Billy Joel
RS 486

Billy Joel: The Rolling Stone Interview

Explore 1986

The good life with Christie Brinkley, a new baby and a hit album

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The atmosphere at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens combines all the giddiness and physical discomfort of a back-to-school shopping spree. Billy Joel has interrupted rehearsals for his first tour in nearly three years to sample the latest fashions for potential stage wear -— and he's getting expert advice from his wife, model Christie Brinkley, who's sitting on the floor with their nine-month-old daughter, Alexa Ray.

The short, broad Joel — whom Christie always calls Joe — waddles into the room, decked out in a flashy, double-breasted gray suit. "Do I look like an English rock star?" he queries in a mock-British accent, while bumping and grinding his hips and growling out the riff to Robert Palmer's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On." Christie, meanwhile, is up on her feet, walking around Billy, examining the look. "When you get that suit made in your size, don't get it made too small," she advises. "And don't do that short-sleeves routine…. Those pants make you look really slim, honey, and they lengthen your legs."

When Christie leaves the room, Joel slips into absurdly tight black jeans and a fluffy white shirt open to the waist with the collar turned up. When he's got the get-up together, he looks for Christie in the next room. "Honey, this is the look, right?" he asks gleefully. "Yeah," she agrees, playing along, her eyes dancing around his chest as if the sight of all that body hair had stripped her of self-control. "But I think you need some gold chains." Joel nods thoughtfully in agreement and strikes a dramatic, lounge-act stage posture. "Don't go changin'…" he begins to croon, and the room erupts in laughter.

These days, Billy Joel is a happy man. His new LP, The Bridge, is a smash, but that's just a small part of it. His marriage to Christie and the birth of their daughter seem to have settled him in a profound way. He's still feisty and combative, but what the world thinks of him or expects from him — which once seemed his total obsession — doesn't appear to matter as much now. And though he sometimes denies it — "I'm supposed to have mellowed," he says wryly; "I have not mellowed" — his own expectations have taken on a more human scale. Following his own advice from "You're Only Human," Joel seems to have remembered his "second wind," and its momentum is carrying him along quite nicely.

When you first became popular, people used to think of you as a scrappy rock & roller. That image seemed to change dramatically after you got involved with Christie Brinkley.
Oh, yeah. Right off the bat, the recognition factor doubled. What I found was that I didn't change, Christie didn't change, but people's reaction to us changed drastically: "Oh, well, he married this fabulously notorious model, and now he's changed." As if I married her because she was famous or wealthy.

Did that characterization bother you, or did you just feel distant from it?
No, it bothered us, because it made us seem as if we were these social butterflies, and we're not like that at all. We're pretty low-key people. We enjoy very simple things. We do our own shopping, we do our own cooking.

How are you able to do that? Don't people come up to you all the time?
Yeah, people will do a double take in a supermarket. When I'm in the diaper section trying to figure out which one my baby uses, and I ask somebody, "Is the purple box for the sixteen-month-old?" they'll do a double take, like "Hey, you look like Billy Joel!" I'll say, "Yeah, I hear that all the time."

Has having a child changed your life much?
Completely. It shifts your focus completely from yourself. All your life, you're consumed with yourself and your own priorities. Even when you get married, I still believe you're focused on yourself — you're marrying this person because they make you happy. But when you have a kid, you see everything in terms of the child. It's very healthy in a way. You get away from yourself. All you worry about is the child. Health, finance, the emotional impact of things. It's a wrenching process. You have to mature rapidly.

You grew up on Long Island, your own background was blue-collar. Your daughter will obviously have a much more privileged upbringing. How do you feel about that?
Well, I think she's going to get a lot of love, that's for sure. And she'll be able to grow up in a nice place. But other than that, she's not going to get anything handed to her on a silver platter. She's not going to get to a certain age and come into fabulous wealth. We want her to go through a character-building process like we all did. 'I definitely want to be very much present in my daughter's life. Not just as a male but as a father.' I'd like the kid to have as much of a normal life as possible, because it's not fair for her to be thrust into the limelight. The paparazzi are after her, taking pictures already. If Christie goes out with the baby, and they manage to get her picture, they caption it, "Christie poses with the baby." Christie doesn't pose with the baby. We don't want people to become too familiar with what the baby looks like, because the kid won't have a chance to live a normal life.

