Book Review: Billy Joel Biography Contains Lots of Juice But Many Skeletons Stay Closeted
One of the most anticipated rock bios of the year, Billy Joel comes with a backstory almost as complicated as the 65-year-old hitmaker's life. Joel originally brought in Fred Schruers, a respected Rolling Stone alum, to co-author a memoir with him, for which the singer got a reported $3 million advance. In March 2011, with publication just weeks away, Joel bailed, saying he was "not all that interested in talking about the past." Speculation about the reasons ran rampant in the press. Some said it was because the memoir was too candid; others said it was not candid enough. But, in a surprising twist, Joel allowed Schruers to write a book about him using the existing research. (Celebrity co-authors generally sign contracts preventing them from disclosing what they learn in other projects.)
The resulting volume, based on more than 100 hours of conversation with Joel and interviews with dozens of friends and family members, does little to solve the mystery. There's plenty of embarrassing material here, from Joel's suicide attempts to his struggles with alcohol to his three failed marriages and longtime financial problems -- all of it narrated with the singer's own words -- but nothing not found in your average episode of Behind the Music. The private Joel comes across as a brilliant musician but a lonely and self-destructive, though not entirely unlikable, man.
The two main threads in his life are music and women. Schruers' account of Joel's 1970s rise is fantastic, rich in anecdotes about the origins of different songs. The business side of his career is a cautionary tale for aspiring musicians, with its assortment of greedy managers and unfair contracts.
But women have been Joel's real undoing. He always seems to be falling in love, screwing up a relationship or getting over a broken heart. Schruers is great at connecting how love both inspired some of Joel's best work and led to a creative collapse in the '90s. Joel wrote "She's Got a Way" about first wife Elizabeth Weber and "Uptown Girl" about second wife Christie Brinkley, but the toll of the bad marriages sapped his productivity. As Joel observed, "It's the innocence that goes first -- at least it did for me -- and then the confidence."
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.