Billy Joel on Not Working and Not Giving Up Drinking
Billy Joel in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with his pug, Sabrina.
Interview by ANDREW GOLDMAN
Billy Joel hasn’t put out an album of new songs in decades, but the last few years have brought about a burnishing of his musical legacy. Most recently, he stole the show at the 12-12-12 Sandy relief concert – “You May Be Right”, no trifling feat considering he shared the stage with the Who, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. His set, characterized by remarkably robust vocals and a tight backing band, allowed songs like “Only the Good Die Young” and “You May Be Right” to be considered anew; the passage of time has cleansed the songs of any of the annoyance-factor wrought by FM overplay. A generation who never appreciated him, who judged him uncool, are now at the age at which they might actually suffer one of those heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-acks of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” Even the haters, grown up now, would have a hard time continuing to begrudge Joel his mastery of songwriting.
So he doesn’t write anymore, not pop songs anyway. Instead he goes about his relatively ordinary life in plain sight in a cedar shake house in the middle of Sag Harbor village. He has a few of his vintage motorcycles in the garage, and his boat slip is within walking distance. He is seemingly never alone, spending his time in the company of his two pugs or his live-in girlfriend of three years, Alexis Roderick, a former Morgan Stanley risk officer (who he probably wishes had been alongside him in the 1970s to assess his first record deal). What he lacks in output, he more than makes up for in opinions — about his legacy, his mistakes, a rock-star life lived hard and the heroes and villains he met along the way. If the new music of many of his contemporaries is any measure, prolificness is an overrated quality. Once a pop genius, always a pop genius. We ought to know by now.
Andrew Goldman: You’re by no means a fogy, but you’re 64 now. When you look at other rockers your age, how do you think you’re faring? Are there other guys whom you look at and think, There but for the grace of God?
Billy Joel: It was funny, because backstage at the 12-12-12 concert, nobody is a spring chicken anymore. Here comes Keith, and Keith is from the time of King Tut. Then there’s Pete Townshend and Mick and McCartney. Rocking-chair rockers. Bon Jovi is next door to me, and then Bruce is down the hall, and we kind of felt like the youngsters. But everybody is still doing it much older than I thought we would ever be. I thought there was a mandatory retirement age at 40, but then the Stones broke that barrier. Now Bruce and I are in our 60s, and the older guys are in their 70s.
A.G.: You had a double-hip replacement two years ago. I was watching old clips of you doing these jetés across the stage in the ’80s. Do you think your hip problems were from years of stage work?
B.J.: I was probably born with dysplasia. In the old days, when they took a baby out, sometimes they used forceps. I was a breech baby, so the theory was that they displaced my hips. Over the years, jumping off the piano, landing on a hard stage certainly didn’t help. Way back in the early ’70s, I used to do somersaults, flips off the piano. I would climb up the cables and hang upside down, anything to get attention. When you’re an opening act, you gotta do whatever you can. But over the years it got excruciating. I couldn’t walk at one point; I had one of those little scooter chairs, banging into furniture. By the time I finished the tour with Elton in March 2010, I was in a lot of pain, and over that year it got worse and worse and worse. I’m glad I did the surgery, because my life changed. I’m able to be ambulatory again.
A.G.: Did you have any ambivalence about touring with Elton? You were kind of pigeonholed as a pop star who plays piano the same way that he was.
B.J.: No. That was when I first started out. Elton was already established, and I came a few years after him, so there were inevitable comparisons. There weren’t that many piano players around — Leon Russell, me, Lee Michaels, one or two other guys. I met Elton in the ’70s in Amsterdam, and it was a mutual-admiration society: he liked me, I liked him and said some day we should tour together. It was left on the back burner for a good 20 years, and then one day I just said: “Why don’t we do this thing with Elton? It should be fun.” And it was, and we did it for 16 years. There’s going to be comparisons — “Oh, who’s better, Elton or Billy?” Who cares?
A.G.: Are you cool with Elton now? Basically he said that you’re not writing new songs out of fear or laziness.
B.J.: That’s his opinion. I don’t do it because I don’t wanna. He tends to shoot off his mouth — he shoots from the hip. I think his heart is in the right place. Maybe he’s trying to motivate me, to get me mad or something. He’s kind of like a mom.
A.G.: He actually kind of looks like a mom.
B.J.: Yeah, he’s got mom hair.
A.G.: Was he angry? He seemed to suggest you dropped out of shows that you had committed to doing with him.
