It’s April in Manhattan but winter is lingering, a fact Billy Joel notices as he looks out the window of his West Village townhouse.
Joel is mildly surprised. “Oh, my God, it’s snowing, look at this.”
Yet not much surprises Joel as he approaches his 60th birthday, taking a break from the massively successful Face 2 Face tour with Elton John.
He has sold millions of records, owns multiple box-office records, has endured personal and professional highs and lows, and has firmly secured his place in rock’n’roll history. Those who know him best say Joel’s in a good place now, although that may not always have been the case.
“It’s a different Billy I’m seeing on this tour, a very happy and contented one,” John says. “He’s always been funny, always been razor-sharp, but this is a very happy and contented Billy, and I’m very happy that he’s found that space to be in.”
Joel turns 60 May 9, a milestone he plans on marking with “a nice, big dinner, eat really good food and enjoy each other’s company. There’s not going to be any wing-ding masquerade ball, no over-the-top rock’n’roll affair, just a big family dinner.” Joel seems, in a word, comfortable. He’s generous with his time, warm and witty in his recollections and seemingly at peace. And he still doesn’t take any shit from anybody.
Do you do any kind of assessment at this point of your life and career?
I’m not a looking-back kind of person. What I’ve realized about turning 60 is I’m not just one age, I’m every age I’ve ever been. Sometimes I’m 11, sometimes 16, sometimes I’m 25, sometimes I’m 38, sometimes I’m 42, sometimes I’m in my 50s. I’m all over the place. And it comes in handy, especially in this line of work.
Growing up in Hicksville, N.Y., was being a professional musician a dream of yours?
Oh, yeah, I knew when I was a little boy I was going to have some kind of career with music, because I’ve loved music as long as I can remember. I just didn’t know what form it would take. Hicksville is just a blue-collar area, working-class people. Most people after high school went into the service, some went on to college. Being a musician wasn’t really a viable option for people from that neck of the woods.
But, we were right next to New York City, so we got all that music coming out of New York. There were always great bands coming through, great music on the radio, always something exciting in New York City.
I knew when I played my first gig in 1964, the same year the Beatles came out. I hooked up with a band [the Echoes] and played at a church dance. I just had such a blast doing it. We were making this great noise, this girl I had a crush on actually looked at me. And then at the end of the night the priest gave us each $15. I guess in 1964 that was like $15,000 to a kid that age. So I said, “That’s it. That’s what I’m doing.” And there was never any question about it after that.What kind of music did you love growing up?
I liked all music. All my life I’ve loved rock’n’roll, I’ve loved jazz, I’ve loved classical, I loved Broadway shows, blues, country, every kind of music I ever heard. And the Beatles kind of synthesized it for me when I saw these guys on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” You have to remember, the Beatles hit in America right after [President John F. Kennedy] was assassinated. JFK was killed in November of 1963, the Beatles came here in February of ’64, and this country had the blues. Especially young people. They took the young guy away from us and it was back to the old-boy network.
And when the Beatles came, we all went nuts, because they were the alternative. I saw these four guys, working-class guys, from a town called Liverpool. What a name; that’s worse than Hicksville. They weren’t made in Hollywood, they weren’t pretty boys. I mean, girls thought they were cute, but they weren’t the typical Fabian types. They wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments, they were kind of like a little gang. And I said, “This is possible, this can be done.”
Was there a healthy music scene on Long Island at the time?
There were a lot of garage bands. There were a lot of music clubs on Long Island, so there was a pretty healthy music scene, very competitive. There were bars and nightclubs, there were Sweet 16s, weddings, bar mitzvahs. This was the era of “goodfellas,” and they always had bands playing at their parties and stuff. We actually used to play for those people; we didn’t know they were connected. All we knew was they paid good and they always had booze in the house. I think they were part of the Gambino family. We were trying to make out with their daughters and stuff, not knowing we probably would have been killed had we been able to do that.
The big band in the New York area at that time was the Young Rascals—they were like our Beatles. And then there was a pecking order. You had a band like the Vagrants; Leslie West from Mountain was in the Vagrants—they were a great band. You had the Vanilla Fudge, who used to be called the Pigeons. There were the Rich Kids, the Illusion, the Hassles, which was the band I was in. It was a thriving music scene, lots of bands.
Were the Hassles any good?
Uh, no. We weren’t bad. The Echoes were pretty much a cover band; we would do jukebox songs. We did all kinds of stuff: instrumentals by the Ventures—”Apache,” “Wipeout,” “Let’s Go.” Then we would do Beatles songs, Dave Clark Five, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Zombies, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Roy Orbison, R&B music—anything that was popular, we’d play it in the Echoes. The Echoes became the Lost Souls about ’65-’66. Then I joined the Hassles in ’67, in the Summer of Love.
