On the road with Billy Joel: The Piano Man talks Trump, L.A. — and new music?
Billy Joel wanted to be clear: He wasn’t starting a tour.
Yes, the veteran rock superstar had come here to SunTrust Park, the Braves’ gleaming new baseball stadium, to perform last month for a crowd in the tens of thousands eager to sing along with “Piano Man” and “My Life” and “Only the Good Die Young.” And he’d soon be taking his show to other big outdoor venues, including
But as he sat backstage, several hours before the stadium lights dimmed and he began plinking out the familiar intro to “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” Joel insisted this was something different.
“Touring is when you go out and you stay out,” said the 67-year-old singer, who’d flown in earlier that day on a charter flight from his home in New York. “You miss your family; it goes on and on and on and on. Now I play and then I go home. It’s a pussycat schedule.
“I know what touring is, and this ain’t it.”
So what exactly is Joel doing, and why?
In 2014, he launched a monthly residency at New York’s vaunted Madison Square Garden that made him the fourth-highest-paid musician of that year and the next, according to Billboard — which means he’s hardly doing stadium dates (each spaced a few weeks apart) because he needs the money.
And Joel has no new album to promote, and hasn’t since 1993, when he put out his last record of pop songs, “River of Dreams.” (In 2001 he released “Fantasies & Delusions,” a set of classical piano compositions.)
Nor should fans expect a “River” follow-up, the singer says — though he is planning a potential collaboration with a major pop star. But in a long, characteristically frank conversation, he gave the impression that he’s playing these shows because it gives him an opportunity to hang out with his best friends — all of whom appear to work for him — and because he hasn’t stopped being knocked out by the fact that he can fill a ballpark.
Holding court at a plastic picnic table, Joel came off like a supporting character from “The Sopranos” as he joked with his production designer and his lighting director, both of whom have been with him for decades, about kids (Joel recently had a daughter with his fourth wife, Alexis Roderick), long-gone opening gigs (“Who was the guy used to take Valium before he performed? Folk singer. Kenny Rankin!”) and Donald Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago estate is not far from the singer’s place in Palm Beach, Fla.
Has Joel ever driven by?
“Yeah,” Joel said, then he mimed riding a motorcycle and holding up both middle fingers. “He thinks I’m his friend. I went to his wedding. I don’t know why I went. I’m told I sang — probably made an ass of myself.”
The atmosphere was similarly breezy onstage during sound check. When he plays cities outside New York he likes to drop in bits of songs by local artists.
They ran through a few bars of “Stand” by R.E.M., which felt like somebody’s dad had crashed the college kegger. Joel winced. “Not doing that,” he said.
Because he doesn’t have anything new to perform, the set list has to strike just the right balance of novelty and familiarity. Back at the picnic table, Joel pored over the one for that night and talked through several changes.
In addition to “Piano Man,” which he famously wrote about his experience working in a bar during an early-’70s stint in Los Angeles, the list included “The Entertainer,” another tune inspired by his brush with the Hollywood show-biz machine.
How often do you think about that phase of your life?
All the time. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about it the other night.
What do you think about?
I wonder what happened to the people I knew — the people in the bar in “Piano Man.” It was the Executive Room in the Wilshire district. I got tips and made union scale, and I was able to afford an apartment in Studio City. The weather was great; the people were nice. I said, “What’s wrong with this?” So I stayed for three years.
What if you’d stuck around and become an L.A. guy?
Then I would have had to have been as good as Randy Newman. And he’s good, man.
Your song “Los Angelenos” — that’s a good one.
I thought about Rod Stewart when I wrote that. That particular time in my life, it was the early ’70s; it was what they now call the singer-songwriter era. And I thought of myself more as a songwriter than a singer. I still don’t like my voice; I’m always trying to sound like somebody else. So I was writing songs thinking about other people doing them. The reason I made an album in the first place was because I thought it would be like a song demo for other people to do.
What else did you write with a specific singer in mind?
Just about every song. I wrote “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” I thought about the Ronettes — “Be My Baby.” And Ronnie Spector covered it.
What about Frank Sinatra?
There was an Italian restaurant in L.A., somewhere near the Magic Castle. Martoni’s? I went there one night and sitting in the restaurant, there’s Sinatra, four tables away, with all the goons around him. I’d just written “New York State of Mind.” So I’m sitting at the table going, [sings] “Some folks like to get away…” And this guy’s staring me down: “Get the … out of here, kid.” But I got to meet him after that anyway. He covered “Just the Way You Are.”