B.J.: There was a misunderstanding — this is my theory, and I haven’t spoken to him directly about it yet. I think his booking agent told Elton that I was going to continue touring with him, and they were already counting the money to do the stadiums. But I never agreed to do it. I finished every date that I had agreed to do. When Elton heard that I wasn’t going to play, he got very bugged, very disappointed and very angry maybe.
A.G.: He also said that you hadn’t really been serious about rehab, because you went to a place where they allowed you to watch television, while he went to a place that made him scrub floors.
B.J.: He doesn’t know anything about my private life. I stayed at his house once in France. He’s a very friendly, charming man, a nice fun guy, but we really never spent much time personally together. He doesn’t really know that much about me, so I let a lot of that slide. I’d work with him again, sure.
A.G.: He’s right that you’ve written almost no pop songs since your last album, 1993’s “River of Dreams.” Why did you stop?
B.J.: I never stopped writing music. I’m still writing music — piano pieces, orchestral music, dramatic pieces — but they could become songs. Some of them are like hymns that I just don’t have words for, but I might.
A.G.: Do you miss writing popular music?
A.G.: Why not? Is it too much effort?
B.J.: No, no, no, it’s not because of the effort. I got tired of it. I got bored with it. I wanted something more abstract, I wanted to write something other than the three-minute pop tune even though that’s an art form unto itself. Gershwin was incredible, Cole Porter was incredible, Richard Rodgers, great stuff, Hoagy Carmichael and John Lennon, the three-minute symphony. For me, it was a box. I want to get out of the box. I never liked being put in a box.
A.G.: Nice box to be in.
B.J.: Very nice box to be in for a while, but then it becomes like a coffin.
A.G.: You’ve always thought of yourself as a rocker, so if I went back to 1968 and told you that songs like “Just the Way You Are” would be standards now, would you be excited?
B.J.: Yeah, sure, I’d be excited, absolutely. When the Beatles did “Yesterday,” I remember the first time I heard it. I said, “That’s a classic, that is going to be around forever.” O.K., it’s a ballad. So what? The Beatles wrote ballads; they also did rock ’n’ roll. That’s the kind of mold I put myself into. I’m not going to just stick to one kind of music, I’m going to do all kinds of music. I like it all.
A.G.: A critic once wrote that you’re “naturally inclined to write big melodies like McCartney” but that you idolize John Lennon. Do you agree?
B.J.: I idolized both of them equally. I didn’t really delineate who was writing the lyrics and who was writing the melody. I assumed it was a collaboration. When Paul would get too sweet, John would kind of sour it down, and when Paul was at a loss for a lyric, John would throw something in offhand that was sardonic. I loved the combination of the both of them.
A.G.: Do you think there’s a finite number of great songs in any one person?
B.J.: Everybody is different. Some writers can write reams of great books and then J. D. Salinger wrote just a few. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. They were all phenomenal. Mozart wrote some 40 symphonies, and they were all phenomenal. That doesn’t mean Beethoven was a lesser writer, it’s just some guys are capable of more productivity, some guys take more time. Mozart pisses me off because he’s like a naturally gifted athlete, you listen to Mozart and you go: “Of course. It all came easy to him.” Beethoven you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music. Mozart was almost inhuman, unhuman.
A.G.: Is songwriting hard for you?
B.J.: Yeah, I relate to Beethoven. I write backward — I write the music first and then I write the words. Most people write the words first and then they write the music. Keith Richards was explaining his method of songwriting. He calls it “vowel movement.” They come up with a riff, and it’s like sounds, and whatever sound . . . like “start me up” — “up” works because it has a consonant at the end of it, but if you go “take me home,” it wouldn’t have worked. I kind of subscribe to that. It has to sound right sometimes even more than being a poetic lyric. It’s a struggle to fit words onto music, and I want it to be really, really good, so I take a long time. I love having written, but I hate writing. So then I go through postpartum depression, and it’s: “Ugh, I gotta start all over again? Where am I going to get the” — what do you call it? Sitzfleisch?
A.G.: Over the years you’ve resisted being characterized as a balladeer. You recently said you were afraid that “Just the Way You Are” would become a “gloppy ballad” for weddings.
B.J.: Yeah. It ended up being that. When it’s done by a wedding band, they tend to glop it up.
A.G.: But then you came out with an album full of ballads called “She’s Got a Way,” and I wondered if you’d made peace with that notion.
