Q&A; WITH BILLY JOEL : ‘They See Me as One of Them’ : Washed Up? Not to Fans of the Singer’s New Album and World Tour
Billy Joel, the has-been.
That’s what skeptics were saying about the 44-year-old New York singer-songwriter before his “River of Dreams” came out last summer. They figured he’d been gone so long--four years since his previous collection of songs--that he’d probably lost much of his audience.
The burial turned out to be premature.
“River of Dreams"--which Rolling Stone magazine said was characterized by songwriting of “rare maturity and emotional range"--entered the pop charts at No. 1 in August and is still in the Top 20. Estimated sales total to date: more than 2 million copies.
Joel has been just as hot on the concert trail. Since beginning a world tour in September, he’s racked up some impressive figures, including six sold-out shows at both Philadelphia’s Spectrum and New York’s Madison Square Garden. He’ll be at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Monday and the Anaheim Arena next Saturday.
In an interview, Joel, who is married to model Christie Brinkley and has a 7-year-old daughter, reflects on his popularity, his writing style and the days ahead. *
Question: Was turning 40 traumatic for you?
Answer: For an insecure guy like me, it was scary. Things change for a performer at that age. The younger audience sees you differently. The older fans may drift away from pop music.
Will they still like you? You don’t know. Then I’m also going through changes and re-evaluating what I do. What’s OK for a 30-year-old to sing about isn’t always OK for someone older. You have to get a handle on being 40. It’s a different state. I’m still learning how to be in my 40s.
Q: What is it about you that appeals to fans?
A: I write melodic songs that they can relate to in some way, but they also see me as one of them. I know I live a certain lifestyle and in some ways I can’t be one of them, but in certain basic, human ways I am. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to be on a pedestal.
Q: Why can you do six shows in New York at Madison Square Garden and just one show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena?
A: I’d like to do more in L.A., but it’s not a great market for me now. The last time I played L.A. (1990) I did five shows at the Sports Arena. But there are several reasons for doing just one show. One is that I have a lower profile in L.A. than I have in the rest of the country. That’s partly because some of the major radio stations in the area refuse to play my records--no matter how big the album is.
Another problem is the negative press I get in L.A. The L.A. Times hates everything I do. I can’t get a good review in (your) paper to save my life. The reviews never reflect what the audience thinks or what happens in the show. Over the years people in L.A. read this stuff and they think my shows are no good.
Q: What’s your reaction to charges by some critics that your music is derivative?
A: They’re right in a way. But who’s original anyway? That doesn’t mean you’re no good or have no talent. You listen to people and admire them and sometimes you inadvertently incorporate their work into your style. That’s being influenced by artists, not stealing from them.
Q: Do you still do all your old hits in your show?
A: There are many of them I don’t do. They get boring after a while--no matter how good they are. I look at some of the songs I wrote years ago and I can’t believe I wrote such crap. “Just the Way You Are” seems silly to me now. I don’t want to listen to it, and I don’t want to sing it. If I feel that way about a song, it’s stupid to sing it because the rendition wouldn’t be any good. Some of the oldies are optional, like “Keeping the Faith.” It’s a tough song to sing, and my voice has to be right for me to sing it.
Q: Is this your last big tour?
A: I’m sure it is. Tours are such major, expensive undertakings that once you get it organized you have to do it for a long time to make it pay. I don’t think I want to go through this again.
Q: What are you going to do when you stop performing?
A: I’m not sure when that will be, but I’d probably like to write for other artists. I think it’s something I’d be good at. Even when I stop performing or stop making records I won’t stop being creative. Songwriting is a good outlet.
Q: Is writing an enjoyable process for you?
A: Are you kidding? It’s agony. It’s hell. I get cranky and moody. I get in this strange state. I even dream a lot of the music. I wake up and recall bits and pieces of stuff. That triggers other ideas. I slowly put it all together. It’s like pulling teeth.
Q: What’s the most scary thing about writing?
A: When I go through all that agony and come up empty. I think maybe the well has run dry. All writers fear that. We all think we’ve gone to the well once too often. Every album I do I think it may be my last.
It’s all part of that insecurity I have--most artists have it I guess. If I was a secure human being I’d probably be in some other line of work.
* Billy Joel sings Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Anaheim Arena, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. $28.50. (714) 704-2500.