Your own father left when you were about seven. Do you think much about what kind of father you want to be to Alexa Ray?
I missed having a father very much. I went out and did crazy things to discover what my masculinity was. I got into trouble, I got into fights. I had to go out and box to discover my masculinity. Stupid stuff. One thing I knew when I had a kid was I was going to be very much present as a role model. I definitely want to be very much present in my daughter's life. Not just as a male but as a father. And I don't mean in the old sense of Father Knows Best, with the pipe and the slippers.

But won't a long tour, like the one you recently started, separate you from your family?
Christie's going to be coming out on many of the dates. We're trying to set it up, like, if we play a certain area in the Midwest, we'll base ourselves out of a place like Chicago and fly in and out. On the West Coast, we'll do it from Los Angeles, and so on. So we won't have to be separated that much. Still, that's something that's going to be hard on a baby.

How did you and Christie meet?
I took a week off in the winter of 1982-83, the first vacation I'd taken in years. I was going through a separation and divorce. I had just finished a tour, and I was exhausted. Paul Simon had rented a house down in a place called St. Bart's, this island in the Caribbean, and he said, "Look, it's great down here. It's real quiet. Just take a break." It sounded like a good idea. When I was making the transfer flight — you go down to St. Martin, then you take a commuter plane — I saw Christie Brinkley. I recognized her immediately. She was more beautiful than she was in her pictures — "Oh, wow, that's Christie Brinkley. I wonder if she knows who I am." So I did what I call an album cover — I tried to look like me on an album cover. I gave it every angle I could. She didn't recognize me from a hole in the wall. And then I was on St. Bart's, and I went to this bar in the PLM hotel. They have a little piano there, and I had a couple of drinks. I was feeling, you know, a little melancholy. And there's Christie Brinkley. And Whitney Houston and another girl, Elle [Macpherson], who is now also a famous model. I met them all at the same time.

I can't imagine how you managed to keep playing.
I'm sitting there going, "I don't believe this." So, everybody's having a couple of drinks, no one was feeling any pain, and we started having a sing-along. I was making believe I was Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and I was playing "As Time Goes By." Eventually a little crowd gathered, and we were singing. Christie was sitting next to me. Whitney was standing in front of the piano, singing. Elle was there. And that's how we met. I started playing some old rock & roll songs. Platters songs, Little Anthony and the Imperials, mushy stuff. She told me afterward she had just split up with a guy she had been seeing, and all of her friends were trying to encourage her to meet other guys.

She'd broken up with the French racing-car driver Olivier Chandon?
They had split up months before that, and she hadn't been seeing anybody. I guess she was kind of down, too. And they said, "How about Billy Joel?" And she said, "Nah, he's not my type."

Why was that? What was her impression of you?
I guess her first impression of me must have been this guy sitting at a piano with a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, looking like a bloated, puffy lobster. I had this incredible sunburn. The music was the key to the introduction. She sat down and started singing, too. She was laughing about it, saying, "I don't have much of a voice." And I was encouraging her, "Oh, no, you have a great voice. Come on, sing, sing, sing." And I got a crush on her right then and there.

What was she like?
Real down-to-earth, you know, down-home kind of girl. Not stuck-up or anything, and not very self-conscious about her looks. I didn't see much of her on the island after that. We chitchatted and said, "Well, maybe I'll see you when we're back in New York." And when I was back in New York, I was living at the St. Moritz hotel, and she was living, on Sixty-seventh Street by Central Park West, which is right around the corner. I picked up the paper one day, and I saw that Olivier Chandon had been killed. I called her up and said, "Look, I know you're going through a hard time. If you just need someone to talk to, I'm here."

Had you been thinking about her since you met her?
Yes. Actually, I had been seeing a couple of different women. Sowing a few wild oats. I was going out with this girl Elle, as a matter of fact. But she stayed in my mind, She was such a nice person. And she seemed to like me. I thought about it — "Maybe this isn't a good time, but what she needs right now is a friend." I was in a good position to be a friend at that point, because I was feeling a certain amount of simpatico. She said, "I can't believe you called, because I just called you." She called me the exact same day. The St. Moritz operator had been getting a lot of funny calls for Billy Joel, so she had been putting everybody off. So we got together as friends at first — we started to date. Then we saw more and more of each other and fell in love.

