Billy Joel On Fire, Again: The Rolling Stone Interview

He didn't start the fire, but he did smash a piano in Russia, make friends with the cops, marry a supermodel and sizzle the radio waves with scores of hit singles

billy joel cover rolling stone 1990
Timothy White
Billy Joel on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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'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."

Reader's Poll: The Best Billy Joel Songs of All Time

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.

Does it bother you that your personal life often gets more press than your music?
You bet it does. People talk about "Billy Joel and his super-model wife" as if somehow Christie and I don't love and hurt and feel the same things that anybody else does. What do they think we do – walk in the door and fly around on gossamer and glitzy gliders? Don't people realize that the minute the door closes, all of the silly rock star/supermodel stuff goes right out the window? Then it's just me and her and real man-and-wife time.

Is that why you start off  Storm Front with "That's Not Her Style" – to get all the gossip about you two out of the way?
Listen, I understand that people are curious. I know what they read. On the other hand, I don't ask people I don't know a lot of questions about their wives, do I? I've learned to kind of laugh at a lot of tabloid stuff. But I have my forum, too, to reintroduce myself, to say, "Hello, this is what you've read. Let me just tell you what's really going on."

Do you think that writing a song like "That's Not Her Style" only gives the rumors another public airing?
That's a dilemma for me, because no one knew the other woman I was married to. So I could write "Just the Way You Are" and other songs and people could identify with it. With Christie, if I write a love song about a woman or if I write anything about a woman, people assume I'm writing about her. And I know if it were me listening, I'd be going, "God, there's that jerk singing about his beautiful supermodel wife again. I'm so sick of reading about the two of them. Screw him." But I also know that a lot of great artists – Picasso, Chopin, others – used the women they loved as their muse, to represent women in general. So I'm in good company [laughs].

Do you feel that the two of you are misunderstood?
Me, I've had a pissing war with the press going on forever, and that's one war you cannot win. But it sure built a lot of character. Listen, I know I've created most of my own problems, and I really don't care anymore. You'll find a lot of the landed gentry of rock critification are irked by me. So I was never really woven into their rock & roll pantheon.

Does that bother you, even with all the success?
In a way I really like it, because rock & roll isn't supposed to be legal. Rock & roll is supposed to be rebellious crap. Rock & roll is supposed to be about humping and fucking and sneaking around behind the parents and proclaiming your freedom, your independence. And what a lot of very important critics represent is really the authority. And I happen to think that if the authority disapproves of you, then you must be doing the right thing.

Why do you think the critics have been irked?
They don't see me as this authentic rock & roller. I'm not an authentic rock & roller. I never pretended to be one. I never hid my influences. The thing that pissed me off is when people compared me to Elton John when I was copying McCartney, you know? My God, I was straightforward about this stuff. I remember one guy said I was "the Irving Berlin of narcissistic alienation." I kinda liked that – the Irving Berlin part anyway. Listen, I wrote some reviews when I was young for some small rock magazines. But then I trashed this album by Al Kooper, and I realized that if I were him, I'd want to wring my neck. I didn't have the stomach for it. Now I say, "You think I stink. I think your opinion stinks." Have I read bad reviews onstage? Of course. Would I do it again? No. Nowadays it just bugs me when they say something about my wife or my kid.

Do you think Christie is misunderstood?
Well, she certainly is somebody that people love to write about. What bothers me is when because of what she looks like and what she does for a living, people fall back on the stereotype of her as being a dumb blonde – which she definitely is not. They say "supermodel" like that's supposed to mean she's vapid and shallow – which she's not. Not that I mind people appreciating how beautiful she is. I know how beautiful she is. I know guys married to beautiful women who are very insecure about it. I'm the opposite. I say, "Go ahead, check it out. She's pretty, isn't she? Look all you want. And she's married to me, you know?"

But Christie's a hell of a lot more than beautiful. She's a lot smarter than I am, and she's a very good artist, a painter. She was trying to get me to look into my business long before I did, and I should have listened to her sooner. There's a song on Storm Front called "When in Rome," about a working couple – working like us. Now, we may not have the same kind of jobs everybody else has. But we do work. We probably work harder than the people who comment on us. I've actually had journalists write nasty lies about my kid. She never hurt anybody. She's not even four years old.

Did you ever think of suing writers?
Yeah, but I'm sick of lawsuits . . . And I'm sick of lawyers.

You're in the middle of a serious lawsuit now. By some accounts, you might not be the wildly rich rock star everyone has been writing about.
I'm not all that rich. [Slowly] I may be a lot less rich at the end of the day. I may not be rich at all. I may owe money. I may owe a great deal of money.

