Billy Joel On Fire, Again: The Rolling Stone Interview

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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.

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