B.J.: Columbia put that out. Do you know how many compilations there are that people think I put out? People think I’m doing it, and it kind of dilutes what I did in terms of the album forms. To be fair to Columbia records, I haven’t given them anything since 1993, that’s 20 years ago.
A.G.: What do you owe them?
B.J.: At this point, probably four or five regular albums. It’s indentured servitude when you sign with a record company. I don’t even own my own masters. They own the masters.
A.G.: Do you get a regular call from Columbia saying: “Billy, you’re short four albums we paid for. What do you have?”
B.J.: No, they just say, “We’d like to put out this.” What am I going to do, sue them? I can’t stop them.
A.G.: Over the years you talked a lot about being angry about how critics responded to you and would even on occasion read and rip up bad reviews onstage.
B.J.: That never went away. I read things, and I didn’t think they were fair or true. I would get my back up. There could be seven other very good reviews, but I only paid attention to the bad ones. I would say, “Did you see what this guy said about me?” Maybe it was a Long Island thing. We had a chip on our shoulder.
A.G.: Did you think that history would provide you redemption?
B.J.: I don’t know if I thought of pop music or rock ’n’ roll in terms of history, the Nixon of rock ’n’ roll. My descendants will treat me better than my contemporaries.
A.G.: Speaking of descendants, there was a video of you doing “New York State of Mind” with a Vanderbilt University freshman, Michael Pollack.
B.J.: I’ve been doing master classes at colleges all over the world. It’s for music students, mostly, and people who want to be in the music business. Pick my brain. Don’t ask me about what happened with Christie and “Uptown Girl.” Ask me about the job, how you do the job, because there was no book about it when I was starting out. I want to help people. So sometimes a kid will say, “Can I try something on the piano with you?” We used to have a gong on the stage. Sometimes somebody gets up there, and you give them about 30 seconds, and if they suck, we hit the gong. But I’ve had people come up onstage and do really terrific stuff. So this thing went viral.
A.G.: I’m not a musician, but that kid looked exceptional.
B.J.: He was a good piano player. I’m glad the video got out, because for him, he might have a shot at having a career in music now. He’s got chops, and it was all done by ear. I don’t know if you heard in the beginning of the tape, I said, “What do you play?” He goes, “Piano.” I said: “Oh. What key do you do it in?” He goes, “What key do you want it in?” Whoa, this kid’s got chutzpah.
A.G.: Two years ago, at the last minute, you pulled out of writing your memoirs. This was a big deal — like a $3 million advance from HarperCollins. The thing was all written, right?
B.J.: It wasn’t finished. Some of it hadn’t been filled out in detail, but there was a beginning, a middle and an end. Then I saw this marketing campaign — “Divorce, Depression and Drinking.” We talked about some of those things, but that’s not the essence of the book. I realized that was going to be the nature of the campaign. They wanted more sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and there’s not that much in my life. What I wanted to do was have a book that set the record straight. There’s so much misinformation about me. There have been some ersatz biographies where they talk to someone I knew for five minutes or some disgruntled members of the band. And I’d be reading these books saying: “No, no, that’s not right. You know what? I should write a book.” I wasn’t interested in doing a tell-all. I’m not going to talk about people who I was involved in relationships with. I’m just not that kind of guy.
A.G.: So the publisher actually told you, “More sex.”
B.J.: Fred Schruers, my co-writer, was submitting it. They said to Fred, “We need more of the sex and the wives and the girlfriends and drinking and divorce and the depression.” I covered it all. But I didn’t go into detail about my personal life. If they want to poke Fred with red-hot needles to get him to make up salacious details, go ahead, but I’m not going to do it. I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t know why I drank so much. I don’t subscribe to A.A., I don’t subscribe to 12-step stuff. Sometimes I just overdid it.
A.G.: What did you drink?
B.J.: I started with Dewars White Label Scotch and then, when I really got heavy into it, it was vodka. Vodka is a hard-core alky drink. I could take it in shots or I could just mix it with something. I can’t even smell the stuff anymore. It makes me sick. But it wasn’t consistent, it would be periods of time, during a divorce or something.
A.G.: So did you quit cold turkey?
B.J.: No, I have a glass of wine once in a while, and I don’t hide it. I have a glass of wine with a meal.
A.G.: A decade ago, before you entered rehab, there was a period of two years in which you had three car accidents that involved hitting inanimate objects.