You really think that could happen?
I think it's quite possible that it's happened already.

Do you own all your songs now?
No.

Do you own any of them?
[Pauses] There are a number of lawsuits where my copyrights are in question. For better or worse, your songs are your kids. Then somebody comes along and tells you that they're not your kids anymore. The bank is going to take your kid. And I don't know how many mortgages there are on my copyrights these days. There's a lot or things involved in this lawsuit. Forget about what happens to the lawsuit. Forget about the lawyers. I'd rather be the same stupid dickhead I was and not have learned the lesson.

You've had such a bad business history over the years. Why do you think you've had so many problems?
I think I was stupid, to tell you the truth. It wasn't my job. I trusted other people to look after my money. Time and time again I was accused of doing things for money, selling out, being commercial and having hit records – like I planned it, right? And all these years later, I find myself thinking, "Well, gee, I was accused of being a capitalist fascist pig – maybe I should have looked after my business a little bit more." But I didn't.

But you've ended your concerts for years by saying, "Don't take any shit from anyone."
What am I gonna do? Artists don't think like accountants. We think like artists. We're supposed to represent the other side. We're knuckleheads when it comes to business. Money isn't why I did what I've done with my life. I did what I did because it made me happy. But I'm tired of getting it taken away from me by other people who haven't earned it. I do all the work – shouldn't I have the money? And what about my kid's future? There's a lot of sharks out there. She's going to need all the protection she can get. I don't think money solves problems. I think money creates more problems than anything else. And fame is the great neutralizer when it comes to wealth. We have to spend that money to try to live a normal life.

These days there are so many sharks. It's become so sophisticated and computerized and fast and nasty out there that for the average guy to survive, he's got to be consumed by this crap all the time or else he's not going to keep his head above water. I know the sharks I've got to deal with, and I come from a position of strength at this point, whether I've got money or not. But the average guy working nine to five – he's got to face that in his world, and I don't know how he does it. It's an ethical wasteland out there. It's great that they've got these liver transplants going. It's incredible what's happening in Eastern Europe. But what's happening in this country scares the shit out of me.

You're going to be spending a lot of your time in the next year seeing this country. Are you looking forward to hitting the road?
Well, I hate hotels. I hate matching furniture. I hate airports. I hate flying. I hate being without my family.

So the obvious question is, why tour?
I like to play. It goes back to before I was a recording artist or any of this rock-star crap. I was a player. That's what the fun is. It's as close to sex as you can get. For this tour, we've set up a schedule where we are on for six weeks and we go home for two, which I think is civilized. Which I always asked for in the past, and for some reason or other with the people who used to be handling my career, that never happened. Because it didn't pay off for them. Fortunately, my kid is in nursery school, so if she joins me on the road somewhere, it's not like she's missing English Lit 5.

With all your hits, you'll have to leave a lot of crowd pleasers out of your set. For example, you've dropped "Just the Way You Are."
I'm just sick of it. Maybe it will come back sometime, but I'm not ready to do it again. There was one time when I was going through the divorce from my first wife, and I drifted away while singing it. I was so bored I started thinking, "Well, I'll get back to the hotel about midnight, and they have prime rib on the room-service menu," and then I lost the words. So I'm looking at Liberty, who sings the words all the time to help me pick it up. And I'm following his lips, and he's singing to me, "She got the house, the dog, the car," and that's what I sang. And the audience booed, and I realized I shouldn't be doing this song. The song became "Feelings" for a while. And I realized it's a gyp for me to do a song just because people expect it. It's pandering. I've got to have a vested interest in doing a song, for crying out loud.

What songs do you feel you have to do?
I have to do "Piano Man." I think we have to do "Uptown Girl." And now we have to do "We Didn't Start the Fire." But this tour I'm trying to do the stuff that makes sense to me, now, with this band.

Unlike Springsteen, you haven't gotten too much flak for changing your band.
Bruce might be having trouble because people expect him to be a superman. He's not. He's a guy like everybody else. He probably had his problems with his operation just like I had with mine. It is too big a business for people not to change. For friendships and relationships not to change. There's too much money to be made. There's too many other corporate entities that enter into the thing. And it's perfectly natural for somebody to want to work with other people. In my case, I was unhappy with the Bridge album and tour and wanted to make some changes. It's only natural. But people shouldn't subscribe to the church of Bruce or anybody else, you know?

You and Springsteen are among the few stars who haven't taken corporate sponsorships. With your money problems, are you considering taking one for this tour?
I'm not going to condemn people for doing endorsements. I might even do it myself, even though I haven't done it yet. I'm not going to get up on a big high holy cloud and say, "I am rock & rollier than thou." What's the difference between CBS and Dodge? They're both corporations. There's no difference at all, but it just never felt right to me. But if it didn't compromise my art, and I didn't think I was telling kids to drink something that was going to rot their teeth out or drive something that was going to get them killed on the highway, I might do it. You're damn straight I might. The Catch-22 is, not doing it has increased my value.