At what point were you able to stop thinking of her as "Christie Brinkley"?
I was not in love with her fame or her notoriety — we kind of met on equal terms that way. I know a lot of men who saw her were impressed with her celebrity. I'm not, and she likewise with me. We were not at all prepared for the impact of our getting together — "Beauty and the Beast" or "Opposites Attract," that kind of thing. When the first articles came out, we were kind of hurt by it. "Well, she needed a shoulder to lean on, and he couldn't believe his astounding luck at meeting this stunning beauty." Wait a minute, we're just two people who met and got together.

How did you and Christie decide to get married?
I popped the question. I think we'd been going out something like two years. I was on the road — I think I was in Dallas. I hadn't even thought about it. I'm sure it had crossed my mind, but I really didn't know I was going to do it then. We were in a hotel. I said, "Will you marry me?" I think she was very moved by the fact that I asked. A couple of weeks after that, we were home. We had kind of not said anything after that. I got her this diamond ring. I had this whole candlelight dinner planned, but I couldn't wait. It was the middle of the afternoon. She was upstairs painting — she had a little art studio. I had the ring, and it was burning a hole in my hand. I ran upstairs, and I put it on her easel table. She broke up, and she said, "Yeah, let's get married."

The relationship seems to have had a big impact on your work. An Innocent Man seems like a valentine to her.
It started being written while I was dating other women. The whole idea came about because of the joy of finding myself to be an innocent man all over again. I was new to dating and romance and all that stuff, and that's where the seed of the album began. With Christie, the album became focused, all those feelings going toward one person. It became the valentine. 'I like to think that I'll be able to live like a normal human being. I'm not going to be a celebrity forever.'

In "This Is the Time," on The Bridge, you seem to be imagining future memories of the two of you together.
That's a strange song, in that part of it is the past, part of it is the present, and part of it is reminiscing about what the future will be. "I'm warm from the memory of days to come."

It's like the relationship itself is a "bridge" connecting the past, the present and the future.
Right, There's also a maturation of the relationship, because the character says, "You've given me the best of you, and now I need the rest of you." Now, I'm ready to go beyond the infatuation stage. I'm ready for more depth. The relationship has to move, it has to be constantly progressing. And there's always a danger in progression of losing some things. "I know we've got to move somehow, but I don't want to lose you now." There's a certain amount of surrender, a certain amount of acceptance.

The song is also reassuring in its assumption that relationships can last.
I do believe relationships can last. I see these old people who are together in their eighties, holding hands. I think that's really neat. I think that's probably one of the hardest things to do in the world, to be a human being, maintain a relationship, be a decent person. They talk about the difficulties of being an artist and the difficulties of being successful in business. These things you can work on. The toughest thing is to do the things that are very human and make them work, because everything seems to be against it a lot of the time. A lot of temptation, a lot of pressure in other directions. You know, I like to think that I'll be able to live like a normal human being. I'm not going to be a celebrity forever. I don't have any great grand plan to be a famous personality when I'm older. I hope to retire from it somewhat.

Really? It seems unlikely that you won't always be very well known.
Well, I don't see me being an entertainer forever. I don't see me being a recording artist forever. I can see me working in music and composition and maybe songwriting, but sort of retiring from the forefront of the celebrity part of it.

Do the demands of your career and Christie's put a lot of pressure on your relationship?
I think it's a matter of knowing, just knowing, what your priorities are. I would walk away from being a rock & roll star in a shot if it was a choice between my wife or my work. I know what's important. So does she. She never embraced modeling as some kind of successful career to strive for. She fell into it by accident, and she's never looked at it as an end in itself. She's an artist in her own right. She's a very good painter and illustrtor. She has a flair for comedic acting. We have other things that we're interested in, besides the particular fields we're in right now.

