaining this. These are my words, not his.

"He said, 'I met this girl. I could talk to her. She wasn't like the broads on Long Island, she was intelligent, and we talked all night long. We talked until four o'clock in the morning. And you know what I did between four o'clock and now?' And he handed me the notebook and opened it. He had a complete album of songs. Billy Joel, the man who used to pace in his music room out in Long Island, in this big house overlooking the water, facing the piano, and agonized by the fact that everything he wrote was derivative, agonized by the fact that he couldn't come up with a song, had written an entire album after he had met this incredible woman, Christie Brinkley.

"The difficulty was that, it was the first time in his life that Billy Joel had been totally derivative. Now, one day I had been with Billy out at the house in Long Island, and he said, 'You have no idea how hard it is for me to write songs. It's a terrible experience. I have to lock myself in a room with a piano, and I pace back and forth, and I'm tortured. And the songs come out of me with such difficulty. And I'll tell you something about my songs, every one of them disappoints me. They're all derivative.'

"When he said that, I went into a little shock, and basically said the kind of things that I was saying to the press: 'Billy, you have no idea what you're doing. Of course it's derivative. Everything is derivative. Everything has roots, but your stuff is brilliantly original. And here's why.' I don't think there was anyone else around to tell him that in really credible ways.

"So I was shocked, because everything he wrote on that album was a cliché. Obviously there's something about this album that I don't know, that I don't understand, because the album sold four million copies, right off the bat. What was Billy giving to people with 'Uptown Girl'? What am I missing?"

What Bloom seemed to miss was that Billy was practically giddy and so was the album, An Innocent Man. The songs he wrote were an homage to all of the pop music he had grown up with. He had tributes to a cappella doo-wop, a note-perfect Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons tribute, and liberal tastes of Stax Soul, Little Richard, Motown, the Righteous Brothers, and the Drifters. It was the Billy Joel rock 'n' roll review, and there was so much joy in the disc, it practically exploded out of the package.

"I decided I wanted to have as much fun as I could have, and I wanted it to sound like I was having fun," Billy says. "It doesn't really ape anything. It just feels like it. There actually isn't a standard chord progression in the LP. It's musically pretty complex. The challenging thing for me was making it feel so simple.

"On every album I adopt a different sort of character, and the character on this album is sort of a sweet person who is in love and feeling good. It's a guy enjoying the courtship rituals—making out, dating, slow dancing—and the insecurities that go with it—the gamut of passions that come with romance. I wrote ten songs in about seven weeks, which I've never done before. It just came pouring out of me."

The album was clearly the work of someone in love, but more than that, it was the work of a more mature person and artist. Billy was now thirty-four years old. He was eighteen when he had met Elizabeth. This was also the '80s, and the rules of relationships had changed. Technically, Billy was still married to Elizabeth (the divorce wouldn't be final until 1984), and for a while he kept the relationship low key, but the first single off the album, "Tell Her About It," was full of the new rules of romance.

"You should communicate your feelings to somebody you're in love with," he advised "despite the insecurity that brings."

The song topped the Billboard Pop Singles chart as well as the Adult Contemporary chart. Another of the Adult Contemporary chart toppers, as well as a Top 30 pop hit, "Leave a Tender Moment Alone" was a companion piece to "Tell Her About It." Together they formed a sort of musical yin and yang of songs about relationships.

"You say something really tender and affectionate and a part of you thinks 'I don't believe I said something that corny,'" Billy says, "so ... you've got to make some kind of humorous comment to cover yourself."

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