B.J.: The first accident, there was no booze involved. And I didn’t hit a tree. It’s these really dark roads back up here at night. The car went off the road and into a mud rut. I had gone through a breakup and was really broken up about it, and I decided I’m drinking too much. I should go to rehab. But people made a connection, like, “Oh, he went there because he was in a car accident from drinking.” No. The second accident was over here on the way out of town. It’s called Dead Man’s Curve, and it was black ice; that wasn’t drinking, either. The car slid and smashed into a tree. I went to rehab in ’05 because, when I was with Katie, she said, “You’re drinking way too much.” I never had a D.U.I. in my life. That’s another fallacy. Look at the police records.
A.G.: What was going on with you at the time?
B.J.: I was kind of in a mental fog, and it had nothing to do with the booze. My mind wasn’t right. I wasn’t focused. I went into a deep, deep depression after 9/11. 9/11 just knocked the wind out of me, and I don’t know even now if I’ve recovered from it. It really, really hurt that man could do that to man. And then there was a breakup with somebody, and it took me a while to get me back on my feet again.
A.G.: You know they have medication for that.
B.J.: Well, I used booze as medication.
A.G.: In 2008, you accompanied your wife on “Oprah.” You looked so uncomfortable, I remember thinking it looked as if there was somebody offstage pointing a shotgun at you to keep you from running away.
B.J.: I was very uncomfortable. I was in shock. I didn’t realize behind me there were these screens of, like, auto accidents and things about drinking and divorce. I thought I was going to come talk about music. I did the show because Katie had a book coming out. She said, “Please, help me get on the show.” I said, “I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it, don’t make me do it, don’t make me do it.” But I said, “O.K., I’ll do it, and it’s going to suck.” Sure enough, it did. My daughter saw the show, and she cried, she thought it was so bad.
A.G.: Why? Because you looked so unhappy?
B.J.: Because she thought it was a mean line of questioning, and she knew I wasn’t happy. She could see it. This is why I didn’t want to do the show. I don’t like doing TV, especially a show like that. All those touchy-feely kind of shows like “The View” or “Oprah,” people talk about their feelings. I don’t like that.
A.G.: On the “Oprah” show, Katie said that when she met you in the bar of the Peninsula Hotel in 2002, she had no idea who you were or what music you played. You must be quite a charmer.
B.J.: I guess I am. Maybe that’s part of the reason I was successful onstage. She really didn’t know about me. She thought I had a song called “Uptown Girl” and “Only the Good Die Young.” That’s all she knew. She thought I was a one-hit-wonder kind of guy.
A.G.: Is it true that the same day you met her, you took her to your Broadway show?
B.J.: Yes, she was in the city with some friends from college, and I took her out to dinner at a nice Italian place. I wanted to make an impression. We went to a place that had truffles, I think. Then I took her to “Movin’ Out.” Once in a while, I would go there and sit in with the band at the end of the show at the encore. It was one of those nights. I made an impression there, and then we stayed in touch with each other.
A.G.: That’s one way to make an impression, take somebody to your jukebox musical.
B.J.: Hey, you saw the film version of “Tom Sawyer,” right? Walking on the fence, a feather on his nose to impress Becky Thatcher? I never forgot that. I’m shameless when it comes to that.
A.G.: Right before you married Christie Brinkley, you dated Elle Macpherson. And later you married Katie Lee, also a young, very beautiful woman. Do you think your relationship with female beauty is any different from any other red-blooded American male?
B.J.: A lot of guys are just too intimidated to even ask them out, but I had a great way to meet people. People are just interested in you because you’re a rock star. O.K. Some guys use a car. Some guys have a cute dog. I’m a rock star. That’s who I am, what I do. What’s wrong with that?
A.G.: What’s the hardest part of being married to you?
B.J.: There’s a pain-in-the-ass factor with celebrity. There are a lot of moments you don’t have because people interrupt them, and you try to be polite, but sometimes people just don’t think. I try to be as nice as I can and as polite and well mannered as I can, but sometimes it’s ridiculous, so I don’t go out as often as I should. I was never able to take my daughter to an amusement park, which I would have liked to have done, or do things in public, because it kind of gets silly with people’s perception. On the other hand, I was married to some beautiful women. I always get compared to how beautiful they are and how not beautiful I am, and it’s kind of funny, it’s like “Beauty and the Beast.” I don’t mind being the beast, I want them to be good-looking, and if they don’t mind me looking like me, why should I care?
A.G.: So your three marriages didn’t turn out so great. Your finances were no picnic, either. You were famously taken advantage of twice and made a lot less money than people would imagine.
B.J.: I suppose I kept myself purposely stupid about the commerce side of it. It was dumb. I really should have looked after things.