That seems like quite a shift. You've always made such a point of defining yourself as a rocker.
That's very true, because my whole introduction to popular music was through rock & roll bands. The initial process was playing — playing in a bar band, Top Forty bands, garage bands. But it's sort of like being an athlete. Eventually, you have to become a coach. It's just a natural extension. The live performing thing, now that it's gotten to a level where all we do is 20,000-seat hockey arenas, where do you go from there? You do stadiums. To me, that is no longer progressing musically, that's progressing body-count-wise. For me to be challenged musically, I have to find other mediums. You can get stagnant in any form of music, unless you challenge yourself.

'I don't think I ever pursued being a "rock star."

From that standpoint, how does the prospect of doing an extensive tour seem to you?
I've made myself available. I said, "All right, I'll go out on the road, because I believe in the album, and I want to support the music." The thought of going and living in hotels for months, now that I've got a family, is not pleasing. As a matter of fact, this is probably the last tour of this kind I'm ever going to do. That is not to say that I'm never going to play again, but for this particular kind of touring, this is probably a swan song. You have to have an extraordinary ego to get up on a stage in front of 20,000 people and think that they're going to sit there and listen to you for two and a half hours. You must have this incredible confidence, and this drive to perform. And I can feel that starting to go. I think, eventually, the performing thing is going to take a back seat. The writing is going to become more and more prevalent. 

How do you hear new music? Do you watch MTV or listen to the radio? Do you go out and buy records?
Every way you mentioned. I go to the record store, and I'll buy twenty cassettes at a shot. New stuff, old stuff, whatever I see. I look around. I got the Peter Gabriel album a couple of months ago. He's great. I've liked Peter Gabriel for a long time.

What about Prince? Did you hear the last Prince record or see Under the Cherry Moon?
I didn't go see it. I like his 1999-era stuff. That may be my own block. There was such a personality cult that arose around him — that put me off.

What about Sting?
Yeah, Sting, definitely. I think the two greatest songwriters right now are Elvis Costello and Sting. Elvis Costello specifically for lyrics, and Sting specifically for music. Those two guys have definitely had an impact on me and how I perceive the writing I'm doing. Sting brought a jazz consciousness out.

"Running on Ice" from The Bridge seems to have a Police feel to it.
Yeah, I think that and "Mulberry Street," where my voice is real high. I'd walk around the house singing Police songs, Sting songs, and say, "Gee, I didn't realize I could sustain that kind of high note. Maybe I should try singing a song in that key." I never would have thought of it, if it hadn't been for Sting.

What about Costello?
Well, he's such a literate writer. It's not the cleverness that gets to me, it's his use of the English language — it's a beautiful and also a tough language. Costello has tied them both together. I think he's had an impact on every group that followed him — he's the godfather of that whole New Wave. I don't think you can be a thinking writer and not have been affected by him.

How about Bruce Springsteen?
In the old days we used to see each other's gigs a lot. I think we went in different directions. I try to use economy, where Bruce can expound. I think he uses a lot of words very well. I like to use as few words as I can, because efficiency is something I like. He's also taken performance to its height. He lives to perform. I don't think Bruce's music has impacted my music. I like his purity, I admire that spirit of purity. I mean, he's living his rock & roll dream. Rock as religion, rock & roll as heroism. And he's proved it. He is the essence of it.

The Beatles have consistently influenced your music. What sort of Impact did they have on you as you were growing up?
The main thing that hit me was that they played their own instruments. That made them legitimate musicians, whereas a lot of pop stars were just singers. They wrote their own songs. They wrote their own lyrics, they did their own arrangements, they sang their own harmonies. For me, they were the rock & roll band that showed the most growth of any band I've heard before or since. It was almost like seeing into them. Every time there was a record, there was an incredible amount of progression.

There seems to be a strong John Lennon presence on The Nylon Curtain. Were you thinking about him a lot when you did that LP?
I wasn't aware that I was doing a Lennonesque type of music — it only came out in the vocals when I listened back to it. It was kind of scary. He had been shot right around the time I was writing that album. It was a shock, not only because John Lennon had been killed, but because it signaled the true end of the Beatles. It was almost like a father figure had been taken away. I remember taking out the Help album. There's a picture of John — they're on this island or something — and he's got this funny hat with the brim turned up, and he's got this stupid grin, like he hated taking pictures and he was going to make as much fun of it as he could. I just broke down crying when I saw that.