Were you the lead vocalist for the Echoes and the Hassles?
I was the lead vocalist for the Echoes and the Lost Souls, and then the Hassles actually had a frontman—his name was John Dizek; they called him “Little John.” Really good-looking guy, he had all the Mick Jagger moves—he was jumping around, banging the tambourine. I eventually became the lead vocalist because Little John, he was a great frontman but he wasn’t a great singer. But he was a lot better-looking than I was, so they kept me in the background and I did a lot of vocals.
The Hassles got a record deal, didn’t they?
The Hassles got signed to United Artists. We made records with the Lost Souls, too. We were signed to Mercury, we made a few singles; nothing happened with them. When I went to the Hassles, we signed with United Artists. We did two horrible albums with UA, and nothing happened with that, thank God. And then when the Hassles disintegrated it became just two guys, me and the drummer [Jon Small], and we became a heavy metal duo called Attila.
I’ve heard some Attila. It has its appeal.
Oh, God; well, maybe. There’s probably somebody out there who liked it. We were trying to be Led Zeppelin with two guys. We had an album deal with Epic; nothing happened with the album. It was terribly recorded. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were trying to be as loud as possible, destroy the world with amplification. It’s a good thing it didn’t work because I never could have continued to sing like that. I was screaming my head off, trying to do the Robert Plant thing, and play the organ and play the bass. Lot of stuff going on. And after that was when I decided I just wanted to be a songwriter.
When did you start writing songs?
I was writing songs since I was a little kid. They were kind of like ersatz Beatles tunes, kind of Merseybeat British pop tunes. Then when I was in the Hassles I was writing stuff that was more R&B-influenced, more like soul music, like Sam & Dave songs, stuff like what the Rascals were doing, that was a big influence on me. I wrote all the stuff for Attila, then I got the rock’n’roll star stuff out of me. I just wanted to be a songwriter and have other people do my stuff.
So I compiled a demo of all these songs I had written, which eventually ended up becoming the “Cold Spring Harbor” album [in 1971]. It was really not meant for me to be the singer or the recording artist. I just compiled these songs with hopes some other singer would do them. But the advice I got from the music industry was, “Make your own album.” This is the beginning of the era of the singer/songwriter.
So unwittingly I kind of got swept up in the whole singer/songwriter thing and became a recording artist and a singer. I was touring to promote this album I had done, which was supposed to be a demo tapes of songs. Kind of a backward way of becoming a pop star.
Even as you went solo and pursued the singer/songwriter thing, you always seemed to have a band mentality.
I always thought of myself as part of a band. Knowing I was going to go out and play these songs to promote the album, I recognized [that] I didn’t want to be this stand-up crooner kind of guy, I wanted to be in a band, like I always had been. I think people have this mistaken story about me playing in piano bars all my life. I only did that for six months while I was trying to get out of a bad contract that I had signed. All of my life prior to that I’d been in rock’n’roll bands, so for me it was quite natural to be in an ensemble. There are other singer/songwriters that have that same mentality, [Bruce] Springsteen, for example. He’s a songwriter but he’s part of a band. We both came from kind of the same place—New Jersey, Long Island, very similar kind of music scene going on.
When you’re trying to find your first success, do you kind of take direction from how the record label sees you?
No, not really, I never really got directed by a record label to go in any particular direction. Of course, they were always looking for hit singles. If you had a hit single like “Piano Man,” I’m sure they would have liked to have had “Piano Man II” or “The Piano Kid,” “Son of Piano Man.” But I didn’t go in that direction, I just went wherever I was going to go.
The only pressure I remember getting from the record company was about scheduling: “We need new stuff, next album, next, next, next.” I think whenever there has been a misstep in my career it’s when I put out an album that I wasn’t ready to put out. “Streetlife Serenade” [in 1974] was not a good album, I was not ready to put it out, but I got pressured to put it out. And I can hear it to this day—it’s a weak album. The same with “The Bridge” [in 1986]. There’s a live album, the Russian album [1987’s “Kohuept”], that never should have come out. That was a deal that was cooked up between my ex-manager and the record company. They figured out they could get an advance and do a little money sharing among themselves if we get Billy to put out this live Russian album, which is horrible.
When was your first national tour?
That would be “Cold Spring Harbor” in 1971.
Any memorable stories from that tour?