Sinatra’s version is pretty strange.
He did it like a Vegas swing: [sings] “Hey, scooby doo, don’t go changing!” What was that great record by Bobby Darin? “Beyond the Sea.” The greatest drumroll in history. That’s the rhythm Frank did it in. I didn’t care how he did it as long as he did it. Twist it into a pretzel if you want.
When did you start thinking, “You know what? These songs are for me.”
Let’s see, there was “Cold Spring Harbor,” which was not good. Then there was “Piano Man,” which was OK. “Streetlife Serenade” was a bomb. I think by the time I got to “Turnstiles,” when I had my own set band and I was trying to find a producer… I produced the album; I didn’t do a very good job. But I thought the songs had taken kind of a lift. And I realized: Maybe I could do this — maybe I am a recording artist. So on the next album I’ll get a real producer. Which I did. I got Phil Ramone.
With Ramone, who died in 2013, Joel embarked on the stretch of mega-success that would make him one of the biggest acts of the late ’70s and early ’80s, beginning with “The Stranger,” which sold more than 10 million copies and spun off hits including “She’s Always a Woman” and “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” After that they made “52nd Street” and “Glass Houses,” then “The Nylon Curtain.”
In the process, he became accustomed to thinking of himself as a rock star, though he claims the daily reality of celebrity — especially after he married model Christie Brinkley, his second wife, in 1985 — was “horrifying.”
“Nobody’s prepared for it — people looking into your private life, gossip columns writing about you, people saying things that are hurtful about your family,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t like this — I want to become a little more private.’ But how do you take it back? You can’t.”
And anyway, he added with a laugh, the job certainly beat previous ones he’d had: assembling typewriter ribbons, landscaping, working on an oyster boat. (“I’ll never eat an oyster again,” he said.)
He also toiled for a time as a rock critic, which may come as a surprise given his old habit of ripping up negative reviews onstage. Joel wrote about music for two underground magazines, as he referred to them, in New York in the late ’60s; he remembers panning a show by Super Session, the blues-rock outfit featuring guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper.
“And to this day I feel bad about it,” he said. “It didn’t look bad in my scribbly notebook, but when I read it in this magazine, it was like, ‘They are terrible,’” he said in a booming voice-of-God tone.
Maybe they were terrible.
“Yeah, but I didn’t feel right about it — the arrogance that my taste is more important than other people’s taste.”
He’s more comfortable criticizing his own work.
He mocked his 1980 tune “C’était Toi,” admitting that he doesn’t even speak French. “Now I listen to it and I cringe,” he said.
Another Billy Joel song not among Billy Joel’s favorites: “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the rapid-fire history lesson that somehow took the names Roy Cohn and Menachem Begin to No. 1 on the Hot 100.
“It’s the only song where I wrote the words first,” Joel said, “which it sounds like, because the music sucks.” Still, his fans want to hear it, so he plays it — even though it poses a risk. “If I miss one word, it’s a train wreck.”
Does he use a prompter onstage?
“I have one, yeah — I’m hooked on it,” he said.
It’s easy to wonder if the vestigial rocker in Joel — the guy standing in a grimy alley on the cover of “52nd Street” — might scoff at that.
“Nothing left of him,” Joel said. “There used to be an orthodoxy to it. But the older you get, the less important that stuff is.”
Every once in a while in Atlanta, Joel and his players would lock in with each other, and the music would simply lift off; it happened in a fierce “Zanzibar,” of all things, and again in “Movin’ Out,” which practically vibrated with indignation.
His concert is something he’s completely in charge of, unlike his recorded legacy, which his label has exploited with a steady stream of box sets, best-of packages and live albums he said he’s minimally involved in.
“They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” he said, “and they have the contractual wherewithal to do it.” He shrugged. “To be fair, I haven’t given them anything new in 25 years.”
Joel says he quit writing songs because his standards were so high that the process became a source of agony. “I’d turn into a caveman — walk around kicking things,” he said. But he also lost interest in what was going on in pop.
Yet a spark of the old songwriter remains. As Joel sipped Crown Royal from a plastic cup in the moments before he went onstage, he mentioned that he and Pink had recently gotten together and thrown around some ideas. He wasn’t sure what would come of it but said he’d had a good time.
Then he climbed a set of stairs and sat down behind his piano.
“We’re gonna go back in time here,” he said, and the place went wild.
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