What Beatles records particularly affected you?
There was a very exciting time with the Beatles. It was the era of Sgt. Pepper through Abbey Road, when they were doing these extended pieces. George Martin, I suppose, was doing a lot of the orchestration. No one did it as well as the Beatles. And all of a sudden it ended, and along came the California sound, the singer-songwriter era. I always felt cheated that that era got cut short. I always wanted to see how it would progress. I suppose some of the writing of The Nylon Curtain was trying to go back and pick up a string.

With "Allentown," "Goodnight Saigon" and "Pressure," the album seemed like an attempt to address some very American themes, like unemployment in factory towns and the legacy of Vietnam.
I thought it was kind of ironic that a few years later, you had Born in the U.S.A., you had John Cougar Mellen-camp's album, you had very much awareness of American music. My timing was off, I guess. My timing is not the greatest, but I don't think in terms of how to time a career.

Even though you've addressed those kinds of topics in your songs, you seem to be somewhat ambivalent about the issues-oriented events that have taken place over the last couple of years. You did the "We Are the World" session and the first Farm Aid concert, but you decided not to do Live Aid.
I didn't decide not to do it. I couldn't do it, because I didn't have a band. The band was out doing different things. There's no way we could have got everybody together. I told Bob Geldof, actually, "If I can get the band together, I'll do it." Otherwise, I don't think I have the cullions to get up onstage and play the piano by myself in a stadium. I don't have that much confidence. Also, you know, I do a lot of local charity. I keep it very low-key. You won't see me putting in my tour book that I've donated x amount of dollars to this, that and the other thing, even though I know it's good to bring attention to a cause. I don't like blowing my own horn about charity.

Do you believe music can help change things politically or socially?
I see that when music is stretched to be anything other than music, music loses. These great gatherings of musicians for charitable organizations are just gatherings of rock stars. The quality of the performance of the artists is not the greatest. You don't really get to see an hour-and-a-half show, you get to see fifteen or twenty minutes. The facility itself is kind of iffy.

Are those things the point?
I think that when you think you're going to see an artist do a definitive performance, you should see an artist do a great performance. This is not putting any of this stuff down. What I'm saying is, people know what they're going to see — they're going to see a festival. And it's not always the greatest concert you can see. I think music in itself is healing. It's an explosive expression of humanity. It's something we are all touched by. No matter what culture you're from, everyone loves music.

You seem to be suspicious, however, about the role musicians can play on social Issues.
I tend to question any sort of mass movement. I tend to question any sort of fad, trend. I'm a real believer in individual thinking, and I always look at both sides of things. When something is immensely unpopular, I'm always trying to figure out, well, what's on the other side of that? Why do they believe in that?

On "The Night Is Still Young" you sing, "Rock and roll music was the only thing I ever gave a damn about," yet you seem to be moving away from that now.
'A lot of reviewers don't review the album, they review me.' I found that to be a successful artist, to be a rock & roll star, you must be very self-centered. You must be totally devoted, tunnel vision, narrow-minded. And I found that that lessens you somewhat in human relationships. You must sacrifice much of your personal life to fulfill your vision. And I'm not willing to sacrifice human relationships, my personal life, in order to be a successful artist or rock star.

"Not willing" or "no longer willing"?
I'm no longer willing. But I don't think I ever pursued being a "rock star." I was always interested in being a consummate musician, a good composer — that was what was consuming me. And it still does, to a very great extent. I have to control it sometimes, because it can become all-consuming. If you become an artist too much, you become an elitist, and you live in this rarefied atmosphere, and you begin to accept it and believe it. That's why there's this problem with drugs and drinking and ego tripping with people who are extremely successful. And I don't want that to happen. I have found that the better human being I can be, ultimately the better writer I am. So the human being has to come first.

Did all those issues get confused in your first marriage, when your wife also worked as your manager?
She was more focused on my career than I was. Her function as my manager was to make me a rock star, and I think that's where our paths diverged. I might have become a commodity to an extent, and she might have become the enemy, which is business, capitalism, exploitation. I think as human beings we went in different directions. It was fruitful and successful in terms of what the music business is supposed to be, but it was ultimately damaging in terms of a relationship.