We didn’t make any money, nobody got paid. We were touring around in one of these little camper trailer things, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And there were these two groupies that were following us around. We really weren’t sure who they were. This was when I was signed to Artie Ripp’s label [Family Productions]. And as it turned out, these girls, their job was to follow the band around and bang the DJs so they’d play our records. They were two hookers. We thought they were groupies. But no, it was kind of a payola thing. It was quite a wake-up call to find out that’s what’s going on. That’s when I thought, “I’ve got to get out of this deal. This is really corrupt stuff.”
Would a song like “Captain Jack” get on the radio today?
I really don’t know what the state of radio is today. I was fortunate enough to be writing albums in the era of progressive FM radio, when disc jockeys could spin whatever they wanted. Even “Piano Man” was a turntable hit. It wasn’t a big record-seller, it was a big radio record. Those were the days when FM radio could create a big, big following for acts.
Look at [Jimi] Hendrix. He never had a hit single. “Purple Haze,” that was it. Look at Led Zeppelin. They didn’t have a hit single until “Whole Lotta Love”; they had a huge following. Bands like Traffic, Cream, Procol Harum, a lot of their success came from album tracks. You didn’t get typecast based on one single, which I think is problematic for a lot of acts. I think there was a good balance to people hearing album tracks as well as singles. I like stuff that’s all over the place. I need dynamics in music, not just one level of dynamic. I need soft, hard, loud, fast, slow, all that stuff.
You signed with Columbia Records and had that red label on your albums. Was that significant for you?
Oh, hell yeah. I had to get off a terrible record label I was on at the time—Family Records, a Gulf & Western distribution deal. The two labels I wanted to be on at that time were Atlantic Records, which was the hip, hard rock label, and Columbia Records, which was the label that had Bob Dylan. I met with both companies, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and Clive Davis at Columbia, and we decided we were going to go with Columbia because Columbia just seemed like more of a career-oriented company.
If you think about it, I put out “Cold Spring Harbor,” then I put out “Piano Man,” then “Streetlife Serenade,” then “Turnstiles.” “The Stranger” was the fifth album I’d recorded and I still hadn’t been dumped by my record label. And I hadn’t had a hit album. In this day and age I don’t think that could happen anymore. I don’t think there’s any patience, I don’t think there’s any budget, I don’t think radio support is there, I don’t think the A&R talent is there, I don’t even know if the audience is there anymore. This was the baby boomer generation. There’s a lot of kids listening to the radio. For an artist to be able to have four bomb albums before he has a hit and still be on a label like Columbia Records, that’s a testament to Columbia Records.
How did having a hit in “Piano Man” change your life?
“Piano Man” didn’t really propel us to any kind of new level. It wasn’t until “The Stranger” album that we really noticed the huge shift in where we were in our career. “Piano Man” got us some attention, “Captain Jack” got us some attention, “The Entertainer” grew it a little bit, [as well as] “New York State of Mind” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” It was small, small increments and career shifts. But “The Stranger” was a jump into a whole other stratosphere.
When you listen to 1976’s “Turnstiles” or “Streetlife Serenade,” do you like what you hear or would you do things differently?
Of course I would do things differently because I am different now. I wouldn’t have put out “Streetlife Serenade.” I was pushed to put that one out, and I shouldn’t have because it wasn’t ready. There are fragments of things I think are good, but not a lot of good finished stuff, execution or follow-through. Also it was done with studio musicians, and I didn’t want to work with studio musicians anymore. I wanted to work with my own road band, and there was always this battle. In fact, “Turnstiles” was the first album I did with my road band and I ended up producing, and I’m not a producer. I’m a good partnering producer when I work with somebody like Phil Ramone or Mick Jones; I have a lot of ideas. But I don’t know technically always what I should be going for.
What’s your take on the record business?
I’ve had a very good relationship with Columbia Records. There are always some key people. Clive Davis was the guy who originally signed me. Goddard Lieberson, who took over after Clive, was a very musical man. I had a lot of respect for him. When Walter Yetnikoff came in, that made a very big difference in my career as well. Walter was personally interested in my career and directed the company to help us with our budget for touring. We weren’t necessarily having hit records all the time, and Walter thought I was going to be an important artist for the label and gave us a lot of tour support.
We knew all the local promotion guys, a lot of the radio guys. We had a lot of good relationships with local radio, depending on where we were playing. And we knew all the local record company people. Record companies were big, big organizations in those days. There were a lot of people working at record companies. A&R people, radio and record people, promotion guys, record company executives, art department people. We knew them all. They had a job just like we did, and everybody got along pretty well. We were making it up as we were going along in those days.
Did you generally have a positive experience with concert promoters?
It was sort of like we were all in the same boat. If business wasn’t good for you, it wasn’t good for the promoters. These were the days of independent promoters, and sometimes they took a bath. But if they stayed with you, you tried to develop a loyalty for them, because they took a chance on you, and if you came through, you went back to the same promoter again. It wasn’t all about dollars and cents. A lot of it was about building careers.
