'If someone had told me twenty years ago I'd be spending this much time with cops, I would have punched him in the goddamn face," says Billy Joel with a laugh.
Joel is referring to the four weeks he's just spent rehearsing at the Suffolk County Police Academy, in West Hampton, Long Island. There, for most of November, he played the toughest series of gigs in his life – at least since the tour he did in the Seventies opening for Olivia Newton-John. Sure, he may have successfully invaded Russia with rock & roll, but for Joel, who proudly confesses to having "one big problem dealing with authority," it takes nerve to spend a month warming up for a world tour by playing for a uniformed audience bearing firearms.
"My single biggest fear in life is being called down to the principal's office," says Joel. "It's someone telling me, 'Billy, you're not following the rules.' It's being told what to do. By a manager. By a lawyer. By a critic. By a cop. By anybody. I've gotta work on it, I suppose."
Of course, Joel's reasons for hanging with the authorities were not simply therapeutic. He wanted to stay as close as possible to his wife, Christie Brinkley, and their three-year-old daughter, Alexa Ray, before heading out for a road trip that could last more than a year, and he also wanted to pump cash into the local economy.
On one of the final days of rehearsal, Joel practices his craft onstage in the academy hall, which resembles an airplane hangar – except for the fake pizza parlor and real-estate office where police trainees investigate mock crimes to perfect their own craft. As a half dozen policemen try to look busy, Joel's new band (drummer Liberty DeVitto, guitarist David Brown and saxophonist Mark Rivera – all veterans – are joined by new members percussionist and backup singer Crystal Taliefero, multi-instrumentalist Mindy Jostyn, keyboardist Jeff Jacobs and bassist Schuyler Deale) works out a grittier, more soulful sound than that of the old group Joel disbanded before recording his latest album, Storm Front.
An ever-growing number of clean-cut policemen's wives and kids stop by to check out the local hero. The moms clap the most after his first hit single, 1974's "Piano Man," while the daughters go for "We Didn't Start the Fire," his twenty-eighth. As he and his band smooth out the kinks, they play a loose set that matches Joel's own material with off-the-cuff covers, most notably a twisted seasonal medley that joins "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" with Guns n' Roses' "Paradise City" and Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator."
But halfway through a rendition of "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," Joel orders the band to stop and glares out into the audience. This being Billy Joel, there is some reason for concern. After all, he's been known to do harm to the occasional piano when pissed off, as he did famously during his 1987 Soviet tour. And he's also developed a reputation for using the bully pulpit of the stage to strike back at the various rock critics who have dismissed his work as calculatedly commercial.
But as Joel approaches the mike, it's to inform his fellow parents in the room that their children ought to be wearing something to protect their hearing from the loud sounds he and the other adults onstage are making. "Remember, folks," he says firmly, "little people have little ears, and you have to be careful." After watching a roadie place a pair of headphones on the head of one girl, Joel gets back to business as the cops smile at the concern of their new, if unlikely, pal.
And so it is for Billy Joel at forty.
"Top of the world, ma!"
It's a week later, and Billy Joel is doing his best Jimmy Cagney imitation 1500 feet above an icy Boston Harbor, as he looks out the window of the helicopter transporting him to Worcester, Massachusetts, where in just a few hours he'll kick off the Storm Front tour. Despite ominous skies warning that a real storm front is fast approaching, Joel seems anything but nervous.
"This is fantastic up here – I feel like I'm in A Hard Day's Night or something," he says. Joel has reason to be flying high. He's just gotten word that Storm Front, his fourteenth album, and its first single, "We Didn't Start the Fire," are both going to Number One in the next week's trades. Such good news must be sweet coming only a few months after the release of Storm Front was overshadowed, first by news of his lawsuit against former manager Frank Weber seeking more than $90 million in damages for fraud and breach of fiduciary duty, then by a well-publicized bout with kidney stones.
"In the old days I used to think, 'Number One? What does it mean?'" says Joel. "I was a real pigheaded little prick back then. Now I realize that Number One does mean a lot to the people who have stuck with me and put up with a lot of crap in the last few years.
"My priorities now are family, music, then everything else," Joel says. "I need substance in my life. And the world needs substance. The world doesn't need any more hip. Hip is dead. The world doesn't need more cool, more clever. The world needs substantial things. The world needs more greatness. We need more Picassos, more Mozarts, more John Singer Sargents, not more Milli Vanillis. Not more haircuts."
Signs of Joel's search for substance are plentiful on Storm Front. "We Didn't Start the Fire" began as a personal exercise, a rap song about the barrage of events in his own lifetime. "Leningrad" is a cold-war baby's meditation on the common ground he shares with a friend behind the iron curtain, while "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" concerns the precarious position of Long Island fishermen.
Still, Joel is not likely to turn into another pretentious rocker. "Some people don't understand that Billy is still a guy from Long Island," says drummer Liberty DeVitto, who's known Joel since they were both teenagers. "That guy who lives in a big house now is the same guy who grew up in that little house in Levittown."
Unsurprisingly, then, Joel is also a straight-ahead interview subject, comfortable talking in a divey hotel lounge or in a chic Hamptons restaurant; hanging out backstage with guys nicknamed Chainsaw and Rocko or in a limo with his wife after a show. (For the record, Joel takes advice well from at least one critic: On the way back from Worcester to their Boston hotel, he listens intently to Brinkley as she smartly critiques his set, before adding with a laugh, "Thanks, Yoko.")
Joel's honesty flags only momentarily when he explains that he no longer cares about getting critical acclaim commensurate with his popularity. Just wait for him to order another round of Sambuca, and his tune changes. Finally it becomes clear that for all his flashes of macho bluster, the former teenage boxer punches back at those who attack him exactly because he does care, because he wants everyone to love him just the way he is.
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