You seemed like an angry man back then, when you first started achieving massive success. For example, you used to blast critics onstage when they gave you bad reviews.
I suppose I overreacted to some reviews. It probably wasn't the coolest thing in the world to do. I don't regret my impulse, but I regret acting on the impulse. It just drew more attention to the negative review than there would have been normally. Also, I was taking it too seriously. But then again, sometimes I had to, because the reviews questioned my motives, my integrity. A lot of reviewers, they don't review the album, they review me. Everything is colored by their perception of Billy Joel. Therefore, the album never really gets an objective look.

You went through a bad emotional period when you were twenty-one. A relationship had broken up, your career wasn't going well, and you felt suicidal. You checked yourself into a psychiatric ward for observation. Do you ever feel that same level of anxiety or frustration now?
Yeah, I feel things very deeply. I can get very angry, I can get sad. I don't get into self-pity — I was cured of that by going to this observation ward and seeing people who really had deep-seated problems. I'll only give myself about thirty seconds of good self-pity, and then this button switches on and goes, "Get off it."

What was it like in the observation ward?
It was just a real shock to be in a ward where there were bars on the window and electric sliding doors. You were given a robe — no clothing, no laces, no belts. You weren't allowed to carry matches or razors. And you couldn't leave. You're in the snake pit. And I would go to the nurses' station and knock on the window, just like in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and say, "Hey, look, I'm okay. These people are crazy, but I'm really okay. Let me out of here." They'd say, "Sure, Mr. Joel. Here's your Thorazine."

They gave you Thorazine?
Yeah, they were giving everybody Thorazine. I didn't take them. I put them under my tongue and then spit them out. I met with these shrinks at the end of a couple of days, and they said, "How do you feel?" I said, "Get me out of here!" I said, "I checked in because I was feeling suicidal. I no longer feel suicidal. I made a big mistake." I suppose it was a healthy answer — you're supposed to want to get out. I was led out, the door slid shut behind me, and I ran and I never looked back. I said, "Wow, that's the end of that chapter. I will never, never think that I have problems that I can't resolve," because I saw people who couldn't, and it was scary. It scared the hell out of me.

Looking back over all the years you've been making records, how do you think your music has changed?
I'm not afraid to be Billy Joel. I'd kind of stayed away from that on purpose after 52nd Street. I thought he'd had his say. I think I write certain things better than I write other things, which doesn't mean that I think my main strength is ballads. I think my main strength is melody. And I'm not afraid to sing more like me now. I've gotten used to the fact that, well, that's what my voice sounds like. Let's not have to hide it so much.

Do you have any favorites among your own records?
I think if I had to pick an album that I was most proud of, as a recording, it would be The Nylon Curtain, because I'm still amazed at the stuff that's in that record, the work that went into it. The stuff I enjoy hearing, believe it or not, is Glass Houses, because that album was written, not to prove that I was a rock & roller, as I've read in a lot of places, but to be a performance album. We were playing in these big arenas, and I started writing arena-oriented pop and harder-edged stuff because it works better in those places. I enjoy listening to that album, because I know the fun it was done in. The same with An Innocent Man. An Innocent Man was written so quickly, really, without a lot of laborious effort going into it, that I still enjoy the spontaneity of it.

What would you like the legacy of your work to be?
I would like the music to have meant something during the time in which I lived. It doesn't necessarily have to represent what was going on, but I would like to be thought of as of that time. And to be able to transcend that time. I think that a piece of music that is written well enough can continue. I don't even know if the lyric has to. I think if a jazz musician thirty years from now could play "Baby Grand," "Just the Way You Are" or "New York State of Mind" as a standard, then the music still will have a life.

Does it feel different to be so successful and so affluent at this point? Do you feel different about yourself?
It still surprises me that I'm this very naive, noncapitalist type of person dealing with what is the American dream. It scares the hell out of me, because I don't know what's going on. I wouldn't know how to invest money. I've never been in a bank in ten years. I don't know what it all means. I mean, I go to a bar in Manhattan, and there are these Wall Street brokers sitting around talking earnestly, in detail, about achieving exactly the kind of thing I've achieved. I sit there thinking, "I got more money than everybody at that table, but I don't know what they're talking about." It scares me. I'm kind of glad I've retained a lot of that innocence. 

From The Archives Issue 486: November 6, 1986

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