A.G.: Your first record deal as a solo performer, in 1970, was with the producer Artie Ripp and was notoriously bad.
B.J.: Yeah, I pretty much gave up my publishing, my copyrights, my royalties. He had to get his pound of flesh.
A.G.: Your first wife, Elizabeth, once claimed that when all was said and done, you made less than $8,000 off the initial release of the album “Piano Man.”
B.J.: Yeah, that sounds about right. It was a terrible deal.
A.G.: Then, in the late ’80s, you discovered that your former brother-in-law and manager, Frank Weber, had seriously mismanaged your money. Didn’t you literally open up a safe-deposit box and find a bunch of I.O.U.’s?
B.J.: That and bad investments and tax shelters, just bad everything. It was much more of an emotional betrayal for me than financial, because this was somebody I trusted so much.
A.G.: It’s probably a really ugly exercise, but did you ever compute what you lost?
B.J.: At one time there was an audit, and I was given a figure of $30 million. I didn’t even know I had anything like that. I thought maybe 3, maybe close to 10 million. But I’m not bitter about any of that stuff.
A.G.: Oh, I would be so bitter.
B.J.: People don’t understand, I’ve met these people again, and I shake hands with them. I saw Artie at some kind of music event in L.A. like 10 years ago. “Hi, how ya doing?” I don’t have any hard feelings, I don’t.
A.G.: You don’t have hard feelings about a guy who made a ton of money off a bunch of albums he didn’t even work on?”
B.J.: I came out fine. I didn’t like getting ripped off, and I didn’t like the fact that my daughter might not have what she deserved to get. It wasn’t so much about me. The same thing with Frank Weber. I saw him a couple years ago out here in the Hamptons. He was going into a restaurant, and I said, “Hey, how ya doin’ man?” We sat and talked. I have absolutely no hard feelings. I let all that go. I can’t carry that stuff around. You’d be pissed off your whole life. Bad things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
A.G.: So was there a point when you actually started paying attention to the business side?
B.J.: Yeah, after I got screwed the second time. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. It was time to grow up. I always had this sense that O.K., I’m an artist and I shouldn’t have to be concerned about something as banal as money, which is baloney. It’s my job. It’s what I do. I didn’t pay any attention to it, and I trusted other people, and I got screwed.
A.G.: Did you experience any actual deprivation?
B.J.: No. I never went without a meal. I just didn’t have the money I was supposed to have. I know what poor is. When I was a kid, we didn’t have anything. There was a rumor that I filed for bankruptcy — that never happened, either. I owed Uncle Sam a couple of million bucks in income tax, and the money that I thought was there, wasn’t there. I had to sell a place in the city. I was building a house out here in the Hamptons, and I owned a place on Central Park West. I sold it to Sting. I was praying for a rock star. They don’t care what their accountant says. If they want something, they buy it. Then I sold the house that I was building to Seinfeld. I keep exchanging star homes. I bought Roy Scheider’s house. Mickey Drexler bought my old place in Martha’s Vineyard. I’m the Realtor to the stars.
A.G.: Were there tours you went on just because you needed the dough?
B.J.: I became a road warrior. I said, “That’s how I earn a living.” I went out on the road and stayed out on the road for years. Made it all back, and I enjoyed it.
A.G.: You recently said you aren’t touring now because you don’t want to feel like you’ve got to play all your hits. Are there songs you would just as soon never sing again?
B.J.: I wouldn’t say never, but there are some I’d like not to have to do. I can’t do a show without doing “Piano Man”. I’ve done shows without doing “Just the Way You Are.” I hardly ever do “Uptown Girl.” We had a lot of hits, so I have the luxury of being able to pick what hits I’m going to do and what hits I’m not going to do.
A.G.: You also said you have no interest in being what you called “an oldies act.”
B.J.: I haven’t put out an album in 20 years. Let’s face it. I am an oldies act. I just don’t want it to be like when you watch Channel 13 and there’s the Delltones or some English band from the ’60s, and they’re real crotchety and they look terrible, and I go, “Oh, God, I don’t want to be on that show.” I haven’t worked for three years. I’m going to play in Australia. I want to see how it feels to work again, I want to see if I think I’m still any good, because if I’m not any good, I’d consider retiring. If I don’t think I’m any good, I don’t care how much I can make, I don’t care how many people want me to, I’m going to stop doing it. It has to be fun. You have to feel good about it.
Original Interview is from HERE