Is loyalty a trait you admire?
Yes. I tend to be loyal to a fault. Sometimes I stay with people when it’s gone beyond the point where I should have been loyal, like my ex-managers. And some musicians that I’ve worked with weren’t really doing the job, but I stuck with them. I put a lot of value on loyalty, on spending time with people and putting effort into things.
It’s been a while since you went into the studio. Are you writing or planning on recording?
Well, I never stopped writing music. I’m just writing a different kind of music now. I’m writing instrumental music and thematic music. To what end, I really don’t know. It may end up being a movie score, some of it could be symphonic, it could end up being songs. I’m writing themes. I’m just not writing songs like I used to. I stopped writing songs back in the early ’90s. I’m not really interested in songwriting these days, I’m interested in music writing. I’m much more comfortable with a more abstract form of writing. I like the idea of music speaking for itself.
I kind of rediscovered classical music. Back in the early ’90s I was listening to the Beethoven symphonies and that had such incredible impact on me, recognizing that this music is just so evocative and so well-written and well-composed, so emotional and moving. I wanted to try and do that. Not that I could ever be Beethoven. But I was going to try and give it a shot.
When you were writing songs did you write the music first?
Always. I think the one time I didn’t write the music first was “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and I think it shows, because it’s terrible musically. It’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head.
What do you take the most pride in: singer, songwriter, performer, musician?
The hardest part of the job is to write. That’s what it all comes down to as far as taking the most pride in, the composing of the music. And then the next thing would be as a piano player. I think being a good musician is very important. As a singer, I’ve never thought much of my own voice. I’m always trying to mess with my voice and sound different than I actually do because I don’t like my voice. I think a lot of singers are like that. Everybody wants to sound like Ray Charles.
And as a performer I take a great amount of professional pride in delivering a good performance. I still can’t believe I’m 60 years old this year and I’m still able to do this crazy-ass job. That’s a real honor. I thought there was a mandatory retirement: When you’re 40, get out.
You were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Was that important to you?
Well, there’s no softball. There’s no picnics. No Fourth of July barbecue. I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—what do we get? No horseback riding, football, golf? Nope, you’re just kind of in there. I’m happy about it for the people who work for me because I think it’s very important to them. A lot of these people have been working with me for years and years and I’m happy for them.
Do you care what critics say about you?
You want to get a good review. When I got criticized for something that wasn’t correct, a misperception, that kind of bugged me. If somebody doesn’t like my music, that’s fair enough—everybody’s entitled to like or not like whatever they want. It was just when I was accused for doing things for monetary interests or to have a hit single, as if it was all this calculated machine. I never got that. I don’t work like that. If you’re going to not like what I do, don’t like it for the right reasons. Don’t dislike it because of a misperception you have. At least do your homework.
But I made more out of bad reviews than I probably should have. Most of the reviews actually were good. If there was one bad one, I’d go up onstage and go off on him—”Did you see what this guy wrote?” Of course, everybody started paying attention to that when I made a big deal about it. You don’t make any friends like that. What’s the old expression? “You don’t get into a pissing war with people who order urine by the barrel.” A lot of it was self-manufactured, but that’s my neighborhood, that’s where I come from. Somebody smacks, you smack them right back. We don’t turn the other cheek in New York.
Dating back to the ’70s you always ended shows saying, “Don’t take any shit from anybody.” What does that say about you?
I don’t know, maybe I got a chip on my shoulder or something. That may be a Long Island thing, too, because people in the city always tend to look down on Long Island. We’re the country bumpkins. So you sort of have a defensive attitude. And sometimes that’s OK, it’s a motivator. It kind of keeps you going, keeps you edgy. “Don’t take any shit from anybody.” I still believe that.
Do you remember what you did for your 30th birthday?
I was at home. I was married to my first wife, we had a big fight, and she threw all my friends out. I had a jukebox and I wanted to play every song on the jukebox that I got for my 30th birthday. She told everybody to leave and we had a big argument. I got into a real funk and I just sat down in my basement on my 30th birthday. That’s what I did.
I didn’t mean to bring up any bad memories for you.
Oh, that’s OK. It’s kind of funny in retrospect.
Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge now?
Everybody I’ve ever worked with. The promoters, the record company people, the musicians, the roadies. Everybody. And the people that stayed with us. The people that kept coming to the shows, the people that bought all those records. They’re all part of the family, too.
Do you see a time when you’ll quit?
I don’t think there will ever be a time when I stop being a musician. Possibly not being a performer, possibly not recording anymore, but I will always be a musician.