So far I've turned them all down. Pepsi offered me Madonna's deal. Coke offered me George Michael's deal. Millions and millions of dollars. Now that don't make me a saint. Part of me is going, "I should have done it." And part of me is glad I didn't. I still don't know if I'm gonna do it. But you notice I haven't been mentioned that often when people write about people who don't do deals. I may be a little bitter about this, but it bugs me. I'm not asking for special consideration. Just don't say I suck this way, and then not mention me at all when I supposedly do the right thing.

Would you ever sell a song for a commercial?
If it was a clever enough working of it, maybe I would do it. If it somehow complemented the song and it was a quality product, and, hell, if they'll play my song on TV where more people are going to hear it than on any radio station, maybe. So far I've been uncomfortable. If I do it, it's because I've decided it's okay with me to do it. My old management wanted me to do it all along. They were telling me, "Hey, kids today think something's not important enough if it doesn't have a sponsor." But that's not the reason I haven't done it. It's because I haven't wanted to. I'm my own judge and jury.

You once did a commercial with Chubby Checker.
Yeah. This was like 1969, and I was a session guy. It was a commercial for Bachman Pretzels [laughs]. The point of the commercial was for Chubby Checker to say, "There's a new twist to Bachman." Hey, I got paid.

Have you seen the other big recent tours – like the Stones'?
I was supposed to see the Stones. Then I got the kidney stones. The stones canceled the Stones [laughs]

It seemed like a very painful publicity stunt.
And of course the papers had me collapsing at JFK Airport. I didn't collapse at JFK. I've had kidney stones before this. I just called the doctor, and I said, "Should I go to Europe?" He said, "No, come in. Let's take care of it." So I went into the hospital. When I was in there, I got flowers from everybody, and I also got this bottle of Jack Daniel's from Axl Rose, who I met once. "Get well with a bottle of booze." It turns out he used to work in a record store and had all these questions about my old records. I was surprised. So I have the same sort of stupid preconceptions about other people that people have about me. But the lawsuit coming at the same time as the kidney stones was the double whammy. The press couldn't resist it. It's the same thing as my going to Russia and the big story being that I threw a tantrum – Billy's Russian Temper Tantrum. I still read about that. My God, I've thrown the piano twenty times in the States and nobody said nothing. All of a sudden I do it in Russia and it's an international incident. That's not the real story. The real story is that we went to the Soviet Union.

How do you feel about the Russian trip in light of recent events?
Everything that people said to me when I was over there has a much deeper meaning now. I gave my leather coat to this hippie guy who was our translator. And it was a really nice black motorcycle jacket. The guy was speechless, and I found out later he never wore it. He had it framed and hung it on his wall. And I realized the importance of the relationship we had with people there is still hanging on people's walls. And it's hanging on my wall too – I have the Russian tour poster on my wall in a place of honor. Aside from getting married and having a child, the Soviet trip is the highlight of my life. I can't believe I got to do it. I remember when Van Cliburn went there back in the Fifties. All of a sudden there was a thaw in the cold war. Now look what's going on. I'm not saying I'm the guy who did it, but I'm glad I went and saw the place, because the cold war ended a lot sooner for me than it has for everyone else.

Ticket sales have been going incredibly fast for this tour. Were you surprised since, after all, you had a few relatively cold years?
Listen, I might be an antique, just like the Stones, but antiques are of value. Antiques hold their value. We even get more valuable with age. And people want collectibles. Also, maybe people are finally getting tired of paying hard-earned money to see nothing up there. Maybe folks are tired of video stars who can't deliver live. They want substance, too.

Do you think videos undermine substance?
I would really hope that people wouldn't judge my music based on the videos. One of the reasons I became a musician is because it had nothing to do with visual. It had to do with the imagination of the listener. When I'm in the studio and I'm creating beauty, I'm six foot nine and look like Cary Grant. And then I see that reduced to this nebbishy little guy with a double chin. Come on. That ain't music. Can you imagine Beethoven doing this? [He breaks into Beethoven's Fifth] "Da-da-da-DA–Ludwig, baby, listen, da-da-da-DA is good. Hooky, hooky. I tell you what, Ludwig, I see spike heels, and I see a garter belt. Da-da-da-DA– she's hitting the guy. Then we cut. Then we go to black and white, like a performance shot." Music is the antithesis of the visual. We're talking about promo clips. This ain't the tail wagging the dog, or is it? Is that what's happening? Is Milli Vanilli being two cute guys deciding what's going to play on radio?

Was part of your game plan for 'Storm Front' to make a more contemporary rock & roll album?
My game plan for Storm Front was simply to make a better record, one that I liked. I was unhappy with the way The Bridge came out. You can hear the seams on that album – it was a bad stitching job. Christie and I'd just had Alexa, and you can hear on that record that I would rather have been at home with the baby than with the band in the studio. That's what the song "Temptation" was about – the temptation was a baby, not another woman. So yes, there's some rocky stuff on Storm Front, but anyone who's been following my career shouldn't be surprised at all. I'm not just this ballad guy – just because "Piano Man" was my first hit, some people still think of me as the piano man. But that was something I did for nine months. Most of my life I played with rock bands. Sure, I wrote the songs and had the spotlight on me a lot of the time, but I'm still a guy who plays in rock bands. And naturally, there's some meaty stuff on the album for this band to sink its teeth into like "That's Not Her Style." And yeah, a song like "Shameless" has plenty of barbecue sauce on it, as they say. But that's only natural. I mean, anyone who thinks of us as mellow should have heard us doing Zeppelin, Cream and Hendrix at sound check.

In addition to changing bands, you also switched producers, from Phil Ramone, who had worked with you since The Stranger to Mick Jones.
Phil and I were fine. We were just sort of married for too long. And we just didn't have anything to say anymore. I just thought it was time to jump into bed with someone else, so to speak. It was time to have a wild, flaming sonic love affair.

Originally I thought of having Eddie Van Halen produce Storm Front. I think he's a fantastic musician. And I like the energy in Van Halen records. Our schedules didn't line up, but we had a fun meeting at this Italian restaurant in Manhattan. People would look at us and say, "Isn't that him and him? What are they doing? And where's Valerie while all this is going on?" I worked with Mick [Jones] because I wanted somebody who was a musician and a songwriter, somebody who I could have some great arguments with about material. Mick and I hit it off right away. But we didn't hit it off like he was going to be a pushover. He had very strong opinions. But I liked that. I respected that.

How do you feel about criticism of "The Downeaster 'Alexa' " – that you're a rock star jumping on a poor person's cause?
I know what being a commercial fisherman is – I did it. Most of my life I was poor. Most of my life I had weird jobs. But there's also a thing called imagination, which is what writers have. We should be able to use pronouns any which way we want to get a narrative across. I don't like getting up on a soapbox, being one of these social-political-message guys. I think the best way to do it is to tell a story about a human being, not about an issue. And hey, I know I'm not the guy in the song. I've said, "I'm living here in Allentown," and I don't live in Allentown. I said we were sharp as knives in Vietnam, and I wasn't in Vietnam. So I don't buy it.

One critic dismissed "We Didn't Start the Fire" – one of the biggest hits of your career – as "Cliff Notes for the MTV generation."
Hey, I'm not from the MTV generation. And that song's about my life. Most of my mail I get about that song comes from teachers who have said this is the greatest teaching tool to come down the pike since Sesame Street, which means a lot to me, since I once wanted to be a history teacher. But I wish people could understand that I did not write that song to be a hit – I wrote that one for me. And nobody liked it at first. One person in the studio said it gave them a headache.

Sometimes I listen to records I did and think, "If it wasn't my record, maybe I would have been sick of that thing, too." But the song mostly came off the top of my head. And it got to be a bit of a squeeze play. Originally in the last verse, after "hypodermics on the shores," I had "poison apples in the store," because that Alar thing was happening. And then they took the apples off the shelves. So then Tiananmen Square happened, and I put in the "China under martial law" line. Then I said, "Let's get this record the hell out before anything else happens." Imagine what I'd have to write about Eastern Europe at this point.

Your life seems to have been going to extremes lately. The Storm Front album cover depicts the nautical signal warning of very bad weather ahead. Yet you've also said you're optimistic about the future.
The easiest thing in the world to be is a dedicated cynic. It's also a cop-out. Anybody with half an intellect can be sarcastic and sardonic. It's much more difficult to be an optimist. But hey, these are amazing times we live in. Look what's happening in Eastern Europe. I'm shocked at how blasé some of these damn yuppie types are now. Like "What's it going to mean with the economy?" God damn it, the cold war might be over. My kid might not have to worry about being blown up by a hydrogen bomb. Our sons might not have to go and fight some stupid war to kill the Commies. Even with all the crap that's going on, this is an incredible time to be alive. It's just like Paul Simon says – these are the days of miracle and wonder.

This story is from the January 25th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 570: January 25, 1990